Understand What’s a Good ACT Score for College Admissions

When determining what makes for a good ACT score, test-takers have to ask another question: “Good enough for whom, exactly?”

Like various other factors on a college application, the criteria for what makes a good test score are largely dependent on what schools want. A good ACT score at one school may fall below the mark at another based on admissions standards set by individual colleges.

“I think it varies considerably, depending on what schools you’re targeting, and also what their current position is on testing, which seems to be quite a fluid situation these days,” says Jill Madenberg, principal at Madenberg College Consulting in New York.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted many colleges to go test-optional, meaning students can decide whether to submit ACT and SAT scores. Other colleges have gone test-blind, meaning they won’t even look at scores submitted as part of applications. Many colleges made such moves after a string of cancellations by testing companies made it difficult for students to take these standardized exams.

[Read: ACT vs. SAT: How to Decide Which Test to Take.]

The composite score on the ACT ranges from 1 to 36. The national average composite score was 20.6 for the class of 2020, per recent data from the ACT organization. This number marks a slight dip from the prior year, when the composite score averaged 20.7 for the class of 2019.

Determine a Good ACT Score for College Admissions

The national average may be down, but what ultimately is a good ACT score?

“Quite simply, there’s no such thing as a good or bad score,” Tony Le, a test prep expert at Magoosh, a California-based online test prep company, wrote in an email. “It’s relative to the school that you are applying to & the context of the admissions process. The first place to look is the college’s range of scores & you’ll want to stay within this range to stay competitive.”

But one ACT score that some college counseling professionals point to as the high water mark for selective institutions is a 34.

“We get a lot of students aiming for the Ivy League, and for the Ivies, it’s a 34 that seems to be the magic number that students feel will give them their best shot,” says Shahar Link, owner and founder of North Carolina-based Mindspire Tutoring and Test Prep.

Madenberg adds that “achieving a 34 or higher will get your application read at pretty much any school in America.”

Here’s a look at the 25th and 75th ACT score percentiles for newly enrolled students in fall 2019 at the top National Universities, as ranked by U.S. News.

Princeton University (NJ) 33 35 34 6% 1
Harvard University (MA) 33 35 34 5% 2
Columbia University (NY) 33 35 N/A 5% 3
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 34 36 35 7% 4 (tie)
Yale University (CT) 33 35 34 6% 4 (tie)
Stanford University (CA) 32 35 33 4% 6 (tie)
University of Chicago 33 35 34 6% 6 (tie)
University of Pennsylvania 33 35 34 8% 8
California Institute of Technology 35 36 N/A 6% 9 (tie)
Johns Hopkins University (MD) 33 35 N/A 10% 9 (tie)
Northwestern University (IL) 33 35 33 9% 9 (tie)

But students can and do get into many schools with much lower scores. After all, testing is only one part of an application, and colleges also consider letters of recommendations, high school GPA and admissions essays, among other factors.

Ultimately, schools’ benchmarks vary. The national average ACT score for 2019 reported by nearly 340 ranked National Universities to U.S. News in an annual survey was 25.5.

Regarding ACT scores, experts advise students to look at the 50th percentile of students admitted in the most recent freshman class to know what ACT scores individual colleges value. Scoring in the 50th percentile means a test-taker scored equal to or higher than 50% of his or her peers. Theoretically, the higher the percentile rank the better the odds of admission at that school.

Students can use this benchmark as a rule of thumb, experts say. Being above the 50th percentile is a good sign. Although being below doesn’t automatically disqualify students, it may mean that a school is a reach based on their ACT scores. In such cases, students may want to consider not submitting scores if that college is test-optional because submitting scores is unlikely to help their application.

Madenberg encourages students to personalize applications for each college according to where they landed in the 50th percentile range, so that they’re sending scores to schools where they hit that target. “You don’t have to do the same thing for every college,” she says. “If you’re applying to eight colleges, you can submit your scores to two or three of them and not the others.”

[Read: 3 Steps to Take After the ACT, SAT.]

And while many colleges are test-optional, submitting a score can still be worthwhile.

“If you submit a strong score, it’s going to help you,” Link says. “Or at least it definitely won’t hurt you.”

Similarly, Le suggests fewer students may take standardized exams as they remain optional at many schools, which means taking a test and submitting a score may offer another data point to evaluate an applicant and may help him or her stand out in the admissions process.

As for test-blind schools, there’s no point in sending exam results to institutions that aren’t even going to look at them as part of the admissions process or for determining scholarships, experts say.

The table below shows a breakdown of ACT composite scores by percentile based on 2020-2021 exam results, per the most recent ACT data.

36 100 100 100 100 100
35 99 99 98 99 99
34 96 99 96 98 99
33 94 98 94 97 98
32 92 97 91 96 96
31 91 96 89 95 95
30 89 94 86 93 93
29 88 93 84 92 90
28 86 91 82 90 88
27 84 88 80 88 85
26 82 84 77 85 82
25 79 79 74 82 78
24 75 74 71 77 74
23 71 70 66 71 70
22 65 65 61 64 64
21 60 61 55 58 59
20 55 58 50 51 53
19 49 54 44 45 47
18 45 49 39 39 41
17 41 42 34 32 35
16 37 33 29 26 28
15 32 21 24 19 22
14 25 11 19 14 16
13 19 4 14 10 10
12 15 1 10 7 5
11 11 1 5 4 2
10 7 1 3 3 1
9 3 1 1 1 1
8 2 1 1 1 1
7 1 1 1 1 1
6 1 1 1 1 1
5 1 1 1 1 1
4 1 1 1 1 1
3 1 1 1 1 1
2 1 1 1 1 1
1 1 1 1 1 1

How to Improve Your ACT Score

Performing well on the ACT often starts with taking a practice exam so students can see where they stand and what needs improvement.

ACT practice tests can be a good way for students to familiarize themselves with the content and can serve as a diagnostic exam. Once students have identified their weak spots, they can work toward improving in those areas.

Test prep and college counseling experts generally encourage students to take the ACT at least twice. Nearly half of the students who take the ACT end up taking the exam more than once and typically improve their score, says Erika Tyler-John, ACT curriculum manager at Magoosh.

“One of the best things you can do to ensure your retake goes well is to learn as much as you can from your first attempt. Did you run out of time on any sections? Were there any question types you struggled with in particular? Did you experience more test anxiety than you do in your practice tests? Use your retake as an opportunity to address the things that impacted you (and your score) most on test day,” Tyler-John wrote in an email.

[Read: Find an ACT Tutor.]

She also encourages students to prioritize learning from their mistakes by investing time in the areas where they struggle.

“A great idea is to try to never make the same mistake twice — so once you make a mistake, dig into it to figure out what you did, why you did it, and how to recognize and fix it in a different problem,” Tyler-John says.

In dealing with test anxiety, Madenberg encourages students to recognize that the ACT is just one of many exams they’ll likely take in their high school career and to consider it “another day on the job.” She also encourages students to recognize that the ACT score is just one of many factors that colleges consider and not a complete picture of an applicant.

“Colleges recognize that a test score is only a few hours of your time on one day,” Madenberg says, “and it is not reflective or encompassing — good or bad — of who you are.”

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

More from U.S. News

Understand What’s a Good SAT Score for College Admissions

How to Read Your ACT Score Report

When and How to Cancel Your SAT, ACT Scores

Understand What’s a Good ACT Score for College Admissions originally appeared on usnews.com

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