Here’s an ACT brain teaser: A student’s ACT scores are as follows:

ACT Section Score
English 30
Math 26
Reading 30
Science 26
Writing (Essay) 26

On which section(s) did the student perform best?

The answer seems obvious: the student scored highest on the English and Reading sections. Right?

Expressions-13There’s a catch?

The real answer is that you can’t tell without knowing the percentile ranks for each score. A percentile rank tells you what percentage of other test takers scored at or below your score. So if, for example, you scored a 30 on the English part of an ACT, which would put you in the 92nd percentile, this means you scored higher than 92% of the other students on the English section.

Here is the same chart from above with one additional column: the percentile rank for those scores.

ACT Section Score Percentile Rank
English 30 92nd
Math 26 84th
Reading 30 89th
Science 26 87th
Writing (Essay) 26 93rd

**Percentile ranks taken from the ACT paper  ACT Research explains New ACT Test Writing Scores and their relationship to other test scores

Relative to other students (which is, of course, the most important way to judge a student’s ACT performance), this student performed the best in the Writing, or Essay, portion of the test. Even though the Writing score wasn’t the student’s highest absolute score on the scale out of 36 (it was a 26 compared to a 30 in the English and Reading), the student’s percentile rank on the Writing was higher than all the other sections’ percentile ranks. This means that it was the Writing that was the student’s best section. This surprising result is important: when you receive your ACT scores, take a look at your percentiles––those are the real keys to understanding your performance.

For those of you who want more examples, take a look at the table below which shows the percentile ranks for different ACT scores for each subscore.


** The ELA score is a weighted composite based on the English, reading, and writing scores and only reported when students take the optional writing test.

**Percentile ranks taken from the ACT paper – ACT Research explains New ACT Test Writing Scores and their relationship to other test scores