Score Bored: Just What is a “Good” Score on the ACT?

However, Ean was not happy with his score. His parents were happy; I was happy, but Ean was not happy. Ean’s cousin has scored a 32 and was off to the gilded embrace of the ivy leagues.  Ean wanted a 32, too. Why? It certainly wasn’t because he needed one: he’d applied to a number of schools that would accept him even with his original scores. It wasn’t because of money: less exclusive schools tend to be, well, less expensive. No, Ean wanted a 32 because that’s what his peers were earning. Or that’s what he imagined most of his peers were earning.

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Ean was caught in the crossfire in one of the most difficult issues in college admission test prep: perception. Never mind that many of his peers were artificially inflating their scores when they spoke about them publicly. Unfortunately, the primary measure my students use to judge whether their ACT score is “good” is to judge it against their best friend’s score.   


 What is a good ACT score? The measure of a good ACT score is, as expected, in the numbers. But which numbers? The ACT score itself? Composite scores? Subject area scores or sub-subject area scores? Percentile scores? The proximity of your score to Stanford’s “average” for incoming freshman? The difference between your score and your best friend’s score? Your score multiplied by your GPA, plus the number volunteer hours you’ve completed and points you’ve scored in varsity sports?

The Composite Score

The composite score seems like a pretty safe bet, right? It is true that the composite score is the one colleges flash around when talking about average ACT scores for their incoming classes. However, the composite score is a probably a small part of the overall measure of a student. The composite is the mean of the four sections of the test (English, Math, Reading, Science) and is thus susceptible to all of the problems of averaging.

Let’s look at a scenario that demonstrates some of these problems. A student can score a composite score of 28--a score that can open the door to competitive state schools--and yet totally bomb, say, the Math section. Take one of my recent students. She earned a 30 composite on her most recent test. Her scores were as follows:

Composite: 30

English: 34

Math: 25

Reading: 35

Science: 25

A composite score of 30 would, all things being equal, put her in contention for some of the most exclusive schools in the US, including Duke and Stanford. Her English and Reading scores are near perfect. She only missed a single question in Reading and two in English. Now take a look at those Math and Science scores. They are in the 65th percentile, not even something Duke and Stanford would sniff at.

Here’s another student. I worked with him a couple of summers ago. He started out with a unique set of scores:

Composite:  23

English: 23

Math: 28

Reading: 16

Science: 23

Before we discuss that out-of-sync Reading score, would you take a look at Math? That’s in the top ten percent of test takers and as out of sync as Reading is from the rest of the scores.  The Math score doesn’t track with his Science score--not that Math scores necessarily do--while his Science score doesn't track with his Reading score, and I call Science “Reading, with graphs”.

Now for that Reading score. His composite score puts him above 70% of US test takers, yet his Reading score is in the bottom quartile. He might have done better by simply choosing the same letter for all 40 questions of Reading (Doing so will get you at least a 13). The composite really doesn’t tell us much here. Note: This student later scored 28 in Reading on his post-prep test. Yeah, you read that right: a 12-point increase*steams and buffs fingernails on tweed blazer*.

 Just Math and English

If the composite score doesn’t reveal much by itself, maybe we can look to subject scores. The English and Math sections have been found to better correlate with college success than do the Reading and Science, so looking at the former two scores could provide a us a better measure of a good score. In fact, some selective colleges list not only their minimum composite as a requisite for admission, but also their minimum English and/or Math scores. Using just the English and Math scores has its own set of problems, however: We can’t completely throw out Reading and Science, most colleges do consider them, the composite score still enjoys primacy, and there is no score given out by the ACT that takes only the English and Math scores into account. 

The Percentile Score

Let’s turn to the verisimilitude of the percentile score.  Percentile scores rank students based on the percentage of other students they performed better than. Here’s an example: a composite score of 28 on the ACT is in the 90th percentile, meaning a student scoring 28 performed better than 90% of students who took the test.

Percentile scores are universal, i.e., not tied to a proprietary scoring system like the ACT’s 36-point system. Also, percentiles make intuitive sense. If a student tells grandma they received a 25 on the ACT, grandma probably won’t know what the heck they’re talking about. However, if they tell grandma they performed in the 93rd percentile, she can relate to that, right? After, all a 93% whether today or back in the halcyon days of her disco youth was a good test score. Colleges also undoubtedly understand and use percentile scores to determine admissions, if for no other reason than using percentile scores helps to translate between ACT and SAT scores.

Score Bored

Of course, we don’t really know how all colleges look at an ACT score. It really comes down to the admissions officials at a given school. The savvy ones probably take a look at the Reading, Math and Writing/Essay scores and the take the composite into account with an eye on its percentile ranking. Admissions officials also take GPA, extra-curriculars, the college essay and a host of other factors into account like legacy, parental income, first generation status, criminal background, race, gender, sexual orientation, volunteer hours, academic and other awards and more.  

For me, using all of these approaches is the best way to determine the relative value of a student’s score. I know that my students scoring a final, post-prep composite of, say, 30 (the 95th percentile), or above with well-balanced subject scores especially in English and Math, a good GPA and if required, a corollary SAT score (about a 700) can apply to some relatively selective schools. My students scoring higher than that, ceteris paribus, have even more doors open to them, and those scoring lower, fewer doors.




