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

02 MAR 2023

When college admissions officers sort through stacks of applications, a good ACT score can be the difference between those getting to the next round of reviews and those getting 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 standardized test scores you'll need to get into different schools, and how to improve your score report to reach your goals.

Let's say you want to go to Yale University, Brown University, or one of the other top private universities in the world. Do you know the average ACT score of admitted students or the target score 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.

How Important are ACT Scores for College Admission in 2023?

Although a majority of U.S. universities have continued test-optional policies for the Class of 2027, many of the most selective colleges in the nation have decidedly stated that they do not plan to adopt permanent test-optional policies. A good ACT score will still boost your application above the competition and help get you into your dream school. A score in the 75th percentile or ideally in the 99th percentile will provide 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 admissions process.

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How is the ACT Scored?

The ACT consists of four sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. Each section has a scaled score ranges between 1 and 36, which is derived from your raw scores in each section. 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

ACT Grading Scale

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 public universities and private universities in the U.S. consider as a general qualifier of your academic aptitude.

What is considered a good ACT score?

According to data published by ACT, Inc. and 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 19.8. Roughly 1.3 million students, or 36% of the U.S. high school graduating class of 2022, took the ACT. Scores above these numbers are above-average and considered good ACT scores!

Students who attend elite U.S. universities like Princeton University, Cornell University, Stanford University, and similarly competitive schools typically score well above average. If you’re trying to get into these elite colleges, you need a more granular approach to determining whether your ACT score is good or not. Let’s look at percentiles.

ACT Percentile Score Explained

Percentiles indicate how well you did on your exam compared 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,’ and anything in the 50th-70th percentile is ‘good.’ If you score in the 90th - 95th percentile, you have a strong score and a higher chance of getting into selective colleges like Duke University, University of Chicago, or Columbia University!

Check out the chart below to see what ACT scores line up with which score 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 and help you establish your own score goals based on the specific college or colleges you plan on submitting your applications. Do your research to determine if your scores match the competitive scores of your dream school.

Interested in learning more about the ACT and the U.S. college admissions process? Sign up today for a free consultation with one of our expert Academic Advisors, and start your journey to your dream university!

What is the average ACT score for your dream school?

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 your dream school's standards. Before you fill out your college application, it's important to find out if the average ACT score of that selective college is the same or lower than your personal ACT score. In general, the more highly ranked a school is, the better ACT scores you'll need to be a successful applicant.

To help you understand what ACT scores are required for the top 20 universities in the U.S., we've compiled a list of the average ACT 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 U.S. generally look for ACT scores in at least the 90th percentile. However, there are thousands of public universities, liberal arts colleges, and private colleges in the U.S. Most offer renowned academics, top-notch resources, rich extracurricular activities, esteemed faculty, and impressive alumni networks. Don't be discouraged if your scores don't reach the 90th percentile because a huge percentage of students do not reach these numbers and they still attend top universities in the U.S.

How to Improve Your ACT Score

The first step is to figure out your benchmark scores. You can take the following practice tests to determine your math, reading, science, and writing scores.

Each of these sections requires 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 already sat for practice tests and aren't getting the score you desire, here are some tips from our expert tutors to help you achieve your own goal score.

1. Preparation time is key

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 get a max score on your ACT (though it will help). Acing your ACT requires prolonged effort and discipline.

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 you only do a couple of practice questions a day, your score will improve with consistency. Those minutes will add up to hours of prep time and a higher score.

2. Sit practice tests under real test conditions

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. You'll understand where your strengths and weaknesses lie and improve your chances of acing the test under the pressure of time.

3. Identify your weaknesses

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) that are most difficult for you and focus more on them. There's no point in receiving intensive tutoring for writing if you're achieving perfect or near-perfect writing scores with each practice test! Instead, dedicate your time and resources to the sections you're struggling with. This will help improve your chances of a perfect score in that section(s).

4. Prep for the Test by Working Out a Time Strategy

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, here is your allocated time per question:

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 is 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!

Reading each question carefully is imperative.

Like any test, there are always a few ambiguously phrased questions that make you do a double-take. The incorrect multiple choice answer will often be designed to match the misread question.

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 know the answer, an educated guess will suffice. Since each question is multiple-choice, picking A, B, C, or D at random still gives you have a 25% chance of choosing the correct answer!

Think you have what it takes to get into a top university? Check out our free college admissions calculator.

What’s Next? A Deeper Dive into Acing your ACT

Standardized testing is designed to not only challenge you but rank you against your peers. Acing the ACT and improving your percentile rank takes time, strategy, effort, efficiency, and practice! Be sure to research each section of the test and the types of questions you'll encounter before you take it.

Before you sit, you should know:

  • The score targets and score ranges of your dream universities.
  • Your subject area scores (based on your practice tests) and which sectional score is strong and which scores are weaker.
  • How much time each question should take and a time strategy for completing the test without skipping any questions.

Now that you know the ins and outs of ACT scores and what admissions boards look for, take a look at some of our related blogs for a deeper dive into acing your ACT.

Crimson's online tutors and world-class teachers can help you reach your high school and university admissions goals so you can get into your dream college. Now that you have this step-by-step guide and tips for acing your ACT, contact one of our advisors. They can help you become a strong applicant so you can raise the admissions bar and ace the college application process.


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