In such a numbers-obsessed world, it’s easy to become obsessed with comparing your own “numbers” to the numbers of others. Who has more Instagram followers? Who has the better GPA? Who can eat the most Peeps in 30 seconds? And who can blow the average ACT score out of the water with their intellectual prowess?
So it’s easy to understand why we want to know how our test scores compare to average ACT scores. There are lots of different averages we can use, but let’s start by taking a look at the big-picture data.
Average ACT Scores by the Numbers
In 2016, US students averaged a composite score of 20.8 on the ACT, broken down like this:
|ACT Test (Section)||Average Score (2016)|
However, keep in mind that these numbers come from an incredibly large pool of students (over 2 million, to be exact) each of whom is taking the ACT for different reasons.
Average ACT scores also vary by state. Why? A couple reasons: varied curriculums, different state standards for high school graduation, and preparation for diverse tests proving that students have met those standards come to mind.
So the overall averages are really not all that helpful in contextualizing your score. Instead, let’s look at average SAT scores by state, then see how you can use them to your advantage.
State ACT Score Averages
Here are the average ACT scores by state, plus information about the percentage of students who meet national performance benchmarks.
Average ACT Score by State (2016)
|State||Percent of Graduates Tested||Average Composite Score||Met English Benchmark (%)||Met Reading Benchmark (%)||Met Math Benchmark (%)||Met Science Benchmark (%)|
|District of Columbia||44||22.2||61||52||47||45|
Data from The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2016 by ACT
That’s a lot of information, so let’s break it down. The table gives us the average composite score for each state, as well as the percentage of students who met readiness benchmarks in English, Reading, Science and Math.
What’s a Readiness Benchmark?
We’re talking about college readiness. ACT has done a lot of research and I invite you to read it, but for those of you on a tight schedule, this is how the ACT evaluates college readiness:
- ACT scores (or other standardized test scores) are the SECOND most valuable predictor of college success, after high school grades.
- The “benchmark” scores for each section show the threshold above which students can expect to be reasonably prepared for college courses in this subject area.
- In each state, a different percentage of test-takers meets or exceeds the benchmarks every year, as we can see above.
What Average ACT Scores by State Mean for Everyone
Benchmarks are one way of determining college readiness and what constitutes a “good” ACT score, and more reliable than comparing your score to the 20.8 average. But as we’ve seen, test scores in one state are not perfectly comparable to scores from another state—the 100% test rate in some states shows us that, in places, all students, not just those who are determined to go to college, take this exam. This most likely lowers that state’s composite score.
A Better Way to Put Your Score in Context
In other words, to get a better idea of how your scores stack up, it can be helpful to look at data from a smaller pool of students—preferably some who have had a similar education.
- First of all, you can look at average ACT scores for your state.
Although you will find that scores don’t vary drastically between states, you may live in a slightly less or more competitive one.
- You can look at average ACT scores for your school.
Many students can access this data on their high school’s “Profile” sheet. This might be posted on your school’s website or you can ask your college counseling department for it. In fact, this is a really crucial piece of paper. Did you know that this is the info colleges use to understand how your high school compares to other high schools, as well as how you compare with to fellow students? Information is valuable, people!
An Even Better Way
A more helpful way to evaluate your ACT scores? Compare them to the average ACT scores at the colleges or universities you are targeting.
If you don’t have a college list yet (or even if you do), I highly recommend doing some exploratory research by reading our ACT Score Range post and searching on our ACT Score Range tables, a great free tool you can use to find the average test scores at the top 100 U.S. universities.
Some colleges are still stuck in the stone age, only publishing average SAT scores. If this is the case, first double-check that they accept ACT scores (most will, don’t worry!). Then, you can easily convert this SAT score to an ACT score to see where your scores shake out. (Check out our ACT to New SAT to Old SAT Conversion Chart!)
The Magoosh Answer
Your ACT score can be a very important factor in determining college admissions. So make sure to arm yourself with all of the above facts and figures before you set your ACT goals. But it’s also important to keep in mind that your ACT scores are only one part of who you are as an applicant—you have lots of other talents to offer a college.
And, don’t forget the most important person to be comparing yourself to is…you.
So if you studied hard and increased your ACT score from a 16 to a 20, that is a huge win! You are now way better prepared than “average you” was before. And that’s what really counts.
Bottom Line: What All this Average ACT Score Info Means for You
Why would you care what the average ACT score is in your state? A lot of colleges and universities have admissions officers who focus on a particular region. Believe me, they’re more than familiar with what the average score looks like in your area! Also, if you’re applying to college in a particular state with a lot of in-state applicants, it’s good to know approximately where you stand in terms of the admissions pool.
So if your score is slightly lower than average for the college—but far above average in your state—it might not hurt your chances as much as you think it might. In fact, it may even help you!