Breaking Down the ACT Score Range

Have you just finished taking your ACT? Or maybe you’re gearing up to take it soon? Either way, you probably want to know what makes a good ACT score and what your score means. In this article, we will provide you with a comprehensive guide to ACT scoring as well as some tips and tricks to help you reach your target score.

How Is the ACT Scored?

Before you go into any test, it’s important to understand exactly how your score will be calculated. Will you be penalized for wrong answers? How do the scores from individual sections factor into your overall score? Let’s break down the ACT scoring system to give you a better understanding of the answers to these and many more score-related questions.

The ACT is split into four sections (five if you take it with writing). The sections include English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. The first step to calculating your score is counting up the number of questions you answered correctly in each section of the test. These scores are known as your raw scores. Note that you will not receive a penalty for wrong answers on the ACT, so you should always guess even when you are not sure of the answer.

Your raw scores will then be converted into scale scores. Scale scores for each section range from 1 (low) to 36 (high). Your composite score, or the overall score for the test as a whole, is the average of all four of your scale scores. It also ranges from 1 to 36 and will be rounded to the nearest whole number. Fractions less than half will round down while fractions more than half will round up.

Here is a sample ACT score report to showcase how this scoring method works:

  • English Scale Score: 24
  • Mathematics Scale Score: 19
  • Reading Scale Score: 23
  • Science Scale Score: 18
  • Composite Score: 21

To view a more detailed score report, click here.

What Are Reporting Categories?

When you receive your ACT score report, you will notice a section called “Detailed Results.” There, you will find a more in depth breakdown of your results from each section of the test. Every question falls into one of the reporting categories for that section. These categories help you understand your strengths and weaknesses in the major topics included in that section. 

Each reporting category will show the total number of questions in that category, the total number of questions in that category you answered correctly, and the percentage of correct responses. For example, let’s say that there are 40 questions in the English section that deal with conventions of standard English. If you answered 29 out of those 40 questions correctly, your percentage in that reporting category would be 73%.

The reporting categories for the 75 questions in the English section are:

  • Production of Writing (29-32%)
  • Knowledge of Language (13-19%)
  • Conventions of Standard English (51-56%)

The reporting categories for the 40 questions in the Reading section are:

  • Key ideas and details (55-60%)
  • Craft and structure (25-30%)
  • Integration of knowledge and ideas (13-18%)

The reporting categories for the 40 questions in the Science section are:

  • Interpretation of data (45-55%)
  • Scientific investigation (20-30%)
  • Evaluation of Models, inferences, and experimental results (25-35%)

The reporting categories for the 60 questions in the Mathematics section are:

  • Preparing for higher math (57-60%)
    • Number & Quantity (7–10%)
    • Algebra (12–15%)
    • Functions (12–15%)
    • Geometry (12–15%)
    • Statistics & Probability (8–12%)
  • Integrating essential skills (40-43%)
  • Modeling (≥27%)

The percentages in parentheses refer to the estimated portion of the overall test that will be dedicated to questions in that reporting category. You can find more detailed descriptions of each category on the ACT’s website.

Making Sense of Your Writing Test Scores

You can take the ACT with or without the Writing Test. The Writing Test does not have any effect on your composite score, but it does give you and the schools to which you apply more detailed information about your writing abilities.

The breakdown of your Writing Test score is very similar to the scoring of the overall ACT test. You will receive a total of five scores: one subject-level writing score and four domain scores. 

  • The ​​subject-level writing score ranges from 2 to 12 and is the rounded average of the four domain scores.
  • The four domain scores also range from 2 to 12 each and are determined based on an analytic scoring rubric.

The four domain score categories are as follows:

  • Ideas and Analysis
  • Development and Support
  • Organization
  • Language Use and Conventions

Your essay will be read by two graders who will both provide a score from 1 to 6 in each of the four writing domains. Your total score in each domain is the sum of the two scores provided by the graders.

