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What Is a Good ACT Score? A Bad ACT Score? An Excellent ACT Score?

Posted by Dr. Fred Zhang | Mar 28, 2017 3:00:00 PM

SAT/ACT Score Target

 

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If you've taken the ACT and gotten your ACT test scores back, you probably want to know how you did. Or you might be planning for the ACT and want to know what ACT composite score to aim for. So what is a good ACT score?

In this article, we'll discuss what makes a good ACT composite score. We also give you a step-by-step guide to figuring out what a good ACT score is for you personally, depending on the colleges you plan to apply to. We’ll also provide ACT score ranges for 35 popular schools and discuss what you can do if you fall short of your goal score.

Aside: Are you looking for SAT standards instead?  If so check out our SAT good score guidelines.

 

What Is a Good ACT Score Overall?

The ACT score range is from 1-36. As you might imagine, the higher your score, the better you did. But is there a certain cutoff that delineates a “good” ACT score? 

To answer this question, it’s important to understand how ACT scores work. Your composite score from 1-36 corresponds to a percentile that compares how you did to the general population of ACT test-takers. A higher percentile means you scored higher than that percent of students. (So, a 55th percentile score means your score was higher than 55% of students).

 

Exclusive Free Bonus: Click here to download a free step-by-step guide on finding your personal ACT score target. Once you go through these steps, you'll know exactly what ACT score you need to aim for.

 

ACT test scores are set up to follow a normal distribution. This means that student performance tends to cluster around the middle of the scale—most test-takers score a somewhere between a little below and a little above the average score. Far fewer test-takers score towards the higher and lower end of the scale.

The average ACT score is 20. If you’ve scored 20, then you’ve scored higher than 50% of test-takers. That’s pretty good, depending on your frame of reference. A 24 places you at the 74th percentile—better than ¾ of test-takers!

Here’s an abbreviated chart with ACT score percentiles for 2015-2016 to help you figure out how your scores position you among the overall student test-taker population:

 

Score

ACT English Percentile

ACT Math Percentile

ACT Reading Percentile

ACT Science Percentile

Composite Percentile

1

1

1

1

1

1

5

1

1

1

1

1

10

7

1

2

2

1

13

16

2

11

9

7

16

32

27

25

22

24

18

40

43

36

33

36

20

52

53

48

48

50

22

64

62

61

63

63

24

74

73

71

77

74

26

82

84

78

87

83

28

88

91

84

92

90

30

92

95

89

95

95

33

97

98

97

98

99

36

99

99

99

99

99

 

In terms of benchmarks for ACT score percentiles, a score of 16 places you at the 24th percentile, meaning you’ve scored better than less than a quarter of test-takers. This isn’t a very strong score.

We’ve already noted that a 20 is an average ACT score, at the 50th percentile. A score of 24 means you’ve scored better than about 75% of students. A 28 means you’ve scored better than 90% of students, and a 30 means you’ve scored better than 95% of them! Anything 33 or above is in the 99th percentile—a truly phenomenal score.

You can also see that not many people score near the bottom and the top of the scale, because there’s so little percentile change between scores here. Composite scores in the 1-10 range are all in the 1st percentile, and composite scores from 33-36 are all in the 99th percentile!

By contrast, around the middle of the scale at 20, where most test-takers are clustered, a bump of a few points makes a big difference: going from 18 to 22 moves you from the 36th to the 63rd percentile—a whopping 27 percentile points! But a similar 4-point bump from 26 to 30 only takes you from the 83rd to the 95th percentile. That’s just a 12-percentile bump. And from 30 to 34 is only a 4-percentile increase.

You may notice that section percentiles are a little different than the composite scale. However, the same general score distribution holds.

So, to recap, compared to all test-takers:

  • ACT score < 16 = bottom 25%
  • ACT score of 20 = right in the middle! (average score)
  • ACT score of 24+ = top 25% 
  • ACT score of 28+ = top 10% 
  • ACT of 30+ = top 5% 
  • ACT score of 33+ = top 1% of test-takers

 

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If you get a 33 or higher, you've ascended ACT mountain.

 

What's a Good ACT Score for You?

We’ve discussed how your ACT score compares to all the other test-takers. But what’s more important is what makes a good ACT score for you personally, based on the schools you are interested in. A 29 places you in the top 10% of test-takers, and it’s a strong score for admission to schools like Texas A&M, Penn State, Virginia Tech, and Baylor. But a 29 would actually be a very low score for super-selective institutions like the Ivies, Duke, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Chicago.

By contrast, a 29 would be an incredibly high score for less selective schools, like CSU Long Beach (average ACT score 21), CSU Northridge (average ACT score 19) and Montclair State University (average ACT score 20). If those were your goal scores, you wouldn’t need a 29; aiming for a score a little above average (in the 21-22 range) would be adequate. 

