What Do ACT Scores Mean in College Admissions Data?

An Explanation of 25th/75th Percentile ACT Scores Found in College Profiles

Hand filling in multiple choice answer sheet
ACT score percentiles. Lew Robertson, Brand X Pictures / Getty Images

Much of the ACT data on this site and elsewhere on the web show ACT scores for the 25th and 75th percentile of students. But what exactly do these numbers mean?

Understanding the 25th and 75th Percentile ACT Numbers

Consider a college profile that presents the following ACT scores for the 25th and 75th percentiles:

  • ACT Composite: 21/26
  • ACT English: 20/26
  • ACT Math: 21/27

The lower number is the 25th percentile of students who enrolled in (not just applied to) the college.

For the school above, 25% of enrolled students received a math score of 21 or lower.

The upper number is the 75th percentile of students who enrolled in the college. For the above example, 75% of enrolled students got a math score of 27 or lower (looked at another way, 25% of students got above a 27).

For the school above, if you have an ACT math score of 28, you would be in the top 25% of applicants for that one measure. If you have a math score of 19, you are in the bottom 25% of applicants for that measure.

Understanding these numbers is important when you plan how many colleges to apply to, and when you figure out which schools are a reach, a match, or a safety. If your scores are near or below the 25th percentile numbers, you should consider the school a reach. Note that this does not mean you won't get in—remember that 25% of students who enroll have a score that is at or below that lower number.

Why Do Colleges Present 25th and 75th Percentile Data?

You may wonder why the standard practice for ACT score reporting focuses on 25th and 75th percentile data rather than the full range of scores earned by matriculated students. The reason is rather simple—the outlying data is not an accurate representation of the type of student who typically attends the college or university.

Even the country's most selective colleges admit a few students with ACT scores that are well below the norm. For example, 75% of enrolled students at Harvard University scored a 32 or higher on the ACT. However, this graph of Harvard admissions data shows that a few students got in with ACT scores that were in the mid teens. How, exactly, did these students get in? The reasons could be many: perhaps the student did not have English as a first language but was exceptional in many other ways; perhaps the student had straight "A" grades and 5 scores on AP exams, but simply didn't perform well on the ACT; perhaps the student had such remarkable accomplishments that the admissions folks overlooked a sub-par ACT score; perhaps the student had a disadvantaged background that made the ACT an unfair measure of ability.

That said, if you have a 15 ACT composite score, you shouldn't get your hopes up for Harvard. Without some kind of exceptional story or circumstances, the 25th percentile number of 32 is a much more accurate representation of what you'll need to be admitted. 

Similarly, even non-selective colleges will get a few students who have extremely high ACT scores.  But publishing a 35 or 36 as the upper end of ACT data wouldn't be meaningful to prospective students.

Those high performing students would be the exception, not the norm.

Sample ACT Percentile Data for Top Schools 

If you're interested in seeing what the 25th and 75th percentile scores are for some of the country's most prestigious and selective colleges, check out these articles:

ACT Comparison Tables: the Ivy League | top universities | top liberal arts colleges | more top liberal arts | top public universities | top public liberal arts colleges | University of California campuses | Cal State campuses | SUNY campuses | More ACT tables

The tables will help you see how you measure up in relation to students who were admitted to each school.

What If Your ACT Scores Are Below the 25% Number?

Keep in mind that a low ACT score doesn't need to be the end of your college dreams. For one, a quarter of all admitted students got in with scores below the 25% number.

Also, there are a lot of excellent colleges that do not require ACT scores. Finally, be sure to check out these strategies for students with low ACT scores.