We know that 36 is the best possible score on the ACT and that any score in the 30s is considered very good. But how good is a top score of 34, 35, or 36? And how many students earn these scores every year?
In this post, we break down just how rare those top scores are and how many students get them each year. Learn how you can stand out in the application process with a top score—and how to raise your ACT score to get there.
How Many Test Takers Get Top 1% ACT Scores?
To do this analysis, we use the latest report from ACT, Inc., for the class of 2018, who took the ACT as sophomores, juniors, and seniors. If you want to read more ACT score statistics, you can check out the report yourself.
In the class of 2020, 1,670,497 students took the ACT. The average composite score was 20.6 out of 36; this means that a score of 21 or higher puts you above average. (For more info on how the ACT is scored, read our article).
But if we consider 21 and up good scores (since they're above average), what would qualify as an amazing ACT score?
To find out, let's look at ACT percentiles—i.e., the rankings tied to composite scores. For example, a 90th percentile score would mean that you scored the same as or higher than 90% of test takers.
On the ACT, 34 and up is the 99th percentile. So if you score 34 or higher, you're in the top 1% of test takers!
But exactly how many students earned a 33, 34, 35, or 36 in 2018? And which score is the rarest? Let's take a look:
|ACT Score||# of Students||Percentage of All Test Takers|
Source: ACT 20 National Profile Report
Unsurprisingly, a full 36 is the rarest score of all—just 0.334% of all test takers earned a perfect ACT score.
Roughly three times more students earned the next-highest score of 35; however, this is still a very rare score that just 0.961% of test takers earned.
Note that about four times more students earned a 34 than they did a 36. You can now see why a 36 is so impressive—even among top scorers, such a score really sets students apart, particularly for the most competitive schools.
How Many Test Takers Get Top 10% ACT Scores?
By reading our article on ACT percentiles, you'll see that getting 29 or higher would put you in the top 10% of scorers. So if 21 and up is good and 33 and up is incredible, a score of 29 or higher would qualify as a great ACT score.
The breakdowns for ACT scores between 29 and 32 are as follows:
|ACT Score||# of Students||Percentile (2020)|
Source: ACT 2020 National Profile Report
You can probably see why raising your ACT score by just a few points can have such a big impact on your admission chances! Because admissions is all about comparing you with other applicants, the more unique you can make yourself, the better your chances of getting in will be. And the higher your ACT score is, the rarer it is!
By How Much Should You Improve Your ACT Score?
We know just how impressive top 10% ACT scores are and how rare top 1% scores are. But what kind of score should you aim for? Should everyone go for a 36?
By far the best way to figure out what ACT score to shoot for is to consider the average scores of admitted applicants to the schools you're applying to. Do this, and you'll be able to see exactly how high of an ACT score you'll need to get to help you stand apart from the crowd. Check out our in-depth guide for more tips on how to set an ACT goal score.
That said, there are some general guidelines you should follow. Of course, you can always aim for perfection, but these goals are manageable and give all students a competitive ACT score.
Here's what we recommend:
- If you have a score in the teens, work to get your score to at least 21. This will put you in the top half of test takers and really give a boost to your college applications.
- If you have a score in the low to mid-20s (22-27), although you're above average, retake the ACT and try to get 29. Getting to the top 10% of scorers can open up a lot of scholarship opportunities. It'll also make your college applications that much more impressive, opening doors at selective colleges.
- If you have 29 or higher, raising your score by even just 2 or 3 points can give a huge boost to your percentile ranking. For example, going from just 29 to 31 takes you from the 90th to the 94th percentile. Likewise, going from 30 to 33 takes you from the 92nd to the 99th percentile—or from the top 8% to the top 1% of test takers!
- Once you get to 33 and up, you're in Ivy League and competitive college territory. Again, a gain of just a few points on the ACT can make a big difference in your admission chances!
But how feasible are these score increases? The truth is, it's definitely possible to raise your ACT composite, as long as you study regularly and focus on your weak areas. Do this, and you could very well go from 17 to 25, 20 to 28, or even 25 to 35.
