You’ve gotten through almost three years of high school, chosen your preferred colleges, scheduled your ACT test date, and now you wonder—what is a good ACT score? In this article, we aim to answer this question (spoiler: it’s different for everyone!), determine how to adequately gauge an appropriate ACT score goal, and discuss the preparation necessary to achieve this goal. Read on for a roadmap to personal ACT success!
What is the ACT, and Why Take It?
The ACT is a college entrance exam that helps colleges see exactly where potential students rank academically and cognitively. There are four regular sections and one optional section on the ACT:
- Science, and
- Writing (optional)
Some states and schools require students to take the optional writing section. If your schools of choice require the ACT writing section, you will choose this option when you register for the ACT. All sections, save for the writing portion, are multiple choice. There is no penalty for guessing answers when taking the ACT.
For colleges, the ACT gives them an easy-to-compare set of data about potential candidates, which in turn suggests how they may fit into the school and their particular class. Note that every college takes a different approach to the ACT:
- Some colleges require the ACT.
- Test-optional schools do not require the ACT, but will still accept scores and take them into account when making admissions decisions.
- Test-blind schools will not look at scores, even if you send them in.
For students (like you), the ACT offers an opportunity to show choice colleges exactly what you can do. It also gives you a chance to demonstrate your academic prowess compared to the other students in your class nationwide. Additionally, taking the ACT also opens the doors for potentially thousands of dollars in academic scholarships.
Should I Aim for a Certain ACT Score?
Before going further into what is a good ACT score, this is an important point to consider. Should you try to get a certain ACT score? Or, should you just take it and hope your score will get you into a good college?
Some high school students take the ACT only because their state or school requires them to do so, because all of their friends are taking it too, or because their parents are encouraging (or pressuring) them to do it. These students may think of taking the ACT as a box to be checked, and walk in on test day hoping for the best. They take the ACT without a goal, and without understanding exactly what a great score may mean for them.
If they prepare for the ACT beforehand, they do so without a strategy. They might glance at some study materials, but not in a focused or directed way. These students take the test, receive their scores, and then wonder if they did alright. They may not get into their favorite college, or lose out on scholarship money, all because they didn’t have a goal or a plan to meet it.
To get a good ACT Score, you need a strategy, as well as a goal to aim toward. Choose a few colleges you are interested in, and look up their test requirements. If they do require the ACT, check which scores they accepted in the last year. Use this to pick a goal, and aim for this goal as you prepare for and take the ACT. Instead of wondering about your ACT score afterward, you will know exactly how you did in relation to your goal, and can better plan your next steps. We’ll talk about this more later in this article.
If you have already taken the ACT, and did so without setting a goal first, never fear. You can still retroactively do the kind of research described above. If you received a score less than what you wanted, read on to find out how Piqosity can help you achieve your goals.
How is the ACT Scored?
To understand exactly what is a good score on the ACT, you need to understand how it is scored. Let’s break this down by explaining the numbers and graphs on the score report you received after taking the ACT, which probably looks something like the below.
ACT Score Reports can be confusing, since they present a lot of data. We’ll go through the most important points below. Each numbered explanation corresponds with the circled red number in the image above. Note that we are looking only at the scores for the four multiple-choice sections; the optional writing section is scored differently.
- Raw Score. Your raw score is simply the number of questions you answered correctly on any given section. This information is available in the “Detailed Results” section of your ACT Score Report, where it is broken down first by test section, and then by subtopic.
- Scale Score. Because the ACT changes each year, it is not that useful to compare students’ raw scores. So every student’s raw scores are converted to scale scores (between 1 and 36), which have the same meaning across different ACT tests. These are shown at the top of the ACT Score Report, and again in the “Detailed Results” section. You will also notice that your scale scores for Math and Science are averaged into an overall STEM score, and your scale scores for English, Reading, and Writing (if applicable) are averaged into an ELA score.
- Composite Score. Finally, all four scale scores are averaged together for a single number (again, between 1 and 36), known as the composite score. This is often the number people refer to when they ask what your ACT score was. Note that the number of your average Composite score is rounded to the nearest whole number. A score with less than one half a point will be rounded down, and a score with more than one half a point will be rounded up.
Yes—this does mean that your admittance to college and access to scholarship funds may come down to one tenth of a percentage point.
- Percentile Score. Finally, your scores are compared to other students who also took the test, resulting in two percentile scores: one comparing you to all students nationwide, the other just to students in your state.
Now that you know how to read it, you can use your score report as a tool to figure out where to focus your further test preparation. Or, compare it to your colleges’ requirements and decide which colleges to apply to and which may be unrealistic.
What is the highest ACT score possible?
The highest ACT Composite Score possible is a 36, indicating a 99th percentile rank or higher. The lowest possible ACT Composite Score is a 1, indicating a 1st percentile rank or lower. As with most standardized tests, most students score somewhere in the middle, so this is where most competition lies within the percentile rank. The normal distribution of the ACT is around 21, with a deviation of 5.
How is the ACT Writing Section Scored?
In the optional ACT Writing section, students read a prompt and try to craft a well-written, thoughtful essay on the given subject. Because there are no “right” or “wrong” answers, this section is graded differently.
