How Is the ACT Scored?
Each test-taker receives a composite score between 1 and 36, and those who take the optional writing portion also receive an additional score between 2 and 12 for this section. But how does ACT, Inc. arrive at these numbers?
You first need to understand the ACT's structure. The exam contains five sections; the first four are mandatory and multiple choice, whereas the last one is optional and graded subjectively.
The English portion tests three areas over the course of 75 questions: production of writing, knowledge of language, and conventions of standard English. "Production of writing" refers to the purposes of given texts — such as to persuade or inform — rather than the test-taker's own writing ability.
On the ACT, mathematics consists of 60 questions covering three focus areas, which are referred to as "preparing for higher math," "integrating essential skills," and "modeling."
The 40 reading questions cover key ideas and details, craft and structure, and integration of knowledge and ideas.
The science section is also 40 questions long, broken into portions covering interpretation of data, scientific investigation, and evaluation of models and inferences.
Students who take the writing test will produce an essay responding to a prompt. The scorers judge the essay by its ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and language use and conventions.
Each of the four required sections is scored from 1 to 36 based on the number of correct responses you give in that section. The test rewards correct answers but doesn't subtract for wrong answers; therefore, guessing isn't penalized. Once the scorers have your four subject scores, they calculate your composite score, which is the average of these sections rounded to the nearest whole number.
If you take the writing portion, you'll receive a 2-12 score for each of the four components. Your overall writing score is the average of those four scores. ACT, Inc. does not refer to this as a composite score, even though it's the average of four separate writing scores. Your writing score does not affect the composite score for the other four sections.
You'll also receive a STEM score, which is the average of only your math and science sections combined. If you take the writing test, you'll get an English language arts (ELA) score, which averages your English, reading, and writing sections.
What Is an ACT Superscore?
A superscore is the composite of your best scores from each of the four main ACT sections, compared across multiple attempts. Here's an example:
|English ||29 ||29 |
|Mathematics ||20 ||19 |
|Reading ||27 ||28 |
|Science ||22 ||24 |
The superscore would take the average of 29, 20, 28, and 24, which are the highest scores in their respective categories. Because this average is 25.25, the superscore is rounded to 25, which is the nearest whole number.
Individual colleges can decide whether to accept a candidate's superscore, or instead accept the best composite score from among all their attempts.
What Are the ACT's College Readiness Benchmarks?
You may find it helpful to understand ACT, Inc.'s college readiness benchmarks. ACT benchmarks are a group of six scores, one for each section of the main exam plus one each for STEM (the average of a student's mathematics and science scores) and ELA (the average of a student's English, reading, and writing scores).
ACT, Inc. claims that test-takers who meet a particular benchmark have a greater than 50% chance of earning a B or higher in an introductory college course in that subject. For example, the idea is that a student who earns a 24 on the science portion of the ACT has a reasonable chance of getting an A or B in their first-year biology class.
The benchmarks are as follows:
- English: 18
- Mathematics: 22
- Reading: 22
- Science: 23
- STEM: 26
- ELA: 20
It's worth noting that ACT, Inc.'s claims about benchmarks have been challenged. For example, researchers at the University of Chicago found that college admissions test scores didn't accurately predict students' performance in college; their high school GPA was a much more reliable predictor.
What Is the Average ACT Score?
Now that we know how ACT, Inc. scores the exam, you may wonder how well most students do. Below, we break down average ACT scores along a few different lines.
Average ACT Score in the U.S.
The nationwide average composite score was 20.3 for 2021's graduating high school class. This is presumably a healthy percentage of 2022's incoming first-year college students.
The nationwide average composite score was 20.3 for 2021's graduating high school class.
ACT, Inc. doesn't provide the average writing score, but we can place the median or 50th percentile score for the 2019-2021 graduating classes at about 6 — according to the company's national ranks, 53% of test-takers scored a 6 or lower on the writing portion.