So, what makes a good ACT score for you is all relative, and mostly based on where you are trying to get into college.

Of course, it’s also worth noting that the higher your standardized test scores, the more likely you are to get offered merit scholarships. We’re going to focus primarily on figuring out the score you need for admission in this guide, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Another thing to consider is that a higher ACT or SAT score can help you if you have a lower GPA than a school is looking for. (However, this won’t help you so much at particularly selective institutions—they’ll expect applicants with pretty high marks across the board.)

 

How to Find Your Goal Score

So how do you find out what make for good ACT scores for colleges that you’re interested in? In this section, we’ll walk you through a quick five-step process for figuring out the best goal score for you.

 

Step 1: Download This Worksheet

To work through the following steps, we'll be filling out a worksheet for all the schools you're planning to apply to. Click here to download it, or click the image below.

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I recommend you print it out so that you can write on paper and keep it next to your work space.

 

Step 2: Fill in the Schools You Want to Get Into on the Left

Fill in all the schools you're sure you want to apply to already in the leftmost column. If you don't know what schools you're aiming for yet, feel free to use ones that have been suggested to you, or schools that your friends are interested in. I recommend that you take the time to research schools first, though, so that you have a realistic target score. Because your goal score should be targeted to the schools you are actually interested in applying to, the more accurate of an idea you have of the schools you want to apply to, the more accurate your goal score will be.

 

Step 3: For Each School, Google "[Name of School] Prepscholar ACT"

For example, if I'm interested in U Alabama, I'll do the following search: 

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 Click on the the ACT and GPA post (or the Admission Requirements post, they’ll both have the information) and scroll down to find the 25th and 75th percentile composite ACT scores for admitted students. For University of Alabama, the 25th percentile score is 22. As a quick reminder, the 25th percentile means that 25% of admits have a score at or below that number. So 22 would be a below average score for admitted students for U Alabama.

The 75th percentile score for University of Alabama is 30. That means that students with that composite score scored better than 75% of all the other admits. So scoring at that level or above puts you in the top quarter of admits score-wise—a very competitive score! In summary, the 25th/75th percentile range describes the scores of the middle 50% of all students admitted to a particular school.

If you score at the 75th percentile for any school, you have a great chance at getting in (assuming your other credentials are appropriate for the school). If you're at the 25th percentile, you'll need to have a particularly strong application to boost your odds of getting in.

For each school on your list, google the Prepscholar ACT score information and write down the 25th and 75th percentile scores in the appropriate row for that school on your goal score sheet.

 

Step 4: Calculate Your Final ACT Target Score

To calculate your target ACT goal score, look at the 75th percentile column. Find the highest score in that column. That’s your composite score goal. If you score at the 75th percentile level for the most competitive school on your list, you’ll be competitive at all your schools for test scores.

Another advantage of choosing a high goal score is that if you end up falling 1-2 points short, it’s not a huge deal because you’ll still be competitive for most of your schools.

You might be thinking—hey, wait! Why did I fill out that entire sheet if I was just going to pick the highest 75th percentile score? Well, the advantage of filling out all that information is that you now have it handy as a reference. You’ll be able to check your ACT score against all your schools of interest as soon as you have it! 

 

Step 5: Share Your Target Score

As a last step, I suggest that you do two things with your score target:

  1. Share it with your parents. This will be a helpful conversation around your personal goals and how you want to achieve your target ACT score. Plus, they can help keep you accountable throughout the preparation process!
  2. Tape it to your wall. This will keep your goal in mind, which will help keep you motivated to prepare.

 

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Keep your goals in sight!

 

Good ACT Scores for Popular Schools

To make determining your goal score a little easier, here is an ACT score chart with the 25th-75th percentile composite ACT test scores for 2016 for 35 popular schools. I’ve also provided the acceptance rate and current U.S. News ranking to give you additional reference points as to how selective the school is. 

School

25th Percentile ACT

75th Percentile ACT

US News Ranking (National Universities)

