Learn how to set an ACT goal score that makes sense for you and your academic goals.
Your American College Testing (ACT) score may be a part of your college application, depending on where you’re applying. There’s no “passing score” on the ACT; a good ACT score is one that helps strengthen your application and increases your chances of getting into the school of your choice. What that “good score” is will depend on your target schools and the other elements of your application.
Identify your target ACT score based on your unique situation, and you’ll have a goal to reach for as you prepare for the exam.
Here’s a quick overview of how the ACT is scored:
The ACT includes four tests—English, math, reading, and science—each scored from 1 to 36.
Your composite ACT score will be the average of those four scores.
The optional ACT writing test is scored from 2 to 12 and doesn’t impact your composite score.
Your national rank indicates how your scores compare to those of other recent high school graduates.
There’s no passing score on the ACT, nor a standard that makes a score “good.” You do have several ways to evaluate your score to give you a better sense of how you did. Remember that a good score for you and your academic goals might not be the same as for your friends and peers.
One way to evaluate your composite ACT score is by comparing it to the national average. For the 2021 graduating class in the US, the national average composite score was 20.3, for example . This score may be higher or lower depending on the year.
Your score report will also indicate a US and state rank. If your composite score ranks at 59 percent in your state, for example, that means that 59 percent of high school graduates who took the ACT in your state scored the same as or lower than you. The same is true for the US rank.
These ranks are also broken down by test area, so you can see how you did in comparison to your peers in math, science, English, reading, and the optional writing portion.
The ACT Readiness Range gives you another way to evaluate your scores based on how ready you are for college. If your individual subject matter scores fall within the Readiness Range, this indicates that you have a good chance of passing first-year college courses in that subject area.
Take each element of your ACT score as a guideline for areas to work on as you prepare for college. If your math score falls outside the ACT Readiness Range, for example, you might seek out additional support in your high school math classes (through tutoring or help from your teacher, for example), or enroll in a summer course at a local community college.
Read more: How to Be Successful in College: 9 Tips
One of the most helpful ways to think about your score is in terms of the schools you’d like to attend. A “good” ACT score is one that helps you gain admission to the right school for you. That score will vary depending on where you apply. We’ll walk through how to find your target ACT score next.
When you register for the ACT, you’ll have the choice to complete an optional writing test. This 40-minute essay test includes five scores: an overall writing score on a scale of two to 12 and four domain scores (Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, Language Use and Conventions) based on a scoring rubric. The overall score is the rounded average of the four domain scores.
The average score for the ACT Writing Exam in 2020 was 6.5. Check with the admissions offices of your target schools to find out requirements and past averages.
Performing well on the ACT means achieving a score that will strengthen your college applications. Here’s how to find your target ACT score based on the schools on your list.
Taking a practice ACT test during your sophomore or junior year of high school will give you a better idea of how you’d score on the real exam, as well as any areas where you may want to spend more time preparing. ACT offers a free online practice test that you can retake as many times as you want.
Now that you have an idea of how you might score on the ACT, make a list of six to 10 schools where you might want to apply. Be sure to include a mix of dream, target, and safety schools.
You should have three types of schools on your list. Dream schools (also known as reach schools) are those where you’d like to go if money and qualifications weren’t issues. Target schools sit in the middle; at these schools, your grades, test scores, and class rank are similar to the average for the most recent freshman class. Safety schools are schools you’d like to attend, can afford, and feel confident you’ll be admitted to.
If you don’t know how to classify the schools on your list, that’s okay. This step will help you get a better idea.
Search for the name of each college of your choice and “ACT score range” to find the middle 50 percent of ACT scores. This range represents the scores that fall between the 25th and 75th percentiles of the most recently admitted class. Record these scores for each school on your list.
At the University of North Texas, for example, the middle 50th percentile range for the ACT is 20 to 26 . This means that half of admitted students who took the exam scored within this range, 25 percent scored below, and 25 percent scored above.
Arrange your list in order of these score ranges, from highest to lowest. The schools at the top of your list should correspond with your dream schools, while those toward the bottom should be your safety schools.
Take the high score (75th score percentile) for the school at the top of your list. This is your target ACT test score. If you can score close to this number for the most competitive school on your list, you’ll likely be competitive at the other, less competitive schools as well.
While many colleges and universities accept the ACT as part of the admission process, not all of them require it. Contact the school’s admissions office to find out whether ACT scores are preferred or required.
Keep in mind that some states require that all juniors in high school take the ACT, regardless of where they’re applying to college. Others offer it as a free option.
