ACT scores are a fixture of the college admissions process, but what do they really measure? Are they a useful way to judge your abilities and potential?
In this article, I’ll give you the details on what the ACT can and can’t measure and how to interpret your scores as a high school student.
Do ACT Scores Measure General Intelligence?
Since there are many different types of intelligence, this is a complicated question. High scores on the ACT might be derived from a high level of innate intelligence and a good education, but they might also be derived from relatively average innate intelligence and extensive prep work. ACT scores change dramatically based on students’ level of preparation, which separates them from scores on your basic IQ test. (Although IQ tests are also highly flawed measures of intelligence - I won’t get into that here!)
A student’s ACT scores are subject not only to his or her level of intelligence, but also to his or her desire for improvement and overall academic drive. Since it’s possible to improve ACT scores through prep, they don’t always measure intelligence in the traditional sense.
A student who has the motivation to prepare for the ACT and understands the stakes of the test demonstrates a form of intelligence just by providing such a strong display of conscientiousness. This is why it’s hard to make concrete judgments about whether the ACT can measure innate intelligence or not. It measures different qualities for different people depending on how they got to their scores.
The ACT also isn’t as similar to traditional IQ tests as the SAT. The SAT was originally derived from an IQ test, and there are vestiges of that format left over on the current model. The ACT, on the other hand, was developed as an alternative to the SAT. Its goal was to test material that was learned in school, not just overall cognitive reasoning ability. For this reason, the ACT is generally a more straightforward test. Still, the ACT is more similar to the SAT than most people think. For example, the science section is really just a bunch of logical reasoning questions cloaked in largely extraneous scientific facts.
This business must be science related! No one would use symbols for the elements just to make a bad pun that has nothing to do with what they're selling!
The ACT, like the SAT, also runs into problems with social inequalities that cause poor students to score lower on the test regardless of “intelligence”. This disparity means that there are other major issues with claiming that the ACT can accurately measure a student’s intelligence level. Two students with relatively equal intelligence but different qualities of high school education may both take the ACT and end up with vastly different scores.
Poor students are less likely to have access to expensive specialized prep programs and more likely to attend underfunded schools that provide a less comprehensive education. The fact that these students score lower means that the ACT is technically doing its job in measuring college readiness, but it also means that test scores could be preventing some intelligent but socioeconomically disadvantaged students back from reaching their full potentials.
The intent of the ACT from the beginning was not to measure intelligence as a general quality but to measure what students learned in school and gauge their college and career readiness (a model that the College Board has tried to emulate on the latest version of the SAT). It's less of a measure of intelligence than it is a measure of college preparedness, and even then it doesn’t give you the entire picture. While innate intelligence certainly plays a role, scores are also affected by many other factors that don’t have much to do with a person’s overall cognitive abilities.
Do ACT Scores Measure Career Potential?
This is another tough question, because there are so many different career paths that you might take. In some of these fields, the skill sets that allow you to do well on the ACT might not be as relevant. Most people will need basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills in their careers (and in adult life in general), but it’s hard to say whether an exceptional score on the ACT means you’ll do any better in your career than someone who got an average score.
One fact that we know for sure is that ACT scores correlate strongly with parental income. This means that students with wealthy parents are more likely to do well on the ACT. These students are also more likely to earn high incomes later in life. This benefit has less to do with their performance on the ACT and more to do with their socioeconomic status.
Students with wealthier parents can afford specialized prep courses and don’t have as much trouble paying for expensive colleges. They end up with less debt and better access to the careers that interest them. There’s a long legacy of economic inequality at play here, and standardized tests are a part of that (although there are much bigger societal forces at its root).
As I’ve said, however, the skills required to succeed in the job world are often different from the skills required to do well on the ACT. For this reason, your scores aren’t always the most accurate measurement of your career potential. They don’t tell you anything about your ability to manage other people or complete long term projects reliably. ACT scores provide a rough baseline measurement of your knowledge of math, language, and logic (I won’t say science because the science section is really just about logical reasoning). They can’t measure how well you’ll use these basic skills on a larger scale in more complex scenarios, and they can’t measure your interpersonal strengths.
What Will Your ACT Scores Really Tell You? Should You Listen?
It may or may not be useful for you to measure your abilities based on your ACT scores. In certain contexts and for certain students, they can be a helpful guide. In other scenarios, making judgments based on these scores is not productive.
