If you’re beginning to study for the ACT – or trying to decide between taking the ACT or the SAT – you’re probably wondering how the ACT is scored. Understanding the scoring system can give you a huge leg up as you set goals and make a study plan.
Read on to learn how the ACT is scored, section by section, with official ACT scoring charts. Also, find our 5 top strategies related to ACT scoring so you can use this information to your advantage.
If you're wondering whether you should take the ACT or SAT, see our post “Is the ACT Easier Than the SAT?” To learn more about the ACT, read on!
So how is the ACT scored? The ACT has four sections, sometimes called subject areas: English, Math, Reading, and Science. Each subject area is given a scaled score between 1 and 36. Those area scores are then averaged into your composite score, which also ranges between 1 and 36.
So where do those scaled scores come from? The scaled scores of between 1 and 36 are converted from your raw scores on each of the subject areas. Your raw score is simply the total number of questions you answer correctly in each section. There is no point deduction for wrong answers on the ACT.
How Are Raw Scores Turned Into Scaled Scores?
The first thing to understand about ACT scores is that the score you get for each subject area, between 1 and 36, is a scaled score. That scaled score is converted from your raw score. The reason the ACT (as well as other standardized tests) uses scaled scores is to make sure their scores are consistent across multiple test dates. In other words, they have to make sure a 28 on an April ACT represents the same level of skill as a 28 on a June ACT.
Scaling is not curving your score relative to other students who take the test the same day as you. Therefore, no test date is easier than another.
The ACT provides a table in their Preparing for the ACT guide that estimates how certain raw scores will translate into scaled scores on each section of the ACT.
However, the process of scaling means that on different editions of the ACT, raw scores can translate to scaled scores differently. In other words, these numbers aren’t set in stone, but can give you an idea of what raw score to shoot for on each section.
How Is My Composite Score Computed?
To recap, we know that you get a score of between 1 and 36 for each subject area, which is converted from your raw score. But how do those four area scores combine to your final composite score?
Your composite score is simply the average of your four area scores, rounded up to the nearest whole number (half a point or more is rounded up, less than half a point is rounded down).
For example, say you got a 24 on the Math section, 23 on Science, 26 on Reading, and 25 on English. Your composite score would be:
(24 + 23 + 26 + 25) / 4 = 24.5,
which would be rounded up to 25.
What Are the Subscores?
In addition to your main composite score and your four subject area scores, the ACT also gives you subscores in three of the four subject areas. English, Math, and Reading all have subscores, which give you more information about your strengths and weaknesses in each subject.
Subscores range from 1 to 18, and are also scaled from your raw score. However, there is no direct relationship between your subscores and your final scaled score (for example, your subscores do not add up to your scaled score). Your subscore just gives you more information about your performance, and where you might want to improve.
Should you worry about these? No. Colleges care most about your composite score on the ACT, and they will also look at your four subject area scores. However, you can use the ACT’s subscores to help you prepare for the test since they break the subject areas down into manageable categories.
To help with that process, we are going to break down each section of the ACT. You will learn how many raw points are possible on each section, what the subscores are, and how scores are calculated.
The English section of the ACT has 75 multiple-choice questions, meaning the highest possible raw score you can earn is 75. Remember that your raw score is just the total number of questions you answer correctly. Questions you leave blank or answer incorrectly are simply not added on to your raw score.
The subscores on the English section are for Usage/Mechanics (40 questions) and Rhetorical Skills (35 questions). For more on what these questions are like, see our guide.
To give a scoring example, say you answer 55 questions correctly on the English section, get 15 wrong, and leave 5 blank. Your raw score will be 55, the total amount of questions you got right. Using ACT’s table above, we can estimate that a raw score of 55 would get a scaled score of 23.
The Math section of the ACT has 60 questions total, meaning the highest possible raw score is 60. The subscores are given for Pre-Algebra/Elementary Algebra (24 questions), Intermediate Algebrate/Coordinate Geometry (18 questions) and Plane Geometry/Trigonometry-based problems (18 questions). For more on the Math section’s content, see our guide.
To take a brief example, say you got 45 questions right, 5 wrong, and left 10 blank. Your raw score would be 45, which ACT estimates would scale to a 27.
The Reading section has 40 questions total, so your highest raw score here is 40. The subscores are given for Social Studies/Natural Sciences reading skills (20 questions) and for Arts/Literature reading skills (20 questions). For more detailed info on the reading section, see our guide to ACT Reading.
The science section has 40 questions total, like the reading section, so the highest raw score here is 40. It is the only ACT section that does not have subscores, though it still has three distinct question types: data representation, research summaries, and conflicting viewpoints. For more on science section content, check out our guide.
What if I Take the ACT Plus Writing?
In addition to the four subject areas, it is also possible to take the ACT with an additional writing section. The writing section is not another multiple-choice section – it’s just the ACT with an essay added on.
So how is the essay scored and how will it affect your composite score? Your essay is read by two different readers, who each give your essay a score between 1 and 6 in each of four domains (leading to four different subscores from 2-12). Your writing score is then calculated by combining and scaling each of these subscores for a total Writing score out of 36. (For more on how the ACT scores the essay, read our article on the ACT essay scoring rubric).
Next, the ACT will combine your essay score with your English and Reading sections score and average them to give you an English/Language Arts score between, you guessed it, 1 and 36.
