What Is a Good ACT Score?

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The ACT seems to be continual mystery.

Recently, I received a text from a mom whose daughter took the SAT at school on a school-wide test date and scored a 1230.

“Uh oh!” she wrote. “She got this 1230 without studying! Should she be taking the SAT instead of the ACT,” she worried.

…but her daughter had scored a 29 on the ACT only weeks before. That’s roughly a whole ten percentile points higher than her SAT score, but her mom didn’t know that.

Situations like this seem to be pretty typical, but it’s especially noticeable regionally.

It used to be that the ACT was the test that more people from the midwestern United States took for college admissions while the SAT was taken by people from the coasts. In fact, it wasn’t until 2012 that the ACT was taken by more students than was the SAT. The ACT has slipped in popularity again, and that trend may continue according to predictions by The Washington Post.

The ACT has long had an air of unfamiliarity around it, and quite a bit of that is embedded in its curious grading scale. In fact, despite its recent popularity, the ACT scoring scales are still generally less familiar to people (note my student’s mom) and even to students getting ready to take the exam.

All to say, if you’re asking yourself, “What is a good ACT score, anyway?” you’re probably not alone.

When Do You Take the ACT?

To identify a good ACT score, you’ll need to understand:

  • How the ACT is scored
  • How your scaled ACT scores stack up against those of other students around the world  
  • If your scores are high enough to help you get into the colleges you’ll be applying to
  • Your ACT score is a good score for you and a strong reflection of you as a student–no matter what anyone else scores

ACT Scoring

Unlike the SAT scores, which have shifted from 1600 to 2400 and back to 1600 over the years, the ACT scoring scale itself has been the same for decades–and it’s on a much lower scale.

As of this publishing, possible ACT scaled subtest scores are…

  • English: 1 to 36 points
  • Math: 1 to 36 points
  • Reading: 1 to 36 points
  • Science: 1 to 36 points
  • Optional Writing Test (Essay): 1 to 12 points

Check out my article all about How to Write the ACT Essay to get a strong understanding of what the ACT Essay tests and how to maximize your score on that section. Here, we are going to focus on the scaled scores sections and their composite, your total ACT score.

Your composite score is the score used by colleges in your admissions process, and it’s simply the average of your four subtests rounded to the nearest whole number. In short, a perfect ACT score is a 36–but you don’t have to have a 36 by any means to be confident that you have a good ACT score.

What is a Good ACT Score Compared to Other Test-Takers?

The ACT is scored like any other standardized test: the ACT translates your raw score–the number of questions you answer correctly on the test–into a scaled score. The ACT has never penalized students for incorrect answers, so be sure to answer every question on the test to earn the highest possible raw score you can.

The ACT is always scaled so that a score of, say, 29 on the test shows comparable performance across any given group of students who earned a 29, regardless of which ACT those students took. While that 29 may not represent the exact same number of correct answers on a section, it does create a cross-reference of sorts that rates your performance on the ACT compared to other college applicants.

Recently, the ACT scoring scale has changed a bit, most noticeably on the Math section. While this is a little difficult to predict, the introduction of a required experimental section on the ACT shows that the ACT organization is tinkering with its test. Thus, lately, the Math Test scoring scale is a little more forgiving.

You don’t need to get as many questions correct to get a high score. However, if the scale is more forgiving, that can also mean the test is arguably getting harder for most students to complete perfectly.

The ACT doesn’t remark about a score “range” on its test (a margin of error) as distinctly as the SAT does, but that may be because its scoring scale covers a large range of possible SAT scores (You can see the comparison in my post SAT vs. ACT).

A Good Baseline ACT Score: Meeting the College Readiness Benchmark

Given that standardized tests are intended to be used for application and placement, it makes sense for the test makers to articulate benchmarks so that students, teachers, and colleges can use those scores to reach meaningful conclusions about students’ progress.

The ACT College Readiness Benchmarks are no different. They’re “the minimum ACT test scores required for students to have a reasonable chance of success in first-year, credit-bearing college courses at the typical college.”

These benchmarks will be noted on your ACT score report, and they’re intended to function as the most basic indicators of a good ACT score for the average student. The benchmarks show that you should be at least on track to start and be successful in a college program somewhere.

This table, borrowed in full from the ACT organization, shows you the benchmarks you’ll find on your score report:

ACT test scoreCollege coursesBenchmark
EnglishEnglish Composition I18
MathematicsCollege Algebra22
ReadingAmerican History, Other History, Psychology, Sociology,
Political Science, Economics
22
ScienceBiology23
STEM1Calculus, Chemistry, Biology,
Physics, Engineering
26
ELA2English Composition 1, American History, Other History,
Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, Economics
20

Make note: the ACT STEM score is the rounded average of the ACT mathematics and science scale scores, while the ACT ELA score is the rounded average of the ACT English, reading, and writing scale scores.

