If you’re planning on getting an undergraduate degree, you may have seen the letters ‘ACT’ thrown around once or twice. ACT stands for American College Testing, and refers to a standardized test that many colleges use as part of their admissions process. The ACT is a multiple choice, pen-and-pencil test that was created by ACT Inc., and aims to determine a student’s college readiness. Colleges around the country use the ACT to measure how you might perform as an undergraduate, so understanding the ACT’s structure, scoring, and how to prepare for the exam might be just what you need to achieve your academic goals.
What Does The ACT Measure?
The ACT is a college readiness exam designed to compare the overall academic ability of students from different high schools and different academic backgrounds. When it comes to the college application process, colleges use ACT scores to determine both which students to accept and how much money to offer them in the form of aid and scholarships. At minimum, the ACT takes nearly 3 hours to complete, so it’s clear that the exam covers a lot of material.
First, some basics: the ACT tests english, math, reading, and science and lasts precisely 2 hours 55 minutes. There is, however, an optional writing section that extends the time of the ACT to 3 hours 35 minutes. Aside from the writing section, there are 215 questions in all.
The highest total ACT score you can get is 36; this total score is the added combination of each of the ACT’s sections. When you receive your ACT score report, you’ll see that each ACT section is broken down further into different categories of questions that are designed to test particular skills. We break down the ACT’s sections and section subcategories below.
The English section of the ACT lasts 45 minutes and consists of 75 questions, testing your abilities in grammar & word usage, punctuation, sentence structure, strategy, organization, and style. On your score report, you’ll see 3 categories of questions in this section:
- Production of Writing (29-32% of the English section) This category measures your ability to understand the purpose of a piece of writing.
- Knowledge of Language (13-19%) This category measures your ability to demonstrate effective language, proper word choice, and consistency in tone and style.
- Conventions of Standard English (51-56%) This category measures your understanding of standard English grammar, usage, and mechanics.
The Math section of the ACT lasts 60 minutes and includes 60 questions that test you on pre-algebra and algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Categories of questions in the ACT’s math section include:
- Preparing for Higher Math (57-60%) This category measures the math skills that most students learn in the later years of high school, starting with algebra.
- Integrating Essential Skills (40 – 43%) This category measures how well you are able to apply fundamental math skills to solve more complex problems.
- Modeling (integrated throughout) This category measures your overall ability to produce and interpret models. These skills are tested throughout the math section.
The reading section lasts 35 minutes and has 40 questions that evaluate your ability to both read information carefully and use that information to evaluate evidence. The categories of questions in the ACT’s reading section include:
- Key Ideas & Details (55-60%) This category measures your ability to summarize the main idea and theme of passages, and then draw a conclusion.
- Craft & Structure (25-30%). This category measures whether you can determine an author’s meaning and analyze word choice.
- Integration of Knowledge & Ideas (13-18%) This category measures your ability to evaluate an author’s claims and use evidence to make connections between the text and other concepts.
The science section of the ACT lasts 35 minutes and includes 40 questions. If you’re not an expert in physics or organic chemistry, don’t worry! Instead of testing your understanding of scientific concepts, the ACT’s science section tests your ability to read graphs, to problem solve, and to interpret, analyze, and evaluate data. The categories of questions in the ACT’s science section include:
- Interpretation of Data (45-55%) This category measures how you evaluate graphs, scientific tables, and diagrams, and how you translate that information to answer questions.
- Scientific Investigation (20-35%) This category measures your understanding of different experimental tools, procedures, and designs. These questions also ask you to compare and predict the results of additional experiments.
- Evaluation of Models, Inferences & Experimental Results (25-35%) This category measures how well you judge the validity of scientific information, and how you make conclusions and predictions based on that judgement.
You have 40 minutes to complete the ACT’s essay, which tests your ability to effectively craft and defend an argument in response to a prompt. Your ACT writing score is not part of your composite score. If you choose to take this portion of the exam, you complete it after you’ve taken the 4 multiple choice sections.
How Is the ACT Scored?
ACT Composite Score
When colleges are deciding which applicants to admit, they primarily look at this total score. The ACT Composite Score is the average of the subject area scores, rounded up to the nearest whole number. It is scored between 1 and 36, and is the first score you see on the top left of your score report.
Your raw score for each section of the ACT (English, math, reading, and science) is simply how many questions you answered correctly in each section. Unlike some tests, you don’t lose points for incorrect answers, and instead just miss out on points that you would earn for a correct answer. This means that when you’re taking the ACT, there’s no risk in guessing for a question you don’t know the answer to, so try to answer every question.
