What is a Good or Bad ACT Score? Complete Explanation.

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If you’ve already taken the ACT and got your scores back, or are just starting to prepare for ACT, you probably want to know what is a Good, Bad, and an Excellent score for ACT.

In this article, we will discuss what is a Good composite score, help you figure out what YOUR target score should be based on the list of schools you are planning to apply to, provide ACT score ranges of admitted students for a number of popular schools, and offer suggestions on what to do if you fall short of your goal score.

What is Generally a Good ACT Score?

The ACT scores range from 1 to 36 and like with any other test, the higher the score, the better you did; however, there is a certain threshold that defines a “good” score.

In order to understand this concept, it is important to understand that the ACT composite score from 1-36 corresponds to a percentile that compares your performance to that of all other ACT test-takers. So, if you scored in the 60th percentile means that you scored better than 60 percent of other students.

Statistically, ACT scores are set up to follow a normal distribution which means that most of student performance is clustered around the middle of the scale, i.e. most students score somewhere between a little to the right and a little to the left of the average. A disproportionately smaller number of students score near the highest and lowest end of the scale.

National Averages

The average (national) ACT score is 20. If your score is 20, that means that you’ve scored higher than 50% of other students taking the same test. Depending on your point of view and your overall goals, this can be a pretty good (solid) score. The better your composite score, the higher your percentile. For example, a score of 25 (only 4 composite points higher) is a 79th percentile – this is better than almost 80% of other test takers’ results.

In terms of benchmarks for ACT percentiles, a composite score of 16 places you at the 25th percentile which means you’ve scored better than 25% of all test takers. This is not a strong score. As mentioned before, a 20 is a national average ACT score, at the 50th percentile. A score of 24 mean that you scored better than about 75% of students, and a 31 means that you’ve scored better than 96% of students. Any score 34 and higher is the 99th percentile! – a very competitive score.

The Chart below shows an abbreviated view of ACT Scores Percentiles for 2017-2018 to help you determine how your score compares you to overall population of students taking the ACT.

 

Score

 

ACT English Percentile ACT Math Percentile ACT Reading Percentile ACT Science Percentile Composite Percentile
36 99 99 99 99 99
34 98 99 98 99 99
30 91 95 88 94 94
28 87 91 83 91 89
26 82 83 77 86 82
24 74 74 71 77 74
22 64 63 60 63 63
20 52 55 48 49 51
18 42 45 37 34 38
15 28 17 21 17 19
10 7 1 2 2 1
5 1 1 1 1 1
1 1 1 1 1 1
           
National Mean 20.3 20.7 21.4 20.9 20.9

Source: ACT.org

After looking at this abbreviated chart, you can see that there are not very many people scoring near the top or the bottom of the scale and that the percentiles in those areas don’t change as dramatically as they do in the middle section.

Composite scores from 1-10 are all in the 1st percentile, and composite scores 34-36 are all in the 99th percentile. In contrast, if you look at the middle of the scale (score of 20) where most test takers are clustered, an increase of just a few points makes a big difference – going from 18 to 24 moves you from 38th percentile to 74th percentile, a HUGE 36% difference for just 6 composite points. Conversely, the same 6-point jump – from 24 to 30 only moves you from 74th percentile to 94th. That’s a 20% increase. And from 30 to 36 is only a 5% increase.

Although individual section scores are slightly different from composite score percentiles, the same theory applies.

So, to summarize, compared to all test-takers:

  • ACT score < 16 = bottom 25%
  • ACT score of 20 = middle (national average score)
  • ACT score of 24+ = top 25%
  • ACT score of 28+ = top 10%
  • ACT score of 31+ = top 5%
  • ACT score of 34+ = top 1% of test-takers

Having considered this statistical information, the burning question is still …

What is a Good ACT Score for You?

The answer to this question depends, in large part, on which schools you are planning to apply.

The same score can be strong, weak, or super strong. For example, a score of 28 places you in the top 10% of all test-takers, and it’s a strong score for admission at San Diego State University, Arizona State University, University of San Francisco and Syracuse University.  At the same time, a 28 can be a very low score for super-selective universities like the Ivy Leagues, Stanford, and University of Chicago. Furthermore, a score of 29 would be an incredibly high score for less selective schools such as CSU Northridge (average ACT score 20), Radford University (average ACT score 19), or CSU Fullerton (average ACT score of 22). If those were your goal schools, you should be aiming for a score slightly above average (21-23); you wouldn’t need a 28.

So, what makes a good ACT score YOU is relative.

It is important to remember that the higher you standardized test score, the more likely you are to get offers of merit scholarships.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a higher standardized test score (SAT or ACT) can help even out your application if your GPA is lower than what the school is looking for. (Unfortunately, this won’t help at the super selective schools who expect applicants to have high marks across the board.)

How to Find Your Goal Score

So how do you figure out what suffices for good ACT scores for colleges you’re interested in? Here’s the process:

Step 1: Prepare a List

Make a table similar to this (or copy and print this one).

School Name 25th Percentile ACT score 75th Percentile ACT score
     
     

 

Step 2: Insert a List of Schools You Are Interested in Applying to on the Left

If you know which schools you want to apply to already – write them into the list in the left-hand column. If you don’t have a list yet, consider researching the schools your friends, your parents, or your counselor suggest to you so that you develop a realistic target score. Find out what schools you are interested in applying to. The more accurate an idea you have of what schools interest you, the more accurate your target score will be.

Step 3: For Each School on Your List: Google “[School Name] admission requirements.”

