You do great in school, but you just can’t get that score you want on the ACT. If you're a great student but not as great a standardized test taker, don't worry: you aren't alone.
In this post, I'll let you know what ACT scores qualify as low, what message those scores send to admissions officers, and what you can do to improve your chances of getting into a good school.
What Is a Low ACT Score?
Before we even discuss what to do with a high GPA and low ACT score, are you certain your ACT score is low? You should not simply compare your ACT scores to your friend's score or classmates' scores. The ACT score you want should depend on which university you hope to attend. If your ACT score is already in the ACT score range for your target school, then your ACT score is not low.
Search for “[College Name] ACT” to find out the 25th/75th percentile for your target schools. The 25th percentile score means that 25% of the students attending have a score at or below that number (this is below the average for admitted students). The 75th percentile means that 75% of students have a score at or below that number (this is above average for admitted students). The 25th/75th percentile reveals the scores of the middle 50% of applicants admitted to the college.
If you score at the 75th percentile for a college and have a high GPA, you have an excellent chance of being accepted. However, if you're at the 25th percentile, you will need to have a strong application to increase your chances of being accepted. As an example, NYU has a 25th/75th for the ACT of 28 to 32, and Harvard has a 25th/75th of 32 to 35.
You may think, why won’t I be accepted to Harvard with a 32 when 25% of Harvard freshman scored below that? In actuality, the 25% below a 32 were most likely admitted because they are a unique applicant such as an athlete (or a student with some other special talent such as being a world-class flute player), a legacy, or the child of a significant donor.
"Hi, I'd like to donate a building or three?"
In writing this article, I am assuming you are a “normal applicant” (not one of the types listed above). To have the best shot of getting in, you want to get a high ACT score to go along with you high GPA, and a high ACT score is one that is at or above the 75th percentile for the colleges you hope to attend.
If your score is below the 25th percentile for the school you hope to attend, you may still have a chance of getting in. Do you know that some colleges “superscore” the ACT? This means they will combine your highest individual section scores from each ACT and recombine it into a new superscored composite ACT score.
For example, if you took the ACT 3 times and your best English score was on your 1st test date (33), your best Math score was on your 2nd test date (31), and your best Critical Reading and Science scores were from your 3rd test date (36, 36), you can combine those 4 best section scores into a brand new composite score (34).
Your superscored composite ACT score may end putting you in the 25th/75th percentile range for your target college! For further explanation of superscore and for a list of the college that superscore the ACT, see our other article: Colleges that Superscore ACT: Complete List
If your ACT score does not meet the 25th/75th percentile for your target school even with superscoring, there is good news and bad news:
The Good News: Your GPA Matters More Than Your ACT Score
Your transcript is the most important part of your college application because it shows that you have worked hard during all four years of high school. I consider a high GPA to be between 3.5 and 4.0 on a 4.0 unweighted scale for the reasons stated in our other article. However, highly competitive universities such as Harvard and Yale will want you to have an even higher GPA, in the 3.85 to 4.0 range. I am using unweighted GPA rather than weighted GPA since unweighted GPA is the more common way to measure academic achievement in high school.
While your GPA is important, it is even more important that you took challenging classes in high school and still got a high GPA. If you don’t believe me, here it is from Stanford’s admissions office, “We expect you to challenge yourself throughout high school and to do very well. The most important credential that enables us to evaluate your academic record is the high school transcript.”
An admissions officer will only consider your high GPA impressive if you took the hardest classes (AP or IB) offered at your school. Easy classes and a high GPA will not impress an admissions officer. I will explain this more in-depth below.
The Bad News: A Low ACT Score Will Hurt You
Admissions offices require applicants to take the ACT because they see this test as an equalizer among applicants (click here for further explanation of why students take the ACT). Each applicant had a different high school education. Even students applying from the same high school may have taken different classes or had different instructors.
The one thing all applicants have in common is that they took the SAT or ACT. Every student took the “same” standardized test (or at least, similar enough tests to be compared even though each testing date technically has a different test)
While your GPA and transcript are very important, your low ACT score may make an admissions officer question if your grades were “inflated” (which some teachers do) or ask if you took easy classes. They may think that your low ACT score is a better signifier of how prepared you are for higher education.
What Will the Admissions Officer’s First Impression of Your High GPA/Low ACT Score Be?
To be perfectly frank, an admissions officer will probably, at first, think that your teacher inflated your grades or that you chose to take easy high school classes, and they may wonder if your low ACT score is a more accurate indicator of your academic potential.
But don’t worry! Admissions officers will dig deeper. Most admissions officers know the high schools in the US very well. At the majority of colleges, each admissions officer is assigned a state or region, and he or she is responsible for reading all of the applications from students in that area and for visiting the high schools in that area (so, if your high school had a visitor talk about admissions at a specific college - that person will most likely be reading your application for that college).
Since the admissions officers visit these high schools and read the applications from students at these high schools, they know the academic reputations of these high schools. The admissions officers will know if your high school is considered very academically rigorous or if your school has a reputation for being easy and inflating grades.