Each section of the ACT (English, math, reading, and science) is given its own scaled score between 1 and 36. This score, included on your score report, is derived from your raw section scores. The ACT uses scaled scores to account for small differences between the different forms of the tests that students receive.
Below, we’ve included a chart that shows you how raw ACT scores convert to scaled scores:
How is the ACT Writing Section Scored?
Each ACT essay is scored by 2 different readers. These readers determine how effective the essay is in 4 different categories, also called domains. In total, you’ll receive 5 scores for the writing section. You’ll get one subject score for your overall writing ability, ranging from 2-12, plus 4 individual domain scores. Your overall score is the rounded average of your 4 domain scores.
The ACT writing section domains are:
- Ideas and Analysis. This score reflects your ability to come up with productive ideas that engage with the prompt from multiple perspectives.
- Development and Support. This score determines whether you can coherently support the rationale for your idea and logically defend your argument.
- Organization. This score reflects whether the organization of your essay has a cohesive structure, clarity, and purpose.
- Language Use. This score reflects your effective use of language to convey ideas through proper grammar, syntax, word usage, and mechanics.
If you’re still having trouble understanding the structure, scoring, and purpose of the ACT, feel free to take a look at the overview (PDF) of the ACT offered by the makers of the test.
So, now you understand how the ACT is structured and what it measures. But seeing how that structure equates to ACT scoring, and how colleges evaluate those scores, is what can really help you get into the college of your dreams.
What are Good and Bad ACT Scores?
Saying any score on the ACT is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ isn’t always a great idea. Though a higher score is better than a lower score (of course), defining a good ACT score isn’t as simple as pointing out a certain number.
Instead, finding a good ACT score requires identifying the schools you want to get into and researching the admission standards of those schools in particular.
A good ACT score is any score that—when combined with your GPA, list of extracurriculars, and application essay—gets you into the college of your choice. Finding out what score a school is looking for takes a little bit of time and effort, but there are some general numbers you can keep in mind when deciding on a target ACT score.
What Are Average ACT Scores?
Though specific schools always have specific standards, you can still keep in mind the national average ACT score, which varies each year.
The national average ACT score in 2019 was about 21. Still, this number isn’t the most effective at helping you apply to schools that will always have unique and specific standards for their applicants.
For instance, If you want to be a competitive applicant for an Ivy League school, you will most likely need to score above 30 on the ACT. Only 6% of students get a score of 30 or above on the exam, so don’t sweat it if that seems a bit out of your reach. For some public universities, a score in the high teens is acceptable. As you research schools’ score requirements, you may find schools that guarantee admission to anyone with a certain score, no matter what the rest of the application package looks like. Other schools may not even require a standardized test score.
This goes to show that every school has a different approach when reviewing the ACT scores of their applicants, so figuring out what the schools you’re interested in are looking for is an essential part of the application process. Many schools release the average scores of their accepted applicants each year. This makes it easy for you to find out how successful applicants did on the ACT; you can find this info on colleges’ websites, on online forums, or even on sites like US News & World Report, which publishes lists of the best colleges and their students’ scores each year.
Take a look at the chart below to see the mean ACT scores per each section of the test in 2019:
6 Steps to a Good ACT Score:
Now that you have an idea of how the ACT works, you can start actually working toward the score you need. Preparing for any standardized test is no easy process, but with time and effort (in combination with any of the free or premium resources available to you), you shouldn’t have any trouble crushing the ACT.
- Set solid ACT goals.
The first step to accomplishing any worthwhile task is setting realistic—and challenging—goals for yourself. Determine which undergraduate programs you want to shoot for, then do some research to find out the ACT scores for the applicants those schools have accepted. We go into more detail about finding school averages later on.
- Register for the ACT.
To score well on the ACT, you have to keep your yearly calendar in mind. The ACT is offered in September, October, December, February, April, June and July, but not every date will give you enough time to study for the test. We recommend that every student take at least 3 months to prepare for the ACT. On top of that, you should also set a date that doesn’t interfere with other time-consuming events in your schedule. Registering for the ACT also involves both choosing whether you’ll take the optional writing portion and listing which schools you want to send your scores to, so make sure you’ve made those decisions before you register. If you’re interested in learning more about the registration process, be sure to look at our rundown of how to register for the ACT in 2020.
Every student studies differently. Thankfully, there are countless resources available that you can tailor to your learning style. The trick is just finding out what works for you! To prepare for the ACT, start out with free online resources like the ACT’s free online practice questions. Figure out which specific section subcategories are giving you trouble, and target those questions. Many students find that studying on their own is just not working; if this is you, you’re not alone. There are plenty of high-quality ACT prep courses that provide you with structure and professional guidance as you study for the ACT. To learn more about how these courses can help you prepare, check out our list comparing the Best ACT Prep Courses and find one that fits your budget, lifestyle, and academic needs,
- Take the ACT.