Median ACT Scores by Section
ACT, Inc. worked out national rank scores that the 2019-2021 cohorts got on each section of the exam. The company's document describes the percentage of test-takers in those groups who scored at or below a certain threshold, which helps us determine rough median scores for the four mandatory ACT sections. We've included those median scores below, with some explanatory notes on each.
- English: 19 (half of test-takers scored 19 or lower)
- Mathematics: 17-18 (51% of test-takers scored 18 or lower)
- Reading: 20 (half of test-takers scored 20 or lower)
- Science: 19-20 (52% of test-takers scored 20 or lower)
ACT Scores Over The Past 10 Years
Composite ACT scores have crept steadily downward in the last five years, as seen in the table below. The highest national average ACT score of the last decade was 21.1, achieved in 2012.
Average ACT Scores by State
ACT participation varies widely among states — for example, ACT, Inc. estimates that only 2% of graduating high school students in Maine take the test, compared to 100% in Alabama. States that require the ACT tend to fare worse than others, where test-takers are often more motivated to study because it's voluntary.
The table below contains the latest average composite scores by state, starting with the highest.
- Massachusetts 27.6
- Connecticut 27.2
- New Hampshire 26.6
- New York 26.3
- California 26.1
- Rhode Island 25.8
- Delaware 25.7
- Washington, D.C. 25.6
- Maine 25.6
- Virginia 25.5
- Maryland 25.5
- Illinois 25.2
- New Jersey 25.1
- Michigan 25.1
- Pennsylvania 25
- Vermont 24.7
- Washington 23.6
- Colorado 23.6
- Indiana 23.1
- Idaho 23
- Georgia 22.6
- South Dakota 21.6
- Minnesota 21.6
- Iowa 21.5
- West Virginia 20.8
- New Mexico 20.7
- Utah 20.6
- Oregon 20.6
- Missouri 20.6
- Alaska 20.6
- Montana 20.4
- Florida 20.4
- Texas 20.1
- Wisconsin 20
- Nebraska 20
- Kansas 19.9
- Wyoming 19.8
- Arizona 19.8
- Oklahoma 19.7
- Ohio 19.6
- North Dakota 19.6
- Kentucky 19.2
- Tennessee 19.1
- Arkansas 19
- North Carolina 18.9
- Alabama 18.7
- South Carolina 18.6
- Louisiana 18.4
- Hawaii 18.2
- Mississippi 18.1
- Nevada 17.8
Average ACT Score for College Admissions
It's difficult to determine the average ACT score for the most recent class admitted to colleges. But one authoritative source allows us to fairly accurately estimate the median score for individual schools.
The U.S. Department of Education's College Navigator tool gives scores for both the 25th percentile and 75th percentile of the incoming class of 2020 at each institution. This means that 75% of a college's incoming students scored at or above the first number, and 25% scored at or above the second. Therefore, the middle point between the two numbers is a rough estimate of the median score — the point at which half the students scored above and half scored below. At the time of writing, some data referred to the incoming class of 2020 and some to the incoming class of 2021; see individual schools on College Navigator for details.
Ivy League Schools
You might be curious about the scores that incoming Ivy League students earn on the ACT. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these selective institutions tend to admit applicants who scored in the 30s, near the top of what's possible.
We've listed ACT composite score information for each Ivy League school below. This data comes from the College Navigator tool, which gives scores for the 25th percentile and 75th percentile of the incoming class of 2020 at each institution.
|Brown University ||25th-75th percentile scores: 33-35 |
|Columbia University ||25th-75th percentile scores: 33-35 |
|Cornell University ||25th-75th percentile scores: 32-35 |
|Dartmouth College ||25th-75th percentile scores: 32-35 |
|Harvard University ||25th-75th percentile scores: 33-35 |
|The University of Pennsylvania ||25th-75th percentile scores: 33-35 |
|Princeton University ||25th-75th percentile scores: 32-35 |
|Yale University ||25th-75th percentile scores: 33-35 |
As of this writing, every Ivy League school is test-optional, having chosen to extend the COVID-era waiver on admissions tests. In other words, you currently don't need to take the ACT to apply for an Ivy League school, and it's possible this could become permanent.
