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What Is the Minimum ACT Score for College?

Posted by Ellen McCammon | Oct 7, 2020 6:00:00 PM

SAT/ACT Score Target, ACT General Info

 

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There are tons of numbers associated with college applications: GPA, class rank, standardized test scores, maybe some AP tests. It can be a lot to take in. If you’re taking the ACT, then you might be worried about how you’ll do on it. What’s the worst ACT score you could get? What’s the worst score you could get and still have a shot at getting into your dream program?

In this article, we'll break down the lowest possible ACT score and explain why you’re not likely to actually get it. We'll then discuss the minimum ACT score for college admissions, how to choose colleges based on your score (whatever it might be), how to set an ACT target score based on your colleges, and what you can do if you think your ACT score is too low for your desired schools.

 

What's the Lowest ACT Score You Can Get?

The ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36, meaning that the absolute minimum ACT score you could get is 1. This composite score is calculated by taking the average of all four section scores (English, Math, Reading, and Science) and rounding (so anything ending with a .5 would round up). To get a composite score of 1, you would have to get either 1 on each section or three 1s and a 2.

The average ACT score is 21. The 25th percentile score is 16, and the 75th percentile score is 24. This means that if you got 16, you'd have scored the same as or better than 25% of all test takers. Meanwhile, the 75th percentile means you scored better than 75% of test takers.

To give you an idea of how rare a score of 1 actually 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 101.

For individual sections, 99% of test takers scored higher than 8 in English, 12 in Math, 9 in Reading, and 9 in Science. Even if you guessed on every question, you’d get a composite score of around 11-13. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that you will get the lowest possible score—or even a score lower than 11—on the ACT.

 

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Even this guy got an 11!

 

What’s the Lowest ACT Score You Can Have for College?

Since it’s pretty unlikely for you to get the minimum ACT score, you might be more interested in knowing this: what's the lowest possible ACT score you could get that would still ensure you have a shot at getting into college?

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

For more selective schools, you’ll need a high ACT score to have a decent chance of getting in. If you’re aiming for an elite institution like the University of Chicago or Princeton, you’ll need to score at least 31-32, and that would be on the low end for both these schools. By contrast, you might still have a shot at a selective public school like the University of Illinois with a score around 25-26. Smaller state schools local to you often accept scores in the 18-22 range.

In fact, public universities typically have special admissions criteria for residents that allow or compensate for lower standardized test scores. For instance, publicly funded Texas universities generally guarantee admission to those in the top 10% of their graduating high school class, although some have lowered this cap to the top 7% in recent years. You might 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, as a student’s creative work is the primary criteria used for admission.

 

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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 in regard to the absolute minimum ACT score for college. Colleges and universities admit candidates along a range of test scores, though the band is narrower at more selective universities.

However, you can get a general idea of what the lowest score you could get for college is based on a great statistic called the "middle 50%." The middle 50% is a statistic that most schools provide on their admissions websites; it gives the score range of the 25th and 75th ACT percentiles of the school's admitted applicants (in other words, 25% of admits had test scores below this range, 50% had test scores within 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 for the lowest ACT score you can get and still have a shot of getting in, I would say to place that mark a little (think around 1 point) below the lowest number in the middle 50% range.

If you pick a score slightly below the 25th percentile, yes, 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 you should emphasize in your applications! However, you should never assume 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.

Now, this does not mean that you shouldn't apply if your dream school’s middle 50% is 28-32 and you got a 26. Just be realistic that this school will be quite a reach for you, and know that you’ll really need to differentiate yourself in other ways.

By contrast, if your score is a decent cut above the 75th percentile mark (think 2+ points), you’re in a great position to possibly get in.

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

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 schools to apply to based on your own ACT score by aiding you in identifying safety, match, and reach schools.

 

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

 

Choosing Schools to Apply to Based on Your ACT Score

If you've already taken the ACT and have your score, you might 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, and a reach school is one where you are less qualified.

Here's what this means in terms of ACT scores:

  • Safety school: Your score well exceeds the middle 50% range (think 2+ points)
  • Match school: You fall within or just above the middle 50%
  • Reach school: You fall in the bottom end of or just below the middle 50%

Very selective schools, such as the Ivy League, MIT, Stanford, UChicago, etc., are reach schools 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%: 16-20)—With a score 4 points above NIU’s middle 50%, we can consider this a safety school. Jared’s ACT score would put him in the top 25% of applicants by a wide margin.
  • Illinois State University (middle 50%: 21-26)—With a score right above the midpoint of ISU’s middle 50%, ISU would be a match school for Jared.
  • University of Cincinnati (middle 50%: 24-29)—Because he is at the very bottom of the middle 50% range for UC, we would consider it 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 the rest of his application to be stellar.
  • Quinnipiac University (middle 50%: 23-28)—Jared is within the middle 50% at Quinnipiac, but on the lower end (only 1 point above the bottom). 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.

There are of course other factors to consider when it comes to choosing safety, match, and reach schools.

Schools usually provide information about the GPA and class ranks of their admitted students, so you’ll want to consider those factors 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 toward mitigating an ACT score that’s a little on the low end for a certain school.

But what if you already have schools in mind and haven’t taken the ACT yet? How can you figure out what score to aim for?

