SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

There are a lot of numbers and scores associated with your college applications: GPA. Class rank. Maybe some AP Tests. Standardized test scores. It can be a lot to take in.

If you’re taking the ACT, you might be worried about how you’ll do. What’s the worst score you could get? What’s the worst score you could get and still have a shot at your dream program?

In this article, I’ll break down the lowest possible ACT score, and why you’re not likely to get it. Then I’ll discuss the minimum ACT score  for college admissions, how to choose colleges based on your score (whatever it may be), how to set a score goal based on your colleges of choice, and finally what you can do if you feel like your ACT score is too low for any of your desired schools.

What's the Lowest ACT Score You Can Get?

The ACT is scored from 1-36 on a composite scale. This means the minimum ACT score you could possibly receive—for example, if you showed up to the testing center and filled in every bubble on your entire scantron sheet—is a 1. The composite score is obtained from taking the average of your 4 section scores and rounding; .5 is rounded up. So to get a composite score of 1, you would have to get either 1 on each section score or three 1s and a 2.

The average ACT score is a 21. The 25th percentile score is 16, and the 75th percentile score is a 24. This means that if you got a 16, you would have scored better than 25% of all test-takers. In the 75th percentile, you’ve scored better than 75% of test-takers, and so one.

To give you an idea of how rare a score of 1 is, a composite score ranging anywhere from 1 to 11 would put you in the 1st percentile—meaning 99% of test-takers scored higher than 11.

For individual sections, 99% of test-takers scored higher than 7 in English, 99% scored higher than 12 in Math, 99% scored higher than 9 in Reading, and 99% scored higher than 11 in Science.Even if you guessed on every question, you’d get a composite score around 11-13. Thus, it is very unlikely that you will get the lowest possible score—or even a score lower than 11—on the ACT.

Even this guy got an 11!

What’s the Lowest ACT Score You Can Have and Still Get Into College?

Since it’s pretty unlikely that you would get the minimum ACT score, you might be more interested in knowing what is the lowest possible score you could have and still have a shot at getting into college.

The answer to that question is that it depends—primarily on what colleges you are applying to, but also to a certain extent on your other qualifications.

For more selective schools, you’ll need a much higher ACT score to have a shot than for less selective ones. If you’re aiming for an elite institution like University of Chicago or Princeton, you’ll need to score at least 30, and that would be on the low end for one of those schools. By contrast, you might still have a shot at a selective public school like University of Illinois with a 25 or 26. Smaller state schools local to you often accept scores in the 18-22 range.

In fact, public universities often have special admissions criteria for residents that allow or compensate for lower standardized test scores. For example, publicly funded Texas universities generally guarantee admission to those in the top 10% of any graduating high school class in Texas, although some have lowered the cap to the top 7 or 8% in recent years due to space concerns. You may still need to submit test scores for these schools, but they won’t keep you from being admitted.

Specialized schools like art schools and music conservatories also often have lower standardized test requirements of their students, as a student’s creative work is the primary criteria for admission.

Mime school only accepts your test scores if you can silently act them out.

The truth is that it’s difficult to give a hard-and-fast rule as to the absolute minimum ACT score for college. Colleges and universities admit candidates along a range of test scores, although the band is narrower at more selective universities.

However, you can get a general idea of what is the lowest score you could get and still have even a realistic chance at admission based on a great statistic called “the middle 50%.” The middle 50% is a statistic that most schools provide on their admissions websites that gives the test score range of the 25th to the 75th percentiles of their own admitted student pool (i.e. 25% of admits had test scores below this range, 50% had test scores in this range, and 25% had test scores above this range). This is a reliable way to figure out the scoring threshold necessary to be a viable candidate for admission.

As to the lowest score you can get and still have a shot, I would say to place that mark a little (think around 1 point) below the bottom number of the middle 50%.

Of course, if you pick a score that’s just a little below the 25th percentile, that does mean that people with a lower score than your “low score threshold” probably got in. There are always outliers and exceptions in the college admissions process—people who had other specific qualifications or strengths that the institution thought would be valuable. No doubt you also have unique strengths and talents that you should emphasize in college applications! But you should never assume that you are going to be one of the outliers who gets in with an ACT score at the lowest conceivable end of the admit range.

That doesn’t mean don’t apply if your dream school’s middle 50% is 28-32 and you got a 26. Just be realistic that it’s quite a reach school for you, and you’ll really need to differentiate yourself in other ways if you want to have a chance. By contrast, if your score is a decent cut above the 75th percentile mark (think 2+ points), you’re in a great position.

Here’s a sample chart of some low and high marks as compared to some middle 50% score ranges.

Sample Middle 50% Ranges and Low/High Scores

 Low Score Middle 50% High Score 12 13-16 18 14 15-20 22 20 21-26 28 21 22-28 30 25 26-30 32 27 28-32 34 29 30-34 36 31 32-35 36

So how is this information—about situating your own score relative to a school’s middle 50% of admits—useful? Well, it will help you choose which scores to apply to based on your own ACT score, by aiding you in identifying safety, match, and reach schools.

