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ACT Scoring: A Complete Guide

ACT Scoring: A Complete Guide

5 min Read|April 07 2024
|Written by:

George Christofi


The ACT, a cornerstone in the college admissions process, serves not just as a measure of academic prowess but as a gateway to higher education opportunities across the US. This article offers a comprehensive guide to clarifying the ins and outs of the ACT's scoring system. Understanding the scoring intricacies of this standardized test is important for anyone aiming to maximize their ACT score and, by extension, broaden their college admission prospects. Join us as we delve into the components of ACT scoring, shedding light on the process and providing essential insights for students aspiring to achieve their educational goals.

Understanding ACT Scoring Components

The ACT scoring system offers a nuanced view of a student’s academic capabilities, aiming to present a balanced assessment suitable for college admissions. Here's an expanded look into the components of this system.

Section Breakdown

The ACT consists of four mandatory sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. The number of questions and the maximum raw score achievable in each section varies and is displayed in the table below.

ACT SectionNumber of Questions Maximum Raw Score

Table Showing Number of Questions and Maximum Raw Score Per ACT Section

Each section of the ACT receives a score ranging from 1 to 36, with 1 being the minimum and 36 the maximum achievable score per section.

Meanwhile, the optional Writing section is scored across four domains by two examiners, with scores ranging from 1 to 6 in each domain, leading to a final score out of 12. This section is scored separately and does not factor into your composite ACT score.

To understand the ACT structure more comprehensively, view our guide to the ACT exam format.

Raw Scores and Scaled Scores

The initial step in ACT scoring involves converting a student's raw score—essentially, the tally of correctly answered questions in each section—into a scaled score between 1 and 36. This conversion leverages an "equating" process, a statistical method that accounts for slight differences in test difficulty across various administrations.

For example, a student answering 45 out of 60 math questions correctly might receive a scaled score of 28, reflecting their performance relative to that specific test's difficulty level. This equating ensures that a score from one test date is equivalent in measure to a score from another, thereby maintaining score validity and reliability across time.

Composite Score

The composite score is the average of the four main sections' scaled scores (English, Math, Reading, and Science), rounded to the nearest whole number. This score is often the focal point for college admissions, providing a summary of a student’s overall academic ability. The composite score will fall within the range 1-36, with 1 being the lowest score achievable and 36 being the highest. The national average currently hovers around 20.

As an example, if a student scores 28 in English, 30 in Math, 25 in Reading, and 27 in Science, their composite score would be the average of these: [(28+30+25+27)/4 = 27.5], rounded to 28. This calculation method emphasizes the importance of balanced performance across all sections. Excelling in one area but performing poorly in another can significantly impact the composite score, highlighting the need for comprehensive preparation.

Factors Influencing ACT Scores

Average ACT Scores, 1990-2023

Average ACT Scores for Recent Years

Factors influencing ACT scores encompass multiple elements beyond mere academic knowledge. These include the absence of penalties for wrong answers, the difficulty level of the questions encountered and, for those taking the ACT multiple times, superscoring.

No Penalty for Wrong Answers

The ACT scoring system encourages students to attempt every question, as it does not penalize for incorrect answers. This approach allows test-takers to make educated guesses on questions they're unsure about, rather than leaving them blank.

Expert Tip: Our ACT tutors recommend leveraging this policy by ensuring you answer every question, a strategy that can potentially improve your score.

Impact of Question Difficulty Levels

As highlighted above, the ACT uses equating to adjust for differences in test difficulty across different administrations. This ensures that scores are comparable across test dates, even if the sets of questions vary in difficulty. An easier test may require more correct answers for a high score, while a more difficult one might need fewer. This equating process aims to balance the scoring, ensuring fairness and consistency in how test performances are evaluated.


For students who take the ACT multiple times, the ACT offers "superscoring," which considers the highest score from each section across all test dates to calculate a new composite score. This policy can influence students' testing strategies, encouraging some to retake the ACT to improve scores in specific sections.

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Interpreting Your Score

Part of a Sample ACT Report

Part of a Sample ACT Report

Understanding your ACT score goes beyond merely knowing your composite and section scores. Interpreting these scores in the context of percentile rankings and college readiness benchmarks offers deeper insights into your academic standing and college prospects.

Score Interpretation

The ACT defines composite score categories as follows:

  • Below Average Score Range: 1-16
  • Average Score Range: 17-24
  • Above Average Score Range: 25-36

Understanding Percentiles

College percentiles for ACT/SAT scores place an applicant's performance in the context of scores from previously admitted students at a college. These percentiles are utilized by colleges to determine an applicant's relative standing within the pool of applicants, aiding in evaluating how competitive an applicant is and how well they align with the academic standards of the institution throughout the admissions process.

  • The 25th percentile score marks the lower quarter of admitted students' scores, whereas the 75th percentile represents the upper quarter.
  • A good ACT score typically lies within the middle 50% range—between the 25th and 75th percentiles.
  • Landing a score at or above the 75th percentile can significantly bolster your college application.

