Anyone wondering about the average ACT score is usually wondering one of two things: how well a typical student performs on the ACT and how that score stacks up against the average. Understanding the average ACT Score is the first step to understanding how to set appropriate goals for yourself on the ACT.
First, you need to understand the way the ACT is scored — both in how your raw score is calculated and how those numbers translate to scaled scores.
The ACT is scored by counting how many questions you answer correctly on each subtest and converting that number to a related scaled score. You are not penalized for incorrect answers on the ACT, so it’s always best to guess.
Currently, each of the ACT Subtests have the same possible score range:
A scaled score is not the same as a test graded on a “curve.” Instead, a scaled score is a translation of raw scores into a chart of standardized scores. It’s designed to ensure that scores are comparable across test dates to compare student performance. In other words, if a student earns a 26 on the December ACT, scaled scoring makes it possible to say that if a different student who took the April ACT also earns a 26, these two students are comparable.
Technically, this means they’re comparable purely in their abilities to take the ACT, but that’s an argument for another day.
Because each ACT subtest has a different number of questions, the average number of questions right on each section is obviously different. Let’s look at average scores on each ACT subtest as provided by the ACT organization itself.
Between 2014 and 2018, the average score on the ACT English test has landed between 20.1 and 20.4. For your purposes, it’s safe to say the average ACT English score is a 20.
Between 2014 and 2018, the average score on the ACT Math test has landed between 20.5 and 20.9. Notably, it’s been consistently dropping. Right now, it’s safe to say the average ACT Math score is a 21, but it’s starting to trend closer to a 20. That trend isn’t guaranteed to continue.
Between 2014 and 2018, the average score on the ACT Reading test has landed between 21.3 and 21.4. These scores are the most consistent of the four tests. It’s safe to say the average ACT Reading score is a 21.
Between 2014 and 2018, the average score on the ACT Science test has fallen between 20.7 and 21. You can say a mean ACT Science score is a 21.
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; it doesn’t include the essay score. 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.
According to the ACT, over the last five years the composite average ACT score has wavered between 20.8 and 21. This is tricky since you can only score in the whole number range on the ACT, but the average is a little lower.
For all intents and purposes, you should consider a composite score of 21 the average ACT score.
In order to understand why the average ACT score is probably not useful to most students considering even minimally competitive colleges and universities, you need to consider that not every ACT test-taker is planning to apply to college. In many states, every high school senior takes the ACT to prove that he or she has met the minimum requirements to graduate.
Those graduation minimums do not align with admissions minimums at college. Not only that, but graduation minimums are not to be confused with the ACT’s College Readiness Benchmarks.
The ACT organization introduced a “benchmark” that you’ll see noted on your official ACT score report. The readiness benchmark is actually lower than the average score and is only designed to indicate that you’d likely survive in a college-level class, but not every college level class at every college. The official commentary on ACT College Readiness Benchmarks says the same thing: benchmarks are “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.”
In 2018, there was significant variance in the percent groups that 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, so to meet the benchmark does not show average ACT performance. The benchmarks are usually higher than the average subtest score, save for the English test, on which the benchmark is only an 18, well below the average ACT score of 20 we noted earlier.
This table, borrowed in full from the ACT organization, shows you the benchmarks you’ll find on your score report:
|ACT test score||College courses||Benchmark|
|English||English Composition I||18|
|Reading||American History, Other History, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, Economics||22|
|STEM1||Calculus, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Engineering||26|
|ELA2||English Composition 1, American History, Other History, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, Economics||20|
It’s important to note that 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.
Most colleges don’t post a single mean ACT score, but you can get a sense of the average ACT score at any given school from the range each school shares. These score ranges give meaning to your own ACT score and likelihood of admission.
I’ve pulled out this sample of ACT scores in previous posts from the 2016-2017 graduating classes to help you evaluate whether your score fits in a school’s average range.
|SCHOOL||TYPICAL ACT SCORES|
|University of Michigan||29-33|
We need to remember to think about the ACT score ranges that colleges share about their incoming classes in a way that’s useful to students primarily trying to figure out if their ACT scores are strong enough to get in.
In other words, is it okay if you’re a typical student and your ACT score seems like it’s just below the average ACT score of the schools you’re looking at?
For example, we see in the chart above that Stanford’s typical ACT score ranges from 31 to 35, so we’d all readily agree that its average ACT score is a 33. If you’re a typical student, is a score of 32 going to get you in? Or do you need to work on achieving a higher score?
Below are some things to consider about the score ranges that will contribute to the average ACT score you’d calculate from an interquartile range you’d find posted on the internet.
The bottom line is that earning an average ACT score — 21 — won’t be useful to most students applying to reasonably competitive four-year colleges and universities. In fact, you’ll want to ensure your ACT score is higher than the average ACT score you’re calculating at your top choice school to give yourself the best possible chances of getting in.
To find out helpful ways to study for the ACT, check our article on The Best ACT Prep Courses to get started.