 


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

 

Choosing an ACT Goal Score Based on Your Dream Schools

You might already have some schools in mind before taking the ACT. In this case, you can use the middle 50% for those schools to set an ACT target score. An ideal goal 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 the schools you're considering. When you have a complete list, look up the middle 50% range for each school. You can go to the schools' websites or search for "[School Name] PrepScholar" to find each school's admission requirements page in our database.

Then, note down the middle 50%—i.e., the 25th and 75th percentile—for each school. You can do this for the total score, by section, or both—whatever is most useful for you. Note that some schools only report composite ACT scores and not section scores.

When you have all the necessary info written down, find the highest 75th percentile score in your chart; that'll be your target ACT score.

Let’s work through an example. Here’s Alicia’s initial list of schools she’s interested in:
  • University of Virginia
  • Syracuse University
  • University of Connecticut
  • Emory University
  • Princeton University
  • University of Maryland
  • Johns Hopkins University

And here's what her middle 50% table looks like when filled out:

School ACT 25th Percentile ACT 75th Percentile
UVA 30 34
Syracuse 25 30
UConn 26 31
Emory 31 34
Princeton 32 35
UMD 28 33
Johns Hopkins 33 35

 

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 make your own list and find your ACT goal score:

School ACT 25th Percentile ACT 75th Percentile
     
     
     
     
     
     
     

 

By listing the 75th percentiles of your match and reach schools, you can figure out your target ACT score.

But what if once you get your ACT scores, it looks like every school is a reach? Are you out of luck?

 

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Did your four-leaf clover wilt?

 

What If All Your Schools Are Reaches? 7 Possible Options

Say you get your ACT scores but realize that your score is at or below the 25th percentile for all the schools in your chart.

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 using to address the issue.

 

#1: Prep for the ACT and Take It Again

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! By strategically preparing for the ACT, you actually can improve your score quite a lot. If you still have a few months left before your college application deadlines, taking the ACT again is probably your best option.

You might try out a targeted, personalized ACT program, some ACT prep books, and/or tutoring. Check out our guide to see all the pros and cons of these ACT prep methods.

 

#2: Take the SAT Instead

The SAT and the ACT used to be very different—enough that students would perform dramatically differently on them. This is less true now ever since the SAT's redesign in 2016, which made it a lot more similar to the ACT.

If you are particularly weak in the Science section of the ACT, then the SAT might be better for you. Instead of having a dedicated science section, it has some chart- and data-interpretation questions scattered throughout. Taking the SAT could help if you're just hoping for a little boost.

 

#3: Evaluate Whether You Need Testing Accommodations

If you have a medical condition, learning disability, or psychiatric disorder, you might qualify for special testing accommodations for the ACT. If you're 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 requesting accommodations is a time-consuming process, so you'll need to start early—months before you plan to take the ACT again!

 

#4: Adjust Your Expectations

If your ACT score is too low for all the colleges on your list, look at some less selective colleges. A 28 is too low for Northwestern, but it’s a good score for Ohio State and 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.

 

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Some collegiate ivy, outside of the Ivy League.

 

#5: Apply to Schools That Accept Alternate Scores

Some schools will accept AP 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 the following:

  • Middlebury College: Accepts three SAT Subject Tests in lieu of ACT/SAT
  • Hamilton College: Accepts combos of AP, IB, and SAT Subject Test scores in lieu of ACT/SAT
  • NYU: Accepts combos of AP, IB, and SAT Subject Test scores in lieu of ACT/SAT

 

#6: Apply to Test-Optional Schools

In the past year, many colleges have implemented test-optional admissions. This means that while you can send test scores in with your application, they're not actually 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.

Test-optional colleges are a particularly good option for applicants who are overall good students but not great standardized test takers.

Here are some well-known test-optional schools:

  • Wake Forest University
  • Bates College
  • Wesleyan University
  • Bowdoin College
  • American University
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • Sarah Lawrence College
  • Bryn Mawr College
  • Smith College

You can find a more comprehensive list of test-optional and test-flexible colleges here.

 

#7: Go to Community College

If your score is low enough that you're really worried about getting accepted to any college, you might consider starting out at a nearby 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 four-year university upon completion of your associate degree, usually after about two years. Your transcripts from there will be much more important than your standardized test scores.

 

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The august facade of Bronx Community College.

 

Recap: What's the Minimum ACT Score for College?

The absolute minimum ACT score you can get is a 1, although this is very unlikely to happen. You might 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 on the ACT.

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

If you find yourself with a low enough ACT score that you're concerned about getting into colleges you're interested in, you have several options for what to do next:

  • Prep for the ACT and take it again
  • Take the SAT instead
  • Figure out whether you might need special testing accommodations
  • Adjust your expectations and apply to less selective schools
  • Apply to test-alternate or test-optional schools
  • Consider attending community college if your scores are too low for most four-year colleges

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

 

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You'll find the right rainbow for you!

 

What's Next?

For some help with the ACT, check out our free guides to ACT prep, all gathered in one place. Or maybe you want to know just how important the ACT is for your college applications.

Need help coming up with your own college application timeline? We've got you covered with our expert guide.

We can also help you identify target schools and determine how many schools to apply to.

 

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.

Raise Your ACT Score by 4 Points (Free Download)

 

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Ellen McCammon
About the Author

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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