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?

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 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.

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 Charts: 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 charts

And if your ACT scores aren't what you'd like, be sure to explore some of these excellent colleges where the ACT doesn't carry much weight: