When it comes to your college applications, you probably aren’t too worried about your ACT scores— unless, that is, you think your scores will be too low.
Don’t panic just yet! Like most things in life, ACT scores are all relative — there’s no such thing as a bad ACT score in a vacuum. In this post, I’ll talk about what it means to have a “bad” score in relation to the entire US, your general peer group, your prospective colleges, and (maybe most importantly) yourself.
Before We Start, a Note on Percentiles
Understanding percentile scores is an important part of understanding ACT scores. Before I talk about different types of bad scores, I'll briefly explain what percentile scores are and why you should care about them.
A percentile score is different from a percent score, even though the two mathematical concepts are related. Essentially, a percent score would tell you what portion of the ACT exam you got correct; a percentile score, on the other hand, tells you how you did on the exam compared to everyone else who took it. For example, a percent score of 90% would mean you got 90% of the questions right, whereas a percentile score of 90 would mean you scored better than 90% of the students who took the exam.
Percentiles are more meaningful than percents when we talk about ACT scores because what’s important is how you score when compared to other students. A percentage score in isolation doesn't tell you how well you performed on a test or how difficult it was. You can get a low percentage score on a test and still do very well in comparison to other students, earning a high percentile score — this is an example of the difference between percentages and percentiles.
Low ACT Scores for the General US Population
Let's just say we're starting big.
We're starting with the biggest possible comparison group - understanding how you do in relation to all other people who take the ACT is the first step in understanding these unique exam scores.
First, the basics: the ACT is scored out of a possible 36 points. A score of 36 is rare enough that when it happens, local newspapers sometimes write about it — just google the name of your town and "perfect ACT score."
The national average composite score is 21 out of 36 points. The top 25% of scorers, or those who are at or above the 75th percentile, receive scores of 24 and up. The 75th percentile is a reasonable cutoff for what could be considered "excellent" scores. The bottom 25% of scorers, or those who are at or below the 25th percentile, receive scores of 16 and below. You may very well have your own ideas about what a reasonable “bad ACT” score cutoff should be. For the general population, scores of 16 and below (so, scores that are lower than those of 75% of the population) could reasonably be considered low.
Here are some important percentile cutoffs and corresponding scores for quick reference:
- 10th percentile composite score → 13-14
- 25th percentile composite score → 16-17
- 50th percentile composite score → 21
- 75th percentile composite score → 24
- 90th percentile composite score → 28
Low ACT Scores for Your Peer Group
We're starting to get a bit more personal.
Knowing what your peers and classmates tend to score on the ACT will give you a more sophisticated understanding of where, exactly, you stand. Comparing yourself to the rest of the country (with a wide range of backgrounds, educations, resources, opportunities, target schools, etc.) is less helpful than comparing yourself to people who are similar to you in important ways, like geography or education.
Here's how to get information on what your peers score:
- Get your hands on your school report. This report will give you aggregated information on the score distribution for your particular high school. You may already know how to gain access to this. If you don't, try googling "[Your High School Name] ACT score report." This information will be particularly easy to find in states with mandatory testing.
- Check in with your guidance counselor. If you don't have access to a school report, your high school guidance counselor should have an idea of what low ACT scores will look like at your school.
- Ask your peers or classmates. As a last resort, you could ask around to see what other students are scoring. Just make sure to be respectful if your classmates don't want to discuss their scores. If you want to get an idea of a more competitive score range, check in with honors students at your school.
Once you have this information, here's how to use it effectively:
- Consider how your peers' score distribution compares to national scores? Do students at your school tend to score higher or lower than you’d expect based on the national average?
- If your peers have scores that are higher/lower than the national average, you could adjust your idea of what a bad ACT score is accordingly. For example, if your school's average ACT scores are lower than those of the national average (21), a “bad” ACT score cutoff at 25th percentile might be unreasonably high. Conversely, if your school has very high ACT scores, your understanding of a bad ACT score should be higher than the national 25th percentile score (16).
Low ACT Scores for Your Target Colleges
Ultimately, a low ACT score for a particular college is a score that won’t get you in. Schools don't tend to publish hard ACT score minimums, but they do offer information about the ACT scores of their students. We can use current students' scores to infer what scores colleges expect from applicants.
If you know the 25th and 75th percentile scores for a particular school, you know what that school considers to be “low” and “excellent” ACT scores. If your scores (current or future) fall within that range, it’s likely a good target school for you. But what if you're at the edges of, our even outside of, that 25th-75th percentile range?
- If you're close to the bottom end of the range, it doesn't mean it's impossible for you to get into that school. Colleges may accept students with lower ACT scores for any number of reasons — they might consider students strong applicants if they have a high GPA or impressive community service experience. Colleges may also take into consideration if students' high schools underperform on standardized tests or if they're athletes or legacies. Regardless of the strength of the rest of your application, you could apply to a college with higher ACT scores as a reach school. In fact, most students who apply to colleges with extremely competitive ACT requirements consider them reach schools.
- If you're scoring close to or above the 75th percentile score for a particular school, chances are you'll have a strong application. If this is the case, you may consider this one of your safety schools. Make sure you're applying to schools with more competitive ACT scores as well — you don't want to miss out on a high-ranking school!
Here's how you get information on what schools consider bad ACT scores (it's pretty easy!):
- Google “[school name] PrepScholar admissions requirements."
- Look on the page for the 25th and 75th percentile scores
- That’s it! You can even use the page’s built-in tool to estimate your chances of getting into that school
Low ACT Scores for Yourself
It's time for some good, old-fashioned self-reflection (although I don't think Barack is thinking about his ACT scores).
All these other comparisons won’t do you much good if you don’t take unique personal factors into account when figuring out what counts as a bad ACT score. Achieving goal scores may come easier for some students than others. For someone who struggles with key concepts or with test-taking anxiety, going from the 40th to the 60th percentile is no less an achievement than going from the 70th to the 90th for someone who doesn’t struggle with these issues.
Conversely, even a student with relatively high baseline scores has room for improvement and can bring her scores up even higher with adequate preparation. Pushing yourself on the ACT, even if your scores are already objectively good, can open up some amazing opportunities.
So how do you figure out what a bad ACT score is for you personally?
- Get a baseline score. Study for about 10 hours for test familiarity and quick content gains, then take a full practice test. There will definitely be room for improvement after you take this baseline - consider this first real practice test a soft “bad ACT score” cutoff.
Work to improve. Students usually reach a personal maximum score after 40-80 hours of studying. You can expect to improve 3-4 points from baseline, but it's definitely possible to improve your scores by a wider margin. Getting that much prep in will mean you are dedicating yourself to excellence by your own standards.
How Do You Improve Low ACT Scores?
Worried that you have low ACT scores when compared to your peers, your target schools, or your own score potential? Your plan of attack will depend on how much time you have to study. Get started by reading our guide on how long you should study for the ACT. Don't have a lot of time? Read our last-minute tips and strategies or our 10-day study plan. Are you in it for the long haul? Read our study schedule for students who have one year or more to prepare.
Next, work towards a concrete goal after making a list of target, reach, and safety schools. Get instructions on how to set a goal score in our ACT score guide. Are you dissatisfied with anything but perfection? Read our famous guide to getting a perfect ACT score.
At this point, you may be getting sick of reading about the ACTs. Maybe the SATs are more your style. If you're still deciding between the two tests, find out which one may be the better fit for you.
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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.