A standardized test used by colleges and universities during the admissions process, just like the SAT, the ACT (American College Testing) helps to assess each individual student applying for a position at a college or university.
Originally introduced all the way back in 1959, this standardized test isn’t quite as historic as the SAT – but over the decades it has grown to become a gold standard in admissions, so much so that good standardized test scores on the ACT can open up educational opportunities that otherwise would have remained closed off.
Different and distinct from the SAT, test takers of the ACT are going to want to be sure of exactly what they are getting into and what this test encompasses.
There is certainly some overlap between the average ACT test and the average SAT exam, but there are quite a few differences that are significant, too.
Below we go into an overview of the ACT composite score, how this test came to be, why this test came to be, and then dig a little bit deeper into what is a good ACT score to shoot for.
After that, we push into specific strategies students and test takers can use to improve their odds of success going forward.
Let’s jump right in!
The intention behind the creation of the ACT to begin with was to produce a new standardized test that could better reflect the kind of academic curriculum being taught across American high schools.
Back in the late 1950s when the ACT was first created the SAT had yet to gain complete adoption as the only standardized admissions exam, opening up an opportunity for the ACT to step in and become considered “shoulder to shoulder” with this considerably older test.
In the 1950s (and even earlier, really) there was considerable criticism from colleges and universities that the SAT focused too much on aptitude and not enough on the actual abilities and academic knowledge of students coming out of high school.
This meant that students that were good test takers and had fantastic potential – but only potential – were getting into colleges and universities over students that had proven themselves serious academics, serious studies, and those committed to their education throughout high school.
ACT, Inc. went on to build out their own actual test and convinced admissions boards at selective colleges and universities across the country to start using this exam for admitted students based on this new focus.
The ACT would cover for core sections – English, mathematics, reading, and science – and would (much like the SAT) include an optional writing/essay section 4 colleges and universities that wanted this to be a big part of their admissions process.
Unlike the SAT scores that can range from 400 all the way up to 1600, the ultimate goal score for the ACT (a perfect score) sits at just 36. The lowest possible score is a one, with the final ACT scored as a composite ATC score – basically averaging out each individual score of the four required sections.
Today, the ACT is taken by more than 1.7 million students every year. All of them hope to get good ACT scores, and many are hoping to do everything they can to get a better than average ACT score – as close to a perfect score as possible.
They know that doing well on this test could change the trajectory of their education and their career moving forward.
Understanding the ACT Scoring System
Like we mentioned a moment ago, the overall composite ACT score system is designed and engineered to give colleges and universities as comprehensive a measure of the academic abilities and potential of students as possible.
Students hoping to get into their dream college will want to get there ACT test scores up as high as they can, with a 36 being the absolute best score they could get.
But while the composite ACT score is the score that gets looked at most during the college admissions process, it’s not the “be-all, end-all”.
As a composite score it’s not only your best score being put forward, but instead an average of all four scores in each individual section of the test.
This means that doing the best you can in every individual section will help you showcase your skills and capabilities, and any wrong answers in one area or another will help clue in colleges and universities to your strengths and weaknesses.
Build up your selection scores (always reported in the form of a percentile ranking) and you’ll help join students admitted at your dream schools rather than having to fall back on your “safety school”.
ACT score ranges go even just a bit further than this, and certainly further than other standardized tests like the SAT.
You not only have your final composite score and your raw score or selection score for each part of the test, but you also have sub scores that get even more granular than that.
Sub scores are not ranked with a percentile ACT score the way that your selection scores are, but instead are overwrought scores” that cover your capabilities in each individual section.
Let’s take the English section of the test, for example.
Test takers will have their overall average ACT scores, then they’ll have a selection score for the English section of the test, and then things will go even deeper than that into sub scores that cover things like grammar, mechanics, and rhetorical skills.
Mathematics subscores will go over things like pre-algebra capabilities, elementary algebra capabilities, coordinate geometry capabilities, etc. Science and reading have their own specific sub ACT scores, too.
All of this information (and we mean all of it) isn’t just used to build up your composite score but to give colleges and universities as full and complete a picture of you as a student as they can.
It’s a big part of why the ACT test is as popular with colleges and universities as it is today.
What is a Good ACT Score?
