Breaking Down The Meaning Of ACT Scores
Preparing for college is a stressful process. Taking entrance exams such as the SAT or the ACT is a common step in this process, but not all students understand how these tests operate. While this guide to the ACT is not comprehensive, it is a simple and effective guide to some major questions many students have.
What is your ACT goal?
Millions of high school students across the country take the ACT each year as part of the admissions process. All of these students know that their grade will be between a 1 and a 36, but not all know what score they need.
Some students need a stronger ACT score to compensate for a weaker GPA. Others need a very high score to receive scholarships or get into a high end college. It all boils down to what you are trying to accomplish by taking the ACT. Do you know what score you need?
What is generally considered a good ACT score?
The ACT is structured so a score of 20 is about average for either the composite score or for a score in one category. Moving just a few points higher or lower drastically affects what percentile the student falls into. A score better than only 25% of all scores is in the 25th percentile, with a score that is better than 75% of all scores is in the 75th percentile.
The exact percentile will vary slightly by category, but generally a composite score of 16 falls into the 25th percentile while a 24 is around the 75th percentile and will help when applying to a midrange school. Any score above a 28 will likely be in the top 10% or better and will open the doors to most colleges in the country. The exact score needed varies by school.
What score is needed to get in at (insert school name here)?
It’s important to research the schools you are applying to. Data on the scores of accepted students is readily available online. Websites with this information will usually show the scores of students in the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile of all accepted students. A score around the 75th percentile of students at your chosen college is very helpful in ensuring you will get accepted.
Let’s look at a couple of examples found with some simple searches.
Ever heard of Rust College in Mississippi? They accept some of the lowest ACT scores. Even the students in the 75th percentile at Rust College only scored a 14 on the ACT. That’s one of the lowest accepted scores for college students in the country.
Respected public college Oklahoma University falls into the higher end of the middle group. They actually accept 80% of all students that apply, far higher than Rust College’s 46% acceptance rate. However, OU has much higher requirements than Rust College and most students will need an above average score to get accepted. The 25th percentile of OU students scored a 23 on the ACT and the 75th percentile scored a 29. This somewhat high standard doesn’t even take into account their competitive GPA expectations. To get accepted with a 23 would likely require a 3.6 or higher GPA.
One of the most well-known schools for their exclusivity is Harvard. Only 5.2% of applicants was accepted in 2016 and all met the very high selection standards of an Ivy League school. The 25th percentile of their students scored a 31 on the ACT, and the 75th percentile scored a near perfect 35.
So, in short:
- For the best chance of admission, it is better to score in the 75th percentile of students accepted to the school you wish to attend.
- The 75th percentile of Rust College students scored a 14, which is in the low range of accepted scores.
- The 75th percentile of OU students scored a 29, in the mid upper range of accepted scores.
- The 75th percentile of Harvard students scored a near perfect 35, in the highest range of accepted scores.
Some schools also offer automatic scholarships based on test scores or GPA. The exact standards vary between schools, but usually require a very high score. Be sure to check the websites of schools you are applying to find the money available based on your test scores.
Your first score isn’t as high as you needed. What is the next step?
Not meeting your goal score doesn’t and a college career. A high GPA, long list of extracurricular activities, or strong admission essay can overcome a poor ACT score. The exact weight placed on ACT scores varies between schools. It’s not entirely necessary to gamble on overcoming a poor ACT score as there is another alternative.
When submitting an SAT score schools receive every score you’ve ever earned, but the ACT works differently. You get to choose which ACT scores are included in your application. It is possible to repeat the ACT and effectively erase a poor score any number of times. The lower your previous scores, the more likely it is that you will improve your score with a re-test.
What can I do to improve my score?
There are plenty of ways to improve your score when preparing for a first attempt or a retake.
Those that can afford the cost can pay for an ACT prep course or a similar program designed to help students improve their scores. Reviews.com gathered up a few of the best last November into one handy article.
Practice tests can also go a long way towards understanding the ACT. Plenty of practice tests are available online and can be used as benchmarks to measure your preparation. Magoosh.com has a blog post about practice tests that is a good place to start.
Good Study Habits
The best way to improve your score is to study both yourself and the subjects. Tests are intended to identify an understanding of the subjects being tested, but sometimes the questions themselves get tricky. There is no substitute for knowledge of those subjects which usually comes from hard work. This PrepScholar.com post covers study and test taking habits for getting a perfect 36, but also states that these tricks can be used by anyone looking to improve their score.
A Few More FAQs
Who can take the ACT?
The ACT is open to anyone regardless of age or grade level, although most colleges have a separate transfer process for those with prior college experience.
What if I cannot afford the testing fee?
Students testing on the national test days may be eligible for a fee waiver. The information is sent to high schools each summer. Ask your school counselor for assistance.
What if I cannot make the test date and/or location?
The ACT offers Arranged Testing for students 75 miles from a testing center, unable to test on a Saturday for religious reasons, or unable to reach a testing facility for medical reasons. More information on Arranged Testing is available at www.act.org.
Related: Have you tried our ACT score calculator?