web analytics
Get Started
 Jun 06, 2020
How to Improve Your ACT Scores – from 21 to 36

To improve your ACT scores from 21 to 36, here are some resources to get you started:

ACT English Bootcamp – a complete course covering all the grammar rules you need to know for a 36 on ACT English.

Practice ACTs – 5 complete, real practice ACTs released by the test makers.

Once you have your resources, you need the right strategy.

On this page I am going to discuss the basics of “what it takes” to achieve specific score goals on the ACT. I’ve divided the top half of the ACT scoring range into three levels: 21-26, 27-31, and 32-36.

Now let’s get to the plan!

Defining Some Terms

National Rank: The percent of test takers who achieved that score or less. So if you score a 26 on Math, your score is equal to or better than 84% of the scores of the test taking population. You can find the national ranks for all tests & composite scores here: ACT Percentiles.

# Correct: The approximate number of questions you need to get right to get a particular score.

Max Wrong: The approximate number of questions you can get wrong and still get a particular score. Based off an average of the curves of fourteen real ACTs, so take these as guidelines.

How to Get a 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, or 26 ACT

National Rank: 56-83%

This range of scores is where a large chunk of students end up, so if you’re not already in this range, this should be your first target. As you can see in the table above, you can get quite a few wrong and still hit a 26 in each section. Here’s a basic overview of the skills & strategies you’ll need to attack each test:

21-26 English 

You’ll need a solid understanding of the basic grammar rules, though you don’t need to be perfect. Missing the occasional tricky English question is OK at this level, and even making an occasional silly mistake. Time may be an issue for you at this level, so the more efficient you get, the more your score should benefit. Work your way through the ACT English Bootcamp for a thorough overview of the rules, concepts, and strategies you’ll need for this section.

21-26 Math

There’s quite a bit of leeway for you here – you should get the majority of the easy & medium questions (#1-40) correct, but you can afford to miss or even guess on the harder questions (#41-60). You may not be able to finish the section at this level, but that’s OK: prioritize your time so that you’re doing your best on #1-40, and then use the time you have remaining to pick and choose from what’s remaining to maximize your score. Guess on the rest.

If you are at this level, it’s likely the case that you have some gaps in your Math knowledge. I recommend you make flash cards of all the formulas, definitions, and concepts, and review those cards daily so that you can improve your working knowledge of the material.

21-26 Reading

Time is probably the major problem for you on this level, but here’s a little trick: You can actually skip one entire passage and still hit close to a 26! So consider, at least for now, focusing on three of the four passages and then guessing on the remaining 10 questions. As long as you’re accurate in the passages you do work through, you’ll hit that 26.

In the end, you’ll have to get used to balancing the time pressure with reading accuracy. Developing a sense of which questions are easier to tackle and which should be left until the end of the passage is also key.

21-26 Science 

Time is also likely an issue here, and again you can skip an entire Science passage and still comfortably clock in at a 26. I might recommend skipping the 7-question section (“Conflicting Viewpoints”), but you should make that choice depending on your strengths & weaknesses.

When you’re first learning this section, I recommend actually not timing yourself so that you can get used to the kinds of questions and answers you’ll encounter on this section – you’ll find that little outside knowledge is necessary for this section. Instead, you’ll need to quickly & accurately analyze the data in the tables, evaluate the design of experiments, and interpret the evidence collected in the experiments in order to answer these questions, so spending time actually figuring out how that works in a relaxed environment might help you get more comfortable with the section.

How to Get a 27, 28, 29, 30, or 31 ACT

National Rank: 87-97%

If you’ve hit 26+, you’re already in rarefied company: the top 20%. You have much less room for error here overall – the curves get much tighter and more unforgiving as you get close to the top, so you have to make each question count. Here’s an overview of how you should approach each section.

