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 Are Average ACT Scores?

The ACT 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.

In 2017, over two million students took the exam. The average composite score is a 21, meaning that about 50 percent of test-takers score below a 21. The average scores for the four sections of the SAT are all in a similar ranges:

Average ACT Scores in 2017
ACT SectionAverage Score
English20.3
Mathematics20.7
Reading21.4
Science21.0
Composite21.0

What's Considered 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 from different high schools.

Also, colleges often use the scores when choosing scholarship winners and merit aid recipients.

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. 

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. 

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. That said, for the country's most selective colleges and universities, you should be aiming to get an ACT composite score of 30 or higher.

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.

ACT Scores for 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 ideally be 30 or higher.

ACT Score Comparison (mid 50%)
 CompositeEnglishMathGPA-SAT-ACT
Admissions
Scattergram
 25%75%25%75%25%75%
Carnegie Mellon University313431353135see graph
Columbia University323533353035see graph
Cornell University313431353035see graph
Duke University313432353035see graph
Emory University3033----see graph
Harvard University323533353135see graph
Northeastern University313431352934see graph
Stanford University313532353035see graph
University of Pennsylvania323532353035see graph
University of Southern California303330352834see 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, and you'll see the typical score ranges for admission are similar to those for larger top universities.

 There are also some great public liberal arts colleges that tend to have a slightly lower admissions bar.

ACT Score Comparison (mid 50%)
 CompositeEnglishMathGPA-SAT-ACT
Admissions
Scattergram
 25%75%25%75%25%75%
Amherst College313432352934see graph
Carleton College3033----see graph
Grinnell College303330352833see graph
Lafayette College273127332732see graph
Oberlin College293330352732see graph
Pomona College313431352834see graph
Swarthmore  College303431353135see graph
Wellesley College303331352833see graph
Whitman College2832----see graph
Williams College313432353035see 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 scores. The score ranges for top public universities tend to be slightly lower than those for top private colleges and universities. Realize, however, that the admissions bar for out-of-state applicants can be significantly higher than for in-state applicants.

ACT Score Comparison (mid 50%)
 CompositeEnglishMathGPA-SAT-ACT
Admissions
Scattergram
 25%75%25%75%25%75%
Clemson University263126332530see graph
University of Florida273125322530see graph
Georgia Tech303431353035see graph
The Ohio State University273126332732see graph
UC Berkeley313431352935see graph
UCLA283328352734see graph
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign263225332532see graph
University of Michigan293329342733see graph
UNC Chapel Hill283328342732see graph
University of Virginia293329352935see graph
University of Wisconsin273126322631see graph

ACT Writing Scores

For students who took the ACT with Writing, the writing section is scored on a 12-point scale. Note that between September of 2015 and June of 2016, the writing scores were reported on a 36-point scale with an average score of roughly 17. The average score on the 12-point scale is roughly 7, and students who get into the country's most selective colleges tend to have scores that are in the 10 to 12 range. 

When the SAT made the writing section optional in 2016, many schools that had required the ACT with Writing changed the writing section from a requirement to a recommendation. The writing score can be a factor in the admissions process, but as you try to determine if you have a good writing score, realize that the composite score on the exam is likely to be much more important.

What If Your ACT Score Is Low?

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. Also, 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.

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 25th 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, don't forget that you can take both the ACT and the SAT to give a school more information about your academic ability. If your ACT scores aren't quite up to par, see how your SAT scores compare at the schools of your choice.

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

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Grove, Allen. "ACT Scores and College Admission." ThoughtCo, Mar. 1, 2018, thoughtco.com/are-your-act-scores-good-enough-788836. Grove, Allen. (2018, March 1). ACT Scores and College Admission. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/are-your-act-scores-good-enough-788836 Grove, Allen. "ACT Scores and College Admission." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/are-your-act-scores-good-enough-788836 (accessed May 21, 2018).