For example, say you really struggled with plane geometry on your first round of the ACT and didn't get any of these questions correct. Since plane geometry accounts for around 20% of all math problems, it has a big impact on your score.
Don't let these types of questions keep you from getting a high score! (You can take official ACT practice tests if you want to see the kinds of questions the ACT asks, by the way.)
Now, imagine your Math score was 23. If you work on plane geometry to fill in your content gap, even if you got just five more questions right, you could get a final Math score of 26. If you get all the plane geometry questions right this time and everything else stays the same, you could get a 28 on ACT Math!
This says nothing of how your score could improve if you work on other content weaknesses, your pacing, and your test-taking strategies, too. If you can identify your weaknesses and work on fixing them, it's not hard at all to improve your ACT composite score by several points!
4 Tips for Raising Your ACT Score
Since you now have a clear idea as to the number of points you need to reach your ACT goal score, let's go over some helpful tips for raising your score.
#1: Focus On Your Weaknesses
As we discussed briefly above, focusing on your biggest content weaknesses and skills should be one of your top priorities as you prep for the ACT. To fix your weak points, you'll need to do the following:
- Attack more practice problems in your areas of weakness. Having ample quality materials with which to practice will give you more opportunities to hone your skills.
- Devote more time to your weak spots than you do to the skills and question types you're already comfortable with. This way you won't waste time going over the concepts you already know.
- Analyze your mistakes as well as any patterns in your mistakes. One good way to do this is to keep an errors journal in which you note all the errors you made on practice questions, what the right answers were, and how you were supposed to solve them.
Do all of this and you'll not only figure out what you're weak in, but also how you can shift your approach toward these types of ACT problems to help you score more points.
#2: Practice Pacing Yourself
Don't expect to raise your score if you don't know how to properly pace yourself. Learning how to use your time wisely is a major part of doing well on the ACT.
As you likely already know, each section is timed differently; thus, the time you'll get per question will vary depending on the section.
Here is an overview of the time you'll have per section and per question on the ACT:
|Section||# of Questions||Time per Section||Time per Question|
|1. English||75||45 minutes||36 seconds|
|2. Math||60||60 minutes||60 seconds|
|3. Reading||40||35 minutes||52.5 seconds|
|4. Science||40||35 minutes||52.5 seconds|
|5. Writing (Optional)||1 essay||40 minutes||40 minutes|
You'll have the longest amount of time per question on the Math section, and the shortest amount of time per question on the English section.
Typically, you don't want to spend more than this average time per question on any one question. However, if you're not aiming for a perfect score, you should be able to guess on at least a few questions in each section without it heavily affecting your score.
#3: Learn Key Test-Taking Strategies
There are tons of strategies you should know before you take the ACT. These tips teach you things such as the following:
- How to approach and understand questions fast
- How to effectively use the information you're given
- How to guess on a question to give yourself the best chance of getting it right
Our guide to the top ACT test-taking strategies goes over some of the most helpful tips to know for test day. Briefly, though, here are a few of the most important ones:
- How to use the process of elimination
- When to plug in answers and plug in numbers on Math problems
- How to read passages on Reading, English, and Science
#4: Take Full-Length Practice Tests
If you're not taking full-length ACT practice tests, get to it. ACT, Inc. offers six free practice tests you can download as PDFs. I suggest sticking mainly with official tests as these are guaranteed to give you a highly realistic test-taking experience. What's more, they're all free!
In terms of prep, try to space out your practice tests throughout your ACT study plan. Take one at the beginning of your study schedule to get your baseline score (the score you start with before engaging in any prep), and then take the others intermittently throughout your study plan. You'll essentially use practice tests to determine your weaknesses and strengths.
Make sure to take each test in a quiet room to give you a realistic experience. Also, time yourself in accordance with the official ACT time limits described above; doing this will raise your stamina so that you don't run out of energy on the actual test!
Learn more about how the ACT is scored so you can develop target raw scores for whatever your scoring goal is.
Want to get a perfect score yourself? Get tips from our ACT 36 full scorer on studying. Even if you're not aiming for a perfect 36, this article will give you the skills you need to raise your score.
Read more about the highest possible ACT score of 36 and just how rare it is.
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.