What Is a Good ACT Score?

Average ACT score

The value and fairness of standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT as well as how accurately they measure college readiness have been under scrutiny for a while.

Now the ability to take in-person tests is being challenged by COVID-19. Some schools are shifting to being test-optional, which means a student can decide whether or not they want to take a test and submit their scores. 

Nevertheless, both tests are still an important part of most high school students’ journey to college, so it’s helpful to understand what constitutes a good score.  

The ACT is a standardized test that measures knowledge and skills in four main areas: English, math, reading, and science. Colleges use these results to determine if a student has acquired knowledge from the courses they took in high school. The results are also a predictor of how a student will perform in their freshman year, and so institutions use them to help make admissions decisions.

Understanding the ACT Score Report

Each section of the ACT consists of multiple-choice questions and is scored on a scale of 1-36 points. These scores are then averaged to calculate a composite score that is also out of 36 points.

The higher the scores (for each of the four main areas as well as the composite) you or your child receives, the better the performance.  

Percentiles distinguish performance levels among composite scores by comparing the score to those of other ACT test-takers. So for example, if a student scored at the 60th percentile, it means they outperformed 60% of other test-takers. The higher the percentile, the better.  

Understanding What Makes an ACT Score Competitive

The average ACT score is 20.6, which is at the 50th percentile. The scores follow a normal distribution in that most test-takers score a little below or a little above the average score. 

This list may help your child see where their score compares to other test takers:

  • Less than 16 = bottom 25%
  • 21 = average score
  • 24 or higher  = top 25%
  • 29 or higher = top 10%
  • 31 or higher = top 5%

Once they’ve seen what various scores mean in relation to other test takers, they should ask what a score means to them personally. This is relative because it depends on the admissions criteria of the schools to which they are interested in applying. 

To determine whether or not their score is good enough, they need to refer to the ACT score range or average score for each school on their wishlist. Colleges usually state standardized testing requirements on their admissions website.

Additionally, look at the average score of incoming freshmen. For example, if your child scored a 29, it would be deemed to be low at a selective school like Yale where the average is 34, yet would be considered a strong score at a school like Penn State where the average score is 28.

It is also important to keep in mind that an ACT score will be considered as one facet of an admissions profile, albeit a strong one.

High school GPA, level of classes, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters, an entrance interview, and college essays are also key components that can affect how your child’s ACT score is viewed or how much weight may be placed on it.  

The ACT Score Needed to Get Into Top Schools  

Obviously, a perfect ACT score of 36 may enable your child to get into very selective schools. It is also safe to say that an above-average score would be needed to get into a top or Ivy League school. 

How to Improve an ACT Score

It’s important to note that it is not unusual for a student to score below expectations the first time they take the ACT, or to receive scores that don’t reflect their grades in school.  

Regardless of how they do, unless they received the maximum ACT score of 36, there is always room for improvement. The good news is they won’t need to take thousands of practice questions or spend endless hours in tutoring.

The key is to learn test-taking strategy, which ACT prep courses can teach in a couple of hours a week for a month.  

Even better news is students can retake single sections of the test to improve their score rather than the entire test. They’ll also need to be mindful of test dates and registration deadlines to reach their personal best ACT score.  

Editor’s note: Because of COVID-19, there have been some changes to the ACT, including postponing ACT section retakes. The above information is still relevant, though the start date for section retesting is TBA.

SAT Scores vs. ACT Scores: Where Each Score Matters

Your child probably has a lot of questions about standardized testing. Should they take the ACT or the SAT? Which one better suits their needs? Do they need to take one and wonder how they would do on the other?

There are differences between the two exams, and students usually do better on one than the other.  

Unlike the SAT, the ACT does have a science component to it, and students can use a calculator for all math questions. It has been noted that students who are more linear as opposed to creative tend to perform better on the ACT.

Also, the recent change allowing students the option to retake individual sections of the ACT instead of the entire test can affect their decision and ability to submit higher scores to colleges. (The highest four scores are averaged and sent to colleges, regardless of whether your highest scores are on the same testing day or different days.) 

It’s a good idea for students to take a timed full-length practice test for each (the ACT and SAT) to see which one they prefer.   

In the end, what makes a good ACT score isn’t one magic number. There are a variety of factors at play.

By understanding what your score means in comparison to other test takers, you’ll get a better sense of whether your test results will help you achieve your admissions goals. 

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