Low ACT Scores?

Learn How to Get into a Good College with Low Scores

Pencil filling in an answer sheet
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Standardized tests are the bane of many students. Why should a few hours filling in circles with a #2 pencil carry so much weight when applying to college? If you discover that your ACT scores are lower than most matriculated students, don't worry. You still have several paths to an excellent college. The tips below can help.

01
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Compensate with Other Strengths

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If you're applying to colleges with holistic admissions (most selective colleges do), the admissions officers are evaluating you, not reducing you to a few numbers. In an ideal situation, you'd have high test scores to go along with your other strengths. But it's important to remember that when you look at the mid 50% range of ACT scores in college profiles, 25% of matriculated students scored below the bottom score. Those students in the bottom quartile compensated for their ACT scores with strengths such as these:

02
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Take the Exam Again

Pencil filling in an answer sheet
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The ACT is offered in September, October, December, February, April, and May. Unless application deadlines are upon you, chances are you have time to retake the exam if you are unhappy with your scores. Realize that simply retaking the exam is unlikely to improve your score much. However, if you put some effort into a practice book or take an ACT prep course, there's a good chance you can bring up your score a bit. The majority of colleges will look only at your best scores, so those low scores can quickly become irrelevant.

03
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Take the SAT

SAT Scores Up As Record-Breaking Numbers Of Students Take The Test
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Taking more standardized tests may not sound like a fun solution to your scores, but if you did poorly on the ACT, you might do better on the SAT. The exams are different—the SAT does not have a science section, and it allows a little more time per question. Almost all colleges will accept either exam even if you live in the Midwest or other location where the ACT is the most popular exam.

04
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Finds Schools Where Your Low Scores are Good

Livingstone College
Livingstone College, NC. Ncpappy / CC By-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

There are thousands of four-year colleges in the United States, and the great majority of them don't look for students who got a 36 on the ACT. Don't let the hype surrounding a few elite colleges make you think that you can't go to a good college. The reality is quite different. The United States has a great number of excellent colleges where an average score of about 21 is perfectly acceptable. Are you below 21?—Many good colleges are happy to admit students with below-average scores. Browse through the ACT score comparison tables to identify colleges where your test scores seem to be in line with typical applicants.

05
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Apply to Colleges that Don't Require Scores

Aerial view of the Johnson Center at George Mason University
The Johnson Center at George Mason University. Nicolas Tan - Creative Services - George Mason University / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Many, many colleges recognize that standardized tests are not a very meaningful measure of a student's accomplishments. As a result, there are now over 1,000 accredited colleges and universities that don't require test scores. Every year, more and more colleges have come to recognize that the exam privileges privileged students and that your academic record is a better predictor of college success than ACT scores. Many excellent colleges have joined the test-optional movement.

Some Top Test-Optional Colleges:

  • Bard College
  • Bates College
  • Bowdoin College
  • College of the Holy Cross
  • ​Connecticut College
  • Denison University
  • DePaul University
  • Dickinson College
  • Furman University 
  • George Mason University
  • Hobart and William Smith Colleges
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • Pitzer College
  • Sarah Lawrence College
  • Sewanee: The University of the South
  • Smith College
  • Stonehill College
  • University of Arizona
  • Ursinus College
  • Wake Forest University
  • Wittenberg University
  • Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)
06
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A Final Word About Low ACT Scores

There is no question that a good student with low ACT scores can get into a good college. Holistic admission policies and test-optional admissions make that certain. That said, a low ACT score will be a severe handicap at places like Stanford, MIT, Amherst, Harvard, and many of the country's other most selective colleges. Such schools reject over 85% of all applicants, and you'll need to be strong on all fronts—grades, extracurriculars, and standardized tests.