27-31 English

You should be able to deploy all grammar rules – especially sentence structure and punctuation – at this level, though you might stumble on the occasional tricky question (such as idiom errors). The style and rhetoric questions – moving sentences around, author’s intent questions, etc. – should also be solid for you at this level, especially if you’re carefully considering the very specific clues present in these types of questions that will point you to the correct answer.

Time should no longer be an issue here;  hopefully you’ll even have some time to review some of the trickier questions. Reviewing the ACT English Bootcamp should also help you at this level, but make sure you spend extra time on the topics and question types that are still giving you trouble.

27-31 Math 

The majority of the math content and formulas should be at your command at this point, though you might stumble on some of the more esoteric topics (e.g. some trig, logarithms). You need to rule the easies & mediums #1-40, and minimizing errors in this section is a must. You should also make some headway deep into the hards, though you might still have some trouble with the last 10.

At this level you’ll probably have enough time to finish the section, but just barely. Any extra time you might have will likely be devoted to reviewing the hard questions (#41-60). Focus especially on those hard questions towards the end of each test – sometimes they’re much easier than they seem if you know how to tackle them efficiently.

27-31 Reading

To get to this level, you’ll need to attempt all four passages and still maintain your accuracy. It’s possible that you might not completely finish a passage, but you should continue to strive to do so.

To continue improving at this level, you’ll want to further streamline your approach to each passage – it’s likely that you’re spending time inefficiently on trickier questions and should instead “Circle and Return” to the harder questions after you’ve finished everything else. Focus especially on the general questions and other tricky question types.

27-31 Science

You’ll also need to get to all the passages in this section, though you might not finish the last passage. It’s likely the case that you’ll miss some Qs in the 6- and 7-question passages, though at this point you should be able to sail through the 5-question passages with few errors. The last question or two at the end of each passage might give you some trouble since they’re typically harder than average, so give special attention to them during your practice sessions.

Just like with reading, you’ll want to ruthlessly streamline your process in this section – I can almost guarantee that you’re still using your time inefficiently throughout this section by focusing on general questions first, reading the passage without the proper focus, etc.

How to Get a 32, 33, 34, 35, or 36 ACT

National Rank: 98-99%

If you’re shooting for this level, you’re already in the top 10% – nice job! But it only gets harder from here. The curves can be so unforgiving at the top that every question – and mistake! – counts so much more at this point. So be fastidious during your practice and review sessions – make sure you understand every question and every mistake, and don’t shy away from finding those slight edges that will improve the probability of hitting that 32+ score.

32-36 English

At this point, all grammar rules & strategies should be second nature to you, so it’s all about cleaning up avoidable mistakes at this level (along with the occasional odd idiom question). You probably have plenty of time left after the section, so use it to review all the questions you circled for future review, and then use the remaining time to recheck all the questions you can.

Sometimes getting a question wrong can be due to missing a comma or other sentence feature, so make sure you read the entire sentence and surrounding sentences carefully to minimize these kinds of errors. Use the ACT English Bootcamp for review and honing of your strategies.

32-36 Math

You should get #1-40 all correct and with ample time remaining – there’s no way you can miss easy & medium questions consistently and hope to finish with 32+. The curve’s just too tough. The last 20 questions will be the fight for you, and most likely the last 10.

Hopefully you’ll have some time remaining to not only check the ones you circled for further review but also review as many questions as you can – and preferably all of them. Redoing the questions, especially by plugging in your answer or trying to solve it with a different method, will be key for you to avoid those silly mistakes that could otherwise significantly damage your scores. The less energy and time you expend on questions, the more you’ll have to review and correct any remaining mistakes.

32-36 Reading

No room for error here – often getting 5 questions wrong is enough to take you out of this level! All passages must be completed – you may still be rushed for time a bit, but the dream is to have some time left at the end to review your circled questions. At this point, your strategy needs to be carefully tuned for maximum efficiency.

You might also have some problems with one particular passage type – Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative, Social Sciences, Humanities, and Natural Sciences – so focusing your practice section on improving your performance on these tasks might be necessary. Being able to identify the trickier question types (especially those annoying “Reverse Fact Find” questions) and approaching them correctly will also be critical to your success.

