Good ACT Scores for College Admission

Learn What ACT Scores You're Likely to Need to Get into Selective Colleges

Average U.S. ACT Scores by Year
ThoughtCo / Adrian Mangel

The question of what's a good ACT score is dependent upon the school to which you're applying. For an Ivy League school, you'll want a score of 30 or higher to be competitive. If you're applying to a regional public university, an 18 might be more than adequate. Hundreds of colleges don't require ACT scores at all, although strong scores could still help you win scholarships to help pay for college.

What Are Average ACT Scores?

The ACT exam consists of four parts: English Language, Reading, Mathematics, and Science. Each category receives a score between 1 (lowest) and 36 (highest). Those four scores are then averaged to generate the composite score used by most colleges.

ACT's 2019-2020 reporting year covers tests taken between 2017 to 2019. From over 5.7 million students who took the exam, the average composite score is a 20.8, meaning that about 50 percent of test-takers score below a 21. The average scores for the four sections of the ACT are all in a similar ranges:

Average ACT Scores, 2019-20 Reporting Year
ACT Section Average Score
English 20.2
Mathematics 20.5
Reading 21.3
Science 20.8
Composite 20.8
Source: act.org

What's Considered a Good ACT Score?

The importance of ACT scores should not be underestimated. Colleges certainly take many factors into consideration when they make an admissions decision, but scores on the ACT or SAT are the easiest tool with which to compare students from different high schools. Also, colleges often use the scores when choosing scholarship winners and merit aid recipients.

Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer for a moment. Which should you value more: Applicant A's semester in France or Applicant B's solo performance in the all-state symphony? It's a hard call. But a 34 on the ACT is undeniably more impressive than a 28.

Also, realize that most schools make their ACT data public, and they know that their reputations depend upon high numbers. A college won’t be considered "highly selective" or "elite" if its students have an average composite ACT score of 19. 

So what is a good ACT score? The exam consists of four parts: English Language, Reading, Mathematics, and Science. Each category receives a score between 1 (lowest) and 36 (highest). Those four scores are then averaged to generate the composite score used by most colleges. 

Very few students get a perfect ACT score, even those who get into the country's top colleges. In fact, anyone scoring a 34, 35 or 36 is among the top 1 percent of test-takers in the country. That said, for the country's most selective colleges and universities, you should be aiming to get an ACT composite score of 30 or higher.

The tables below show the middle 50 percent range of ACT scores for different schools. The middle 50 percent of admitted students fell within these numbers. Keep in mind that 25 percent of students who were admitted scored below the lower numbers listed here.

ACT Scores for Top Private Universities

Private universities can be very competitive. Whether you want to get into an Ivy League school or another of the country's top private schools, your scores should ideally be 30 or higher.

ACT Score Comparison for Private Universities (mid 50%)
  Composite 25% Composite 75% English 25% English 75% Math 25% Math 75% GPA-SAT-ACT
Admissions
Scattergram
Carnegie Mellon University 33 35 33 35 32 35 see graph
Columbia University 33 35 34 36 30 35 see graph
Cornell University 32 34 33 35 30 35 see graph
Duke University 33 35 32 35 31 35 see graph
Emory University 31 34 - - - - see graph
Harvard University 33 35 34 36 31 35 see graph
Northeastern University 32 34 33 35 29 34 see graph
Stanford University 32 35 34 36 30 35 see graph
University of Pennsylvania 32 35 34 36 31 35 see graph
University of Southern California 30 34 32 35 28 34 see graph
Data Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Top Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal arts colleges are a great choice for students who want a small school experience with high standards. These schools are considered among the best of them, and you'll see the typical score ranges for admission are similar to those for larger top universities. There are also some great public liberal arts colleges that tend to have a slightly lower admissions bar.

ACT Score Comparison for Liberal Arts Colleges (mid 50%)
  Composite 25% Composite 75% English 25% English 75% Math 25% Math 75% GPA-SAT-ACT
Admissions
Scattergram
Amherst College 31 34 32 35 28 34 see graph
Carleton College 31 34 - - - - see graph
Grinnell College 30 34 32 35 28 33 see graph
Lafayette College 27 32 28 34 26 31 see graph
Oberlin College 29 31 30 34 26 28 see graph
Pomona College 31 34 34 36 29 34 see graph
Swarthmore College 31 34 33 35 29 34 see graph
Wellesley College 30 34 32 35 27 33 see graph
Whitman College 27 32 26 35 25 31 see graph
Williams College 32 35 34 36 29 34 see graph
Data Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Top Public Universities

Public universities offer excellent educational opportunities as well. If you have your eye on one these, be sure to research the average ACT scores. The score ranges for top public universities tend to be slightly lower than those for top private colleges and universities. Realize, however, that the admissions bar for out-of-state applicants can be significantly higher than for in-state applicants.

ACT Score Comparison for Public Universities (mid 50%)
  Composite 25% Composite 75% English 25% English 75% Math 25% Math 75% GPA-SAT-ACT
Admissions
Scattergram
Clemson University 27 32 27 34 26 31 see graph
University of Florida 27 32 26 34 26 30 see graph
Georgia Tech 31 34 32 35 30 34 see graph
The Ohio State University 27 32 26 34 27 32 see graph
UC Berkeley 31 35 29 35 28 35 see graph
UCLA 30 34 29 35 28 34 see graph
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign 26 32 25 34 25 33 see graph
University of Michigan 30 34 31 35 28 34 see graph
UNC Chapel Hill 29 33 29 35 27 32 see graph
University of Virginia 30 34 31 35 28 34 see graph
University of Wisconsin 27 32 27 34 26 31 see graph
Data Source: National Center for Education Statistics

ACT Writing Scores

For students who took the ACT with Writing, the writing section is scored on a 12-point scale. For the 2019-20 reporting year (tests taken in 2017-2019), the average score on the 12-point scale was a 6.5 according to an ACT report on national norms. Historically, when more colleges required and reported writing scores, students who got into the country's most selective colleges tended to have scores in the 10 to 12 range. Today, almost no schools report data on the writing test. 

When the SAT made the writing section optional in 2016, many schools that had required the ACT with Writing changed the writing section from a requirement to a recommendation. The writing score can be a factor in the admissions process, but as you try to determine if you have a good writing score, realize that the composite score on the exam is likely to be much more important, and the great majority of colleges don't consider the writing score at all.

What If Your ACT Score Is Low?

If you're worried that your ACT scores aren't good enough, don't panic. A lower than average ACT score does not mean you can't get into a particular school. Also, more and more good colleges have recognized some of the inherent problems with high-stakes exams and have chosen to move to test-optional admissions.

As you see how you measure up to admitted students of different colleges, keep in mind that the ACT is just one piece of an application. If your scores are a little below the 25th percentile number, you can make up for that if you have strong grades in challenging classes. For schools that have holistic admissions, you can also improve your chances with impressive extracurricular activities, glowing letters of recommendation, and a winning application essay.

Also, don't forget that you can take both the ACT and the SAT to give a school more information about your academic ability. If your ACT scores aren't quite up to par, see how your SAT scores compare at the schools of your choice.