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What Is a Good ACT Score for 2021?

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Nov 5, 2020 3:00:00 PM

SAT/ACT Score Target

 

feature_2021

Are you planning on taking the ACT soon? If so, you're probably wondering, "What's a good ACT score for 2021?" In this in-depth guide, we'll go over the three ways you can  know if an ACT score is good or not. We also explain why it's so important to set a goal score and how the coronavirus pandemic and new school score policies have affected 2021 ACT scores.

 

What's a Good ACT Score for 2021 Overall?

In the simplest definition, a good ACT score for you is one that's high enough to get you into the colleges you're applying to. But if we want to figure out what a good ACT score for 2021 is overall, then we'll need to consider how high a score is compared with the scores of other test takers. In other words, the more test takers you scored higher than, the more impressive your own ACT score will be.

The two most common ways people compare their ACT scores with those of others is by looking at averages and percentiles.

For averages, the basic rule is that as long as you scored in the top half of all test takers, your ACT score is considered good. The higher above average you score, the better. Similarly, a score that places you in the bottom half of test takers can be considered not good. The further below average your ACT score is, the worse you did on the exam compared to other students.

According to data released by ACT, Inc., the average composite ACT score is 20.7 (out of 36). The average for each individual ACT section is as follows:

  • English: 20.1
  • Math: 20.4
  • Reading: 21.2
  • Science: 20.6

This means that any ACT score above 21 (20.7 rounded up) can be considered a good score.

Percentiles can also be considered. Percentiles tell you what percentage of students you scored the same as or higher than on the ACT. For example , if you earned a score in the 59th percentile, this would mean that you did the same as or better than 59% of test takers.

Below, the chart shows how ACT percentiles translate to performance on the test based on how well you did relative to other students:

Percentile
English
Math
Reading
Science
Composite
99th (Best)
35+
34+
35+
35+
34+
90th (Excellent)
30-31
27-28
31-32
28
29
75th (Good)
24
24-25
25-26
23-24
24-25
50th (Average)
19-20
18-19
20
19-20
19-20
25th (Poor)
14
15-16
15-16
15-16
15-16
10th (Very Poor)
10-11
14
12
13
13
1st (Poorest)
7 and below
12 and below
9 and below
9 and below
10 and below

 

As you can see, you need to score a 29 out of 36 composite score on the ACT to break into the top 10% of test takers. On the flip side, a composite score at 13 or below would place you in the bottom 10% of test takers. This naturally doesn't look particularly impressive on college applications. Even if you were able to raise your score by 3 points, you'd still be in the bottom 25% of test takers, with the vast majority having scored better than you. Therefore, we can say that any ACT score at or below the 25th percentile is not (objectively) good.

But percentiles aren't the only factors that can help us determine what a good ACT score is. What's most important is whether your score is good enough to get you into the college of your dreams.

 

What's a Good 2021 ACT Score for You?

While knowing averages and percentiles can give you a general idea of what a good ACT score is for the general population. However, the key information you need isn't just how you compare to other test takers, but what ACT score you need to get into your dream school. At PrepScholar, we call this your ACT goal score. If you hit that score, you'll have a great shot at getting into each of the colleges you applied to.

What this means is that your ACT goal score will depend on which colleges you're applying to. If you're applying to highly-competitive top-tier schools, your goal score may end up being close to a perfect 36. If you're looking at less competitive schools, your goal score may be somewhere in the mid or high 20s.

To determine your own ACT goal score for 2021, you'll need to know the average ACT scores of admitted students for the colleges you're applying to. In the next section, we walk you through each step you need to follow to gather this information.


body_goalscorepsat

 

3 Steps to Setting Your ACT Goal Score for 2021

In order to find your ACT goal score for 2021, follow these three steps.

 

Step 1: Make a Schools Chart

First, you want to make a chart like the one below. It'll contain all the schools you're applying to. You can make the chart yourself or download ours by clicking the thumbnail.

body_act_target_score_worksheet_thumbnail

This is what the chart will look like with the school names filled in:

School Name
25th Percentile ACT Score
75th Percentile ACT Score
University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana
 
 
University of Illinois Chicago
 
 
DePaul University
 
 
Illinois State University
 
 

 

Step 2: Find ACT Score Information for Your Schools

Next, you'll need to do some research to find average ACT scores of admitted students for each of your schools. Specifically, you'll want to look for the middle 50%, or average, range of scores--i.e., the 25th and 75th percentile scores--for each school.

Many schools list this information on their admissions pages, but the easiest way to get this information is to use our PrepScholar college database. Search "[school name] PrepScholar ACT" and click on the link to the school's page. Here's an example for Illinois State University:

isuACT

Once you're on that school's page, scroll down to find the school's ACT information. You'll need the 25th and 75th percentile scores. Here's what this information looks like on our page for Illinois State University:

isuACT2-1

Record the 25th and 75th percentile information in your chart. In this case, the 25th percentile is 21, and the 75th percentile is 26.

If you can't find your school in our PrepScholar database, check on the school's official website, and look for any page that has information on student facts and figures, admissions data, etc. You can also try searching for "[school name] average ACT scores" or something similar.

Once you've found this information for each of your schools, your chart should look similar to this:

School Name
25th Percentile ACT Score
75th Percentile ACT Score
26
32 
21
27 
22 
28
21 
26 

 

Step 3: Determine Your ACT Goal Score

Now you have the information you need to determine your ACT goal score. Find the highest 75th percentile score in your chart. This will be your ACT goal score. If you reach it, you have a great chance of getting into all the schools you're applying to.

