If you are considering college in the next few years, you are probably interested in learning a little more about the ACT. The ACT is one of two tests that most colleges require as part of the admissions process. The other is the SAT (see our comparison of the SAT and ACT). The ACT is a multiple choice, pen-and-pencil test administered by ACT, Inc. Its goal is to help determine a student’s college readiness and to give colleges a common measure for all applying students. It was designed to predict a student’s performance in college.
The ACT is a 2 hour and 55 minute test (3 hour and 35 minutes if you take the optional writing portion). It tests english, math, reading, and science, with a separate writing section. There are 215 total questions.
The highest ACT score you can get is 36. The average ACT score is 21.
The ACT is offered in September, October, December, February, April, June and July. Take a look at the upcoming national 2018-2019 ACT test dates here.
Because they are standardized, scores on the ACT and the SAT are the easiest way for colleges to compare students from different high schools with different backgrounds. This is why they are so important in determining which students to accept, as well as which students to offer scholarships to.
What Does The ACT Measure?
The ACT is a college readiness exam. It measures what you have already learned in school and determines if you are likely to be successful in your college level courses. It does this by testing several different subjects. These include:
The English section asks 75 questions in 45 minutes, including grammar & usage, punctuation, sentence structure, strategy, organization, and style. The three categories that are reported are:
- Production of Writing (29-32% of the questions). This category tests your ability to understand the purpose and focus 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%). These questions demonstrate your understand standard English grammar, usage, and mechanics.
The Math section includes 60 questions that you have 60 minutes to answer. It tests you on pre-algebra and algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Categories that you will see on your score report are:
- Preparing for Higher Math (57-60% of the questions). These are the most recent math skills that you have likely learned, starting with algebra.
- Integrating Essential Skills (40 – 43%). These questions tests how well you are able to apply your math skills to solve more complex problems.
- Modeling (integrated throughout). This category is an overall measure of how well you use your modeling skills across all the other mathematical topics. It is measured throughout the math section.
The reading section gives you 35 minutes to answer 40 questions that measure your ability to read carefully and use the information to evaluate evidence. The reading section will evaluate:
- Key Ideas & Details (55-60% of the questions). This category asks you to summarize the main idea and theme of passages, and then draw a conclusion.
- Craft & Structure (25-30%). This category asks you to determine an author’s meaning and analyze word choice.
- Integration of Knowledge & Ideas (13-18%). These questions ask you to evaluate an author’s claims and use evidence to make connections between the text and answer choices.
Don’t worry, this section doesn’t really test science at all. It tests your ability to read graphs, interpret, analyze, and evaluate data, and problem solve. You have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. You are evaluated on:
- Interpretation of Data (45-55%). This category asks you to evaluate graphs, scientific tables, and diagrams and then translate that information to answer the questions.
- Scientific Investigation (20-35%). These questions determine if you understand different experimental tools, procedures, and design. You will be asked to compare and predict results of additional experiments.
- Evaluation of Models, Inferences & Experimental Results (25-35%). These questions ask you to judge the validity of scientific information and make conclusions and predictions based on your judgement.
Your writing score does not affect your composite score. It is given after the four multiple choice section tests. It is a 40 minute essay test measuring the skills you learned in your high school English classes and in any entry-level college writing courses you may have taken.For more information on these sections, take a look at the overview of the ACT offered by the makers of the test.
When Do ACT Scores Come Out?
After you take the ACT, your score report is available online, at act.org, two to eight weeks after the test date. If you did not take the writing test, it will usually only take two to five weeks. If you did take the writing part, it will take five to eight weeks. Yes, that does seem like a long time, but over 2 million students take the test each year, and ACT, Inc. wants to make sure they are fair and thorough in scoring the ACT.
Sending Your Scores:
Most colleges require at least one standardized test score, and want an official score report sent directly from the test administrator. When you register for the exam, you can choose four schools to send your ACT scores to. ACT will send them directly, for free. You can send scores to additional schools, by visiting the ACT score site.
The ACT Score Report
Several weeks after you take the ACT, you will receive an email letting you know that your scores are available. The email will not have your scores attached. Instead, you need to log into the ACT Web Account, using the login that you set up when you first signed up for the test. From there, you have access to your ACT Score Report.
At first glance, the ACT Score Report seems overwhelming. There is a lot of information, beyond just your overall (or composite) score. But, all of that information can be useful insight into your ACT performance.
The ACT Score Breakdown
You will see the following scores and 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||A score that is designed to predict the test taker’s performance in college|
|Detailed Results||A breakdown of how you did in each subcategory|
|ACT Readiness Range||A range that determines your college-level coursework readiness in that subject|
How Is The ACT Scored?
ACT Composite Score
Colleges will usually primarily look at your ACT Composite scores when deciding whether to admit you or not. It 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.
How are the Individual Test Sections Scored?
Each section of the ACT (English, math, reading, and science) is given a scaled score between 1 and 36. This score is derived from your raw score on each subject. Your raw score is the total number of questions you answered correctly in each section. You are not penalized for incorrect answers, so you should try to answer every question.
The ACT converts the raw scores into scaled scores. The ACT uses scaled scores to account for the small differences in the different forms of the tests. Scaled scores are what you will see on your ACT Score Report.
Below is an example of the raw to scaled score converter:
How is the ACT Writing Section Scored?
Each ACT essay is scored by two different readers, on a scale of 1 – 6, in four different domains. Each domain will receive a total score of 12, and all of these domain scores are then averaged to your total ACT writing score, out of 12.
The Domains are: Ideas & Analysis, Development & Support, Organization, and Language Use & Conventions.
