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.
When COVID-19 hit, the ability to take in-person tests caused a shift at many schools to a test-optional policy (a student can decide whether or not they want to take an SAT or ACT test and submit their scores).
Today, both tests are still an important part of the college application process for most high school students, so it’s helpful to understand what constitutes a good test score.
The ACT is a standardized test that measures proficiency 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. Standardized test scores 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 test consists of multiple-choice questions. A student earns a point for every correct question, and the total number of points is the raw score.
Then, that raw score is converted into a scale score between 1 and 36. The scaled scores for each section are then averaged to calculate an ACT 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 ACT score) your student receives, the better the performance. A 36 is a perfect score.
You can also evaluate your child’s percentile score. With ACT scoring, percentiles distinguish performance levels among composite scores by comparing the score to those of other ACT test-takers. For example, if a student scored at the 75th percentile, it means they outperformed 75 percent of students who took the test. The higher the ACT percentile, the better.
Understanding What Makes a Good ACT Score
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 test score.
This list may help your child see where their composite score compares to other test takers:
- Less than 16 = bottom 25% (25th percentile)
- 21 = average ACT score (50th percentile)
- 24 or higher = top 25% (75th percentile)
- 29 or higher = top 10% (90th percentile)
- 31 or higher = top 5% (95th percentile)
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 they’re interested in applying to.
To determine whether or not their score is good enough, they need to refer to the ACT score range or average for each school on their wishlist. Colleges usually state standardized testing requirements on their admissions websites. You can also use the College Insights tool to get more details on each school’s admissions policies.
Additionally, look at the average ACT score of incoming freshmen. For example, if your child scored a 29, it would be deemed low at a selective school like Yale, where the average is 34. But it would be considered a good ACT score at a school like Penn State, where the average score is 28.
Keep in mind that an ACT score will be considered as one facet of a college admissions profile, albeit a strong one. Additionally, some schools may focus more on a section score rather than the composite score. If your child wants to get into a competitive English program, they may need a very high ACT writing score, but the math score might not matter as much.
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 colleges. It’s also safe to say that an above-average score would be needed to get into an Ivy League school. Many merit scholarship programs consider ACT scores or percentile ranking as well.
How to Improve an ACT Score
It’s important to note that it’s not unusual for a student to score below expectations the first time they take the ACT or receive scores that don’t reflect their grades in school. For example, a student can do poorly on the writing test even if their English grades are good.
Regardless of how they do, unless they received the maximum ACT test score of 36, there is always room for improvement. The good news is they won’t need to answer thousands of practice questions or spend endless hours in ACT prep tutoring to get a higher score.
The key is to learn a test-taking strategy, which ACT prep courses help with in a short amount of time.
One more simple way to improve your score? Be mindful of test dates and registration deadlines to reach their personal best ACT score.
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 exam or the SAT? Which one better suits their needs? Do they need to take one and wonder how they would do on the other? Are SAT or ACT prep courses really necessary?
There are differences between the two exams, and students usually do better on one compared to the other.
Unlike the SAT, the ACT does have a science component to it, and students can use a calculator for the entire math section (for the SAT it’s only allowed for part of the math section). 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 those highest scores are from the same testing day or different days.)
It’s a good idea for students to take a timed, full-length practice test for each exam (the ACT and SAT) to see which one they prefer. Many test-prep books and websites have practice exams.
In the end, what makes a good ACT score (or SAT score) isn’t one magic number. There are a variety of factors at play.
By understanding your child’s ACT percentile ranking, you’ll get a better sense of how their test results can help them achieve their admissions goals and/or qualify for merit aid.
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