How are ACT Scores Determined? What ACT Scores Mean

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Why ACT Scores are Important

As competition for the top colleges heats up, standardized test scores can be very important in getting into your first choice school. Additionally, ACT scores are sometimes used to help determine which section of an entry-level course is most appropriate for an incoming student. Educate yourself on how ACT scores are determined.

Composite Score

The primary score on your ACT report, what we normally refer to as your ACT score, is the Composite Score that appears immediately below your personal information. This is the average of your scores on the four subject tests, rounded to the nearest whole number. Aside from the numerical score, you’ll also see your rank compared to students in your state and across the country; a rank of 60%, for example, means that you scored better than 60% of the people who took the test.

Subject Scores and Subscores

Beneath your Composite Score, you’ll see subject results for the English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science sections of the test; these subjects may also be broken down into subsections to allow you to more accurately pinpoint your weaknesses. Again, rankings are given to allow you to compare your score against others who took the test at the same time.

The tests and subsections are as follows:

  • English
    • Usage/Mechanics (40 questions)
    • Rhetorical Skills (30 questions)
  • Mathematics
    • Pre-Algebra/Elementary Algebra (24 questions)
    • Intermediate Algebra/Coordinate Geometry (18 questions)
    • Plane Geometry/Trigonometry (18 questions)
  • Reading
    • Social Studies/Natural Sciences reading skills (20 questions)
    • Art/Literature reading skills (20 questions)
  • Science
    • (40 questions - no subsections)

How the Scores are Calculated

For each test section, the number of correct answers are counted. (Points are not subtracted for incorrect answers; getting a question wrong has the same effect as skipping it entirely). The questions on the ACT change over time, so a scaling factor is used to ensure that a scaled 23 on a test taken in 2010 means the same as a scaled 23 on a test taken in 1998.

Each of the subject test scores (and the composite score, which is the average) range from 1 to 36, where higher numbers are better. The same rules apply to the subscores associated with subsections on each test (for example, the Rhetorical Skills subsection of the English test), except the scores for subsections range from 1 to 18. Notice that your subscores do not add up to your test score.

In addition to the four previously mentioned multiple choice tests, ACT offers a writing test that does not count towards the Composite Score. Essays for the writing exam are scored by two trained readers who rate it from 1 (little or no skill is demonstrated) to 6 (task is completed effectively); the scores are added to compute the Writing subscore. However, if the reviewers disagree by more than one point, a third reader will evaluate the essay as well.

What is a Good ACT Score?

As one would expect, more selective universities demand higher ACT scores. Harvard, for example, generally accepts students who scored between 31 and 35, while UCLA accepts students in the 24-30 range. (50% of accepted students fall into the given range - 25% will score below and 25% will score higher - so just missing the range doesn’t mean you won’t get in). The national average on the SAT is between 20 and 21, so scoring in the low twenties will be sufficient for many schools.

This post is part of the series: Applying for College

ACT, SAT, the essay…applying for college can be confusing and a bit scary. We cover some of the things you’ll need to know to successfully apply to the school of your choice.

  1. How ACT Scores are Determined