There’s no firm and concrete ACT scores that could be considered “good ACT scores”, particularly because so many different colleges and universities are going to be looking for different composite score numbers during the college admissions process.
All that said, as a general rule of thumb anyone that scores a 22 or higher on the ACT is considered to have done quite well – as that puts them above the average ACT scores for the nation (with that figure sitting at 21).
Some schools, as we highlighted earlier, are going to have requirements that are far below the national average ACT score if they have any ACT score requirements at all. Other schools, though, are a lot stricter and more stringent, and will need a pretty high ACT score range for their admission officers to consider a student in the first place.
Students should shoot for as high a target score as they can, as a hi ACT composite score will always help open up doors compared to a lower one.
Just to give you a better idea of the kinds of ACT requirements you might find from colleges and universities across the country, here are 10 schools that have different requirements for a composite score (from lowest to highest):
- California State University, Chico: Accepts scores between 18-24
- University of Alabama: Accepts scores between 18-27
- Southern Illinois University Carbondale: Accepts scores between 19-27
- University of North Texas: Accepts scores between 20-27
- Northern Illinois University: Accepts scores between 21-27
- Central Michigan University: Accepts scores between 21-28
- Arizona State University: Accepts scores between 22-29
- University of Nevada, Las Vegas: Accepts scores between 22-29
- Indiana University Bloomington: Accepts scores between 22-30
- University of Michigan, Ann Arbor: Accepts scores between 26-34
When you are talking about more selective schools, you’re generally talking about schools that want to see a score on the ACT that sits between 30 and 36.
Schools like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and others are going to be expecting every college application they received to have raw scores and composite scores that put them near the top end of the curve.
Of course, part of your test prep should be looking at all of the different colleges you want to apply to and figuring out what their score on the ACT requirements look like.
This’ll give you a good idea of the kind of score you should be shooting for, the kind of score that accepted students have secured already, and how those accepted scores stack up against other competitive schools and competitive universities you might also want to look into.
Preparing for the ACT
Preparation is everything when it comes to getting the best composite score possible for the ACT’s.
You want to take your time, you want to do your research and due diligence, and you want to get your hands on as many resources as possible to really stack the deck in your favor.
We are talking about getting practice tests (multiple ACT practice tests, if possible), investing in the official ACT Prep Guide (available directly from ACT, Inc.), and leveraging any other resources you can find online as well.
That official guide will set you back $20 on the ACT website but it’s money well spent. It includes a practice test you can look into all on your own, test that lets you get a better feel for how the ACT is structured, the kinds of questions asked, and the kinds of answers that do well on the ACT.
Some students even like to look into preparatory classes and private tutors.
Prep classes can be sometimes difficult to find in your local area, but they can certainly help you (alongside other test takers) to build more confidence, to build more resiliency, and to increase your confidence before you sit down for the real thing and shoot for your goal score.
Look online or reach out to school administrators and guidance counselors for more information about those preparatory classes. They’ll help you get a strong score for sure.
Private tutors, on the other hand, are little more challenging to track down – and are often more expensive as well.
The right private tutelage, though, cannot only help newly enrolled students really build on their strengths and develop their weaknesses into core competencies, but can help with more strategic test prep in hopes of landing the kind of raw score necessary to really ace this standardized ACT exam.
Finally, you really need to create a study schedule and specific strategy for the ACT score ranges you want to accomplish as far in advance of taking the real test as possible.
Think about how long you have until the actual test day. Think about the material you need to cover and study. Work backwards, specifically trying to find time to focus on areas you need the most improvement on closer to the actual test day.
That’ll help you be ready for show time, getting the highest score you can!
Having the right test taking strategies can make a huge difference when you want to get the best possible ACT composite score.
Here are just a couple of the strategies you’ll want to use to boost your odds of success going forward:
Time management – Time management is absolutely critical when you are taking the ACT. You’re going to be taking this test up against the clock and you’ll need to know how to manage your time on each individual question to help you successfully complete everything before the final buzzer.
This is where practice tests are so valuable. They give you an opportunity to dry run through each section, getting a feel for exactly how much time you have available, and helping you spot “time sinks” where you’ll need to focus your energy a little more.
