What is an Average ACT Score?

Whether you’ve recently taken the ACT or you have an upcoming test date, you are likely asking the question, “What is an average ACT score?” Knowing the answer to this question can be helpful for a plethora of reasons, including gauging where you fall compared to other students applying to your target schools and establishing your goal score.  

According to ACT, Inc., the average ACT score in 2017 was a 21 (on a scale of 1-36). What this means is, on average, 50 percent of test-takers scored a 21 on their ACT. What does this mean for you? When understanding the breakdown of an average ACT score, it’s important to know how the ACT sections are scored, how schools use the ACT, and how to set your personal target score. 

Here’s what you’ll find in this article:

  • How the ACT is scored

  • How ACT sections are scored

  • What to know about the optional ACT Essay  

  • What the additional scores are on your ACT score report

  • How schools use the ACT

  • What this ACT breakdown means for you.

Understanding ACT scoring can be intimidating at first glance, and dissecting the average ACT score can be confusing. Keep reading to learn how the ACT is scored, what you need to know about the optional ACT writing section, and what the average ACT score breakdown means for you.

How is the ACT scored?

The ACT exam sets out to test students’ readiness to excel in college-level courses. For decades, the SAT was the go-to test for high school juniors and seniors who planned to attend college. Now, in certain parts of the country—particularly the Midwest—the ACT is as or more common than the SAT.

While comparison to others is often discouraged, 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.

The average ACT score is a 21. In light of this information, a score of 32 (for example) 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 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 of the sections. 

Your overall, or composite, ACT result is an averaged, scaled score that reflects your performance in each section. Let's take the following scenario, for example, if you earned a: 

  • 30 in English

  • 33 in Mathematics

  • 31 in Reading

  • 34 in Science.

Your composite score would be a 32. This is due to the averaging of each section. Essentially, each section’s score is added together and divided by four. This will give you your composite score.  

The below chart illustrates how percentile rankings coincide with your ACT score. As shown, if you receive an ACT score of 25, your score falls in the top 20 percent of test-takers.

 Percentile  ACT Score (out of 36)
 Top 1%  34 or higher
 Top 5%  30
 Top 10%  28
 Top 20%  25
 Top 30%  23
 Top 40%  22
 Top 50% — average  21

*The above data comes from ACT.org.

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.

ACT terms can be confusing at first, especially when attempting to analyze your score report. Below is an ACT keywords chart to reference when understanding your ACT score.

Understanding what each score you receive means will help you to better grasp the breakdown of your score, and in turn, compare it to the national average ACT score.  

How are ACT sections scored?

As previously mentioned, each of the four sections on the ACT has a raw score. The English section, for example, has 75 questions. If you answer all 75 correctly, your raw score would be 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.)

   Benchmark  Average
 ACT English score  18  20.3
 ACT Math Score  22  20.7
 ACT Reading Score  22  21.4
 ACT Science Score  23  20.9

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 getting a B or higher or about a 75% chance of getting a C or higher in a first-year college class...” 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 material. The average 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 91st 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 20.7. 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 45th 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 and personal essays. 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 21.4.  Recalling our hypothetical scenario, you received a 31, which places you above the benchmark. You are also in the 91st percentile. You performed 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 20.9, which falls below the benchmark. With a hypothetical score of 34, you would be well above average and in the 99th percentile.

[RELATED: What I Wish I Knew About Taking the ACT/SAT]

What should you know about the optional ACT Essay?

As you now know, your 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 ACT essay, keep in mind that although it will not change your composite score, it is required by certain schools and recommended by others.

It’s important to note that ACT Writing is less firmly required than in past years. Many schools, particularly Ivy League universities, are choosing to make the essay portion of the ACT optional for students. In May 2018, schools such as Yale University, Harvard University, and Dartmouth University made the essay optional for students in future classes. The latest to announce this change in requirements is Brown University, who dropped the ACT essay requirement early in July 2018.

With fewer and fewer schools requiring the ACT essay, does this mean you shouldn’t take it? It’s key to note that although schools are dropping the ACT essay requirement, this doesn’t mean the essay is not recommended. Taking the essay portion can strengthen existing writing skills and prepare you for college writing. Additionally, if you feel you are a strong writer, the ACT essay can showcase your skills to 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. In addition to the above mentioned schools, the following universities no longer require the ACT essay:

  • Columbia University

  • University of Pennsylvania

  • Cornell University

  • Stanford University

  • Princeton University

  • California Institute of Technology.

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 ACT essay 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.

[RELATED: How to Prepare for the ACT Essay]

What are the additional scores on my ACT score report?

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 44th percentile.

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.

How do schools use the ACT?

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.

Below is a chart detailing the average ACT score at select institutions. It’s key to remember that universities—Ivy League or otherwise—look at factors besides standardized test scores. Schools use the ACT as one factor, in addition to others, when making admissions decisions. They note participation in extracurricular and volunteer activities, cumulative GPA, and types of courses you took in high school, to name a few.

 University  Average ACT Score in 2017
 Princeton University  32-36
 Dartmouth College  32
 Columbia University  33-35
 Cornell University  33

It’s best not to make decisions about where to apply based solely on the average ACT scores of accepted students, since 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. Such data can help you eliminate outliers that are too high or too low given your own metrics. You can also call or email the admissions department, and discuss how your scores will affect your chances of admission.

What does this ACT breakdown mean for me?

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 ACT tutoring 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.

[RELATED: What to Do When Rejected from Your Dream School]

To identify your goal score, you can both review how ACT scoring is broken down and establish reliable prep strategies. The best way to understand how you will perform on the ACT leading up to the exam is to take ACT practice tests. Practice tests can help identify areas of both strength and weakness. You can note whether you need improvement on time management or if you excel at specific concepts. Once you have taken your practice test, set aside time to review the results and note where you should be placing the bulk of your prep time. Identify your goal score by researching the average ACT score of accepted students at your schools of interest and comparing this with your practice test results. ACT tutoring is another option to pinpoint areas of improvement and set specific prep strategies for success on the exam.

[RELATED: How to Create an ACT Prep Plan]

Understanding the average ACT score can be beneficial to you for a multitude of reasons. Knowing that the average ACT score is 21 can help you to identify your target score and properly prep for the exam. Once you understand the average ACT score and how it is broken down, you can properly assess what the average ACT score means for you.

Any topics you want to know more about? Let us know! The Varsity Tutors Blog editors love hearing your feedback and opinions. Feel free to email us at blog@varsitytutors.com.