Understanding the ACT Scoring System: A Comprehensive Guide

Understanding the ACT Scoring System: A Comprehensive Guide

As the most widely used college entrance exam in the U.S., more than 1.4 million students sit for the ACT annually. Yet the ACT scoring system can seem like a riddle. We're here to unravel the mystery. We'll walk you through the basics of how an ACT score is determined, what counts as a good score, how scores can help with college applications and more.

Armed with that insight, you'll be able to gauge your performance on the AСT test confidently and strategically.

ACT Scoring Basics

The ACT scores range from 1-36, with 36 as a perfect score. The average national Composite score is around 20.

Four multiple-choice sections contribute to your Composite:

  • English tests grammar and rhetorical skills (75 questions in 45 minutes)
  • Mathematics assesses math reasoning up to 11th-grade level (60 questions in 60 minutes)
  • Reading measures reading comprehension with prose fiction and humanities passages (40 questions in 35 minutes)
  • Science evaluates analysis and problem-solving using scientific scenarios and data (40 questions in 35 minutes)

An optional Writing section scores a 40-minute essay separately.

  • Raw scores from right and wrong answers get converted to scaled scores per section between 1-36 through a process called equating. This accounts for slight differences in test difficulty from form to form.
  • Your section scores then average together to generate the 1-36 Composite score. So the Composite gives a broad overview of skills across English, Math, Reading, and Science specifically.

The 1-36 scale stays consistent whether looking at section performance or the composite overview. So with some diligent prep, raising your scores into the competitive 18-23 zone and beyond is very doable.

Understanding ACT Scores

The ACT sections measure very specific skill sets:

  1. English- Conventions of standard written English and rhetorical strategy
  2. Math- Mathematical reasoning through the end of 11th grade
  3. Reading- Reading comprehension across prose fiction and humanities passages
  4. Science- Interpretation, analysis, and problem-solving with scientific data


  • Raw scores come from simply tallying correct and incorrect answers per section. These raw scores then get converted to the 1-36 scaled scoring system.
  • This conversion uses "equating", which balances slight differences in difficulty across versions of the test. This way, 25 means about the same level of skill regardless of the test form taken.

Context on what score ranges indicate:

  • 18-23: Average score range
  • 24-29: Scores for competitive colleges
  • 30-36: Top-tier scores for schools & scholarships
  • Tracking section scores spotlight areas to improve. If your Composite meets requirements but certain sections seem low, focus study efforts there.
  • The ACT website lets you send score reports to 4 free score recipients. So take advantage by sending each test date's results to compare progress!

Get familiar with the types of questions asked in each section. Steady practice builds intuition around how raw right and wrong translate to scaled scoring. Customize preparation to shore up weaknesses visible in your subscores.

Composite Score vs Section Scores

The ACT Composite score is the average of the four multiple-choice sections, rounded to the nearest whole number.

The Composite score gives the full picture, but section scores deserve attention too. Schools eye both to gauge abilities across ACT's English, Math, Reading, and Science exams.

If weaknesses lurk in your section scores, even "average" Composites suffer:

  • STEM programs blanch at 28 Composites if Math stays under 20.
  • English Lit favors 30 Composites, but not with Reading sections trailing at 22.

Balancing inconsistent scores takes some TLC:

  • Use practice logs to ID lower-scoring subjects, then target those areas first.
  • Set minimum goals for lagging sections so gaps don't drag down Composites.
  • Compare admin dates– if Science still lags after overall gains, for example, rethink that science prep.

Track section score changes across ACT attempts. Progress honing weaker subjects pays off in consistent, representative Composites. Bit by bit, you build mastery across all of ACT's fundamental skill zones.

The ACT Writing Test Scores

When prepping for an ACT essay, remember it's technically "optional" but still shows off important skills. You have 40 tense minutes to formulate a persuasive argument from scratch.

After drafting comes scoring from 1-6 across four key areas:

  • Ideas and Analysis - How convincingly you support your views
  • Development and Support - Backing up claims with sound examples and logic
  • Organization - Structuring thoughts clearly and effectively
  • Language Use - Writing coherently with good grammar/style

Graders average these "Domain" marks into an overall Writing score between 1-12. Most colleges welcome Writing results as bonus insight into communication talents. But competitive programs do evaluate Writing more closely for honors eligibility and even essay waivers.

Prepping those Domains, even without the essay, still builds abilities to synthesize ideas persuasively. That analytical muscle impresses regardless.

Retaking the ACT to Improve Your Score

Students can take the ACT up to 12 times, with only one set of scores sent to colleges. Repeating the test requires 60-day gaps between administrations taken in a 12-month timeframe. Many retake to better chances at top choice admissions and scholarships:

  • Every point gained opens more doors for your top school and scholarship picks.
  • With focused practice, ACT score increases of 3 points or more are within reach.
  • Rising section scores prove you've sharpened abilities across the board - in English, Math, Reading, and Science. College admissions teams want to see that well-rounded competence.

Compare scores across attempts to stay motivated.

Extra Resources for Understanding ACT Scores

Lots of free resources help put ACT scores in context:

  • The ACT website- Study guides explain score meaning plus an online prep course
  • Reddit (r/ACT)- An online community dedicated to discussing all things ACT
  • YouTube- Tutor videos decode "competitive" scores

As you prep, make use of gadgets like the Testing Timers Pacing Watch to optimize time management. This digital tool paces test sections automatically, even allowing for extended time testing needs. Features like customized timing per section and automatic time-and-a-half capabilities make pacing intuitive and stress-free. With the watch tracking time, you can stay absorbed in progress goals.

Prepping for Your ACT Milestones

With distinct scales, puzzling out ACT scores is crucial but tricky. We covered how Composites average English, Math, Reading, and Science, while Writing spotlights essay skills.

Use section scores to target weaker areas. Consult experts and online prep guides for insight. Improved context empowers you to showcase abilities in applications.

Tools like Testing Timer watches optimize time pacing and progress tracking for prep and test day. Visit our website for the full array of ACT journey resources and let's work together to help you crush your ideal scores.