Scan and skim – Because reading and analyzing is such a big part of the ACT test scores you’re going to need to be able to crunch a lot of written information in a short amount of time.
Learning how to scan and how to skim effectively will help you pull out core ideas and supporting information without having to spend a ton of time reading each and every single word multiple times.
Master the process of elimination – Because the ACT composite score is based off of a multiple-choice tests you always have the opportunity to “guess” your way through answers you aren’t quite sure of.
The process of elimination can help you look at the answers first, then look at the question, and make informed guesses that give you better odds of success moving forward.
Guess when you have to – For a lot of students, shooting for a perfect ACT score just isn’t all that realistic – and may not even be necessary, depending on the kind of school they want to go to. Learning when to guess (especially since there is no penalty for that) to save time is a huge piece of the success puzzle.
On top of those strategies, you’ll want to read each question carefully and deliberately. You’ll want to find ways to stay calm and relaxed as you move through each phase of the test. And you’ll want to skip certain questions to circle back to later when you have a bit of extra time just to keep your brain moving in the right direction.
Improving English Scores
Finding strategies to improve your ACT English scores should be a part of all your dedicated test preparation practice.
Reading comprehension is a major part of your English score, and there are couple of things you can do to boost your capabilities in this area of the test.
First, make sure that you are reading regularly and reading broadly. Annotate while you read (take notes) and analyze when you finish a passage. Do your level best to practice critical reading and you’ll boost your capabilities and strengthen your English scores at the same.
Grammar and usage are another big part of your English score (as well as your subscores).
Study different grammar rules, really trying to familiarize yourself with as many of them as possible. Use flashcards if you have to. Look for ways to identify different grammatical errors (social media can help you big time in this department).
Finally, take advantage of grammar checker software – including those built into popular word processing programs – to give yourself a bit of an extra edge, too.
Rhetorical skills round out the rest of the English scoring section.
Looking to different rhetorical devices (things like cause and effect, ether, pathos, comparison and contrast, etc.) to give yourself a baseline. Analyze different writing styles and try to find ways to identify different rhetorical devices being used by your favorite authors. Write a lot!
Improving Math Scores
The math section of the ACT (and even ACT practice tests) is known to give lots of other test takers a decent amount of stress and anxiety, but you’ll be able to use the strategies below to sail right through this section and get a decent score.
First, focus on mathematical formula review. Make sure that you have a rock solid foundation of mathematical formula knowledge that you will be tested on during the ACT exam. Practice applying formulas on a practice test, especially those that are most likely to be used on the ACT.
Secondly, a look into mastering word problems in the mathematics section.
Start by really carefully reading the problem, making sure that you fully understand exactly what you are being asked to do. Next, identify key information (especially the variables, units, and other relevant details) that you’ll need to work up your own mathematical equation.
Only then are you going to be ready to create an equation based off of the key details you got out of the board problem itself.
All that’s left to do is solve those word problems!
Finally, make sure that you are totally comfortable and familiar with using a calculator.
The ACT test allows you to use a calculator during certain portions of the examination. Take advantage of that tool! Just be sure that you know how to use your calculator, know how to leverage all that it offers, and aren’t going to struggle with a tool you’re unfamiliar with when time matters most.
Improving Reading Scores
All of the strategies designed to help you with your English section of the ACT are going to help you get the goal score you want in the reading section, too.
On top of that, do your best to read actively with everything that you are consuming – whether you are practicing on ACT test or not.
Think about what you’re reading, think about what the author is trying to say, and think about the message they are conveying as well as all the info they are using to support that message.
In the vocabulary department few things will help you grow and expand your workable vocabulary than reading broadly. Read things you wouldn’t have thought you’d been interested in before, not only to broaden your knowledge base but also to kind of soak up the type of vocabulary you may not have been exposed to otherwise.
Improving Science Scores
ACT science scores are going to be built off of a combination of scientific reasoning and analysis, two things that you’ll need to demonstrate real competency with if you want to get the best ACT science score possible.
Scientific reasoning requires you to be able to quickly identify patterns and trends based off of the data you are reading. Look for cause and effect and hypothesis testing opportunities, but also tried to consider the context of what you are interpreting as well.
Secondly, make sure you have a firm understanding about a breakdown scientific data.
