No one would expect you to bake cookies without a recipe or knowledge of what goes into making cookie batter. (After all, even the pre-mixed boxes still require you to follow directions to pre-heat the oven and add some water or an egg or something!) So going into your next test date without a good idea of what makes up your ACT score, how that score is calculated, and how your strategic approach could positively or negatively impact your ACT composite score is every bit as silly as trying to make cookies without flour.
Whatever stage of the process you’re in, whether you are already looking at your ACT score, busy making a pro-con list for taking the ACT vs. taking the SAT, or talking to your parents and counselors to decide if testing at all is right for you, it is helpful to understand just how your ACT score is calculated so you can figure out how to earn the highest score possible to achieve your goals.
What Is Tested On The ACT?
Your ACT score (also called your ACT Composite Score) is an averaged number, on a scale of 1-36. It is an average composed of your four scores on the four multiple-choice sections of the ACT: English, Math, Reading, and Science.
Each of the four individual subject sections is scored on a scale of 1-36.
The four subject area scores are then averaged and rounded to the nearest whole number to create your final composite score.
If your ACT composite score includes a decimal .5 and above, it is rounded up; if it includes a decimal .4 and below, it is rounded down.
For example, if you got a 28 in English, a 31 in Math, a 30 in Reading and a 24 in Science, your average would be 28.25, thus giving you a composite score of 28.
If you add just 1 point across any of the main sections - say you're able to bump your 24 in Science to a 25 and everything else stays the same - your average would now be 28.5 and would round up. Therefore, your composite score would be a 29.
ACT Scaled Score
Let’s break it down further. Here come two important scoring terms: scaled score and raw score.
Your score from each individual section is what’s called a scaled score. Since there are multiple versions of the test, the ACT uses a scaling chart to equalize test scores so that, regardless of which day or year you took the test, the scores are standardized.
You may have had some teachers grade on a curve in order to make your grade more fair, to give you feedback more on how you compare with your peers than whether or not you knew every answer.
The ACT scaled score uses a similar concept.
Except, instead of competing against the students taking the test on the same day you did, you are competing as a group against the students taking the test on other days. By using a scaled score, the ACT is averaging things out, taking into account that some ACT tests might be more or less hard than others and not wanting you to be unduly punished or rewarded for that.
Consequently, your scaled score should not be affected by when you took the test. This is why I don't advise that students favor particular test dates outside of what serves their academic and social calendars. It's moot to try to game the system by attempting to find an easier test date.
Your scaled score is calculated using your raw score.
ACT Raw Score
So how is your ACT raw score calculated?
Your raw score is simply your total number of correct answers in each subject.
The Raw Score vs. The Scaled Score
Let's explore an example so you can see raw score and scaled score at work.
For example, let's say in the English section (which is 75 questions total) you answered 60 questions right, 10 questions wrong, and left 5 questions with blank answers.
Therefore, 60 is your raw score as you lose no points for missed questions.
In order to get that number converted to the ACT score range of 1-36, we need your scaled score.
How does that happen? Is it simply a percentage of the total questions asked? Well, not exactly.
The raw score is converted using the ACT scaling chart, such as the one shown below.
So, continuing the example, if your raw score in English is 60, you can see that the matching scaled score for that raw score is 26.
But why not just use the raw score? Why the need for scales and conversions? As I stated before, it’s to standardize the ACT and make it as fair as possible test date after test date, year after year.
It's worth noting that because of this, the scaling chart is not always exactly the same. The one above is not the one always used. It's the example in the free practice test currently available from act.org. It changes for each test, but this gives you a good idea of how the system works.
How Is The ACT Writing Test Scored?
The ACT Writing Test section is an optional, additional part of the ACT. Score-wise, it’s a whole different kettle of fish.
First, it is essay writing which is inherently subjective. This is a striking difference from the other sections of the ACT which, because they are multiple choice, are able to be standardized by way of the raw score to scaled score conversion.
Inevitably, the essay must be scored differently.
Your written essay is evaluated by two readers. Each separately gives you a score from 1-6 on four overall aspects of writing: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. The ACT has published its Writing Test Scoring Rubric which details expectations for each area that they believe constitutes a successful argumentative essay.
Then the two scores from the readers are combined, giving you a total score from 2-12.
Also, it’s interesting to note that if your two readers disagree with more than one point difference on your score, a third reader will be brought in to determine which score needs adjusting. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a good attempt at fairness and accurate evaluation.
Second, the writing test DOES NOT AFFECT YOUR COMPOSITE SCORE.
So, given its subjectivity and lack of impact on your overall ACT score, should you take the Writing Test?
Your colleges may recommend it, and - even if they don't - scoring an 8 or higher would be a shiny gold star on your application that could really help you stand out. So if you think you can write a fairly reasonable argumentative essay, I'd encourage you to try it. It's an extra 40 minutes of your life (not too bad, all things considered) and it can give you an edge on your application.
That said, if you stink at writing - skip it.
Either way, it doesn't carry much weight overall. When choosing what to prepare for on the ACT, you should spend the lion's share of your time focusing on the multiple choice sections. Those sections have significantly more impact on admissions, merit aid, and scholarship decisions.
Your ACT composite score is an average of the four main multiple-choice section scores, each of which is scored on a scale of 1-36. If you land in decimal territory, your composite rounds to the nearest integer which means that sometimes one additional correct answer can translate to a whole scaled point higher composite score.
Every point counts.
Raw score is not the same as scaled score, which can make understanding how many questions you should be targeting in each section to accomplish your score goals a little bit tricky. If you need help with this, I'm here! Click here to learn how I've helped hundreds of students raise their ACT scores through clear question quotas and killer testing strategies.
But now, with this newfound knowledge, you may have some new questions. You might be wondering what a good ACT score is on the scale between 1 (oh I sure hope not!) and 36 (I think I can! I think I can!)
If you're curious to learn more about the nuances of what makes a good ACT score, you can check out this article for my detailed answer.
Also, remember that with the ACT you are not penalized for guessing. If you have time, eliminate the answers you know are wrong to give yourself better odds for guessing correctly. Give each question a chance to help pull your average score up by leveraging process of elimination.
If all else fails, when the proctor announces that there’s only one minute left for the test, let that number 2 pencil fly. This is the moment to make like it’s bubble wrap and pop as many of those test bubbles as you can - but only one answer per question, of course!
If you’re looking for more test taking tips, download this free eBook with a ton of immediately useable strategies for raising your ACT and SAT test scores.
And, as always, if you have questions about testing and/or cookie making, I'm here for you! Click here to send me an email and I'll get back to you ASAP.