For example, if I am interested in University of Colorado, Boulder, I will do the following search:

Click on the link to find out the 25th and 75th percentile composite ACT scores for admitted students. For University of Colorado, Boulder the 25th percentile ACT score is 25 and 75th percentile ACT score is 30. This means that most of the admitted students have an ACT score between 25 and 30. This also means that a score lower than 25 is below average for admitted students for U Colorado, Boulder. If you are at the 25th percentile or below, you will need to have an especially strong application to increase your chances of getting in. On the other hand, a score at or above 30 would put you in the top quarter of admitted students.

Note: if you score at or above the 75th percentile for any school, you have a great chance at getting in (assuming your other credentials are in order).

Continue to Google every school on your list and write down 25th and 75th percentile for each school on your “Schools Interested In” list.

Step 4: Calculate Your Target ACT Score

To calculate your ACT target score, look at the 75th percentile column. Find the highest score in that column. That is Your target score. If you can score at the 75th percentile for the most competitive school on your list, your scores will be competitive at all of your listed schools.

Another advantage of choosing a high target score is that your actual score is 1-2 points lower, your score will still be competitive at most of your schools.

Keep your list handy. If you find another school (or several) that you are interested in, just follow steps 2 and 3.

Step 5: Place Your Goal List in a Visible Place

It will serve as a reminder of the efforts you need to make in order to achieve Your goal.

Good ACT Score at Popular Schools

As an example of research that you will be doing and to make this process easier, here is a list of popular schools, their 25th and 75th ACT percentiles, US World News Rankings and 2018 Acceptance rate.

 

School

25th Percentile ACT 75th Percentile ACT US News Ranking (National Universities) 2018 Acceptance Rate

 

Princeton University

 

32 35 1

 

5.5%
Harvard University

 

32 35 2 4.6%
University of Chicago

 

32 35 3 8.7%
Yale University

 

32 35 3 6.3%
Columbia University

 

32 35 5 6.7%
MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) 32 35 5 6.9%
Stanford University 32 35 5 4.29%
University of Pennsylvania 32 35 8 8.4%
Duke University 31 34 9 8%
California Institute of Technology 32 35 10 8%
Dartmouth University 30 34 11 8.7%
Northwestern University 32 35 11 8.4%
Brown University 31 35 14 7.2%
Cornell University 31 34 14 10.3%
Rice University 33 35 14 16%
Vanderbilt University 33 35 14 11%
University of Notre Dame 32 34 18 17.6%
Washington University in St. Louis 33 35 18 15%
Georgetown University 30 34 20 14.5%
Emory University 31 34 21 22%
University of California, Berkeley 30 34 21 17%
University of California, Los Angeles 30 34 21 16%
University of Southern California 31 34 21 13%
Carnegie Mellon University 32 35 25 22%
University of Virginia 29 33 25 27%
Wake Forest University 28 32 27 28%
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor 30 33 28 27%
Tufts University     29  
New York University (NYU) 29 33 30 28%
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill 27 32 30 24%
Boston College 31 33 32 32%
Boston University 29 32 37 29%
Villanova University 31 34 46 36%
Penn State University 25 29 52 50%
Ohio State University 27 31 54 49%
University of Georgia 26 31 54 54%
Clemson University 27 31 67 47%
Texas A&M University 25 30 69 70%
Virginia Tech 25 30 69 71%
Baylor University 26 30 75 39.7%

What if My Score is Too Low?

If you take the test and are disappointed with the results, don’t panic. There are a few options.

Option 1: Retake the Test

Your best option is to retake the test – if you have the time and are really determined to get into the caliber of schools on your list. To have the best chance of actually improving your score, you must study to target your weaknesses.

You need to make sure that you actually spend enough hours on preparation to make a significant difference in your overall score. Keep in mind that for every improvement of one ACT composite points, your raw score has to improve by at least 4 points. Here is a general estimate of how many hours of prep it will take to improve your composite score:

  • 0-1 ACT Composite Point improvement: 10 hours
  • 1-2 ACT Composite Point improvement: 20 hours
  • 2-4 ACT Composite Point improvement: 40 hours
  • 4-6 ACT Composite Point improvement: 80 hours
  • 6-9 ACT Composite Point improvement: 150+ hours

Option 2: Don’t Worry About It

If you only missed your target score by one or two points, depending on the school’s you’re planning to apply to, you might not need to do anything.  For example, your target score was a 35, but you received a 34. You could retake the test, but if the score of 34 puts you near the top of the 25-75th percentile range for your schools, it might make more sense to spend the time preparing and/or strengthening other parts of your application. However, if you were more than two to three points off target, you might consider Options 1 and 3. Also, if you are applying to super selective schools (Ivy League or similar), then even two points might make a retake worth it.

Option 3: Adjust Your List of Schools

If you are more than 2 points off your target score and you don’t have time to retake the test, your best option is to adjust your list of schools. While you still can (and should) apply to your dream schools as reach schools, you need to make sure you have enough strong match and safety schools for your score on your college list.

For example, you were aiming for a 32, but got a 28 and maybe you had Boston University (29-32) as one of your match schools, but now you can apply to it as a reach school. At the same time, if you were planning to apply to Penn State University (25-29) as a safety school, now you will be applying there as a match school. So, add some safety schools to your list, like SUNY Albany (22-26) or Cal State Fullerton (20-24).

Summary

After reading this article, you should have a pretty good understanding of what makes a Good ACT score.

In summary, the most important part of a Good ACT score is that it is YOUR best score and that it is generally consistent with the rest of your application package as well as the 25th-75th percentile scores of previously admitted students.

Research the schools to find out if they are a good fit for you, understand what it takes to get into those schools and practice ACT prep until you achieve your goal. And if you don’t hit it on your first try, don’t worry – take the time to put in the kind of practice that will help you increase your score.

Check out my YouTube video for this blog: https://youtu.be/5OtUBynHDlY

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