When reading your transcript, an admissions officer will be able to tell if you chose to take the easier classes and avoided the AP or IB classes that your school offered (if your school offers AP or IB). If you did take the easier classes, the admissions officer will likely then think your low ACT is a more accurate depiction of your academic potential than your GPA.
If you did enroll in very rigorous courses throughout high school (tons of AP or IB classes, if offered at your high school) and you have a high GPA, then the admissions officer will know that and may excuse your low ACT score. Still, your chances of getting in will be higher if you can get a higher ACT score to match your high GPA.
What Can You Do to Raise Your Low ACT Score?
Raising your score on your low ACT score will give you your best chance of getting into your target school. If you are applying right now and don't have time to retest, skip below for advice on what you can do to boost your chance of admission. If you do have time to retest, I will try to help you diagnose the issue that caused the low score on your last test(s).
Did You Practice?
If you never practiced for the ACT, that is probably the issue. The ACT is a very fast test. You need to know the ACT test format before taking the ACT so that the format will not slow you down. Learn about ACT scoring, the length of the ACT test, and the ACT test instructions.
I would recommend taking a minimum of four full-length, timed practice tests to ensure you have the pacing down. If you need help finding practice tests, check out Complete Official ACT Practice Tests, Free Links. When you sit for multiple practice ACTs, you will start to feel comfortable with the format and will learn how to pace yourself.
Note: Do not just take the practice ACTs and forget about them. You should be reviewing the questions you got wrong and learning from those mistakes. For a guide to how to review your practice tests, check out The Best Way to Review Your Mistakes for the SAT/ACT.
What Was Your Practice Approach?
If you practice by yourself, what tests are you using for your practice? You need to practice with official past ACT tests. Because the ACT is very different from other tests, you have to use actual ACTs to get the actual feel of the test. If you need help finding practice material here are Complete Official ACT Practice Tests, Free Links. If you still want more material, check out The 10 Best ACT Books Recommended for ACT Prep.
If you are using old ACTs for your solo study, are you checking your wrong answers? This is the key to success on the ACT: you need to determine where you went wrong and learn from it. If you do not, you will not learn anything from the tests and you will continue making the same mistakes. If you want guidance on reviewing your tests, check out The Best Way to Review Your Mistakes for the SAT/ACT.
Do You Have One of the Following Issues?
- Issue #1: You have not learned the strategies for the ACT or gotten the timing down. To help solve this issue, you should check out the other free guides offered here at PrepScholar.
- Issue #2: You aren't familiar with the math and English concepts needed to succeed ACT. You do not have the geometry formulas memorized, or you do not know the grammar rules. Not knowing content is a less common issue but a very important one to address. Take the time to learn this content because mastering it will have a huge impact on your score.
- Issue #3: If you feel like you know the strategies and content and are still not improving, you may be having trouble focusing. To help solve this issue, you probably need more personalized prep and should consider hiring a tutor or using an online resource such as PrepScholar.
If You Prepped With a Tutor/Class/Online Program and Are Not Seeing Improvements, You May Be Having One of the Following Issues:
- Issue #1: Your help is not personalized to your needs. It/he/she is not trying to fix your unique weaknesses, but rather is just using the same material for everyone. Try to find a more personalized tutor/class/program. Consider trying our PrepScholar ACT prep program. We do the heavy lifting for you, by splitting up our prep material into specific skills. We'll detect your weaknesses automatically and give you focused lessons and quizzes to improve those skills.
- Issue #2: The tutor/class/ online program is not working you hard enough (not making you do ACT practice tests or not making you stick to the timing). You should be using a prep person/program that will force you to take timed practice ACTs and stick to a study schedule. You should try PrepScholar’s ACT prep program; our program keeps track of your time spent studying each week, times you during all practice tests, and asks you to commit to a study schedule.
- Issue #3: You may have test anxiety. As a tutor, I saw this in some students. If you are scoring high in your practice, but on the actual ACT not achieving the same score because you are anxious or can’t keep your pacing and can’t finish. This isn’t a simple issue to fix. While all of the studying (learning the test format and pacing) should help reduce your worry, it may not solve the problem entirely. You should know the ACT is just a test and will not determine your future as shown by these celebrity ACT scores. Also, maybe meditate to try to relax you before the ACT.
If You're Applying to College Right Now and Cannot Retake the ACT, What Can You Do?
You have some options if you need to submit your applications and think you do not have time to retest:
Option #1: You can strengthen the rest of your college application. Focus on the positives! You have an awesome transcript, so try to make the rest of your application as awesome. Read our other article for advice on how to build the most versatile college application, including advice on writing your essay, getting letters of recommendation, and more.
Option #2: You can check out test optional schools or schools that have guaranteed admission based on GPA or class rank. Many colleges out there no longer require the SAT or ACT to be considered for admission. Consider applying to some of those schools, at least as backups.
Option #3: Check out schools with late deadlines. A lot of schools accept applications later in the year and will give you time to study and retest for the ACT. Some schools take applications as late as September for that fall semester. Consider retesting and applying to some of these schools.
Thinking about getting a job while in high school? Check out our guide to the 8 best jobs for teens and learn how to find yours!
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As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.