You should be able to know how to consider the context of the data, the source and purpose, recognize patterns and trends (as well as anomalies), and have an ability to use graphs and charts to supplement your analysis.
Cover all of those bases and you’ll be good to go!
Too often overlooked, the mental preparation that you do in advance of your ACT exam will have a major impact on whether or not you hit your goal score.
It’s fair to say that the ACT is going to be a super high pressure and stressful situation for a lot of students. There’s a lot on the line and this test is intentionally designed to challenge you.
Here are some things you can do to strengthen your mental preparation and resolve ahead of test day:
Physical exercise – Believe it or not, physical exercise is a fantastic way to center your mind, to eliminate stress and feelings of anxiety, and to energize your mind as well as your body. Exercise well ahead of your test and you’ll be much better prepared mentally.
Talk yourself up – Positive self talk can be used to help combat stress and anxiety, including when you feel those things start to bubble up in the middle of your ACT exam.Don’t be shy about pumping your own tires if you need a little boost.
Breathe deeply – Deep breathing has been proven to be an effective way to eliminate stress and anxiety, but also to calm down your mind and quiet it in high stress situations. If you’re feeling overwhelmed practice deep breathing exercises and sort of reboot your system.
Get plenty of rest – It should be a no-brainer, but a lot of people show up to their ACT exam stressed out and feeling wired simply because they didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Shoot for between seven and eight hours of sleep before you take your test, but make sure that it’s high quality and restive sleep as well.
Get organized – Take time the night before your test to organize all the materials you’ll need well in advance. Make sure you have your ID, your registration information, and any other physical materials you’ll need to complete your test set up and ready to go the night before, too.
All in all, take the time you need to prepare yourself as best you can to get the goal score on your ACTs that you are shooting for and then just sort of let things play out from there.
Though this test is important and should be taken seriously, you need to do what you can to make sure that you don’t become overwhelmed, overly anxious, or a live wire while taking your test. This is a great opportunity – seize it!
So there you have it, our guide for (almost) everything you need to know about the ACT, getting a good ACT score, and maximizing your educational opportunities and chances to attend the kind of college and university you’ve been dreaming of.
Hopefully now you have a better understanding of the history of the ACT test and why it was created. Hopefully you also have a better idea of why schools across the country consider this to be a critical standardized test and a big part of the admissions process.
On top of all of that, it’s important to come away from this detailed guide with real-world strategies, tips, and tricks you can use to improve your ACT preparation to land the kind of score you deserve.
Take advantage of practice material and practice exams. Read as much about how to succeed when taking the ACT as possible and implement those specific strategies, too.
Create a smart study schedule that works backward from your test day, giving yourself lots of time to build up your weaker areas (back loading those sessions so that those concepts are strongest in your mind when you actually take the test).
All that’s left to do from there is take a practice class or test and then jump right in!
Good luck and remember that the ACT score you earn (and you will earn it) is so much more than just a number on a piece of paper.
This number represents your hard work, your dedication, and your effort as well as your seriousness about your education and your future.
Get after it!
What is the average ACT score?
When it comes to the average ACT score you’re looking at a number around 21, though it does very each and every year. The number is influenced by a variety of different factors, including how many people take the test and the overall level of difficulty.
What is considered a good ACT score?
A good ACT score is a score that helps you achieve all of your academic goals,, especially getting you into the college or university of your choice.as a general rule of thumb, though, a good score is going to be between 22 and 26.
How do colleges determine what a good ACT score is?
Colleges have their own specific admission standards that determine what they themselves considered to be a good ACT score.
What is the highest possible ACT score?
The highest possible ACT score is 36.
What is the average ACT score for top universities?
The average ACT score for top universities is usually around 32 or higher.
Does a high ACT score guarantee admission to a college or university?
No, just because you get a high ACT score does not necessarily guarantee you admission into the college or university of your choice. There are a whole bunch of other outside factors (including the rest of your application packet) that will play a big role in whether or not you are successful in the admissions process.
What is the minimum ACT score for college admission?
The minimum ACT score for college admission varies depending on the college or university. Some colleges have a minimum score requirement, though there are others that won’t.
Can I retake the ACT if I am not satisfied with my score?
Yes, the good news is if you don’t love your score you can retake the ACT as many times as you want.