So does the writing score change your composite score? No. Your composite score is still just the average of the four multiple-choice sections. The essay gives more information about your writing skills, but does not affect your overall ACT score.
So why take the ACT with writing? Some colleges (especially top-tier ones) require the ACT be taken with Writing. If you’re not sure which version of the test to take, check the websites of the colleges you are interested in. They will list what standardized testing they require on their admissions checklists.
If you took the ACT Plus Writing in or before June 2015, check out the table below to see how English test scaled scores are combined with the essay score for the overall writing subscore. Again, this is an estimate from an older edition of Preparing for the ACT, and the numbers could shift around slightly based on your test date.
How To Use This Information
So now that you know how the ACT is scored, how can you use that info to get the biggest advantage on the test? Read on for our top five suggestions.
1. Hide a Weak Subject
Since the ACT is averaged, not totaled, and there are four sections, you can "hide" a weak section more easily than on the SAT, which has 3 sections and totals your score. For example, say you struggle with math and got the following subject area scores on the ACT:
While you might think your math score is going to drag down your composite, since it is only one fourth of your score, its effect isn’t huge:
(30 + 31 + 29 + 22) / 4 = 28
So even though your math score was a lot lower than the other three sections, you still come out with a 28 (which is, by the way, a 90th percentile score).
While we are not recommending you don’t study for a certain section because it’s only one fourth of your total ACT score, it is helpful to know that each subject area’s score will not make or break your composite.
2. Maximize Your Composite Score
Since the composite is averaged, you should work to maximize your subject area scores that you are strong in as well as working to minimize weaknesses. Just focusing on trying to fix your weak spots could actually cause you to miss out on points.
For example, say you have always excelled in English and History classes but struggle with math. You might think you should spend all of your ACT studying time drilling math problems. However, working to maximize your strengths – in this case reading and writing – could improve your score the most.
Let’s take two scenarios. In the first, you spend all of your time studying for the math section and get the following scores:
Not bad! You got your math score up to a 25, which is just about the 80th percentile, and got a composite of 27, which is in the 87th.
But what would have happened if you had spent some time on English and Reading and less time on math? Getting just five more raw points on both the English and Reading sections could have a huge boost to your score. If those are personal strengths, picking up five points should be easy with some smart studying. So let’s say you spend some time on English and Reading and earn five more raw points on each section, and less time on math:
So even if you got a lower score on math, the time spent studying on English and Reading could net you two higher section scores as opposed to just one, resulting in a higher composite.
3. Target Your Studying to Raw Scores
Using the ACT’s raw score to scaled score estimates, you can develop target raw scores for each section. This makes studying easier – thinking in terms of raw points is simpler when you are working through practice problems.
For example, say you want to break a scaled score of 26 in each section. Looking at the raw-to-scaled-score table, you should aim for at least the following raw scores:
Now this suggests a strategy - skipping questions. For example, if you're aiming for a raw score of 43 in Math, you can actually completely skip the last 10 hardest questions altogether and attempt 50. This gives you more time per question, increasing the chance you will get more of them correct. Plus, even if you still miss 7 of them, you'll get your raw score of 43!
4. Guess on Every Single Question — Leave No Bubble Unbubbled
Since there is no guessing penalty on the ACT, the best way to maximize your score is to eliminate wrong answer choices and guess. We are not saying to rush through each section in order to answer every single question – as we saw above, you might have a target raw score that’s much lower than the total points possible. In that case, it makes sense to spend more time focusing on fewer questions. What this does mean is that if you do spend time on a question, even if you are not totally sure of the answer, it’s the best use of your time to eliminate some answer choices to give yourself the best shot at guessing the right answer.
Furthermore, when the proctor says there is one minute remaining, go ahead and bubble every blank answer you have remaining. Even if you haven't looked at the question in the book, you aren't losing anything by guessing. You might pick up a raw point or two on each section this way, which can have a surprising effect on your scaled score, as we have seen.
Try not to leave any blanks!
5. A Word About the Essay
If you take the ACT with writing, your writing score, a.k.a. the essay, sticks out more since it is not a part of your composite. You'll recieve a composite plus your essay score. However, this doesn’t mean the essay should become the biggest priority on your study plan. Your subject area scores and composite score are the most important aspects of the ACT, so you should prioritize studying for the multiple-choice sections.
At the end of the day, the composite you earn on the ACT is by far the most important part of your score. Colleges that give scholarships based on high school GPA and standardized tests make those calculations based on the overall composite, not individual section scores.
In fact, even if you were to get an essay score on the low side, colleges evaluate your writing ability using a combination of your grades in English classes and your personal statement, in addition to performance on standardized tests. Admissions officers know the ACT essay is a first draft, written during forty minutes of high-stakes testing. The ACT essay will by no means make or break your application, but a high composite score can give you a huge boost, both in terms of admissions and potential scholarship opportunities.
Now that you know how the ACT is scored, get started with actually improving your ACT score.
What's a good ACT score for college? Take our step-by-step guide to figure out your target score.
Deciding between the ACT and SAT? Read our detailed guide on which is easier.
Want to improve your ACT score by 4+ points? Download our free guide to the top 5 strategies you need in your prep to improve your ACT score dramatically.
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.