Choosing a college is just like choosing a pumpkin, except completely different.

Choosing Schools to Apply to Based on Your ACT Score

If you already got your ACT score, you may be wondering how to pick which schools to apply to. In general, you’ll want to apply to some safety schools, some match schools, and some reach schools.

A safety school is one where you are more qualified than the typical admitted student, a match school is one where you are as qualified as the typical student, and a reach school is one where you are less qualified than the typical student.

This means that in terms of ACT scores, a safety school is one where your score well exceeds the middle 50% range (think 2+ points), a match school is one where you fall in within or just above the middle 50%, and a reach school is one where you fall in the bottom end of or just below the middle 50%. Very selective schools (think the Ivies, MIT, Stanford, University of Chicago, etc.) are a reach for everyone because they are so competitive.

Let’s say Jared got a 24 on his ACT. How should we classify the following schools he is interested in: as safety, match, or reach?
• Northeastern Illinois University – middle 50% range: 16-21
• With a score 3 points about NIU’s middle 50%, we can consider this one a safety school. Jared’s scores would put him the top quarter of applicants by a wide margin.
• Illinois State University – middle 50% range: 21-26
• With a score right above the midpoint of ISU’s middle 50%, ISU would be a match school for Jared.
• Bard College – middle 50% range: 24-30
• Because he is at the very bottom of the middle 50% range for Bard, we would consider Bard a reach school. Not a huge or unreasonable reach, but still a reach, as around 75% of applicants had better scores than Jared. He’ll really need for the rest of his application to be stellar.
• Depaul University – middle 50% range: 23-28
• Jared is within the middle 50% at Depaul, but on the lower end (only one point about the bottom of the margin). This is one of those schools that sits right on the border between being a match and a reach. Just so long as you are applying to a variety of schools relative to your own test scores, it’s completely fine if an individual school’s classification seems a little ambiguous.

Of course, there are other factors than test scores in choosing safety, match, and reach schools. Schools also usually provide information about the GPA and class ranks of their admitted students, so you’ll want to consider those as a factor as well. If you’re on the low end of the middle 50% in test scores, but way on the high end for GPA and class rank, it could be a match school. Unique talents or other interesting qualifications can also go a long way towards mitigating a test score that’s a little on the low end for a particular school.

But what if you already have schools in mind, and you haven’t taken the SAT yet? How should you determine what score to aim for?

He should probably get an arrow if he wants to hit that target.

Choosing a Goal ACT Score Based on Your Dream Schools

You may already have some schools in mind before you take the ACT. In this case, you can use the middle 50% for those schools to set a target score for the ACT. An ideal target score would be the highest 75th percentile mark of the middle 50% among the schools you are interested in. That way, even if you fall a little short, you’ll still be well-positioned for the other schools on your list.

First, make a list of all of the schools you are considering. When you have a complete list, look up the middle 50% range for each school. Then, you’ll note down the top number of the middle 50% - the 75th percentile—for each school. You can do this for total score, by section, or both—whatever is most useful for you. Note that some schools only report composite ACT scores and not section subscores.

When you have all the necessary info noted down, find the highest score in the 75th percentile list. That's your target ACT score!

Let’s work through an example. Here’s Alicia’s initial list of schools she’s interested in:
1. University of Virginia
2. Emory University
3. Princeton
4. University of Connecticut
5. Syracuse University
6. University of Maryland
7. Johns Hopkins

Now we’ll fill out our middle 50% table. An “n/a” means the school didn’t report the subscore.

Sample Target Score Chart - Alicia

 Name of College/ University ACT English 75th ACT Reading 75th ACT Math 75th ACT Science 75th ACT Composite 25th ACT Composite 75th University of Virginia (n/a) (n/a) (n/a) (n/a) 28 33 Syracuse University (n/a) (n/a) (n/a) (n/a) 24 29 University of Connecticut (n/a) (n/a) (n/a) (n/a) 26 30 Emory University (n/a) (n/a) (n/a) (n/a) 30 34 Princeton (n/a) (n/a) (n/a) (n/a) 32 35 University of Maryland (n/a) (n/a) (n/a) (n/a) 29 33 Johns Hopkins (n/a) (n/a) (n/a) (n/a) 32 34 Target Score: 35

So given the schools she wants to attend, Alicia should be aiming for a 35 on her ACT. She’s got her work cut out for her!

You can use the following table to do your own list:

Target Score Chart

 Name of College/ University ACT English 75th ACT Reading 75th ACT Math 75th ACT Science 75th ACT Composite 25th ACT Composite 75th Target Score:

By listing your match and reach schools and averaging their 75th percentile admit test scores, you can get a goal ACT score for yourself. But what if once you get your ACT scores back, it looks like every school is a reach? Are you out of luck?

Based on My ACT Score, Every School I’m Interested in Is a Reach

Let’s say you get your scores back. You open your scores. You look at your list of middle 50% ranges for the schools you are interested in. Your stomach drops—your score is at the 25th percentile or below for all of these schools!