2016 Acceptance Rate

Princeton University

32

35

1

6.5%

Harvard University

32

35

2

5.4%

University of Chicago

32

35

3

7.6%

Yale University

32

35

3

6.3%

Columbia University

32

35

5

6%

Stanford University

31

34

5

4.8%

MIT

33

35

7

7.9%

Duke University

31

35

8

11%

University of Pennsylvania

32

35

8

9.4%

Dartmouth College

30

34

11

10.5%

Northwestern University

31

34

12

10.7%

Brown University

29

34

14

9.3%

Cornell University

30

34

15

14.1%

University of Notre Dame

33

35

15

18.7%

Vanderbilt University

32

35

15

10.7%

Georgetown University

29

33

20

16.4%

University of California, Berkeley

30

34

20

17.5%

University of Southern California

31

34

23

16.5%

Carnegie Mellon University

30

34

24

13.7%

University of California, Los Angeles

29

34

24

18%

University of Virginia

27

31

24

28.9%

University of Michigan

30

34

27

28.6%

Wake Forest University

28

31

27

29%

University of North Carolina

28

33

30

26%

Boston College

30

33

31

29%

New York University

28

32

36

32%

Boston University

28

32

39

29%

Penn State

26

30

50

51%

Villanova University

31

33

50

43.5%

Ohio State

27

31

54

49.1%

University of Georgia

27

32

56

53%

Clemson University

26

31

66

51%

Baylor University

26

30

71

44%

Texas A&M

23

29

74

66%

Virginia Tech

24

29

74

72.6%

 

 

What If My Score is Too Low?

If you take the test and you get lower than your goal score, what should you do? Don’t panic; you have a few options. We’ll go over them here and help you figure out when you should consider them.

 

Strategy 1: Retake the Test

If you have the time to prepare for the test and re-take it, this is probably your best strategy if you are really set on all your schools. (Unless you were only 1 or maybe 2 points under, in which case it might actually be a poor use of time to retake the test—see strategy #2). You’ll want to be sure to do targeted prep of your weaknesses to have the best chance of actually improving your score.

You should also make sure you actually prepare for enough hours to make the meaningful difference in score that you need. Here are our rough estimates for how many hours of prep it will take for you to improve your composite score by a certain amount:

  • 0-1 ACT Composite Point Improvement: 10 hours
  • 1-2 ACT Point Improvement: 20 hours
  • 2-4 ACT Point Improvement: 40 hours
  • 4-6 ACT Point Improvement: 80 hours
  • 6-9 ACT Point Improvement: 150 hours+

 

Strategy 2: Don’t Worry About It

If you only missed your goal score by 1-2 points, depending on the schools you’re applying to, you might not need to do anything. Let’s say you were going for a 35 but you got a 34. You could retake the test, but you don’t necessarily have to. If your 34 still puts you towards the top of the 25th-75th percentile range for your schools, it might make more sense to use the time and energy you would spend prepping for and retaking the test on other parts of your application.

However, if you were more than 2 points short of your goal score, you should consider strategies 1 or 3. And if you’re applying to very selective schools, even 2 points might make a retake worth it.

 

Strategy 3: Adjust Your List of Schools

If you are 3+ points short of your goal score and you don’t have time to retake the test, your best strategy is to adjust your list of schools. While you can (and should) still apply to your dream schools as reach schools, you’ll need to make sure that you have enough strong match and safety schools for your scores.

Let’s say you were going for a 32 but you got a 28. You may have had Boston University (middle 50% 28-32) as a match, but now it’s more of a reach. And maybe you had Ohio State (middle 50% 27-31) as a safety school but now it’s closer to a match. So add some safety schools for your score, like Syracuse (middle 50% 23-28) and Pace University (middle 50% 22-26). You can see more on choosing appropriate safety, match, and reach schools here.

 

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Safety (schools) are very important in the college application process.

 

Review: What Is a Good ACT Score?

So what is a good ACT score? Well, your composite ACT score corresponds to a percentile ranking that tells you how you did compared to all other test-takers. 20 is a 50th percentile, or average score.

However, it’s more important to consider what’s a good ACT score for you personally. And a good score is one that makes you competitive for the programs you are interested in!

We went over a 5-step process for determining a goal score. We also provided ACT score ranges for 35 popular schools.

Finally, we provided some advice for what to do if you miss your goal score. You can prepare and retake the test, do nothing (if you were pretty close to your goal), or adjust your list of schools.

Remember, the most important thing is figuring out what are good ACT scores for you personally! You won’t necessarily need the same scores as some of your friends and peers.

 

What to Do Next

Got ACT questions? We've got answers! See our ACT FAQ. We can also help you figure out how hard the ACT will be for you and why you might need to take the ACT

We can help you figure out how important the ACT is for the college admissions process. And what's the minimum ACT score for college

Do you want to improve your ACT score? Check out our top guides:

 

Check out our online ACT prep program. We have a 4 point improvement guarantee - if you don't improve your score by 4 points, you get every penny of your money back. Plus, you get a 5-day free trial, so if you don't feel that it's helping you, you can cancel at any time.

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Dr. Fred Zhang
About the Author

Fred is co-founder of PrepScholar. He scored a perfect score on the SAT and is passionate about sharing information with aspiring students. Fred graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor's in Mathematics and a PhD in Economics.



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