Let’s face it—preparing your college applications can be very stressful. Once you move past the excitement of investigating schools and envisioning your future career and increased independence, there is the reality of admissions essays, letters of recommendation, and, of course, standardized test scores.
Historically, standardized test scores have provided college admissions officials with a means of narrowing their list of applicants. In recent years, however, a growing number of schools have placed increasing emphasis on other aspects of college applications, like your grade point average (GPA) and personal statement. Certain institutions have even made the ACT and SAT optional. Depending on your academic profile, goals, and your testing skills, this may be wonderful news. But before you throw out your study guides, it is worth considering how a strong score on an exam like the ACT can improve your chances of admission.
An alternative to the standard
When it comes to assessing the college readiness of high school students, many individuals think of the SAT. For decades, the SAT was the go-to test for high school juniors and seniors who planned to attend college. While the SAT is perhaps the most ubiquitous standardized test in the United States, it is not the only one—in fact, in certain parts of the country, particularly the Midwest, the ACT is as or more common than the SAT.
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Unlike the SAT, which has historically focused on critical reading and math skills, the ACT utilizes a more diverse format that includes a section devoted to science. In addition, the ACT scoring system is in some ways less complicated than that of the SAT. For these reasons, the ACT has been steadily gaining popularity in markets that were once dominated by the SAT.
While a college or university can require a specific standardized test, most schools accept the ACT and the SAT. Given that both exams measure college readiness, when should you opt for the ACT? This is a very personal decision, but if you excel in math and science and struggle in the humanities, the ACT could offer you the opportunity to demonstrate your strengths more effectively than the SAT.
The composite score
In many areas of our lives, we are discouraged from comparing ourselves to others. After all, human beings are unique, and they possess different strengths and weaknesses. But when it comes to college admissions, comparing one student to another is precisely what admissions committees do. In light of this reality, it can be helpful for you to know and understand your ACT score, as well as how it compares to the average ACT score.
Consider this scenario: your friend receives her SAT score report, and she enthusiastically tells you that she earned a 1500 (out of 1600). The next day, your ACT scores arrive in the mail, and when you open the envelope, you see your result—a 32. If you were unfamiliar with the ACT scoring system, this result could be shattering in comparison to your friend’s 1500. Of course, these two exams have dramatically different scoring systems, and your result of 32 is out of 36 total points.
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You might next find yourself wondering how you earned a 32 if there are four sections on the ACT, each with a maximum score of 36. Assuming you earned a perfect score on all four sections, shouldn’t you receive a 144? In short, no. Your overall, or composite, ACT result is an averaged, scaled score that reflects your performance in each section. For instance, if you earned a 30 in English, a 33 in Mathematics, a 31 in Reading, and a 34 in Science ((30+33+31+34)/4), your composite score would be a 32.
According to ACT, Inc., the national average for the composite score is a 21.0. In light of this information, a score of 32 would be well above average. This is a positive sign, but your composite score doesn’t offer a complete picture of your academic abilities. Instead, consider it a quick reference. For instance, if Person A earned a composite score of 30, you can assume that he or she did relatively well on all four sections, whereas a score of 18 would suggest that he or she did poorly on one or more sections.
Rather than looking solely at your composite score as a measure of your abilities, the section scores, benchmarks, and rankings made available to you on your official score report will tell you far more about where you truly stand.
As previously mentioned, each of the four sections on the ACT has a raw score, which is the total number of questions that you answer correctly. The English section, for example, has 75 questions, so if you answer all 75 correctly, your raw score would be a 75. This score is then converted to a scaled result between 1 and 36 points, which is further divided into two subscores.
Why are there subscores? Each portion of the ACT tests you on various aspects of a particular subject. In the English section, you will be tested on your ability to comprehend and employ the mechanics of the language, as well as your ability to craft an argument. Each subscore falls between 1 and 18, for a total of 1 to 36 points. (Note that 1 is the lowest, and that 18 or 36 is the highest.)
When analyzing your English score, the first metric to consider is the benchmark score, which, according to ACT, Inc., “indicates at least a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in first year college courses...” Thus, your score should be above the benchmark. For the English section, the benchmark score is 18. If you earn an 18 or above, you are likely ready for college-level English study.
Per the ACT’s “National Distributions of Cumulative Percents for ACT Test Scores” chart (see below), the average ACT score for this section is 20.3. Using the score from our hypothetical scenario, you earned a 30 in English, which means that your score is above average and in the 92nd percentile.
The Mathematics portion of the ACT tests students in three areas: pre-algebra/elementary algebra, algebra/coordinate geometry, and plane geometry/trigonometry. The benchmark score for the ACT Mathematics section is 22, and the national average is 20.9. If you were to earn a score of 18 on this portion (rather than our hypothetical of 33), you would fall below the benchmark and the national average, with a rank in the 43rd percentile.
In this case, you can see how an above-average composite score might provide an inaccurate representation of your abilities across different fields of study. If they were to take a closer look at your section scores, admissions officials would realize that your math skills are somewhat below average and in need of improvement. With that said, the national average suggests that many ACT test-takers perform at a below-average level on the Mathematics portion, so you would not be alone.
The Reading section consists of two subscores that test your comprehension of the social studies/sciences and arts/literature. The first two portions of this subtest, social studies and natural sciences, present passages from fields like anthropology, chemistry, and psychology. The third and fourth portions, arts and literature, present passages from novels, personal essays, and the like. Their topics include dance, film, music, and so on. Each passage’s purpose is to evaluate your ability to grasp the concepts being presented, to identify the main ideas, and to use reasoning to arrive at the point of the work. You may also be asked to identify implicit meaning or to demonstrate an understanding of certain words in context.
