Many students make judgments about their potential for future success based on how well they do on the ACT or SAT. Though earning high scores on these tests will help you to get into a selective college, the scores don't always have an impact on your future beyond that.
In this article, I'll go through whether or not ACT scores can be used as a means of predicting academic success, career success, and overall happiness later in life.
Do ACT Scores Predict Future Academic Success?
The answer to this question is complicated because high ACT scores are intertwined with many other factors that lead to academic success. In general, studies have shown that test scores are less reliable predictors of a student's academic success in college than high school GPA.
In examining students who submitted test scores versus students who did not, this study found negligible differences (an average of .05 points) in cumulative college GPA between the two groups despite large differences in test scores. The GPAs of these students in college did, however, correlate strongly with their high school GPAs.
This isn't entirely surprising, considering the fact the ACT scores are a limited measurement of academic ability. Your grades over the course of four years are a more accurate representation of your potential for academic success than your scores on one test. But this also depends on how you earned your ACT scores.
Some students study for long periods of time to raise their scores, and some don't study at all and still end up doing well. For students who did study hard to improve their scores, the numbers might provide more meaningful predictions of future academic performance.
Interestingly enough, there is a more significant correlation between a student's English and Math ACT scores and success in college than there is between a student's composite score and success in college. According to one study, the Reading and Science sections of the ACT are the least relevant predictors of student graduation rate. A student with a 24 composite score who earned 22s on the Math and English subtests and 26s on the Reading and Science subtests is 43 percent more likely to drop out of college after three years than a student with the same composite score but inverted subtest scores.
Students with very high or very low scores are also likely to see this performance reflected in their college achievements. It's probable that students with such extreme scores already had very high or very low GPAs as well. A very low ACT score (below the 25th percentile score of 16) may indicate an educational environment that has failed in teaching students the skills that are necessary for success in college academics.
The weirdest graduation party ever?
Do ACT Scores Predict Career Success?
There is no definitive evidence to suggest that students with higher ACT scores have significantly more long-term career success. Of course, this depends on your definition of "success." For some people, it means earning a high salary, and for others, it simply means settling into a job that they enjoy. In the latter case, high ACT scores are less relevant, although they can provide access to a wider variety of opportunities in career fields that interest you. Students who earn high ACT scores and attend selective colleges have better educational resources available to them and are more attractive to employers.
High ACT scores can get you into a good college, which may ultimately bolster your hiring and earning potential, but that also depends on how well you do in your college classes, what level of education you reach, and what major you choose. People with master's degrees earn more on average than people with bachelor's degrees, and STEM majors earn more on average than humanities majors.
In competitive fields like finance, software engineering, and consulting, employers sometimes use SAT and ACT scores to narrow down the field. If you're planning on going into one of these fields, your ACT score may predict some fraction of your hiring potential, but this is relatively rare.
Students who go onto higher levels of education usually earn high standardized test scores, but most of them also perform well in their classes throughout high school and college. A high ACT score can't predict that someone will earn a master's degree or that they will be hired in a certain field.
For people who are successful long-term in their careers, perseverance, hard work, and responsibility matter the most, and these traits can't be determined by scores on the ACT. For students who prep extensively, high scores may be indicative of these qualities, but that's not always the case.
If only it were that simple...
Do ACT Scores Predict Future Happiness?
This is extremely subjective since each person defines happiness in a different way. Later in life, happiness might mean something to you that you can't forsee as a high school student.
High ACT scores often predict admission to selective colleges (depending on your GPA). This in turn means that you're more likely to have the opportunity to pursue your passions and follow a career path that interests you. These opportunities will contribute significantly to your happiness if you place a lot of value on academic achievement and career advancement. They might not contribute much to your happiness if you aren't as interested in those things, or you feel unsatisfied even when you do well in school. In most cases, your quality of life will be better if you have a college education.
Good scores give you the chance to create a fulfilling life for yourself in certain ways, but you will need to develop skills for coping with setbacks and find out what you most enjoy doing to make the most of your opportunities.
Happiness is subjective. Some people hate the outdoors/being rained on, so this would be a terrible experience for them.
ACT scores can usually predict whether you will get into a competitive college program. They're also relatively good at predicting performance in college for the first year or so. After that, it's tough to make any concrete judgments about whether scores predict long-term success.
Your GPA in high school is a slightly better predictor of academic success in college, and your major choice and ultimate education level are better predictors of your career and earning potential. A high ACT score indicates a greater likelihood that you will achieve success in college and in life, but only if it occurs in conjunction with these other determining factors.
As far as long-term happiness goes, most of the time that has more to do with intrinsic than extrinsic factors. For some people, no level of achievement on its own will bring happiness, and for others, happiness can be found in almost any situation. What it comes down to is that once you get into college, your scores have limited predictive value for your happiness in the future.
Not sure whether your ACT score makes the cut? Find out what a good ACT score means for you based on your goals.
If you're worried about your ACT scores, you should check out this article on when your test scores don't matter for college admissions. You might also take a look at these quick tips for improving your scores.
Still can't decide whether to take the SAT or the ACT? Read this article to decide whether you're better suited to one or the other based on your academic strengths.
Disappointed with your ACT scores? 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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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.