So, you’ve reached the big day. To make sure that you’re ready for the test itself, don’t cram in a bunch of information the night before. Instead, make sure you’re well-fed and have had a good night’s rest, so that you can eliminate all possible distractions while you’re taking the exam. Take a deep breath, be confident in the work you’ve put in to prepare, and crush the ACT.
- Review your scores.
Once you receive your ACT scores, you can take a look at how you performed and compare that to your ACT goals. Score at or above your target score? Great! You’re well on your way to getting into the school of your dreams. If you didn’t do quite as well as you hoped to, have no fear! Getting a great score on your first go is no easy task, and there’s still plenty that you can do from here to prepare a solid college application.
- Revise/ Replan/ Retake.
If your ACT score is not where you need it to be, this could be the time to adjust your test-prep strategy and improve your weak points. Take a look at your score and find out which section categories gave you the most trouble. Then, target those weaknesses and practice, practice practice! Still, no matter the energy you put in, sometimes preparing all on your own just isn’t enough. If you find yourself in this position, you should definitely consider one of the ACT prep-courses we mentioned earlier. The structure and professional insight they offer can prove invaluable during your college application process; our list of the Best ACT Prep Courses includes some that offer a score-improvement guarantee—if your ACT score doesn’t go up, you don’t pay a dime.
- Set solid ACT goals.
Setting a Target ACT Score
This step is the foundation of your ACT preparation, and when you compare it to studying for the test itself, it’s really not too difficult! Once you’ve identified which colleges you hope to attend, your next step is to find out which scores they look for in their applicants. This often takes no more than a simple web search, as most colleges publish the average ACT scores of their incoming classes online.
When you do find the average ACT score (or the range of average scores) for your college, keep in mind that this number is just that: an average. Plenty of students score below or above a school’s ACT average. So don’t worry if it feels just inches out of reach, especially if you feel good about the rest of your undergraduate application.
There are plenty of other factors that go into admissions decisions, including your GPA, your list of extracurricular activities, and your letters of recommendation. Scoring at the top of the range for your dream school gives you a good chance of being accepted, but it isn’t always necessary if the rest of your application is strong.
While the ACT composite score is usually the most important score, some schools prioritize higher scores in certain subject sections. For instance, an engineering school will likely expect higher math scores than a liberal arts school might.
The same goes for when you hope to pursue a specific major. In your application package, you might indicate a certain career path or major that you want to pursue. If you do so, the admissions office may judge your scores in a subject area that relates to that major more heavily than your scores in other subjects. For example, if you indicate a desire to pursue an English major and score well in the reading section of the ACT, you may have priority over a similar student with the same composite score but a lower reading section score.
To find out more about the specific ACT expectations of your school, it might be worthwhile to call up their admissions office and ask about details that may not be included online. Plus, it rarely hurts your chances to call up the admissions team and make an impression!
If you’re having trouble determining whether your ACT score is good enough, or whether the rest of your college application is ready, you may want to consider getting expert guidance through the college admissions process. We’ve put together a list of the Best College Admissions Consultants for just that occasion—these are professionals who specialize in helping you find the best schools for you and putting together a college application that stands out from all the rest.
Understanding Your ACT Scores
When Do ACT Scores Come Out?
After you take the exam, your ACT score report can appear on act.org between 2 and 8 weeks after the test date. If you didn’t take the writing section of the test, your ACT scores will likely be available around 2 weeks after you take the test. However, if you take the writing section of the ACT, your score probably won’t be released until at least 4 weeks after the test. Sometimes the ACT scores won’t come available when expected, so keep checking in on the ACT website to see if your scores are posted earlier or later than usual. It may seem like you have to wait a long time, but when you consider that around 2 million students take the ACT each year, it’s a lot quicker than it could be!
Sending Your ACT Scores
When you register for the ACT, you can choose 4 schools to send your scores to. These schools receive your ACT scores as soon as they become available, at no extra cost to you. If you want to send your ACT scores to additional schools later on, you can purchase additional ACT score reports to send through the ACT score site.
The ACT Score Report
As soon as your ACT scores become available, you’ll receive an email informing you that you can access them online. Your ACT scores are not sent directly through this email—instead you need to log into your ACT Web Account using a login that you set up when you first register for the test. From there, you can access your ACT Score Report.
