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What is a Good ACT Score and How Do I Get It?

12 MAY 2021

When college admissions officers sort through stacks of applications, a good ACT score can be the difference between those that get to the next round of reviews and those that get tossed in the discard pile. When preparing to take this decisive standardized test, it’s important to understand what a good ACT score is for you, what score you’ll need to get into different schools, and how to improve your score to reach your goals.

Let's say you want to go to one of the best universities in the world. Do you know what the average ACT score is for the students they admit, or the ACT score range for applicants to make it past an admissions officer’s first glance?

As you prepare to apply to college, these are important questions to consider. Although a majority of US universities have implemented test-optional policies for the Class of 2026, many of the most prestigious schools in the nation have decidedly stated that they do not plan to adopt permanent test-optional policies — and with a good ACT score, you can still boost your application above the competition. It provides a way for admissions officers to quickly and objectively compare you to the rest of the applicant pool, so building a good ACT score should be a priority in your college application process.

How is the ACT scored?

The ACT consists of four sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. Each section has a scaled score between 1 and 36, which is derived from your raw scores in each. Your raw score is the number of questions you answered correctly in a given section. The scaled scores, in relation to the raw scores, are illustrated by this ACT score chart taken from the ACT’s own Preparing for the ACT guide:

Act Scores

After your raw scores for each section are converted to scaled scores, the four numbers (ranging between 1 and 36) are averaged to find your composite score. This is the score US universities will consider as a general qualifier of your academic aptitude.

What is considered a ‘good ACT score’

According to data published by ACT, Inc., based on the scores of 5,368,134 students who took the ACT and graduated in the last three years, the average composite ACT score is 20.7 with the average for English being 20.1; Math 20.4; Reading 21.2; and Science 20.6. This means that any scores above these numbers is above-average — which may be what you personally consider to be a good ACT score!

However, for many elite US universities like those in the Ivy League and similarly competitive schools, accepted students generally score well above average. This is where you may need a more granular approach to determining whether or not you have a good ACT score is. So, let’s look at percentiles.

ACT Score Percentiles

Percentiles indicate how well you did on your exam in comparison to everyone else who took the exam. For example, if you’re in the 15th percentile, you did better than 15% of other students who took the ACT. If you’re in the 90th percentile, you did better than 90% of other students and so on.

If you are in the 15th percentile, you are well below average – 85% of students did better than you. Generally speaking, anything below the 50th percentile is considered ‘bad’; anything in the 50th-70th percentile is ‘good’; and anything above the 90th percentile is great!

Check out the chart below to see what ACT scores line up with which percentiles.

ACT Composite Score vs. Percentile Score
ACT Composite ScorePercentile Score
10 or lower1% or lower

Percentiles can help you understand how your ACT score stacks up against the millions of other students who take the test each year; but if you’ve got a specific college or colleges in mind where you plan to submit applications, you’ll also want to look at average ACT scores for those universities.

University average ACT scores

Although less objective, the best way to truly define whether or not you have a good ACT score is knowing whether or not it aligns with the standards of the universities you’re applying to. The ACT score range you should be aiming for depends on which college you want to go to! In general, the more highly ranked a school is, the better ACT scores you'll need to get accepted there.

To help you understand what a ACT scores are required for the top 20 universities in the US, we’ve compiled a list of the average SAT scores of their accepted students.

US Top 20 Universities Average ACT Scores
UniversityAverage Composite ACT Score
Princeton University33-35
Harvard University33-35
Columbia University33-35
Massachusetts Institute of Technology34-36
Yale University33-35
Stanford University32-35
University of Chicago33-35
University of Pennsylvania33-35
California Institute of Technology35-36
Johns Hopkins University33-35
Northwestern University33-35
Duke University33-35
Dartmouth College32-35
Brown University33-35
Vanderbilt University33-35
Rice University33-35
Washington University27-33
Cornell University32-35
University of Notre Dame32-35
University of California, Los Angeles29-35

As you can see, the most competitive universities in the US generally look for ACT scores in at least the 90th percentile. However, there are thousands of universities in the US and hundreds with renowned academics, top-notch resources, esteemed faculty and impressive alumni networks — so don’t be discouraged by the high scores achieved by admits to the very best of the best universities.

