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Understanding ACT Scores: What Do They Mean?

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Posted by Dora Seigel | Oct 11, 2015 12:00:00 PM

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You took the ACT and got your score, but you don’t know how to interpret your ACT score. What does your ACT score measure? Is your score high or low? Will your score be enough to get you into your target schools?

In this article, I'll answer all of these questions and more, so you can go toward understanding ACT scores.


What Does the ACT Measure?

The ACT was designed to measure your preparedness for college, though whether the ACT actually does so is highly debatable. There are many smart, successful people, who did not score high on the ACT.  

So what do ACT scores mean at all? Universities continue using the ACT because admissions officers think the SAT and the ACT are “equalizers.” While every applicant received a unique high school education and has a distinct background, all applicants took the ACT or SAT. For this reason, admissions officers use it to compare students.

The purpose of an ACT score is to get you into college; as such, you should understand your ACT score in terms of how it can help you do that.


How Does Your ACT Score Match Up? ACT Score Range

To understand our score, you need to know the range of possible ACT scores. The composite scores can range from 1 to 36. The composite score is simply the average of your four section scores, which are each graded separately from 1 to 36 (the Essay/Writing section is not counted towards your composite score because it's optional).

The average ACT score in the US is usually around 21, but the exact number varies from year to year. While many students strive for the highest possible score, most students don't need a 36 to be accepted to their target school. 



What’s a Good Score for Your Target Schools?

If you don't need a perfect 36, what score should you shoot for? To figure out what a “good” score is for your target schools, search “[College Name] ACT” in Google. That search should take you to the Freshman Admissions Profile.

The exact name may vary between colleges, but on the page you should find either the 25th/75th percentile or the average ACT. (If you have trouble finding this info, PrepScholar also has admissions info pages for most schools — just search "[college name] Prepscholar ACT" to find it.)

The 25th percentile ACT score means that 25% of admitted freshmen scored at or below that number (in other words, 75% of admitted applicants scored above). The 75th percentile ACT means that 75% of admitted freshmen scored at or below that number (or 25% of admits scored above). The average ACT is an average of all of the admits’ ACT scores.

A good score is at or above the 75th percentile ACT score for that college. If you have that score in addition to a strong transcript and application, you have a great chance of being admitted. For colleges that only provide average ACT, I recommend aiming for a score 2 points higher than the average. That way you will have a score near the top 25% of admitted students.

Why should you aim for a higher score? I'm assuming you are a normal applicant. A special applicant would be a recruited athlete, legacy, child of a significant donor, or a unique talent like a world-class cellist. Colleges will accept students with these qualifications with lower ACT scores than normal applicants. It depends on the school, but those students can account for up to 25% of admits.

If you're a normal applicant, you want a higher ACT score to make you stand out, so your target score should be the 75th percentile or above. For a more in-depth explanation of these concepts, check out What is a good ACT score? A bad ACT score? An excellent ACT score?



Should You Retest? How Many Times?

If you didn't reach your target score (the 75th percentile or higher for your target colleges), I would recommend retaking the ACT. However, don't take the ACT more than 6 times. It is unnecessary. If you have not reached your target score after 3 or 4 tests, then you aren't studying for the test properly.

To achieve your goal, you need to have a dedicated study plan. Check out one of our guides for creating an ACT study plan for sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Other options you should consider: hire an ACT tutor, take an ACT class, or enroll in an online ACT prep program such as PrepScholar.

Check out PrepScholar: Harvard grads and ACT full scorers created our program that figures out your strengths and weaknesses. Your ACT prep is then customized to target your weaknesses, so you get the best preparation possible.


What’s Next?

Need help with your ACT preparation? Struggling with the ACT English section? ACT Science? ACT Math? ACT Reading? Don't get discouraged! With the appropriate amount of preparation, you can reach your target ACT score!


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.

Raise Your ACT Score by 4 Points (Free Download)

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Dora Seigel
About the Author

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.

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