If your score is low enough that you are concerned about being accepted at any college you’re interested in, there are several strategies you might consider to address the issue:

Prep for the ACT and Take It Again

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! If you prepare for your test strategically, you actually can improve your score quite a lot. See our guide to the pros and cons of all prep methods. You might try a targeted, personalized test-prep program like ours, using the best ACT prep books, or tutoring. If you still have a few months left before your deadlines, taking the ACT again is probably your best option.

The SAT and the ACT used to be very different animals—enough that students would perform dramatically differently on them. This is less true now that the SAT has been revised, because it's now very similar to the ACT. If you are particularly weak in the Science test on the ACT, the SAT may be better for you; instead of having a dedicated science section it has some chart- and data-interpretation questions throughout. This could help you if you are just hoping for a little boost.

Evaluate if You Need Testing Accommodations

If you have a medical condition, learning disability, or psychiatric disorder, you may qualify for special testing accommodations for the ACT.  If you are on an IEP or a 504 plan at your school, it is especially likely that you are both eligible for and would benefit from test accommodations. Bear in mind that the request process is time-consuming process so you need to start early—months before you are going to take the ACT again!

If you score is too low for all the colleges on your list, look at some less selective colleges. A 26 is too low for Northwestern, but it’s a great score for Ohio State or the University of Iowa. It's likely that you'll be able to find less selective colleges that have the same qualities you are looking for.

Some collegiate ivy, outside of the Ivy League.

Apply to Schools That Accept Alternate Scores

Some schools will accept AP Exam Scores or SAT Subject Test Scores in lieu of more traditional SAT or ACT exam scores. If you’ve already performed well on AP exams or you feel you could do well on particular SAT Subject Tests, this could be a good strategy for you.
Examples of schools that accept alternate tests include:
1. Colorado College - Accepts various combinations of AP, IB, and SAT Subject Test scores in lieu of the ACT/SAT.
2. Colby College - Accepts 3 SAT Subject Tests in lieu of ACT/SAT.
3. Middlebury College - Accepts 3 SAT Subject Tests in lieu of ACT/SAT.
4. Hamilton College - Accepts various combinations of AP, IB, and SAT Subject Test scores in lieu of the ACT/SAT.
5. New York University - Accepts various combinations of AP, IB, and SAT Subject Test scores in lieu of the ACT/SAT.

Apply to Test-Optional Schools

Still other colleges have implemented test-optional admissions. This means that, while you can send standardized test scores as a bonus or qualification with your application, they are not required. In this case, your GPA, course records, essay, recommendation letters, and other application materials will be the determining factors in your admission—not your test scores.

Though a fairly newfangled notion in college admissions, several high-quality schools have implemented test-optional policies. This seems eminently reasonable in light of the fact that there are some courses of study where you may not take hardly any tests, and certainly not many long, grueling, marathon-style standardized ones. Test-optional schools are a particularly good strategy for applicants who are good students but poor standardized test takers.

Schools that are test-optional include:

1. Wake-Forest University, NC
2. Bates College, Maine
3. Wesleyan University, CT
4. Bowdoin College, Maine
5. American University, Washington DC
6. Mt. Holyoke College, MA (women’s college)
7. Sarah Lawrence College, NY (women’s college)
8. Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania (women’s college)
9. Smith College, MA (women’s college)
See a more comprehensive list of test-optional and test-deemphazised colleges at Fairtest.org.

Go to Community College

If your score is low enough that you are worried about getting accepted to any college, you might consider starting out at community college. Most local community colleges are open to anyone in the area with a high school diploma or GED. You can start taking classes at a community college and then transfer to a 4-year university upon completion of your associate’s degree; your most recent transcripts in this case will be much more important than your standardized test scores.

The august facade of Bronx Community College.

With these strategies, you’ll be sure to find a college solution that works for you, no matter your ACT score.

Key Takeaways

The minimum ACT score you could receive is a 1, although this is very unlikely to happen. You may be more worried about getting a score high enough to get into college. While it’s difficult to set any specific threshold that is too low for college, the more selective the school, the higher you’ll need to score.

You can use a statistic called the middle 50%—the test score range of the 25th-75th percentiles of admitted students for a given school—to choose safety, match, and reach schools for yourself based on your score, or to choose a target ACT score based on schools you are interested in.

If you find yourself with a low enough score that you are concerned about getting into colleges you are interested in, you have several options:

1. Prep for the ACT and take it again
3. Figure out if you need testing accommodations
5. Apply to test-alternate or test-optional schools
6. If your scores are low enough that you are worried about getting into any college, period, you might go to community college.

Ultimately, if you want to pursue higher education, there are strategies to make that happen in a way that works for you regardless of your ACT score.

You'll find the right rainbow for you!

What's Next?

Check out our complete, free guides to ACT prep, all gathered in one place. Or maybe you'd like to know how important the ACT is as part of your application, anyways.

Need help figuring out your college application timeline? We've got you covered. We'll also help you identify target schools, and figure out how many schools to apply to

Ellen McCammon

Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.

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