ACT range of scores

What Is a Good ACT Score? A Bad ACT Score? An Excellent ACT Score?

Prior to the year 2000, most colleges accepted either the SAT or the ACT, and only a tiny number of colleges accepted both. This is due to historical peculiarities about the origins of both exams. This history resulted in a preference for the SAT at colleges along the coasts and in the deep South and a preference for the ACT at colleges in the middle of the country. As such, the parents of current high school students generally took either the SAT or the ACT, but almost never both.

The situation is quite different now. Since 2000, virtually every college in the US accepts both the SAT and ACT interchangeably. This change is due to several factors, including the rise of the internet as a research tool, the increase in both the percentage and raw numbers of students applying to college, and the increase in the average number of colleges graduating high school student apply to. Students now get to pick which test they want to take to maximize their chances of being accepted by the colleges of their choice.

The problem is that many students who take the ACT have parents who only took the SAT back in the 20th Century, and are unfamiliar with the ACT. While many parents of students taking the ACT have questions about the content and format of the test, one of the most common questions revolves around the unusual scoring system on the ACT.

ACT Range of Scores

Unlike the SAT’s famous 200-800 per section, 400-1600 overall scoring scale, the ACT uses a radically different scoring scale. For each section, the scale is 1-36, where 1 is the lowest possible score and 36 is the highest possible score, as seen in the chart below. Additionally, instead of a total score, like when the College Board adds up the two section scores, Math and Reading & Writing, the ACT averages the four section scores in what they call the Composite.

Section Scale
English 1-36
Math 1-36
Reading 1-36
Science 1-36
Composite 1-36

With such a different scale it is difficult to determine what is a good score, a bad score, and an excellent score. More importantly, those judgments are not the same for every family. What constitutes a good score depends on the goals of the student. A student applying to a small, semi-competitive liberal arts college will have a different definition of “good” compared to a student applying to a highly-competitive, famous college or a large, non-competitive, public university. That being said, here are some guidelines for good, bad, and excellent scores.

Median ACT Scores

Since 2018, the ACT’s own documentation lists the median score on most sections as approximately a score of 19. That means that half of all of the 1.5 million to 2 million students who take the ACT every year score 19 or below and half score 19 or higher. Any student who wishes to apply to competitive colleges, those that have an acceptance rate lower than 70% in my opinion, should aim to score a 20 or higher in most, if not all, of the four sections. Unless you are aiming for non-competitive colleges (acceptance rate of 90-100%) or semi-competitive colleges (acceptance rate of 70-90%), a score below a 19 is a bad score for you.

Students aiming for semi-competitive, moderately competitive colleges (those with acceptance rates between 50-70%), and competitive colleges (those with acceptance rates between 30-50%) should aim for scores between 20 and 27. Those scores are good, because they help you apply to competitive colleges. The higher your score in the range, the more choices you will have.

Students looking to apply to highly competitive colleges (those with acceptance rates between 15-30%) and highly selective colleges (those with acceptance rates below 15%) should aim for scores of 28 or higher. Any scores in the 30s are considered excellent, as they allow students the most choice in where they would like to apply.

One last thing: keep in mind that a particular ACT score is not a guarantee of admission to any individual college. Test scores are only one factor in admissions. Higher test scores open up more options to students, but your high school grades and personal narrative will be what sways college admissions officers.


Author: Jason Breitkopf



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