ACT Scoring – How it Works

  • September 4, 2020
  • / ACT

If you’re leaving high school soon and hoping to attend college, you’ll need to consider taking the ACT to accompany your college admissions application. A good ACT score will provide a boost to your application and compliments your skills and grades.

But how does ACT scoring work? And how will you know the scores to aim for? We answer these questions and more, to help you understand the ACT scores and test

What is the ACT?

ACT exam

The ACT is a pen and paper exam. It’s a standardized test that colleges use to select students for the next academic class. Your ACT scores make up a small part of your college application and shows the college that you are competent and can handle the pressure of studying at college. It is essential to have an ACT score report or an SAT score to accompany your application and be considered for a place at college.

The ACT is administered by ACT Inc, also known as American Collegiate Testing. ACT Inc is responsible for keeping the ACT exam up to date, with relevant questions that meet the requirements and difficulty level of the exam.

They also co-ordinate test papers and scores and generally make sure that the colleges receive your score report on time. ACT Inc provides many prep methods and courses to help students study. Online and in-person ACT courses are available from a range of providers, including Magoosh, The Princeton Review, Kaplan, and Manhattan Prep.

How long is the ACT?

The ACT is a fairly long exam, clocking in at 2 hrs, 55 minutes. This time increases by 40 minutes if you’re taking the writing section too. Let’s look at each section, English, Math Reading and Science, and the number of questions you’ll be answering in each section.

  • English section – 45 minutes – 75 questions
  • Math section – 60 minutes – 60 questions
  • Reading section – 35 minutes – 40 questions
  • Science Section – 35 minutes – 40 questions
  • Essay Writing – 40 minutes – 1 essay

The Math Reading and Science sections are similar. You’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 multiple choice questions, or 60 minutes to answer 60 questions in Math. You’ll need to work quickly, with less than a minute per question.

You need to be skilled at reading questions quickly and identifying the correct answer. You’ll also need time to check your answers once you’ve completed that section.

The written English section is a test of reading comprehension, grammar, and spelling. Over a number of questions, you’ll be asked to correct errors in the given text or answer a question about the text content.

There are five texts provided in the ACT, and you’ll need to factor in time to read the text before answering the questions. This can be a daunting task, which is why it’s important to prepare for the ACT test to achieve high scores.

How is the ACT scored?

Pencil and test sheet

The scoring for ACT is quite simple compared to the SAT or GMAT. The structure is easy to understand, and you can achieve a maximum score of 36 points overall. First, you get raw scores, which are then converted into composite scores. This gives you an overall average composite score on the ACT test. Let’s look at some scoring ACT examples.

Within each section, the number of correct answers you have given will total into a raw score. This raw score will be converted into a scaled score out of 36 points. You will have four scaled scores in total. If you are taking the essay writing section too, it will be five scores, each out of 36 points. For example, you may have 30/36 in Math, 27/36 in English, 25/36 in Reading, and 31/36 in Science.

The scaled score values are then collated to create your composite score. The composite score is an overall representation of how well you have done in the test, It averages out your peaks and lows in the scaled scores. In our example, the composite score would be 28.25, which would be rounded down to 28 points. This is a good score, which roughly equates to a B+.

To get a great overall composite score, you need to have consistent performance in every section of the ACT. Otherwise, you could be let down by your averages.

Alternatively, if you know that you’re struggling in the Science Section, but could achieve high scores in the other three sections, you can choose to boost the English, Math and Reading sections to get maximum points. Try your best in the Science section and hide this within your composite score.

For example, if you scored 33/36 in Math, 32/36 in English, and 33/36 in Reading with a Science score of 24/36, your average composite score would be 30.5, which would be rounded up to 31 points. This number would be a brilliant overall ACT score, represented by good scaled scores.

What is a good ACT score?

When preparing for the ACT, you need to have an understanding of the test score that you’re aiming for, and how you will study to achieve these scores. The ACT composite scores are out of 36 points, and achieving above 30 points puts you in the top 90% of scorers.

This means only 10% of students who complete the ACT have scored 30 points or more. If you’re looking to get into a highly competitive college, you’ll need a highly competitive composite score.

You can also use the raw score values and scaled score values to set some targets for yourself. For example, the Math section has 60 questions, so you can aim to get 40 of these questions correct. Then, scale this up to a scaled score and see how it will affect your overall composite scores.

Everyone is different, and everyone will have a different ‘good’ ACT score. Once you know the colleges you’re applying to, do some research to see what their expectations are for scoring on ACT, and what scores previous students have gained. This will help you to build a target score for each section and your overall ACT score.

When should I take the ACT?

Student girl thinking

The ACT is available for seven tests during a calendar year, so there are lots of opportunities to fit your schedule. The tests take place every other month and are available at certified test centers.

First, you’ll need to identify the closing date for your college applications, as you’ll need to have taken the test before this date. You may also want to allow time to complete a second test, as some students do, usually in the 1-2 months following the first test.

This is a safety net, just in case you don’t get the score you’d like the first time around. Taking the test a second time will help you to focus more on your weak areas, and get a higher test score. While colleges can check to see how many times you have taken the ACT, it’s only your highest ACT composite score that will be included in the application.

You should also consider the key events taking place in your life, like your high school exams, or extracurricular activities. Choose a time frame that allows you the most time to study on the ACT exam. You’ll need to be fully focused on learning the ACT and have time to answer a number of questions to practice in each section and get a high raw score.

Should I prep for the ACT?

Yes! The ACT is a test of knowledge, but it also requires a strategy to answer questions correctly and quickly. It’s an exam designed to be tough; it requires lots of prep to get good ACT scores. As part of your ACT prep, you will need to complete practice exams so that you can get an idea of what the questions are like, how well you are answering them, and where your weaknesses lie.

Many students choose to complete an online or in-person course to prepare for the ACT. These courses are available from a wide range of providers at different costs, locations, and with differing quality of resources. Take a look at our Best ACT Prep Courses to find the best course for you.

It’s advised to prepare 3-6 months in advance of your ACT test day, so make sure that you have enough time to complete the prep properly before you take the test. Some students will also arrange to take the test a second time so that they can focus on their weaker areas in preparation for the second test, and gain higher scores.

Should I take the ACT or the SAT?

Exam at school

These days, most colleges and universities are accepting scores from either the SAT or ACT exams, as they are fairly similar in design and the topics they are testing. Some students will choose to take both the SAT and ACT to prove their willingness and intellect, but this is not a requirement by most colleges.

The ACT has a Science section, whereas the SAT does not. If you’re taking a Science course like Engineering, it would be wise to get ACT scores instead of SAT, as students should demonstrate their strengths and areas of interest.

Furthermore, the SAT has two Math sections, one with calculator use and one without. The ACT only has one Math section. Again you can play to your strengths and interests to achieve the highest ACT scoring possible.

Overall, consider whether the ACT scores or SAT scores would be most complementary to your application, and which test you could get the highest scores in. Also, research the requirements of your college, just in case they only accept scores from one test. This step will help you to identify which test you should complete.

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