- Ideas and Analysis. This score reflects your ability to come up with productive ideas and engage with multiple perspectives on the prompt’s issue.
- Development and Support. After you’ve developed the idea, this score determines if you are able to coherently support your rationale and defend an argument.
- Organization. This score reflects your ability to organize an essay into a cohesive structure with clarity and purpose.
- Language Use. Your score in this section reflects your ability to use standard written language to convey your ideas. You are tested on grammar, syntax, usage, and mechanics.
Each of these dimensions is scored individually, so your writing scores will vary based on your strengths in each area.
College Readiness Benchmarks
The ACT is designed to determine your college readiness. This is why you will see College Readiness Benchmarks on your score report.
The first thing on your score report is this box:
Notice the purple lines. These represent the scores that are the benchmark for college readiness. If your score is above the line, the ACT has determined that you should be able to pass an entry-level college course of the same subject. If your score is below the purple line, you should further prepare that specific subject, especially if you plan to take the test again.
So, What is A Good ACT Score?
That depends. A good ACT score is any score that, in combination with your GPA, extracurriculars, and application essay, gets you into your chosen school. For an Ivy League school, you will most likely need a score above 30. For some public universities, a score in the high teens may be enough. Some schools will guarantee admission to anyone with a certain score, no matter what the rest of the application package looks like. And some schools may not even require a standardized test score.
The average ACT score is 20. So, about half of students get below 20 and about half get above 20. Anything above a 20 could be considered a good score. Anything above a 28 (the 91st percentile) would make you a competitive applicant at most schools, and anything above a 30 would open the door to most institutions in the country.
But, what really makes a good ACT score is the score that makes you competitive at the schools you want to go to. If your GPA is near perfect, and you have excellent entrance essays and extracurriculars, you may have a little more wiggle room on your ACT score.
Take a look at the chart below to determine how different scores compare among test takers between 2016 and 2018:
You can also take a look at your score report for information on how you rank, compared to other test takers in the US and in your state:
How Do I Know if My Score Is Good Enough For My Dream School?
Most colleges publish the average ACT scores of their incoming classes. You should compare your score to the range of of scores accepted by your school.
Obviously, there are other factors that go into the admissions decisions, including your GPA, your extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation. But, scoring at the top of the range for your dream school gives you a good chance of being accepted.
While the ACT composite score is usually the most important score, some schools prioritize higher scores in certain subject sections. This makes the overall percentiles for ACT scores somewhat misleading.
If, in your application package, you indicate a desire to pursue a certain career path or major, and excel in that area on your ACT, the college may weigh that score a little higher than the composite or the other subject areas. For example, if you apply to a liberal arts college with a renown literature department, and you excel in the reading and writing sections, you may have priority over a student with the same composite score but with a higher math section score.
Steps to a Good ACT Score:
- Start with either a practice test or the actual ACT. From there, you will be able to determine how much of an improvement you need in order to get your ACT target score.
- Stick to a study schedule. It is near impossible to get a good ACT score without studying. Yes, there are students who take the ACT without ever practicing or studying, and get a near perfect score. This is extremely rare and usually involves students who have been preparing without actually being aware that they are preparing for the ACT.
- Pay attention to the percentage of questions in each category. If you are struggling in the Math section, try to determine which areas. If you are having a tough time with integrating essential skills in the math section (40% of the math section’s score), devote a significant amount time to studying it. However, if you are struggling with the number and quantity questions (7 – 10% of the math section’s problems), you may be better off working on something else. Don’t try to perfect the areas that aren’t as well tested.
- Find high quality test prep and practice materials. The ACT tests skills you already have, but asks questions in a trickier way than you may be used to. The only way to succeed is to learn the patterns. Take a look at our recommendations for the best ACT test prep courses.
- Practice, practice, practice. There is no substitute for preparation when it comes to the ACT. Take as many practice tests as you can, while trying to simulate the real test as much as possible. Build practice tests into your study plan.
- Review your mistakes. The only way to improve is to figure out where your weaknesses are, and why you are struggling. Figure out where you are making mistakes early on, and then learn from them.
What if I get a Bad Score?
Because the ACT potentially carries a lot of weight in the college admissions process, it also causes a lot of stress for many students. If, after preparation and practice, you are still struggling with a below average ACT score, there are a few things you can do:
- Retake the ACT. Depending on your application timelines and when you took your first ACT or practice ACT, you may be able to take it again. However, if you aren’t willing to put in the time to practice, with good quality ACT test prep materials, you most likely won’t see much of an improvement.
- 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, make sure your GPA is strong, and shine at extracurriculars.
- Take the SAT. The two tests are remarkably different. The SAT is designed to measure your reasoning and verbal skills, while the ACT is designed to measure what you’ve already learned in school. You may be better suited for the SAT, and most schools will take both. Take a look here to convert your ACT score to an SAT score. If you’ve taken both, and your SAT score or practice SAT score is higher than your converted SAT score, you may be better off taking and submitting your SAT scores. If you have yet to take the SAT but are leaning towards taking that instead of the ACT, check out our guides to the SAT below:
- Find a school that doesn’t take or require a standardized test. There are over 800 colleges that don’t require test scores, and an increasing number that won’t even look at your scores if you send them. They recognize that your academic record may be a better predictor of your potential college success than a standardized test.
- Find a school where your “bad” score is actually 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, find one where your score is within the range of acceptable scores.
Every student has a unique college application package, and the ACT is only one part of it, although one of the most important parts. Researching your dream school, setting goals based on their acceptable score range, and then practicing and studying are the best ways to ensure success on the ACT.
What is your target ACT score? How did you determine it? And if you have already taken the ACT, how did you do? What did you do to get the score you wanted?