In our sample chart, the highest 75th percentile score is a 32 at U of I Champaign-Urbana. That means this student's goal score is a 32. This is quite a lofty goal score, as it puts you in the top 4% of all test takers.

If your ACT goal score feels like too much of a reach for you, then you can lower it slightly to a score between the highest and 2nd highest 75th percentile score in your chart, or just use your 2nd highest 75th percentile score as your goal score. In this case, that would make this student's goal score a 28, which is in the 88th percentile.

Now that you know your ACT goal score, you can aim for that score in each of the exam sections, or have different score goals for different sections if you know you're stronger in some areas of the ACT than others. For example, if you decided your goal score was a 28, you could aim for a 28 across all sections or, say, a 30 in Math and Science and a 26 in Reading and English if that better matches your skills and practice test scores.

 

body_student_scantron_test_exam

 

Good ACT Scores in 2021 Compared to Past Years

Now we know multiple ways of defining good ACT scores. But are these scores different from what were considered good years in previous years? 

The short answer is no, not really. While percentiles and averages can shift a bit each year, they rarely change dramatically. In general, what's considered a good ACT score (based on averages or percentiles) is going to stay fairly consistent from year to year.

The following chart shows ACT averages from 2016 through 2020:

This chart shows how average section and composite ACT scores have changed over the years:

Year
English
Math
Reading
Science
Composite
2020
20.1
20.4
21.2
20.6
20.7
2019
20.2
20.5
21.3
20.8
20.8
2018
20.2
20.5
21.3
20.7
20.8
2017
20.3
20.7
21.4
21.0
21.0
2016
20.1
20.6
21.3
20.8
20.8

Sources: National Norms for ACT Test Scores 2020 -2021 Reporting Year, ACT National Profile Report 2018

As you can see, average ACT scores have barely changed in the past five years. The biggest shift was just 0.3 points, which is very nominal. The Reading section has the most consistent averages, varying just 0.1 points some years.

But what about percentiles? Remember that percentiles show you what percentage of test takers you scored the same as or higher than on the ACT.

This chart shows past and present ACT score percentiles from 2016 to 2020:

Year
90th %ile
75th %ile
50th %ile
25th %ile
10th %ile
29
24*
20*
16*
13
29*
24*
20*
16*
13*
29*
24*
20*
16*
13*
29*
24*
20*
16
14*
28*
24*
20*
16*
13*

*Estimated score based on available percentile data

Here, we can see that, like the average scores above, ACT percentiles have barely budged. The 75th, 50th, and 25th percentile scores haven't changed at all in the past five years, and others have only changed by a point. We can thus say with confidence that the definition of good ACT scores (using percentiles) hasn't changed much since 2016—and they very likely won't for a while!

 

How Has COVID-19 Affected What a Good 2021 ACT Score Is?

The coronavirus pandemic caused an upheaval for students, including how and even if they can take the ACT. As a result of ACT exam cancellations, many colleges are no longer requiring standardized test scores for the 2020/2021 admissions cycle.

As we've seen in the previous section, what a good ACT score is doesn't change much from year to year based on average scores and percentiles, but COVID-19 has dramatically changed whether you even need a standardized test score at all to get into college.

However, just because many schools are temporarily not requiring test scores doesn't mean that ACT scores no longer matter for anyone. If you are unable or prefer not to take the ACT or submit your scores, your application won't be negatively impacted. Instead, other aspects of your application (particularly your grades) will be given more weight. If you do choose to submit ACT scores, a high score will still be a boost to your application, and a low score may make admissions teams wary.

So, if you're applying to colleges in 2020/2021, first consider whether or not you want to take the ACT and submit those scores. If you don't want to, that's perfectly fine; just make sure other areas of your application, like your GPA, letters of rec, extracurriculars, etc. are as strong as you can make them. If you do decide to submit ACT scores, keep your goal score the same. Competitive colleges will still expect competitive ACT scores from students who are applying. It's possible that they will accept more students with lower test scores than they have in past years because of how difficult the pandemic has made it to study and take the ACT, but your best bet is to keep your original goal score. Aim for that score, and you'll be putting yourself in a great place with your applications.

If you're wondering about other ways COVID-19 has affected the college application process, check out our guide that explains five ways the pandemic has changed college admissions.

 

body_accepted_stamp-2

 

Conclusion: What's a Good ACT Score for 2021?

If you're curious what a good ACT score is for 2021, there are three ways to define "good" and "bad" ACT scores. 

The simplest way is to look at the national average, which is 20.7. Any score above this threshold can be considered a good score, as it means you've scored higher than the majority of test takers.

Another way of defining good ACT scores is to look at ACT score percentiles. These compare your performance with those of other test takers. The higher your percentile, the better you did on the ACT relative to other students. In general, scores in the 50th percentile (19-20) are average, while scores in the 75th percentile (24-25) and 90th percentile (29) are good and excellent, respectively.

The final (and most important!) method you can use to define good ACT scores for 2021 is to figure out what scores are good for you based on the colleges you're applying to. Look for ACT score data for each of your schools. Once you have that, the highest 75th percentile score will be your target score—that is, what's considered a good score for you and you alone.

Once you know what score to aim for on the ACT, you can get started on coming up with your very own ACT study plan

 

What's Next?

Aiming for a high ACT score? Get help using our expert guides to getting a perfect 36 (written by our resident full scorer) and the best ACT prep books. Our ultimate ACT prep guide can also teach you everything there is to know about the exam, from topics to strategies.

What's a bad ACT score, nationally and by collegeLearn all about the types of ACT scores you should avoid getting.

Having trouble understanding what your ACT score means? Then read our explanation of the ACT scoring system and see how raw scores convert to scaled scores out of 36 points.

 

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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.



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