ACT Scores Are a More Useful Measurement If:
You Plan to Apply to Colleges That Require Standardized Test Scores
ACT scores are important if you’re applying to colleges that require you to submit test results. In this case, they can act as an accurate measurement of your likelihood of acceptance based on admissions statistics. By googling the name of a college in conjunction with the phrase “PrepScholar admissions statistics”, you can get an idea of where you stand and what your target score should be. Make a study plan that aligns with your goals for improvement so that you’ll have a better chance at being admitted to a college you love.
You Have a GPA That’s on the Lower Side
ACT scores are a more useful measurement for students with low GPAs because they can serve as a wake up call if they’re especially high or low. If you have a low GPA but a high ACT score, this is a red flag telling you that you're probably capable of doing better in school. It most likely means that if you put in more effort, you would be able to earn higher grades. It also tells you that you have the potential to succeed in college if you adopt better study habits. Your high ACT score is also going to be particularly valuable to you in the college admissions process, so it’s more important to pay attention to your scores and take them seriously.
If you have a low ACT score and a low GPA, this is also useful because it indicates that you’re missing out on key concepts in your classes. This could be a problem when you get to college. It also means you might encounter issues in the admissions process depending on where you apply and how low your scores and GPA are in comparison to each college's expectations.
A low ACT score combined with a low GPA might prompt you to take more drastic measures to remedy your problems in school. The ACT can give you that extra push to address underlying issues that could cause you problems in college and beyond.
Your Score Is Especially High or Low
For scores that are in the middle range (16-24 represents the middle 50 percent of test takers) the ACT is a more ambiguous measurement of academic ability. However, if your scores are very high or very low, the ACT may be a more useful measurement for you. A very high score means that you likely have strong reasoning abilities and are well-prepared to take on college academics. It also means that you’ll have a lot of choices in the college application process.
A very low score means that you probably have some big gaps in your content knowledge and struggle with time pressure. It also means that you'll have fewer choices for college, so you should take your score into account when planning where to apply.
Extreme scores are major indications of how well-prepared you are to take on academic challenges in college. Standardized tests like the ACT can tell you things about your overall knowledge and reasoning abilities that your grades in high school might spell out less clearly.
If your scores are XTREME, you should consider them more strongly.
ACT Scores Are a Less Useful Measurement If:
You Plan to Apply to Test Optional Colleges or Go Into a Professional Job Training Program After High School
If you don’t plan on applying to colleges that require you to submit ACT or SAT scores, you won’t need to consider the ACT as seriously as a measurement of your abilities. High scores can help you even at a test optional college, but they’re not a critical component of admissions decisions. You might still pay some attention to your scores to ensure that they’re not low enough to indicate any major gaps in your knowledge, but overall they're not as important for you.
You Have a High GPA
ACT scores aren't as critical of a measurement if your GPA is already very high. When I say "very high", I mean a GPA that indicates that you earned mostly As in high level classes throughout high school. Usually this would be between a 3.7 and a 5.0 depending on whether your school uses a weighted or unweighted GPA scale. As long as your ACT scores aren't extremely low (below the 25th percentile score of 16), they won’t kill your chances of getting into college.
Judging yourself based on your scores when you already have a high GPA can be a bad idea because it might make you think less of your academic abilities. Many people struggle with time on the ACT, resulting in lower scores than their performance in high school would predict. It’s still a good idea to try and improve your scores if you’re looking to get into selective colleges, but in these cases you have to remind yourself not to take your scores too seriously as a measurement of your potential.
Overall, You Shouldn’t Make Sweeping Judgements About Your Abilities Based on Your ACT Score
Your ACT score is a limited measurement of specific academic skills, and it doesn’t give you a complete picture of your potential. Scores are a useful benchmark in assessing basic subject knowledge and deciding where to apply to college, but don’t make any assumptions about what you’re capable of accomplishing in life based on your scores alone. If you're worried about your scores, you can always improve with dedicated studying!
Working on improving your ACT score? Read this list of fifteen tips and tricks to help you do better with minimal extra study time.
You should also check out this list of the ten best books for ACT prep if you're not sure where to begin in your studying.
If you've taken the ACT multiple times, you may be wondering which scores colleges actually use in making admissions decisions. Read this article to find out which scores are considered most strongly by colleges.
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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.