Just how much does a perfect (or near-perfect) ACT score stand out?
We know that 36 is the best possible score on the ACT and that any score in the 30s is considered very good. But just how good is a top score of 34, 35, or 36? And how many students earn those scores every year?
In this post, we break down just how rare those top scores are, and how many students get them each year. Learn how much you can stand out in the application process with a top score – and how to raise your score to get there.
To do this analysis, we use the latest report from ACT about the Class of 2016, who took the ACT as sophomores, juniors, and seniors. If you want to read more ACT score statistics, you can check out the report yourself.
Out of the Class of 2016, 2,090,342 took the ACT. The average composite score was 20.8 out of 36 (for more on how the ACT is scored, check out our article). That means any score 21+ puts you above average.
How Many Get Top 1% Scores?
If we consider 21 and up good scores, since they’re above average, what would qualify as an amazing score?
To find that out, we look at ACT percentiles – a.k.a. the rankings that are tied to the composite scores. For example, a 90th percentile score means you scored higher than 90% of test takers.
On the ACT, 34 and up is the 99th percentile. Which means if you score a 34 or higher, you’re in the top 1% of test takers!
But exactly how many students earned a 33, 34, 35, or 36 in 2015? Which score is the rarest?
|Score||Number of Students||Percentage of All Test Takers|
Unsurprisingly, a perfect 36 is the rarest score of all – just 0.108% of all test-takers earned a perfect score.
Roughly five times more students earned the next-highest score of 35. However, it’s still a very rare score that just 0.526% of test-takers earned.
Note that about eight times more students earned a 34 than earned a 36. You can see why a 36 is so impressive – even among the very top-scorers, it really sets students apart, particularly for the most competitive schools.
How Many Students Get Top 10% Scores?
From our percentile post, you can learn that getting a 29 or higher means you are in the top 10% of scorers. So if 21 and up is good, and 33 and up is incredible, a score of 29 or higher would qualify as a great score.
The breakdowns for scores between 29 and 32 are as follows:
|Score||Amount of Students||Percentile|
Note that, just like with the very top scores, the higher your score gets, the rarer it is. There are more almost twice as many students with 29s than 32s.
You can probably see why raising your ACT composite just a few points can have such a big impact on your admissions chances! Because admissions is all about comparing you to the other applicants, the more unique you can make yourself, the better your chances. And the higher your ACT score, the rarer it is.
How Much Should You Improve Your Score?
So we know just how impressive top 10% ACT scores are, and how rare top 1% scores are. But what kind of score should you aim for? Should everyone go for a 36?
We recommend improving your score based on the following guidelines. Of course, you can always aim for perfection, but the following goals are manageable and can give all students a competitive ACT score.
If you have a score in the teens, you should work to get your score to at least a 21. This will put you in the top half of test-takers, and really give a boost to your applications.
If you have a score in the low to mid 20s (20-27), even though you are above average, you should try and retake the ACT to get to a 29. Getting to the top 10% of scorers is very impressive and opens up a lot of scholarship opportunities. It will also make your admissions applications that much more impressive, and open doors at selective colleges.
If you have a 29 or higher, raising your score by even 2 or 3 points would be very effective. Going from just 29 to 31 gets you from the 91st to the 95th percentile. Going from 30 to 33 takes you from the 93th to the 98th – aka the top 2% of test-takers!
Once you get to a 33 and up, you are into Ivy League and other competitive college territory. (Read more about good ACT scores for the Ivy League here.) Again, just a few points can make a huge difference in your application chances.
Is It Possible To Improve Your Score By That Much?
It’s definitely possible to raise your composite by studying and focusing on your weak areas. You could go from a 17 to a 25, a 20 to a 28, or even from a 25 to a 35 if you study hard enough and pinpoint your weaknesses.
For example, say you really struggled with plane geometry on your first round of the ACT and didn’t get any plane geometry questions correct. Plane geometry accounts for 14 of the 60 math problems, and thus can have a big impact on your score.
Don't let these types of questions keep you from a high score! (You can take a full practice using ACT's Preparing for the ACT guide if you want to see the kinds of questions the ACT asks, by the way.)
Say your math raw score was 33, leading to a composite math score of 21. If you work on plane geometry to fill that content gap you have, even if you get just 10 more raw points (up to a 43), you can get a math score of 26. If you get all of the plane geometry questions right this time and everything else stays the same for a raw score of 47, you could get a 28 on the math section!
This says nothing of how your score could improve if you work on other content weaknesses, your pacing, and your test-taking strategies. If you can identify your weaknesses and work to fix them, it’s not hard at all to improve your composite by several points.
Learn more about how the ACT is scored so you can develop target raw scores for whatever your scoring goal is.
Want to get a perfect score yourself? Get tips from our ACT 36 full-scorer on studying. Even if you aren’t aiming for the perfect 36, this article gives you the skills you need to raise your score.
Read more about the highest possible ACT score of 36 and just how rare it is.
Want to improve your ACT score by 4+ points? Download our free guide to the top 5 strategies you need in your prep to improve your ACT score dramatically.
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.