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 by a college is going to depend on a variety of factors including your particular academic strengths and weaknesses and the admission and scholarship score requirements at the colleges that you're interested in attending.
ACT scores are an important part of a student’s college application. While they are not 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.
Counterintuitively, test scores hold considerable importance even at test optional colleges.
The ACT is not a perfect measure. There are many factors that can impact a student's score beyond simple acquisition of knowledge. But, within some wide parameters, there are certain ACT scores that we would reasonably expect a student to achieve based on his or her performance in school
My philosophy on testing and ACT prep is never one-size-fits all. We have to take each student's unique situation into account.
So, with that in mind, there 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.
Before we get to our questions, though, here’s a quick review of how the ACT is scored. (Click here if you'd prefer an in-depth article on how the ACT is scored.)
How is the ACT scored?
The ACT is composed of four main multiple-choice sections:
These four multiple-choice sections are scored on a scale of 1-36. These four scores are then averaged to calculate your ACT composite score which falls between 1 and 36.
In the event that your ACT composite score is a decimal, it will be rounded to the nearest whole number.
What's the average ACT composite score?
The lowest possible ACT score is a zero. The highest possible ACT composite score is a 36.
Using the percentiles from this ACT percentile chart, 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.
3 Questions To Help You Decide If Your ACT Score Is Good Enough To Stop Testing
Now that we're on the same page with ACT scoring, read on to discover if your ACT scores are good enough to bring your testing journey to an end or if you have a bit more work to do before you can fully escape from Testing Land.
Question #1: Based on your academic strengths and weaknesses, what ACT score can you reasonably expect to achieve?
Here are two ways I help new students of mine evaluate where their ACT scores currently are in comparison to what I would expect them to be able to accomplish.
These are 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. This helps us come up with a solid test prep plan, but these are by no means hard and fast rules.
Anticipated ACT Score Using GPA
Based on a student’s GPA, I would expect his or her score to fall within the following ACT composite score range after ACT prep.
- 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
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 score deficits.
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.
While I’m a big fan of complete ACT prep programs that review academic concepts as well as provide customizable strategies, if you need a fast course that can boost scores quickly, you should certainly consider my strategy-only ACT Quick Prep program that can be completed in less than 4 hours.
Question #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.
You can use tools like BigFuture.com or your prospective colleges' admissions pages to uncover this information. (I highly recommend creating a spreadsheet to keep track of the data.)
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 to prepare for your next ACT so you can get into that score range.
Question #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.
One 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!)
Dea's 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 scores are in range to make you a 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.