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How to Pass the ACT: Expert Guide

Posted by Francesca Fulciniti | Jun 24, 2016 4:00:00 PM

ACT Strategies



There’s so much info out there about doing well on the ACT - a lot of it is really helpful when it comes to preparing for the test! But this onslaught of information can get pretty overwhelming, especially when you just want a simple answer to a simple question: how do you pass the ACT? 


What Does It Mean to “Pass” the ACT?

On this test, there’s only a range of possible scores - what constitutes an excellent, poor, or average score will depend heavily on your frame of reference. Ultimately, what defines a passing ACT score is that it’s high enough to get you into the colleges you’re applying to. This obviously varies widely by student.

Your ACT score doesn’t have to be perfect for you to “pass” (although it never, ever hurts to bring up your score) - it just has to be good enough.

Now, this gets a bit complicated because your ACT score is not the only part of your college applications. If your ACT score is particularly low, however, college admissions officers may have higher expectations for other parts of your app (e.g. GPA, extracurriculars). If your score is low enough, your application may get tossed out even if the rest of your app is strong.

For the sake of this post, then, I’m going to define a “passing” ACT score as one that won’t get your application tossed out. Ideally, however, your ACT score will be one that helps (instead of hurts) your college applications. Keep reading to learn more about how to figure out these score benchmarks for yourself.


How to Set an ACT Goal Score

Before you learn how to pass the ACT, you have to figure out what passing means for you. This requires a bit of legwork: namely, researching what ACT scores are correlated with acceptance at the schools you’re interested in. 

Here’s how you do it:

Make a Preliminary List of Schools

This doesn’t have to be a final, polished list, but 8-10 schools you’re interested in is a good place to start. Try to select mostly “target” schools - colleges where you think you’d have a fairly good chance of getting in. You can include 2-3 “safety” schools and 2-3 “reach” schools as well, as long as you maintain balance here. Too many safety schools and you might set a target score that’s too low. Too many reach schools and you might set a target score that’s unreasonably, and discouragingly, high.

The first time you do this, you may not have a good idea of what schools you’d identify as reach, target, and safety. That’s ok! In fact, it’s kind of the point of this exercise. You can repeat it as many times as necessary throughout the college process, adjusting your list of schools as you go.

Look Up Each School’s ACT Info

Start by Googling “PrepScholar [name of school] ACT score.” The first non-ad link that comes up should be the one you want - see below for an example.


The first search result here is the one you want.

The page will have the average ACT score and the 25th/75th percentile scores for students accepted to that particular school. Take down these numbers for each school.

  • 25th percentile score = 25% of students at the school have an ACT score at or below that number
  • 75th percentile score = 75% of students at the school have an ACT score at or below that number

Students with 75th percentile scores or above for a particular school usually have a good shot at getting in, barring any weaknesses or issues with other parts of their application. Students with 25th percentile scores or below usually have other strong application components (e.g. high GPA, great essays) to boost their chances.

Set Your Benchmark “Passing” Score

This step is perhaps a bit more subjective, so I’ll be as transparent here as possible. If you want to come to a passing ACT score, you’ll want to look at a school’s 25th percentile ACT scores. This is far from a safe bet, however - your chances of getting in will heavily depend on the strength of the rest of your application if your ACT score is at or around the 25th percentile. If your GPA is lower than average for a particular school, for example, your ACT score would have to be higher in order to make up for it.

I think that the best target (read: ideal) ACT score lies at a school’s 75th percentile score. The 75th percentile is a sweet spot because you’d be more competitive (in terms of ACT scores) than ¾ of students who are accepted to the school.

If your typical ACT score is higher than the 75th percentile score, you might want to consider looking at more competitive schools - you want to aim as high as you reasonably can here (more competitive schools often mean better reputations, which tend to lead to better outcomes).

Here’s how to set both ideal and “passing” ACT score benchmarks for yourself:  

  • Take the averages of the scores you collected for each school. First the average of the 25th percentile scores, then the average of the 75th percentile scores.
  • The 25th percentile average is your “passing” goal score - the minimum you should be aiming for.
  • The 75th percentile score is your target score - the score that has a great chance of getting you accepted to the colleges on your list.


What If You’re Worried About Reaching Your Target Score, or Even Your Passing Score?

Perhaps these scores you’ve calculated seem higher than you would have expected. If your passing score in particular seems intimidatingly high, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Remember that your target score (75th percentile average) is an ideal goal. It’s supposed to be higher than what you’re scoring now (or maybe even what you think you can score).
  • If the 25th percentile benchmark seems too high, consider re-evaluating your list of schools. You might want to look at colleges that are slightly less competitive.
  • Conversely, if you’re already at or above that 75th percentile mark, consider looking at more competitive colleges.