In 2018, only relatively small groups met these benchmarks: 60% of English test-takers, 46% of Reading test-takers, 40% of Math test-takers, and 36% of Science test-takers. Only 27% of all the test-takers met the benchmarks in all four subjects.

To be clear, if you’re applying to a competitive college, the College Readiness Benchmarks are irrelevant to you. They aren’t indicators of college entrance competitiveness.  

Defining a Good ACT Score: Your Scaled Score’s Percentile Rank

Especially if you’re competing for top scores, you’ll want to know where your ACT score lands by percentile rank. The rule of thumb is that once you’re at a 29 or above on the ACT, you’re in the top 10% of test takers. A 29 translates to a very good score on the SAT.

I’ve used a chart from the ACT’s competitor to create a general percentile chart for current ACT percentile ranking of composite scores.

ACT Composite ScoreNational Percentile
3699+
3599
3498-99
3397-98
3295-96
3194-95
3092-93
2989-91
2887-88
2782-86
2679-81
2574-77
2468-73
2363-67
2260-62
2151-56
2045-49
1937-43
1832-36
1726-31
1620-24
1513-18
148-12
134-7
122-3

What Is a Good ACT Score for Colleges You’re Applying To?

Now that you have an idea of where your ACT score stacks up against other students, you have to understand what your ACT score means for your chances of admission.

Here’s a sampling of some ACT scores from the 2016-2017 classes to help you understand if your ACT score is a good score for your needs:  

SCHOOLTYPICAL ACT SCORES
Stanford31-35
Yale32-35
University of Michigan29-33
Penn State25-29
UCLA28-33
Florida State25-29

(ACT scores retrieved from Google data)

Finding and Understanding College SAT Score Ranges

Most of the time, the first thing a student does when they are considering applying to a particular college is hop on the internet and search for the average GPA and test scores for that school. It’s easily searchable; in fact, that’s what I did with the chart above. You can also find reliable data from your school’s Naviance account.

Those score ranges can feel broad, and there’s a big difference in a four or five point score spread on the ACT. For example, do you only need a 28 to get into UCLA? Or the elusive 33?

There are some key facts many people don’t realize about those score ranges that will directly influence what a good ACT score is for applying to any particular school:

  • The people who fall into the lowest range of ACT scores are usually extremely special cases. They include the children of major donors, students with an exceptional family legacy, and other students, like recruited athletes, who bring obvious special value to the college. Don’t just look at that bottom number and think, “No problem! I’m in!”
  • An accepted student’s GPA is not released along with his ACT score, so you can’t presume that your particular combination of grades and scores make you a shoe-in, even if you’re within the range.
  • Even a perfect ACT score is not a guarantee that you’ll get into any university you choose. In today’s competitive atmosphere, it seems that some people believe growing from the 99.2 to the 99.4 percentile gives them a genuine admissions advantage, and that’s just not true. That sort of parsing is much more about interpersonal competition and ego.

Especially now, it’s most important to remember that colleges invite people to join a carefully curated group of students when they offer admissions. They aren’t interested in walking test scores, and it’s your presentation of yourself as a highly unique person that will most affect the likelihood of your acceptance at a competitive institution–provided you have scores within range.

This is why the next way to define what a good ACT score is may be the most important of all.

What is a Good ACT Score In the Context of Your Ability and Resources?

I always say that the most peace of mind you can have about whether your ACT score is a “good” ACT score is whether or not you feel that your score reflects your best work given the resources that you have available to you.

It should give you both a great peace of mind and motivate you to know that colleges usually look at your ACT score through the lens of your own ability and resources (which they detect from your GPA and from your school recommendations) in addition to making sure you are within the typical score range of their student body.

In short, colleges want to see that you did your best work and that you’re dedicated. Here are some questions to ask yourself to sort out whether your ACT score is a good ACT score for you.

  • Did you make time to prep for the ACT and study for it seriously? Did your studying show improvement? This is something only you can know, and you’ll need to be honest with yourself.
  • If your school offered an ACT prep class, did you take it? Did you do the assigned homework? Or, did you look into the best ACT test prep courses such as The Princeton Review, Kaplan, ACT Online, and others.
  • If you are usually very good at math but initially struggled with the test, did you take the time to learn (or re-learn) skills you may have been rusty on?
  • Was your test day experience calm? Were you well-rested, fed, and focused?
  • Did you take advantage of financial resources if you have them? It’s a big if, but colleges expect you to invest your resources in preparation. If you can’t afford it, no one expects you to have spent a dime, but you should make sure you maximize your efforts nonetheless.

All in all, once you’re accepted into a college, your ACT scores won’t matter–except to you. Prepare for the ACT knowing that the most important thing, in the long run, is being sure you know that you made your best effort and did your best work.