To put your scores into perspective, our College Admissions tutors can help you understand where you stand in relation to your target schools' average scores, guiding your application strategy effectively.


Beyond the primary scores, the ACT also generates subscores in the English and Math sections to offer deeper insights into specific skills. For instance, within the English section, subscores might highlight a student's proficiency in Usage/Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills, ranging from 1 to 18. Similarly, the Math section breaks down performance into areas like Algebra/Coordinate Geometry and Plane Geometry/Trigonometry. These subscores can guide students in identifying strengths and targeting areas for improvement.

Expert Tip: According to our College Admissions tutors, focusing on both strengths and identified areas for improvement in the Math and English subscores can create a personalized study plan that targets your specific needs.

STEM and ELA Scores

The STEM score merges a student's performance in both science and mathematics tests into a single score, while the ELA score aggregates their results from English, reading, and writing tests. Should a student lack a score in any one of these specific areas, they will not receive a combined STEM or ELA score. However, these scores are only aggregates, meaning that for college admissions purposes section scores and the composite ACT score are more relevant.

College Readiness Benchmarks

The ACT sets specific benchmarks for each section, designed to predict a student's likelihood of succeeding in first-year college courses. These benchmarks are depicted in the following table.

ACT SectionCollege Readiness Benchmark
English18 or higher
Math22 or higher
Reading22 or higher
Science23 or higher

Table Showing College Readiness Benchmarks for Each ACT Section

Achieving scores at or above these benchmarks suggests a student is prepared for the rigors of college academics, likely to succeed in corresponding college courses without remediation. Colleges may review how an applicant's scores align with these benchmarks to gauge college readiness.

Receiving Your ACT Results

Timing of Score Releases

ACT scores are made available to students typically within two to eight weeks post-test. This window allows ACT, Inc. to ensure accurate scoring and processing. For instance, if a student takes the ACT on a national test date in October, they can expect their scores by mid-November at the latest.

Accessing Scores

Students can access their scores by logging into their ACT account online. This digital portal not only displays scores but also offers the option to send them to colleges and scholarship agencies. This process exemplifies transparency, as students can directly see and manage where their scores are sent.

Variability in Release Dates

It’s important to note that release dates can vary based on the type of test administration (national, state, district, or school) and additional services such as the Writing test. For example, scores from a standard national test might be released before those of a test that includes the optional Writing section due to the additional scoring required.

Handling Delays

If scores are delayed—perhaps due to irregularities or registration issues—students are advised to regularly check their ACT accounts for updates. In such scenarios, contacting ACT customer service can provide further guidance and resolve issues. For instance, a student noticing their scores are delayed past the eight-week mark should reach out to ACT for clarity on their score status.

Score Reporting to Institutions

Once scores are available and designated by the student, ACT sends them directly to chosen colleges and scholarship bodies. This usually occurs within two weeks of the student’s access to scores, facilitating a smooth integration into the college application process. It is worth nothing that you can have your ACT result sent for free to up to four colleges. Beyond that, ACT charges a fee for sending your result to each additional college.

Next Steps with Your ACT Scores

Once you've received your ACT scores, it's time to chart your next steps, whether that involves retaking the test, applying to colleges, or focusing on areas for improvement. Here are key actions to consider:

  • Evaluate Your Scores: Compare your scores against your target colleges' average scores for admitted students. This will help you gauge your competitiveness and decide whether retaking the ACT might be beneficial.
  • Decide on Retaking the Test: If your scores are below your expectations or the averages of your preferred colleges, consider preparing for and retaking the ACT. For students contemplating a retake, our ACT tutors stress the importance of a targeted approach, focusing on weak areas identified in your initial score report to maximize potential improvements
  • Strengthen Your Application: Use your scores to highlight your strengths in college applications. If certain subscores stand out, tailor your application to showcase these abilities, especially if they align with your intended major.
  • Prepare for College Applications: Begin gathering other materials for your college applications, including essays, letters of recommendation, and lists of extracurricular activities. Your ACT scores are just one part of your application, so focus on building a well-rounded profile.
  • Explore Scholarships: Research opportunities where your scores might give you a competitive edge and apply to those for which you are eligible. Exploring scholarship opportunities becomes more navigable with the insight of our College Admissions tutors, who can advise on leveraging your ACT scores to enhance your eligibility for financial awards.

By taking these steps, you can make informed decisions about your academic future, improve your prospects, and ensure your ACT scores effectively support your college admission goals.


Understanding the ACT's scoring system and and its impact on college admissions empowers students to navigate their educational journey with confidence. Recognizing the significance of each score component, from composite scores to subscores, allows for targeted improvements and strategic planning. As students assess their performance and plan their next steps, whether retaking the test or finalizing college applications, a well-informed approach is crucial. Ultimately, a deep dive into ACT scores not only enhances college prospects but also lays the groundwork for academic success.


How often is the ACT test offered each year?