How to Determine Your Target ACT Score

Before you get started with your test prep, you need to determine your target score for the ACT. Your target score will be unique to you and often depends on what schools you want to attend. 

To help you figure out your target score, let’s begin by taking a look at some typical ACT scores compared to average SAT scores and the average accepted scores for various colleges.

Average ACT Scores By Section

In 2022, the ACT released the ACT Score National Ranks, which includes data collected from over 4 million high school graduates of 2020, 2021, and 2022 who took the ACT. According to that ranking, the average scale scores for each section of the ACT are:

  • English: 19.5
  • Reading: 20.9
  • Science: 20.3
  • Math: 19.9
  • Composite: 20.3

If a good ACT score in your personal view is one that is higher than average, then you can use these average scores to help you narrow down the range of your target score.

Translating SAT Scores to ACT Scores

If you have already taken the SAT, you may be able to use your SAT score as a baseline for your target ACT score. In 2018, ACT Inc. (administrators of the ACT) and College Board (administrators of the SAT) collaborated to create a conversion chart between the two tests. According to the chart, an average composite score on the ACT (20) is likely to correspond to a range of 1030-1050 on the SAT.

However, this chart does not guarantee that a certain score on the SAT will earn you the corresponding score on the ACT. You may score lower or higher depending on your performance, test-taking strategies, and study efforts. However, it can give you perspective and a better idea of your target score.

Finding Average ACT Scores for Your Target Schools

For a majority of students, their target ACT score will be determined by the ACT scores accepted at their top schools. You should aim for a score that exceeds the average ACT scores of most admitted students. This will give you a competitive edge when applying.

For example, let’s say you wanted to attend Penn State. The average ACT score for admitted Penn State students is 28. If you want to score better than the majority of admitted students, you’ll need to score a 29 or above. Scoring lower than a 28 may require you to do a little bit of extra work rounding out your application.

Search up the average ACT scores for your top schools and make a list of them. When you’re finished, pick out the highest score on the list. You can use that as your target ACT score.

How to Reach Your Target ACT Score

Whether you’re looking to improve your ACT score or nail your target score on your first try, you’ll need to do some preparation beforehand. From studying to test-taking strategies, there are lots of ways to set yourself up for success on the ACT. 

Practice Makes Perfect

Practice tests and questions are a great resource not only to prepare for the material that will appear on the test, but also for understanding the format of the test itself. Familiarizing yourself with the types of questions you will have to answer, the typical wording of the questions and answers, and the amount of time it may take you to complete each section will help you feel more prepared on test day.

Target and Improve Your Weaknesses

If you have taken the ACT before, pay close attention to your detailed results. The reporting categories will help you pinpoint which topics you need to work on in each section before taking the test again. 

Since you may be studying in a time crunch, you should also create a study schedule. Make sure you plan out enough time in advance to improve your weak areas and bolster your strengths before the big day.

Learn Test-Taking Strategies

Test-taking strategies can be an effective method for bumping up your score, especially for questions where you might be unsure of the answer. Remember that you should always make your best guess on ACT questions because you will not be penalized for wrong answers.

Examples of ACT test-taking strategies include:

  1. Double check your work even when you’re confident in your answers.
  2. Underline what the question is asking you to solve for to avoid careless mistakes.
  3. Skip questions and return to them later instead of wasting time.
  4. Eliminate answers you know are 100% incorrect to narrow down your choices.

Get Help From Experts

Studying for standardized tests is a stressful experience. To ensure you’re making the most of your valuable study time, try enrolling in a prep course. Instructors can help you stick to your study schedule, answer last minute questions about the material, and teach you important strategies that may give you the last boost you need to reach your target score.

With self-paced courses, 6 to 8 week prep guides, and weekend reviews, PrepExpert has tons of ACT online prep that will fit any student’s study style. Check out our comprehensive list of courses and let our expert instructors help you start closing the gap between you and your target score.