Doing your best on the ACT exam can help strengthen your college applications. Whether you’re preparing for the ACT or planning to improve an existing score, here are some tips for having your best performance on test day:
If you’ve taken a practice test or the full ACT, you can use your scores to guide your studies. Look for the subject areas or question types where you received the lowest scores, and spend more time practicing those areas.
Plan for about 10 hours of studying for each point you want to improve on the exam. If you got a 24 on a practice test or first attempt and want to get a 26 next time, commit to at least 20 hours of test prep.
Nearly half of ACT test takers take the exam more than once, and more than half of them improved their scores on the second attempt .
Retaking the test also allows you to get an ACT Superscore—the average of your best subject scores from each attempt. This means that if you got a higher score on the math section during your first attempt and a higher score on the reading section during your second attempt, they’ll both be included in the composite superscore.
Each college or university decides whether to accept superscores. Luckily, more and more schools are accepting them. You can do a quick search of the term “superscore” and the school name to see whether an institution you’re applying to accepts them.
Keep in mind that your ACT score is just one part of your college application. A score that falls below your target ACT score still gives you options. Remember that three quarters of admitted students scored below the 75th percentile and still got in.
If your ACT score isn’t where you’d like it to be, work on strengthening the other elements of your application. Here are a few ways to make your application more competitive that have nothing to do with your ACT score:
Focus on your grade point average (GPA). Talk to your teachers about what you can do to improve your grades.
Ask for strong letters of recommendation.
Polish your application essay. Ask some trusted teachers to review it and offer feedback.
Consider volunteering, getting a part-time job, or completing an internship to make your extracurricular experiences stand out.
Once you know your ACT score, revisit your college list. Make sure you have at least two to three target schools where your score falls within the middle 50 percent. You may even add another safety school, where your score is close to the 75th percentile.
Since many schools accept ACT or SAT scores, you can take the exam that highlights your strengths. If you’re able, take both to see how you score. If your SAT score ends up being more competitive than your ACT score, consider studying for and taking the SAT a second time. Keep in mind that both tests require a registration fee each time you take them; check with your school counselor to see if you might qualify for a fee waiver.
Neither the ACT or SAT is easier than the other, but they may have differences that make one of the two easier for you. For example, the ACT puts more emphasis on verbal skills, while the SAT may be better suited to emphasize math skills. If possible, take both tests in your junior year, then retake your preferred exam in the fall of your senior year. Be sure to research the schools on your list to see which test they require or prefer.
The highest ACT score you can get is a 36. This would mean getting 36 points scored out of 36 on each of the four subject area scores (Reading, English, Math, and Science). Since the ACT Writing test is optional, you can still get a 36 even if you do not get a perfect score on your essay.
The national average ACT score changes each year. The average ACT score for the 1.3 million US students in the graduating class of 2021 who took the exam was 20.3. The average was 20.6 for the graduating class of 2020.
Each college weighs admission test scores in their own way. At some schools, it might be more important than other application elements. Some schools don’t consider standardized test scores at all.
While each school is different, your grades and difficulty level of your classes will be among the most important factors for admission. Other parts of your college application might include:
How you define a “good” ACT score will depend on the school. Consider submitting your ACT score to a test-optional school if:
Here’s a look at the middle 50 score ranges for each Ivy League school:
|School name||Middle 50 range|
|Harvard University||33 to 35|
|Yale University||33 to 35|
|Princeton University||32 to 35|
|Columbia University||33 to 35|
|Brown University||32 to 35|
|Dartmouth College||32 to 35|
|University of Pennsylvania||32 to 35|
|Cornell University||32 to 35|
*All data from PrepScholar (November 2021)
Plan to start studying for the ACT about two to three months before your test day. Depending on when you’re planning to take the exam, this might mean starting during the end of your sophomore year or during the summer between your sophomore and junior years. Many experts recommend setting aside two to three hours per week for test preparation.
You can take the ACT exam up to 12 times. Many students take the test two to three times. This gives you one or two opportunities to improve your score while giving you time to focus on studying between attempts.
1. ACT. "U.S. High School Graduating Class Trends, https://www.act.org/content/act/en/research/services-and-resources/data-and-visualization/grad-class-database-2021.html." Accessed November 10, 2021.
2. PrepScholar. "UNT Requirements for Admission, https://www.prepscholar.com/sat/s/colleges/UNT-admission-requirements." Accessed November 10, 2021.
3. ACT. "Should I retest?, https://www.act.org/content/act/en/products-and-services/the-act/scores.html#retest." Accessed November 10, 2021.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.