Your essay will be scored by two trained readers (humans), who will compare your writing to the standards of the ACT Writing rubric. The readers will then score your essay on a scale of 1-6 in four different areas, called “domains.”
The four domains are:
- Ideas and Analysis,
- Development and Support,
- Organization, and
- Language Use and Conventions.
Then, the two sets of scores are averaged, resulting in a final score between 2 and 12 for each area. So in the end, you will receive a total of five scores for the ACT Writing Test:
- a score from 2-12 in each of the four domains (the sum of the readers’ scores)
- a single overall score, also from 2-12, found by averaging the four domain scores
A 12 is the highest you can score on the ACT writing section.
Learn more about the rubric, and other ACT Writing strategies before attempting to score well on this section of the test.
It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s…Superscores!
Very few people score exactly the same on each section of the ACT; we all have strengths and weaknesses. It can be frustrating if your composite score is consistently being lowered by one weak area.
Similarly, what happens if each time you take the ACT, your scores do not all improve (or at least stay the same)? Maybe you scored a 30 on the English portion and 21 in Science on your first test day, but only got a 24 in English and a 28 in Science on the second test day.
If only there was a way that you could submit only the highest scores from any of your tests to the colleges of your choice…
There is! Enter: Superscoring. This ACT feature automatically calculates your best scores from each of your ACT test attempts, allowing you to combine scores from different test dates. They have done this for everyone since 2016, and it is an extremely important feature to consider when thinking about improving your ACT score.
What is a Good ACT Score for YOU?
OK, so now that we’ve gone over how the ACT is scored, you probably know the answer to the question “what is a good ACT score?” You should try to score a 36 on the ACT… right?
Well, not necessarily. For one thing, getting a perfect ACT score is exceedingly rare (and exceedingly difficult). For another, many excellent schools have much lower thresholds for competitive admission. So your personal target score is probably lower than 36 and, depending on your individual goals, strengths, and weaknesses, your target score may be much lower than 36.
Remember, too, to consider the percentile score, which shows you how you did compared to other students. In 2020, the national average ACT score was 20.6. This means that a score of 21 would put you above the 50th percentile, an amazing achievement.
Many students place just around this median score, which means that even the slightest differentiation in score can mean a huge difference in percentile showing. For example, in 2020, earning a 24 Composite would put you in the 74th percentile.
So you see, you don’t have to score a 36 to demonstrate to colleges that you have actually placed far above the majority of test takers in any given year.
Setting Your ACT Score Goal
How can you find a reasonable ACT target score on which to set your sights? There are a few strategies to consider. First, choose which colleges you are interested in; then, research their college application test requirements. Do they require the ACT, is it optional, or are they test-blind?
If they do require the ACT, find out which scores they accepted in previous years. When you find this figure, set your sights at least a little above the average accepted score, so that you will stand out above 50% of students already accepted at that school.
If you are seriously considering an Ivy league school, you might ask “what is a good ACT score for Harvard?” But this may not be the right question, at least not right now. The high score for many Ivy League schools is around 34, but before you panic, get a feel for your ACT prospects by taking a diagnostic skills test designed to highlight your strengths and weaknesses in a concrete way. And, as we discussed above, it’s not always necessary to score that high to catch a school’s attention.
What If You Don’t Reach your ACT Score Goal?
Remember, if you don’t reach your ACT score goal, it’s not the end of the world, or of your college dreams! There is much more that goes into the college application process than tests. Even if your ACT isn’t exactly where you’d like it to be, you can also bolster your application with:
- wonderful letters of recommendation,
- a great high school GPA,
- portfolios of creative work,
- résumés, and
- other showcases of your impressive talents and experiences
Keeping this in mind may help if the idea of taking the ACT again overwhelms you, or your personal situation does not allow time for you to prepare for and take the ACT a second time.
However, we highly recommend retaking the test if possible (even if you did well the first time). In the Class of 2020, 41% of students re-took the ACT at least once; their Composite scores were an average of 4.4 points higher than those of students who only took the ACT one time.
If you choose to retake the test, you won’t be alone, and your chances of improving your Composite score (even by a little bit) are good. Taking the ACT again (and earning a higher score) may allow you to receive more scholarship money and get the “big envelope” from the school of your dreams!
Preparing to Reach Your ACT Goals
Wondering how to take that diagnostic test we mentioned above? Whether you’re in the process of preparing for your first ACT or you’ve already received your score report and want to know how to improve your ACT Score, Piqosity has you covered.
Joining Piqosity is completely FREE (no credit card information required, no sneaky “free” trials). Start off with our mini diagnostic test to get a baseline score, and set realistic goals for your ACT success.
Then, figure out a plan for exactly how you’d like to study. You can continue to use many of Piqosity’s unique features and valuable resources as part of our FREE Community package. But, if you’re ready for the next step, you can choose among several competitively-priced test prep packages, you will have access to up to 10 complete ACT practice tests with answers and explanations.
You may also benefit from exploring our FREE series of deep-dive blogs dedicated to each section of the ACT:
So, what is a good ACT score? The number is different for each individual, as each individual has their own strengths, weaknesses, and goals. It’s time to dig deep, and figure out what this means for you. Join Piqosity today for free, and you will be well on your way to ACT and college application success.
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