This article would be a pretty short one if there were a single answer to the question of what qualifies as an excellent ACT score. Like most things in life, however, what you might consider an excellent score depends on your perspective.
In this post, I’ll talk about different ways to understand what counts as excellent test performance. I’ll start off with excellent scores in relation to the general population before discussing more nuanced comparisons: what does it mean to have an excellent score when considering your peer group performance, your target schools, and your own strengths and weaknesses?
A Note Before We Get Started: Percentiles
Percentiles are the best mathematical way to understand score performance because they help us understand how people perform in relation to each other. Before I talk about excellent ACT scores, I'll give you a (brief) crash course in percentile scores.
First, percentile scores are different from percent scores. A percent score tells you what portion of an exam you got correct, whereas percentile score tells you how you did on the exam compared to everyone else who took it. For example, a percent score of 60% means got 60% of the questions right, whereas a percentile score of 60% means you scored better than 60% of the students who took the exam.
Percentile scores are more meaningful than percentages when we talk about ACT scores because what’s important is how you score when compared to other students. For example, if you take a difficult test in a large class and only receive a 70%, you might assume you scored poorly. But if everyone else in your class scored lower than a 70%, you would have a 99th percentile score. This information would significantly change the perception of your performance.
Now that you have an understanding of percentiles, we can start talking about what it means to have an excellent ACT score.
Excellent ACT Scores for the General US Population
We're starting with a big crowd and working our way down.
It’s hard to get a handle on what ACT scores actually mean without some good, general info about population performance. Who can make intuitive sense out of an exam score without some contextual information?
First, you should know that the ACT is scored out of 36 points. The lowest possible composite score is 1. The average national composite score is 21 points. The top 25% of scorers — people with 75th-99th percentile scores — get composite ACT scores of 24 and above. The bottom 25% of test-takers get composite scores of 16 and below.
You may very well have your own ideas about what a reasonable “excellent score” cutoff should be. For the general population, scores of 24 and above (so, scores that are higher than those of 75% of the population) could reasonably be considered excellent.
Here are some other important percentile cutoffs and the corresponding ACT scores for quick reference:
- 10th percentile composite scores → 13-14
- 25th percentile composite scores → 16-17
- 50th percentile composite scores → 21
- 75th percentile composite scores → 24
- 90th percentile composite scores → 28
Excellent ACT Scores for Your Peer Group
To get a more nuanced understanding of what an excellent ACT score is, the next step would be to consider the scores of your peers — namely, people in the same geographical area or at the same high school. We’re narrowing down the comparison group here from the entire nation to people who are more similar to you in terms of educational background and opportunities. Here’s how to figure out how to get information on what your peers are scoring:
- Aggregated High School Information - A school report with ACT score information should give you an idea of how your peers tend to score. If you live in a mandatory testing state, you may be able to find this information just by googling "[Your High School Name] ACT score report." If you don’t know where to get this info or if it’s just not available, check in with your guidance counselor to see if she has insight on the typical ACT score range for your high school.
- Classmate Information or Word of Mouth - If you can’t get solid information on general school performance, you may just want to ask around to see how your peers tend to score. This is a delicate topic, so be respectful and don’t push the subject if someone’s uncomfortable discussing it. If you want a more competitive score range, check in with honor students — they tend to score higher on the ACTs.
Once you get information on general school or peer performance:
- Consider whether this score distribution matches up with the national average, or if it's higher/lower than expected.
- If your school/classmates scores are higher/lower than the national average, you can use this info to adjust parameters and expectations for your own scores. For example, if most of your peers are scoring above average (21), you might have to score above the national 75th percentile (24) to stand out as “excellent” among your peers.
Excellent ACT Scores for Your Target Colleges
We're narrowing in on what's important: excellent ACT scores for the schools you have in your sights.
Your ACT score doesn’t have to be perfect (or even necessarily excellent) for you to get into your target schools. They just have to be good enough to get you accepted — after that, they really don’t matter too much. If you have a list of target schools, you can easily figure out what would constitute an excellent ACT score for each particular school. Here’s how to do it:
- Google “[name of school] PrepScholar admissions requirements.”
- On the admissions page, look for the 25th and 75th percentile ACT scores. This will give you an idea of what “low” (25th percentile) and “excellent” (75th percentile) ACT scores are for students who attend that particular college.
If you want an excellent ACT score for a particular college, aim for that 75th percentile score. Now, there's some flexibility with this - keep in mind that 75% of students at any college are accepted with scores lower than the 75th percentile cutoff.
If your ACT is in the top 25% of scores for schools that you’re considering, you may want to consider applying to some more competitive schools. Schools with higher average ACT scores tend to have more ambitious students and more challenging courses. A high-ranking school also sends a better signal to grad schools and employers. Ultimately, it's a good strategy to apply to several target, reach, and safety schools — knowing schools' ACT score ranges will help you figure out which ones will best fit within this strategy.
Excellent ACT Scores for Yourself
This is perhaps the most important consideration with the most practical implications. Given your goals, strengths, and weaknesses, what’s considered an excellent ACT score for you personally?
There are quite a few factors to take into account here:
- Whether you're a “good” test-taker or an anxious test-taker
- Your innate skill set for each ACT section
- Your educational opportunities — some students may not have a strong background in all ACT content
- Your resources — some students may have access to prep courses, tutors, or extra help, whereas others may not
It’s important to set a realistic but challenging goal in order to meet your full potential. If you set too low of a goal, you cheat yourself out of the opportunity to attend better colleges. If you set too high of a goal, you may feel unnecessarily demotivated and frustrated.
So where do you begin figuring out what an excellent ACT score means for you? Here's how to do it:
- Get a baseline score. Take a practice test after familiarizing yourself with the ACT for about 10 hours of prep. You might consider this baseline your low score cutoff — after all, you did get this score with pretty minimal study time.
- Reach your own score potential. Know that whatever you scored on your baseline, there will be significant room for improvement with good prep. Many students reach a score max (an excellent personal score) after about 40-80 hours of studying. This score maximum is generally 3-4 points higher than baseline, although it's definitely possible to increase your score more than that.
How Do You Get an Excellent ACT Score?
Now comes the real work: getting the scores that you want!
There are three key components to earning an excellent score, however you define it: a solid timeline, a concrete goal, and a smart study plan.
The amount of time you have to prep will directly affect your study timeline. Read our guide on how long you should study for the ACT.
Work towards a concrete goal after making a list of target, reach, and safety schools. Get instructions on how to set a goal score in our ACT score guide. Want a beyond-excellent ACT score? We have a guide for that too.
Now that you have a study timeline and goal score in place, you'll need a smart study plan. This plan will, of course, depend on when you're taking the test. Don't have a lot of time? Read our last-minute tips and strategies, or our 10-day study plan.
Have a bit more time on your hands? Read our study schedule for students who have one year or more to prepare.
If you're still deciding whether to take the SAT or the ACT, you might be wondering which one will get you the best scores. Read more about how to decide which test is the best fit for you.
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.