When you get your ACT score back, it can be hard to tell whether you've earned a good ACT score. And, because good is a relative term, whether your ACT score is considered good is going to vary depending on your academic strengths and weaknesses as well as the admission and scholarship score requirements at the colleges you're interested in attending.
My philosophy on testing and ACT prep is never one-size-fits all. We have to take each student's unique situation into account.
Here are 3 simple questions you can answer to determine whether your ACT score is strong enough that you can feel comfortable putting the #2 pencil down. Read on to discover if your testing journey should be at an end or if there's a little bit more work to be done before you can walk away from the ACT for good.
1. Based on your academic strengths and weaknesses, what ACT score can you reasonably expect to achieve?
ACT scores are an important part of a student’s college application. While ACT scores aren’t the sole determinant of admission, one of their important functions is to verify that a student has actually acquired the knowledge that has helped them earn their grades in school.
Please don’t misunderstand me. The ACT is not a perfect measure. There are many factors that can impact a students score beyond simple acquisition of knowledge.
But, within some wide parameters, there are certain scores we would reasonably expect a student to achieve based on his or her performance in school
First, though, here’s a quick review of how the ACT is scored.
How the ACT Is Scored
The ACT is composed of 4 main multiple-choice sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. These 4 sections are scored on a scale of 1-36.
Those 4 scores are then averaged to create an ACT composite score that falls between 1 and 36. (In the event that there is a decimal, the average will be rounded to the nearest whole number.)
Using the percentiles from an ACT publication, we can see that the average section scores are as follows:
English | 20
Math | 19
Reading | 20
Science | 20
Therefore, the average ACT composite score is 20.
Here are 2 ways to determine if your ACT scores are in the ballpark of a reasonably expected score…
Anticipated ACT Score Using GPA
Based on a student’s GPA, I would expect the following ACT composite score after ACT prep…
GPA | ACT Composite
Over 4.0 | 30 - 36
3.5 - 4.0 | 26 - 30
3.0 - 3.5 | 22 - 26
2.5 - 3.0 | 18 - 22
Anticipated ACT Score Using Grades
Using a student’s English class performance as a guide, here’s what I would expect from the English and Reading sections...
Strong (A’s and high B’s) Honors/AP Students + Strong Readers | 28 - 36
Strong (A’s and high B’s) Students in Regular English/B-Level Honors/AP Students | 26 - 32
B Students in Regular English/C-Level Honors/AP Students | 22 - 26
All Others | 18 - 22
On the Math and Science side, once a student has taken Algebra 2, I would expect the scores to come out as follows...
Strong (A’s and high B’s) Honors/AP Students | 28 - 36
Strong (A’s and high B’s) Students in Regular Level Math /B-Level Honors/AP Students | 26 - 32
B Students in Regular Level Math/C-Level Honors/AP Students | 22 - 26
All Others | 18 - 22
These are, of course, loose guidelines. I use them to get a sense of how far off the mark a student may be from what she can reasonably hope to achieve, but they are by no means hard and fast rules.
Some students outpace these estimates even without prep. Others come in well under the mark on their first testing efforts.
If you are disheartened by your ACT scores so far, I can tell you that under-performing on the ACT as compared to your academic progress is very common. It’s something I help students of all ability levels surmount on a daily basis.
The great news is that it doesn’t take thousands of practice questions or hours and hours of tutoring to overcome.
In the last decade of teaching the ACT, I’ve found that just a little bit of strategy-focused prep can help students uncover crucial points that positively impact their admissions and financial aid prospects.
About 4 hours of prep is often all it takes to nudge those previously lackluster ACT scores toward much stronger, more accurately representative numbers.
2. What are the average ACT scores for accepted students at 3-6 of your favorite prospective colleges?
Once you’ve considered the scores listed above, you should check in with prospective colleges regarding their average ACT scores for admission.
Most colleges list the middle 50% of the range of accepted scores, eliminating the very high and very low score outliers from the accepted applicants the previous year. In order to be considered a strong applicant in the following year, you'll want to target the upper half of this range.
If your ACT scores fall in this upper half or above, you can breathe easy and continue to hone the other aspects of your application to make yourself an even more competitive applicant.
If your scores aren't quite within that range yet, you'll want to come up with a game plan for preparation that will help you get into that range.
3. What are the score requirements for merit aid at your favorite colleges?
You may be tempted to skip this question if you feel you aren't the kind of student who will qualify for scholarships.
That would be a serious mistake - one that can cost you thousands of dollars in free tuition dollars down the line.
The time to research paying for college is the same time that you are selecting the colleges you're going to apply to because, if you know where to look, you can find colleges that will pay you to attend, even with 50th or 60th percentile ACT scores.
You don't have to be a 99th percentile scoring, 4.7 GPA earning student to earn 4- and 5-figure scholarships to a great college. You just have to know where to look to find the money.
So, at the same time that you are researching admissions averages, you should also look into the score requirements for merit aid which is sometimes referred to as academic scholarships on college websites.
While getting in to a college is important, many families overlook the financial aid impact of their ACT scores.
1 ACT point can make the difference between earning nothing and having thousands of dollars in free tuition money in your pocket. Without doing scholarship research early, you run the risk of walking away from testing when you are incredibly close to earning seriously impactful tuition awards.
Here's what one of my online ACT prep clients had to say...
Our daughter went through your ACT prep a few years ago and we could not have been happier! She is now a rising sophomore having earned close to $100,000 in scholarships thanks in large part to her high ACT score. (Thx again!)
Her daughter's ACT score improvements led $100,000 in scholarships over 4 years.
Makes the investment in ACT prep worthwhile, don’t you think?
If this seems overwhelming, rest assured that you won't have to walk this path alone.
The link between higher scores and tuition dollars is the reason that all of my online ACT prep courses include my Cash for College workshop as a free bonus. I help students improve their scores and then help families understand what to do with those higher ACT scores to turn them into cash for college.
I've had students earn 4-, 5-, and 6-figure scholarships and I can help you do the same.
Your Next Steps....
Once you’ve done the research and determined the difference between your current ACT score and the ACT score you need to be a strong applicant and contender for scholarships, you're either going to find that you are:
- within or above a competitive ACT score range and are done with testing, or
- falling a bit short of your desired score range and in need of some ACT prep.
If your score are in range to make you a super competitive candidate for admissions and scholarships, congratulations! You can put the #2 pencil down and move on with your life.
That said, most students land in the I Still Have Work To Do group.
Once you’ve named your score goals and assessed the gap between current performance and the scores you want, it’s time to come up with a game plan for preparing for success.
You can get started right now by accessing some of my favorite ACT prep resources here or download my free eBook, The Insider's Guide to the ACT & SAT, in which I share 35 of my top strategies for success on the college admissions exams.
Simply enter your name and email address below to receive my free eBook and I will help you get on the path to higher ACT scores right away.