ACT Scores and College Admission

Students Taking Exam
Fuse / Getty Images

The question of what's a good ACT score is dependent upon the school to which you're applying. For an Ivy League school, you'll want a score of 30 or higher to be competitive. If you're applying to a regional public university, an 18 might be more than adequate. Hundreds of colleges don't require ACT scores at all, although strong scores could still help you win scholarships to help pay for college.

What Makes a Good ACT Score?

The importance of ACT scores should not be underestimated. Colleges certainly take many factors into consideration when they make an admissions decision, but scores on the ACT or SAT are the easiest tool with which to compare students.

Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer for a moment. Which should you value more: Applicant A's semester in France or Applicant B's solo performance in the all-state symphony? It's a hard call. But a 34 on the ACT is undeniably more impressive than a 28.

Also, realize that most schools make their ACT data public, and they know that their reputations depend upon high numbers. A college won’t be considered "highly selective" or "elite" if its students have an average composite ACT score of 19. That said, more and more good colleges have recognized some of the inherent problems with high-stakes exams and have chosen to move to test-optional admissions.

So what is a good ACT score? The exam consists of four parts: English Language, Reading, Mathematics, and Science. Each category receives a score between 1 (lowest) and 36 (highest). Those four scores are then averaged to generate the composite score used by most colleges. The average composite score is roughly a 21, meaning that about 50 percent of test-takers score below a 21.

For students who took the ACT with writing, the writing section is also scored on a 36-point scale. The average score is roughly a 17, significantly lower than average composite scores. Keep this in mind as you try to determine if you have a good writing score.

Very few students get a perfect ACT score, even those who get into the country's top colleges. In fact, anyone scoring a 34, 35 or 36 is among the top 1 percent of test-takers in the country.

The tables below show the middle 50 percent range of ACT scores for different schools. The middle 50 percent of admitted students fell within these numbers. Keep in mind that 25 percent of students who were admitted scored below the lower numbers listed here.

What If Your Score Is Lower?

If you're worried that your ACT scores aren't good enough, don't panic. A lower than average ACT score does not mean you can't get into a particular school.

As you see how you measure up to admitted students of different colleges, keep in mind that the ACT is just one piece of an application. If your scores are a little below the 25 percentile number, you can make up for that if you have strong grades in challenging classes. For schools that have holistic admissions, you can also improve your chances with impressive extracurricular activities, glowing letters of recommendation, and a winning application essay.

Also, keep in mind that you can take both the ACT and the SAT to give a school more information about your academic ability. If your ACTs aren't quite up to par, see how your SAT scores compare at the schools of your choice.

You can also use the free tool from Cappex that will help you understand your chances of getting into a specific school.

Top Private Universities

Private universities can be very competitive. Whether you want to get into an Ivy League school or another of the country's top private schools, your scores should be pretty high.

ACT Score Comparison (mid 50%)
Carnegie Mellon University313431353135see graph
Columbia University313432352935see graph
Cornell University3034----see graph
Duke University313430353235see graph
Emory University293228322833see graph
Harvard University323533353135see graph
Northeastern University313330342934see graph
Stanford University313432353035see graph
University of Pennsylvania303431353035see graph
University of Southern California293330342834see graph

Top Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal arts colleges are a great choice for students who want a small school experience with high standards. These schools are considered among the best of them, though there are other great liberal arts colleges that have comparable ACT scores. There are also some great public liberal arts colleges that you'll want to look into.

ACT Score Comparison (mid 50%)
Amherst College313432352934see graph
Carleton College2933----see graph
Grinnell College283226322834see graph
Lafayette College273126322732see graph
Oberlin College2832----see graph
Pomona College313431353034see graph
Swarthmore College313432352934see graph
Wellesley College2933----see graph
Whitman College2832----see graph
Williams College3034----see graph

Top Public Universities

Public universities offer excellent educational opportunities as well. If you have your eye on one these, be sure to research the average ACT score. If you don't see your target school's scores there, look for them in this list of high-ranked public universities.

ACT Score Comparison (mid 50%)
Clemson University2631----see graph
University of Florida263125322530see graph
Georgia Tech283228332934see graph
The Ohio State University273126322631see graph
UC Berkeley273326342734see graph
UCLA253124322533see graph
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign263126322633see graph
University of Michigan283227312834see graph
UNC Chapel Hill283228342733see graph
University of Virginia293329342834see graph
University of Wisconsin263026322631see graph

ACT Scores for Specific Types of Schools

If you didn't see your school of choice in these tables, we have plenty of other places to look. If you're looking for a college experience with a specific goal or atmosphere, browse these ACT comparisons:

ACT Score Information by State

Admissions criteria vary widely from campus to campus within state university systems.

These tables can help you find schools that match your ACT scores.

New England: This region is home to some of the oldest and most esteemed colleges in the U.S. You'll be able to enjoy a long academic tradition at many of them.

East and Mid-Atlantic: Home to many large universities, you have a wide selection in this area of the U.S. See where your ACT score will be best accepted.

Southeast: This large region has long-established public and private colleges where you can steep yourself in their traditions and thrill for college sports.

Great Lakes: Great sports traditions come from this section of the country and you may identify with your college team for life. See how your ACT ranks.

Plains: You'll have to bundle up for the winter in this area of the country and that's all the better for studying. See how your ACT score will affect your application at these colleges.

Southwest: The sun belt offers a variety academic experiences. Match your ACT with schools in your target area.

Rocky Mountain: You might choose a college here for something other than enjoying winter sports, but it certainly is a perk. See which ones are more or less selective.

Far West: From the beaches to the mountains, outdoor enthusiasts often look at colleges in the West. See which ones best match your test scores in your chosen area.

Division I Athletic Conferences

For students interested in the excitement of Division I sports, these tables make some of the admissions distinctions between universities clear. While you may root for a particular college team, you'll have to bring the right test scores to be admitted.