The ACT is typically administered seven times annually within the United States, including dates in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July. This frequent scheduling provides ample opportunity for students to select a test date that best aligns with their academic and application plans. For students outside the United States, the ACT is offered in September, October, December, February, April, and June. It's advisable for students to plan their test date well in advance, considering college application deadlines and allowing time for potential retakes to achieve their desired score.

Can I use a calculator on the ACT Math section?

Yes, calculators are permitted on the ACT Math section, but with strict guidelines. Acceptable calculators include most basic, scientific, and graphing calculators, whereas devices with built-in computer algebra systems, tablets, and smartphones are prohibited. The ACT's official website provides a detailed list of acceptable calculator makes and models. It's crucial to familiarise oneself with these guidelines to avoid any issues on test day. Additionally, practising with the same calculator you intend to use during the exam is recommended to ensure comfort and efficiency.

Do colleges prefer ACT scores over SAT scores?

Colleges and universities in the United States generally have no preference between the ACT and SAT, accepting scores from both tests as part of the application process. Admissions committees are well-versed in interpreting scores from either exam, ensuring students are not disadvantaged by their choice of test. The decision between taking the ACT or SAT should be based on which exam aligns best with a student's strengths and test-taking style. Some students may find the ACT's structure and content more suited to their abilities, while others may prefer the format of the SAT.

Are ACT prep courses worth it?

The value of ACT prep courses varies depending on individual learning preferences, study habits, and the course quality. These courses can offer structured study schedules, insights into test-taking strategies, and practice under exam conditions, potentially leading to score improvements. However, they can be costly, and not all students find the structure or teaching style beneficial. Many successful test-takers have also achieved significant improvements through self-study, using official practice materials and online resources. Ultimately, the decision should be based on personal learning style, motivation levels, and financial considerations.

How do I improve my ACT score after the first attempt?

Improving your ACT score involves a strategic approach to study and test-taking. Begin by analysing your previous score report to identify weak areas. Focus your study on these areas, utilising official ACT practice materials and considering a tutor if you need targeted help. Practising full-length tests under timed conditions can also significantly help by building endurance and familiarity with the test format. Additionally, refining your test-taking strategies, such as time management and question prioritisation, can enhance your performance in subsequent attempts. Persistence, focused study, and a positive mindset are key to improving your ACT scores.

What's considered a 'safe' ACT score for colleges?

A 'safe' ACT score is typically one that places you comfortably within or above the middle 50% range of scores for admitted students at your target colleges. This range is calculated by identifying the 25th to 75th percentile scores of a college's admitted class, providing insight into the competitive score thresholds. For instance, if the middle 50% range is 24-30, aiming for a score above 30 would make your application more competitive. However, it's important to remember that colleges consider applications holistically, evaluating essays, extracurriculars, and recommendations alongside test scores.

Can I choose which ACT scores to send to colleges?

The ACT offers students the flexibility to select which set of scores from different test dates they wish to send to colleges, a practice known as "Score Choice." This allows students to present their best performance to colleges. Additionally, some institutions practise "superscoring," where they consider the highest scores across multiple sections from different test dates to calculate a new composite score. However, policies on superscoring vary by institution, so it's advisable to check each college's stance and plan your score reporting strategy accordingly.

How do I request a retest if there's an error?

If you believe there has been an error in your test administration or scoring, the ACT allows for a score review or test enquiry process. This process involves submitting a formal request through the ACT's official website, often within a specific timeframe following score release. In some cases, a fee may be required. It's crucial to provide detailed information about the perceived error and any relevant evidence when making the request. The ACT will investigate the claim and, if an error is found, may offer options such as score correction or a free retest.

What materials should I bring on ACT test day?

On the day of the ACT, ensure you bring a printed admission ticket, a valid photo ID, an approved calculator, and several No. 2 pencils with good erasers. Mechanical pencils are not permitted. It's also wise to bring a watch without an audible alarm to manage your time, as not all test centers will have a clock visible. A snack and water for the break can help maintain your energy levels. Dressing in layers is advisable since the temperature in testing rooms can vary. Finally, familiarise yourself with the test centre’s location and its parking arrangements to avoid any last-minute stress. Being well-prepared with the necessary materials can contribute to a smoother test-day experience, allowing you to focus fully on the exam.

How long does the ACT test take to complete?

The duration of the ACT without the Writing section is approximately 2 hours and 55 minutes of actual testing time. However, with instructions, breaks, and the optional Writing test, the total time you’ll spend at the test centre can extend to about 4 hours. The Writing test adds an additional 40 minutes to the testing time. It’s important for test-takers to be prepared for a long testing session, maintaining focus and stamina throughout. Practising full-length tests under timed conditions can help build the endurance needed for test day, ensuring that you’re able to perform optimally throughout the entire exam.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

George Christofi

Written by: George Christofi

Oxford University - Masters Philosophy

George studied undergraduate and masters degrees in Classics and Philosophy at Oxford, as well as spending time at Yale. He specialises in helping students with UK and US university applications, including Oxbridge and the Ivy League. He writes extensively on education including on schools, universities, and pedagogy.

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