At first glance, the ACT Score Report seems overwhelming. The report includes a lot of information beyond your composite score, but don’t ignore the extra info! For instance, your ACT score report will also include helpful graphs with information on how you compare to other test takers in your state and in the U.S. All of this detail provides useful insight into your ACT performance, and is invaluable in helping you improve if you need to retake the test.
So you can get an idea of what the report looks like, we’ve included an example of an ACT score report below:
Source: Sample ACT Score Report
The ACT Score Breakdown
You will see the following scores per section and overall statistics on your ACT score report:
|ACT Composite Score||1 – 36 points, an average of the four ACT sections|
|Subject Section Scores||1 – 36 points each|
|Writing Section||2 – 12 points|
|College Readiness Benchmark||This score is designed to predict the your potential college performance|
|Detailed Results||A breakdown of how you did in each subcategory|
|ACT Readiness Range||This range determines your college-level coursework readiness in that subject|
College Readiness Benchmarks
The ACT is designed to determine your college readiness, so the score report includes College Readiness Benchmarks that represent the general ability level colleges expect from prospective students.
The first thing that you’ll see on your score report is this box:
The purple lines on your ACT score report represent the ACT’s benchmark for college readiness. If your score (the blue or green lines and boxes) is above the purple line, the ACT has determined that you should be able to pass an entry-level college course in the same subject.
If your score is below the purple line, you should probably put some pore practice in for that specific subject, especially if you plan to take the test again.
What if I get a Bad Score?
The ACT carries a lot of weight in the college admissions process, so it often becomes a source of stress for many students. If you’ve done your best to prepare for the test but still came out with a less-than-ideal ACT score, it’s not the end of the world. Plenty of intelligent students find themselves in that position, and there are several options for you:
- Retake the ACT.
Depending on your application deadlines and available test dates, you may be able to take the test again. However, if you don’t put in the time to prepare using quality ACT test-prep resources, you most likely won’t see much of an improvement. If you do prepare to retake the ACT on your own keep in mind pay attention to the percentage of questions in each category, and determine which categories gave you the most trouble your first time around. For example, if you have a tough time applying basic math skills to more complex problems, that affects 40% of the math section’s score. However, if you are struggling with questions about numbers and quantity interpretation, that only affects 7-10% of your math score, so you may be better off working on something else. Don’t try to perfect the areas that aren’t as thoroughly tested.
- Improve other areas of your application.
If your ACT score is below the range of your dream school, find other ways to stand out. You could improve your entrance essays, strengthen your high school GPA (if you have the time), and collect stellar letters of recommendation.
- Take the SAT.
The ACT is one of 2 standardized tests that colleges use to select applicants. Most schools accept both scores on students’ applications, so the SAT may be a good alternative for you. The SAT and ACT are similar in some ways, but they are different enough that students often do better on one test than the other. For instance, the SAT is specifically designed to measure your reasoning and verbal skills, while the ACT focuses more on testing your knowledge of principles you’ve learned in school. If you didn’t score your best on the ACT, you may be better suited for the SAT, and most schools will take both. Our SAT vs. ACT comparison guide includes a conversion tool that turns your ACT score into an equivalent SAT score, which could help you decide which test to take. If you’ve taken both exams, and your SAT (or PSAT) score is higher than the score you got from the conversion tool, you may be better off including the SAT alone on your application. If you’re wondering about the differences between the two tests in structure, registration, prep resources, scoring, and more, we’ve put together a few pages that can help you out:
- Find a school that doesn’t require a standardized test.
There are over 800 colleges that don’t require scores from tests like the ACT (test-optional schools), and an increasing number of colleges won’t even look at your scores if you send them (test-blind schools). Test-optional and test-blind schools prioritize other factors during the application process, because they believe that your high school performance and extra-curricular experiences may be a better predictor for your college potential than a standardized test.
- Find a school where your ‘bad’ score is a ‘good’ score.
If you don’t have time to improve your scores or your application package, and can’t find a test-optional or test-blind school, there’s nothing wrong with sending your scores to a school that better suits your academic abilities. This kind of step can be a great move, as some students who get into ‘reach’ schools end up having a less remarkable college experience than those who excel at less competitive schools. Take this opportunity to find out which school will provide the best academic experience for you, and submit your scores there instead.
Every student has a unique college application package, and the ACT is simply one important part of it. To make sure your ACT score is where you want it to be, you can’t just go into the process blindly. Instead, research your dream schools, set goals based on their specific test expectations, and then prepare using strategies and resources that suit you. Following these steps is simply the best way to ensure success on the ACT.
Everyone’s ACT experience is different, so we’d love to hear about yours in the comments below. What is your target ACT score? How did you determine it? If you’ve already taken the ACT, how did you do? What did you do to get the score you wanted?