32-36 Science

We’ll obviously need to complete all passages – again, a -5 is often enough to push you out of this level. The 5-question passages (Data Representation) should be pretty easy for you, leaving you enough time to wade through the 6-question (Research Summaries) and 7-question passages (Conflicting Viewpoints). Your approach to these passages must be as efficient as possible – your passage order, question order, and balance between reading the passage & answering the question needs to be finely tuned at this level.

Give some extra time and review to the last two questions of each passage – you will sometimes encounter some tricky questions (or at least questions that seem tricky) here. Any extra time should be spent reviewing your circled questions.

I’m Rob Schombs, cofounder of Brilliant Prep and your test prep tutor. I earned a BA in Chemistry (2006) and an MA in Science and Technology Studies (2009) from Cornell University. I've been teaching the SAT & ACT since 2010.

You need to be more specific. Thinking in terms of point gains is not really helpful since score increases are not created equal. Raising your score 2 or 4 or 6 points means different things in different score ranges. For instance, the difference between jumping from 21 to 24 and jumping from 31 to 34 is significant: Even though they are both “3 point increases,” the study strategies and content and skills required are far different. The number of additional questions you need to get right to make those jumps also differs quite a bit from level to level.

A consider a drastic improvement to be anything beyond a 5 point gain. It is possible to start from the low 20s and make it to the 30s, but to do so you’ll have to do a significant amount of work. It also won’t happen overnight – the more time you have to devote to studying for the ACT, the better. If you have a year or more, anything is possible. If you have less than a year (and especially less than 6 months), take your progress one step at a time. I don’t want to disqualify any score gain, but you need to keep your current status in perspective and accrue all the points you can. Going from 21 to 31 means the reversal of a trend – years of academic neglect or poor instruction can be hard to overcome in a year, much less a few months. Again, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible – just that you’ll have to make an extraordinary commitment to meet those goals.

While the average ACT score overall and for each test is 21, this doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of life. You can’t necessarily “pass” or “fail” the ACT, and just looking at the pure composite score out of context won’t tell you whether it’s “good” or not. Understanding your ACT scores and your ACT score goals all depends on the colleges or universities you want to apply to. Here are some popular U.S. colleges and universities by ACT score. Note that these are rough approximations – some schools fall in the middle of the 21-26 and 27-31 range (i.e. 25-30 or so).

ACT Scores for Popular Colleges

ACT 21-26

  • Arizona State University
  • Clarkson University
  • Hofstra University
  • Kansas State
  • Michigan State University
  • Quinnipiac University
  • Seton Hall University
  • St. John’s University
  • SUNY at Albany
  • Temple University
  • Texas A&M University
  • University of Arizona
  • University of California – Riverside
  • University of Iowa
  • University of Louisiana
  • University of New Mexico

ACT 27-31

  • Boston College
  • Bucknell University
  • Lafayette College
  • Lehigh University
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • New York University (NYU)
  • Penn State
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)
  • Rutgers University
  • SUNY at Stony Brook
  • Union College
  • University of Florida
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Wisconsin

ACT 32-36

  • Amherst College
  • Brown University
  • Columbia University
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Duke University
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • Harvard College
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • McGill University
  • Northwestern University
  • Princeton University
  • Stanford University
  • Swarthmore College
  • Tufts University
  • University of California Berkeley
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Notre Dame
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Wesleyan University
  • Williams College
  • Yale University

Note: Always check with the college for their updated statistics. They’ll usually list the ACT score ranges (“quartiles”) on their websites, or you can contact them directly for that info.

Now just because your ACT score fits within the range of your dream college or university doesn’t mean that you’ll get in for sure. College admissions depend on other factors like GPA, extracurriculars, admissions essays, and letters of recommendation. But having an ACT score that meets or exceeds the stats of typical entering first-year students is a good start! 🙂