Read on for ACT score ranges at some of the most commonly searched colleges in the U.S. Score ranges come from College Navigator or, where not available, from the school website.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of students opted to earn their degrees online. Distance learning used to suffer from association with low-quality for-profit colleges, but that notion is changing as a large number of accredited schools increase and improve their online degree offerings.
Because of this, there is no simple answer to the question, "What is the average ACT score for an online college?" — many schools have online degree options that feature the same admissions requirements as their on-campus formats. Most of the popular schools in the previous section have at least some online degrees and certificates.
But read on if you're wondering about primarily or exclusively online institutions. We've listed ACT information for five of the most popular accredited online schools below.
What Is a Good ACT Score?
A good ACT score is one that intrigues admissions officers at colleges where you apply. In other words, what's considered good depends on your goals.
What ACT Score Should You Aim For?
One idea is to use College Navigator to find the 75th-percentile score at your target college, then make that number your goal. For example, a composite score in the 75th percentile nationally — currently a 24 — puts you above most test-takers, but is unlikely to improve your chances of an offer letter from an Ivy League school where the 75th percentile is 35.
Use College Navigator to find the 75th-percentile score at your target college, then make that number your goal.
Keep in mind that admissions officers see the scores for individual ACT sections, not just the composite score, and that exam results are just one factor they consider. For example, if you have excellent STEM scores and below-average ELA results, you might still catch an admissions officer's attention. They might then read your essay about how much you want to be an engineer and be willing to forgive subpar English or writing scores.
What Is a Bad ACT Score?
Just as a good score is one that helps you meet your goals, a bad ACT score is one that puts you out of consideration (or at least doesn't help your cause). You can use College Navigator to do the inverse of finding your target score: Find the 25th-percentile score at your top one or two schools, and decide to retake the ACT if your composite score is lower than this number.
You can also set a different threshold for retaking the test, which could be any number that you think will make you competitive when combined with your other qualifications. You might even commit to retaking it if you score below a certain percentile in a subject that you intend to study in college — alongside composite scores, College Navigator often lists a school's percentiles for individual ACT sections.
How to Get Your Target ACT Score
There are proven methods to earning higher ACT scores for those who have the time to dedicate. Unfortunately, most of these methods also require considerable amounts of money, which may be prohibitive. In fact, one of the chief complaints of admissions-test opponents is that they favor wealthier students with the resources to spend on preparation. We've listed common techniques for raising ACT scores here, in order of affordability.
On its test prep page, ACT, Inc. offers the option to sign up for a free online preparatory test of the four main subject areas. Practice tests serve two functions:
- Familiarizing you with the test format, subject matter, and some of the stresses involved
- Granting you a baseline score that you can compare to your target score and try to improve on subsequent attempts
Every year, several publishers release updated ACT-prep books, which include study tips, common subject matter to learn, and practice tests. These books are typically in the $25-35 range.
Attend a test preparation course
There are many online and in-person options, with various levels of cost, name recognition, and trustworthiness in terms of marketing tactics. The time investment varies: Bootcamp-style courses meet 3-5 days a week for 2-3 weeks, whereas longer classes might meet once a week for two months. Costs vary, but are often in the $500-1,500 range.
The virtue of these courses is that they teach you how to study for this specific test, but you still need to put in the work to ensure that you maximize your potential. Ultimately, you're still the one taking the test.
Many of the same companies that offer test-prep courses also provide tutors to give extra guidance. This is a costly route to take, but the personalized attention may help you maximize your time studying the areas where you need the most work.
On test day, remember that if you don't know an answer, guess anyway. You get points for correct answers but don't lose points for incorrect answers; a wrong answer is the same as leaving a question blank. Thus, guessing when you're unsure can only improve your score, never lower it.