Strategies for Passing the ACT

I’m going to split this section up into two parts meant for two different types of students: low-scorers and high-scorers. Here, I’m defining score parameters by the national performance standards: high scorers are at about 24 and above (75th percentile nationally), whereas low scorers are at about 16 and below (25th percentile nationally).

If your performance is closer to the average (20), check out both sections and follow steps that you find most useful.



Your best plan from here will depend on both where you are and where you want to be.

How to Pass the ACT: Guidance for Low Scorers

One problem that a lot of low-scorers have is that they’re unsure of how to focus their time and energy when studying. Understanding your weaknesses is the first and most important step to tackling ACT prep.

The biggest issue for low scorers is often significant gaps in content knowledge, so identifying and filling these gaps is typically a priority for ACT prep. Other mistakes may be due to:

  • Running out of time
  • Misunderstanding the question
  • Running out of time
  • Careless errors

So how do you go about identifying where your issues are before taking steps to improve on them? First, you’ll have to invest some time in some serious self-analysis involving a baseline score. You can’t focus on improving before figuring out where you need to improve. Here are best practices for getting a solid baseline and gaining info on your weaknesses:

  • Take a full, timed, diagnostic practice test
  • Take note of which questions you got incorrect
  • Tally the reasons for each incorrect question:
    • Content Gap: Did you not have the information you needed to answer correctly?
    • Timing Issue: Would you have gotten the question correct if you hadn’t run out of time?
    • Question Misunderstanding: Would you have gotten the question correct if the question had been more clear?
    • Careless Error: Would you have gotten the question correct if you had spent an extra couple of seconds checking your work?

If you find that content knowledge is your biggest problem, you’ll want to turn to your class notes, textbooks, and ACT prep books for review - not just ACT practice materials. We also have a bunch of ACT content guides to get you started:

Once you’ve conquered major content problems, you can hone in on specific content areas and work on careless errors and timing issues. You’ll find tips for addressing those problems in the next section.

How to Pass the ACT: Guidance for High Scorers

If you’re a relatively high scorer, you probably have a general idea of where your major strengths and weaknesses are on the ACT. You’re likely pretty strong on content overall, unlike the typical low scorer. High scorers usually lose points due to three issues:

  • Carelessness: loss of focus leading to silly mistakes
  • Timing problems: you simply run out of time to give each question its due
  • Content gaps: small areas of knowledge that you haven’t mastered 100%

If you want to get close to that ideal score, you’ll want to attack each of these potential issues. I’ll address each of these problems in this section, but you may want to check out our detailed guide for high scorers for more info.


It’s pretty easy to identify a question you’ve missed due to carelessness. You get that horrible feeling when you recognize that you would have gotten the question right, if only you’d paid a tiny bit more attention.

Careless mistakes often occur when students aren’t actively reading. Start focusing your attention with these tips:

  • Double-read each question and underline important words.
  • Take notes on passages.
  • In the math section, mark up diagrams with important info and write out your arithmetic.
  • Double- check your answer before marking it down.  

Timing Issues

Running out of time at the end of sections? First, spend less time on easy questions - just keep an eye out for those careless errors.

Next, skip tough questions and come back to them later. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t guess if you’re out of time (there’s no guessing penalty, so you should definitely guess). If you’ve still got plenty of time to work through the section, though, mark the problem question and come back to it later.


Timing issues can stress out pretty much everyone, but with practice, you can learn to overcome them.

Filling in Content Gaps

Your first task here is identifying which questions you get wrong in your practice, and more importantly, why you get them wrong. This means going over all your mistakes after each practice session. Keep a careful tally of each content area every time you identify an error (hint: most content errors happen on the math section).

Use your class notes, textbooks, or reliable ACT prep book to review this content. Come back and do more practice problems in this area until you’re confident in your understanding.  


What You Must Remember About How to Pass the ACT

There might not be an official ACT passing score, but that somehow seems to make things more complicated. What you might consider passing will depend on the sorts of schools you hope to get into, but I hope you think more in terms of target or goal scores than just “good enough” scores.

If you’re worried that your ACT scores aren’t up to par, don’t worry just yet - there are tons of things you can do to bring them up, no matter where you might be on the percentile charts. What matters most when setting a passing score are the goals you set for yourself.


What’s Next?

There are a lot of helpful materials available if you’re worried about “passing” the ACT. For an overview, read our guide with the four best tips for studying for the test. If you need a fun, refreshing way to study, learn about the five best ACT prep games.

Maybe you’re looking for more detailed information. If that’s the case, check out our 10-step ACT study plan.


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Francesca Fulciniti
About the Author

Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.

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