Are Your ACT Scores Good Enough?

Learn what ACT scores you'll need to get into a selective college

Students Taking Exam
Students Taking Exam. Fuse / Getty Images

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 give them 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.

What Makes a Good Score?

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. That is, about 50% 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.

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% of test-takers in the country. The tables below shows the middle 50% range of ACT scores for different schools.

The middle 50% of admitted students fell within these numbers. Keep in mind that 25% of students who were admitted scored below the lower numbers listed here.

Note that I have a separate article to cover scores on the  writing exam for the ACT plus Writing.

Private Universities — 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

Liberal Arts Colleges — 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

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
View the SAT version of this article
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More more comparison data on ACT scores, check out these tables of side-by-side ACT data for the Ivy League, top public universities, and top liberal arts colleges. You can also find many more ACT tables including data by state, athletic conference, and more.

If you're worried that your ACT scores aren't good enough, don't panic. This article on what to do if you have low ACT scores can help guide you.