The ACT is one of two standardized tests that students can take for admission to college. The other, of course, is the SAT. Fortunately, colleges don’t have a preference for which test scores you submit, so if you find that the ACT is better suited to your abilities, more power to you.
Still, you may be wondering, what exactly is a good ACT score? As is the case with the SAT, the schools you apply to will determine how high you should aim--and how many times you may need to retake the test.
How is the ACT scored?
The ACT has four subjects, including English, Math, Reading, and Science, with an optional essay. The four subjects each receive a score of 1-36. These individual scores are averaged to create a “composite” ACT score. (It is actually possible to get lower individual scores and still get a perfect composite score of 36.) Also, the essay is scored separately and does not affect the composite score.
ACT scoring at a glance:
Composite: Average of four subjects
Essay (optional): 1-12
Overall, colleges are most interested in the composite score.
In general, how do you determine what is a good ACT score?
If you want to get a general sense of what's a good ACT score, look no further than the score distributions that ACT releases each year. These distributions show the national average as well as percentile rankings. For example, the 99th percentile score means that these are test takers who scored higher than 99% of those who took the exam.
The national average:
The 75th percentile:
The 99th percentile:
Note: Most top-tier colleges don’t really differentiate scores of 34, 35, and 36. Of course, getting a perfect score is always impressive, but it is not what will make or break your app.
What is a good ACT score for the Ivy League?
Ivy League colleges traditionally include Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, UPenn, Cornell, and Dartmouth. These are considered the “top tier” colleges. Other colleges that fit into this category include University of Chicago and Stanford. Since these colleges are some of the most selective in the nation, a good ACT score for getting accepted will be in the upper 30s.
Princeton’s freshman academic profile can give you an idea of what's a good ACT score for the Ivy League:
What is a good ACT score for top liberal arts colleges?
Liberal arts colleges are smaller institutions but still carry the same prestige and academic rigor as larger top-tier schools. Many quality liberal arts colleges are in the Northeast, including Williams, Amherst, Bowdoin, Swarthmore, Wellesley, and Middlebury.
These are the ACT scores from Williams College’s recent freshman academic profile:
What is a good ACT score for top private universities?
High-ranking private universities and colleges that are not in the Ivy League--for example, Carnegie Mellon, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, and Rice--often still require above-average ACT scores.
These are the ACT scores from Rice University’s recent freshman academic profile:
What is a good ACT score for top public universities?
While known to be less selective for admissions, public universities are still competitive, and ACT scores range in the upper 20s and lower-to-mid 30s.
These are the ACT scores from UC-Berkeley’s recent freshman academic profile (top-tier public university):
These are the ACT scores from UT-Austin’s recent freshman academic profile (mid-tier public university):
What are other benefits of a good ACT score?
Other than getting accepted into your dream college, a good ACT score can determine if you receive merit-based scholarships. There are databases of scholarships that can tell you which are available based on the score you receive, but to keep things simple, the higher you score, the more likely you will have access to the highest award amounts, including full-ride scholarships.
A good way to mark your progress with the ACT is to break up the score ranges into different groups. Here is a way that you can set up incremental goals:
Goal 1: national average composite score of 20.
Goal 2: 75th percentile composite score of 25.
Goal 3: higher-tier composite score of 30.
Goal 4: highest-tier composite score of 34-36.
Generally, scores in the upper 20s will give you an advantage for many colleges, but scores in the 30s and even upper 30s are basically required for acceptance to elite colleges.
So what's a good ACT score? As you can see, it all depends.
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