How to improve your ACT score

The first step is to figure out where you’re currently sitting. You can do so by taking practice tests like these:

Each of these sections require a different set of knowledge and they each have an allocated time, with a total test length of 2 hours and 55 minutes (or 3 hours and 35 minutes if you add the optional essay).

If you've sat some practice tests before and aren't getting the score you desire, here are some tips from our expert tutors to help you achieve your own max score.

1. Preparation time is keyAct 1

The first step is to allow yourself time to improve. Make a schedule and stick to it.

This is not a quick fix blog post. Reading this won't make you magically better at the ACT (though it will help). Acing your ACT requires prolonged effort and discipline — and it pays off!

No matter how long there is until you sit the test, be it a year, a month or even a week, make a commitment to study at regular intervals. Even if it's just 15 minutes a day, your score will improve with consistency.

2. Sit practice tests under real test conditionsAct 2

There’s no better way to improve than by doing. If you take only one tip from this blog post, this is the one.

Sitting ACT practice tests is the best way to learn about the structure of the test, understand where your strengths and weaknesses lie and improve your ability to ace the test under the pressure of time.

3. Identify your weaknessesAct 3

As mentioned above, the ACT is made up of four sections (English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science) with the optional fifth section of writing.

One easy tip to help increase your overall score is to pinpoint the section(s) you require help in and focus more on them. There's no point receiving intensive tutoring for your maths if you're achieving a perfect or near-perfect marks with each practice test! Instead, dedicate your time and resources to the sections you’re struggling with. This will help improve your composite in a shorter period of time.

4. Work out a time strategyAct 4

You have an allocated time to each section of the ACT:

English: 75 multiple choice questions in 45 minutes.

Mathematics: 60 multiple choice questions in 60 minutes.

Science: 40 multiple choice questions in 35 minutes.

Reading: 40 multiple choice questions in 35 minutes.

Writing (optional): 1 essay in 40 minutes.

Based on these numbers, you have an allocated time per question of:

English: About 40 seconds per question

Mathematics: One minute per question

Science and Reading: Just under a minute per question

For the Science section, the test in structured as six or seven passages with five or six questions each, which equates to roughly six minutes per passage and one minute per question.

For the Reading section, you're looking at eight minutes per passage, to read four passages and answer 10 questions each.

When it comes to sitting the test, it’s important to keep these numbers in mind so you don’t spend too long on any question. Keep in mind that you do not lose points for wrong answers — so if you can't figure out the answer to a question, move on after your allocated time is up and revisit it later if you have time to spare.

This strategy is not only good for time management, but it's also good for your confidence moving forward in the test. Getting bogged down on one difficult question can ruin your strategy moving forward.

5. When sitting the test, read every question carefully and answer every question!Act 5

Reading each question carefully is imperative.

Like any ‘good’ test, there are always a few questions that can be ambiguously phrased and make you do a double-take. And oftentimes, the incorrect multiple choice answer will be designed to match the misread question.

So make sure you're reading each question slowly and understand exactly what it's asking before you answer.

Again, keep in mind that there’s no penalty for incorrect answers — so even if you don't have a clue as to what the answer may be, an educated guess will suffice. Because each question is multiple choice, by picking A, B, C or D at random, you have a 25% chance of choosing the correct answer!

Next Steps

Acing the ACT takes time, strategy, effort, efficiency and practice! Be sure to research the test before you make the commitment to sitting it.

Before you sit, you should know:

  • The score you're aiming for to get into your dream university.
  • What your stronger and weaker sections will be.
  • How much time you've got for each question and what your time strategy looks like.

Now that you know the ins and outs of ACT scores and what might make a good ACT score for you personally, you may want to visit these other Crimson blogs for a deeper dive into acing your ACTs:

From there, visit Crimson’s online tutoring page to learn more about how our world-class teachers and tutors help students reach their high school and university admissions goals. You’ve got the tips you need — let’s help you put them into practice!

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