The ACT plays a pivotal role in the college admissions journey of countless high school students. As the academic world continues to evolve, the value and significance of standardized tests like the ACT and SAT have come under scrutiny. In recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many educational institutions to adopt test-optional policies, allowing students to decide whether to submit ACT scores. Yet, for many students, understanding what qualifies as a good ACT score remains a paramount concern.
In this guide, we will unravel the mysteries surrounding ACT scores, shed light on the factors that determine a “good” score, and provide invaluable insights into achieving your academic aspirations. Whether you’re a student aiming for the Ivy League or contemplating the best approach to standardized testing, this guide will navigate you through the nuances of ACT scores, helping you make informed decisions about your college journey.
What Is the ACT?
The ACT, or American College Testing, is a standardized test widely used for college admissions in the United States. It assesses high school students’ readiness for college-level coursework and is designed to measure their knowledge and skills in various academic areas. The ACT is considered one of the two major college admissions tests in the United States, with the other being the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test).
Here are some key features and components of the ACT:
- Content Areas: The ACT consists of four main sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. There is also an optional Writing (Essay) section. Each section is designed to evaluate different aspects of a student’s academic abilities and readiness.
- Scoring: The ACT is scored on a scale from 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest possible score. Students receive a separate score for each of the four required sections, and these scores are averaged to calculate the composite score, which is also on a scale of 1 to 36. The optional Writing section is scored separately and does not contribute to the composite score.
- Test Format: The ACT is a multiple-choice test, with each section consisting of a set of questions related to its content area. The questions are designed to assess a student’s knowledge, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking abilities.
- Optional Writing Section: While the ACT Writing section is optional, some colleges and universities require or recommend it as part of the admissions process. This section presents a prompt on a relevant topic, and students are required to write an essay in response within a specified time frame.
- Test Dates: The ACT is typically administered on specific dates throughout the year. Students can register for the test and choose from available test dates based on their preferences and college application deadlines.
- Preparation: Many students engage in test preparation to improve their ACT scores. This can involve self-study using study guides and practice tests, enrolling in ACT prep courses, or utilizing online resources.
What Is a Good ACT Score?
Here’s the short answer: A good ACT score typically falls within the range of 24 to 29. However, what’s considered “good” can vary based on your college goals and the institutions you’re interested in. It’s essential to research the specific ACT score requirements of your target colleges to determine the score you should aim for.
When it comes to defining a good ACT score, it’s essential to consider various factors that influence this assessment. The ACT is scored on a scale from 1 to 36, with 36 being a perfect score. Nationally, the average ACT score hovers around 20.6, roughly at the 50th percentile.
Scores below this average may be viewed as below average, while scores above it are generally considered above average. Therefore, scoring between 24 to 29 places you in the top quartile of test-takers, which is often seen as a good range to aim for.
However, it’s crucial to recognize that what constitutes a good ACT score can be highly subjective. Your score should align with your academic and career aspirations and the specific colleges or universities you plan to apply to. Highly selective institutions may require higher scores, often in the 30s, to be competitive, while less selective schools may accept scores in the mid-20s as good. Therefore, conducting thorough research into the average ACT scores of admitted students at your desired colleges will provide valuable guidance on setting your target score.
Moreover, remember that your ACT score is just one element of your college application. Admissions committees also consider other factors like your high school GPA, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters, and personal essays. Therefore, while a good ACT score can certainly bolster your application, a holistic approach to your college admissions strategy will yield the most favorable results.
How Is Your ACT Score Used?
Like the SAT, the ACT can play a key role in the college admissions process, financial aid determinations, and more. Here’s a rundown of how ACT score might be used..
1. ACT’s Importance for College Admissions
Many colleges and universities use ACT scores as part of their admissions criteria. A strong ACT score can make your application more competitive, particularly at selective institutions. Some highly competitive schools may have specific score thresholds that applicants are expected to meet or exceed. In these cases, achieving a good ACT score can be the key to unlocking the doors to prestigious institutions.
Moreover, the ACT provides a standardized measure of academic readiness, allowing admissions officers to compare applicants fairly. It offers a level playing field for students from different high schools with varying grading systems. By demonstrating your proficiency in key subject areas, you can showcase your preparedness for college-level coursework.
2. ACT’s Role in Financial Aid
A good score on the ACT can also significantly impact your eligibility for financial aid. Many colleges and universities offer merit-based scholarships and grants to students with exceptional academic achievements, including high ACT scores. These financial incentives can make higher education more affordable and help offset the rising costs of college.
Some scholarship programs have specific ACT score requirements, meaning that achieving a good score could make you eligible for substantial financial assistance. This financial aid can ease the burden of tuition, room and board, and other educational expenses, making it more feasible to attend your dream school.
3. ACT Scores for Course Placement
The ACT can influence your course placement once you’re enrolled in college. Some institutions use ACT scores to determine whether you are ready for advanced coursework in certain subjects. A high ACT score may enable you to skip introductory-level courses and dive into more challenging material right from the start of your college journey. This can save you time and money while ensuring that you are appropriately challenged in your academic pursuits.
4. Using Your ACT Score for Academic Planning
The ACT provides valuable insights into your strengths and weaknesses in specific subject areas. This information can be instrumental in guiding your academic planning. For instance, if you excel in science on the ACT, it might lead you to explore STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) majors and career paths. Conversely, if you perform exceptionally well in English and writing, it could steer you toward fields that require strong communication skills. Understanding your ACT results can help you align your college and career aspirations with your academic strengths.
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.
What’s the Average 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 Your 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.
SAT Scores vs. ACT Scores: Where Each Score Matters
Students and their families often have 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.
How to Compare ACT Scores With Our College Insights Tool
Use Road2College’s College Insights to compare colleges and build your college list. We offer dozens of data points, including average ACT (and SAT) scores for incoming freshmen. Sort potential colleges by state, majors, GPAs, cost of attendance, merit scholarships and much more. Try it for free today.
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