In this case, the benchmark is 22, and the national average is 21.3. Recalling our hypothetical scenario, you received a 31, which places you above the benchmark. You are also in the 92nd percentile. You perform at an above-average level, and you should be prepared for college-level reading comprehension tasks.
Unlike other sections of the ACT, the Science portion has no subscores, and you will only receive a single score between 1 and 36. The benchmark for this section is 23, the highest of all four portions of the ACT. The Science section measures your comprehension of data sets like charts and graphs, while also assessing your knowledge of the fundamental concepts and theories that drive the field. You may be asked to read research summaries or to compare conflicting viewpoints.
The average Science score is 20.8, which falls below the benchmark. With a hypothetical score of 34, you would be well above average and in the 99th percentile.
The optional Writing score
As you now know, the composite ACT score is comprised of four sections, but there is also an optional fifth section—the Writing subtest, which requires the composition of a short essay. Before you decide whether or not you will take the Writing test, keep in mind that although it will not change your composite score, it is required by certain schools. In order to determine whether the colleges and universities to which you are applying require this ACT component, speak with the admissions department or review the school’s website.
During the Writing section of the ACT, you will be provided with an issue and three different perspectives on that issue. Once you have read the passage, you will be asked to analyze each perspective and to develop a written response that takes all three into consideration and demonstrates your critical thinking skills. The purpose of the Writing portion is to assess a student’s critical reading and thinking skills, as well as his or her ability to form an argument based on the evidence presented in the text.
As with the other sections, you will be given a score between 1 and 36. There is no benchmark for the Writing subtest and no current average. However, there are four subscores that range from 2 to 12: ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and language use and conventions.
The information presented thus far explains what each subject area measures, how to interpret your score, and how a given result compares to the national average. When you receive your ACT score report, however, you will notice that there are additional scores and percentages reported along with your composite and section scores.
The first is your English Language Arts (or ELA) score, which combines your English, Reading, and Writing scores into a single scaled and averaged score between 1 and 36. The purpose of this metric is to provide a single score that reflects your abilities in subjects like the humanities. Assume you earned a 25 on the English section, a 22 on the Reading section, and a 25 on the Writing section. Your ELA score would be a 24. While the data on national averages has not yet been released, you would be in the 70th percentile according to ACT, Inc.
The same equation is used to calculate a single score for Mathematics and Science. In this case, a STEM score of 19 would fall in the 40th percentile. Both the ELA and the STEM measures are recent additions to the ACT.
This section of your report also provides insight into your understanding of complex texts and what the ACT refers to as “Progress Toward Career Readiness.” The scales for these items can be viewed here.
Finally, when you register for the ACT, you will be asked to provide the names of those schools that should receive your score report. When you receive your results, you will notice that ACT, Inc. has included information on the average scores for enrolled first-year students at your first four institutions, as well as GPAs and class rankings.
What does this information ultimately mean?
In many cases, composite scores, section scores, subscores, benchmarks, national averages, and the like are the purvey of admissions committees, high school guidance counselors, and parents. Nevertheless, breaking down these various scores can provide you with a wealth of important information—not just about the average ACT score, but also about what schools might be looking for from applicants, and how you can become a more appealing candidate. If this information leads you to believe you should be making a bigger effort to improve your ACT score, consider using ACT practice tests or the free Varsity Tutors ACT Prep Book for help.
In your personal statement, for instance, you will probably explain who you are as a person and who you are as a student. This may include a summary of your academic areas of interest and one or more majors that you are considering pursuing. Whatever you tell admissions committees about your academic goals and dreams, you should ensure that your statement is enhanced and supported by your ACT scores. If, for example, you love science, and you hope to pursue a degree in chemistry, a low score on the Science section of the ACT could suggest that you might not be ready for college-level science courses. As a result, you might not receive an offer of admission.
While almost everyone hopes to receive a higher-than-average ACT score, there will likely be some areas in which you will do better than others. Having a breakdown of your section scores will help you identify your strengths and weaknesses. Rather than simply leaving this information for admissions committee to find (and interpret) on their own, consider addressing it in your application materials. For instance, if you earned a Mathematics score that was lower than the benchmark or the national average, use a paragraph or two in your college admissions essay to explain why you are not strong in this area, and what you have done or will do to improve your skills.
Average ACT scores and schools
Each college or university is unique, and each institution has something different in mind when it comes to its ideal applicant. This means that an average or lower-than-average ACT score will not necessarily prevent you from attending the school of your choice.
For example, the average ACT score for Harvard University undergraduate admissions is between 32 and 35, which is in the 98th or 99th percentile. If you did not do better than 98 or 99% of ACT test-takers, you could consider taking the exam again, or you could focus on the other aspects of your application that paint you as a worthy applicant. You can also call or email the admissions department, and discuss how your scores will affect your chances of admission.
It’s best not to make decisions about where to apply based solely on the average ACT scores of accepted students, particularly when college admissions decisions are based on a number of factors. Still, knowing how your score compares to other applicants’ can help you narrow down your short list of schools. For instance, the average ACT score at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is 28, while the average ACT score at Brown University ranges from 29 to 34. Such data can help you eliminate outliers that are too high or too low given your own metrics.
Of course, you always have the option of applying to the more than 800 schools that have made standardized testing optional. These institutions include well-known names like American University, Bard College, and New York University. Ultimately, what is most important is that you choose a school that is right for you, not just your scores.