By How Much Does ACT Prep Improve a Score? Students, Parents and Expectations

Students always want to improve their scores, often, by a lot. While this is possible, I usually aim for that sort of improvement over the course of a year, not just a few weeks. Parents similarly want their kids’ scores to soar as high as possible.

Reasonable Score Improvement Expectations

             Original Composite Score       Reasonable Expected Improvement

18-21       +3-6

22-25      +2-5

26-27      +2-4

28-29        +2

30-32    +1-2

33-35      +1

The table above works as a good barometer for student improvement. That said, students can improve by more, or less, than described above. The table doesn’t lay out the average improvement either, just a pretty good measure of where a student should land post-tutoring. This is a table for regular, mainstream students without any learning disabilities or extra time on the test.

Of course, every student is different. There are no guarantees, but over the years I’ve learned I can be pretty confident that my students will improve their scores. Students who do well on the test post-prep are hardworking: They did the homework, came prepared to session, employed the strategies and content knowledge.

My personal record is an 11-point increase. I don't advertise it because I don't want to unrealistically raise expectations, but I’ve had my share of successes with students skyrocketing up in score. I’ve also had some let-downs.

I want to see the improvement listed in the table (and more!) Yet two points to me is a victory. A two-point increase can be the difference between the 50th and the 65th percentile (a 21 to a 23) or the 90th and the 95th percentile (a 28 to a 30). I’ve had my share of two-point increases. I had more of those in my first years, but they still happen. A one-point increase for a student scoring below a 28 is disappointing. It has happened, but rarely. Even more rare is no increase. I’ve only had it happen once.

Negligible increases can be due to a range of factors. Students who don’t substantially improve their scores are often the ones brought kicking and screaming to their ACT sessions. Student buy-in is crucial. Sometimes undiagnosed learning disabilities get in the way as well. Also, test anxiety is real. A rare student will look confident in session but because of pressure from either peers, adults or themselves, seize up and perform poorly.

The nice thing about ACT prep is that it is usually easy for me to gauge my students. If student improves in session, they should improve on the test. I get my students to confirm their improved score at least twice, if not three times. If they can bump their score up on an in-session test three times, they’ll most likely do about the same on the actual test.



Student Engagement and ACT Prep

It doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to figure out that high school juniors would rather spend their Tuesday afternoons with someone other than their ACT tutor. Most students trudge reluctantly to their ACT sessions, longing for the sweet, sweet ennui that is modern American teens’ increasingly digitized leisure time.

A choice few students find ACT prep energizing, but they are the sort of children who got quizzed on state capitals at age four while all of the other kids were on the playground playing monster tag. So what is a tutor to do with this situation? It’s not like the ACT can be made fun, exactly. Right?

Over the years, I’ve found that student engagement in ACT prep is more than possible; it’s required. Let’s be honest: the content isn’t riveting, so the tutor should try to be. I’ve found that building a relationship with students not only makes the entire experience more pleasant, but it also builds loyalty and crucially improves students’ test scores.

How? Teenagers, and people in general, are above all things interested in themselves. There’s really nothing wrong with that, and it helps to capitalize on that knowledge in session. I’m genuinely interested in my students’ lives, in part because they generally live more exciting lives than I do.

Most of my students are the best at something. I’ve worked with a nationally recognized recorder player, an acrobat, a student interning with a professor to produce original physics research on windmill efficiency, a film score composer, and countless athletes performing at the national level. Like I said, lives more interesting than mine.

Because I care, because I have a terrible memory, and because I know it helps our work together, I jot down the following things when I first meet with a student: grade level, school, sports/activities and top three colleges they’d like to attend. Knowing this information allows me to ask them how things are going at the beginning of a session and to enjoy a few minutes chatting with my student before we get started. I usually find out a few other things along the course of our work together, and by session three or so the two of us can banter about one subject or another.

This rapport-building extends into our ACT prep work as well. I really try to adequately congratulate my students if they’ve done something better or something new. It is important for them to know that they are improving and that I’m paying attention. They have to tell themselves that they are going to improve their score.

During the course of our work together, I want my students to start to write a narrative for themselves. It goes something like this: I didn’t do as well as I wanted on my earlier test, but now I’m doing really well in session, and that means I’m going to do better on the next test.

Part of that narrative comes from me. I’m working in session to convince the student that they’ve got something that no other kid has in their corner: me. Kids understand that tutoring is no longer a stigma, but an advantage. I’m a ringer, so to speak. They bring me in to help them be better than they ever thought they could be.

Here are some things I do to help build a relationship with students and build their score. I get to know my students. I check in with them every session about what’s going on in their lives. I keep track of their progress and show them the upswing. I’m a good enough tutor now that I can confidently improve most any student’s score, and I’ve been at this long enough to recognize the rare occasion when I can’t.

While it may not seem like it, the relationship with the student is paramount. It is equally important to the ACT content. No relationship, no improvement in score. 

9 Ways to Rock Your ACT Prep

The ACT can be intimidating. The good news is that you have access to all of the information and resources you need to prep yourself and do the best you possibly can. The following list will point you in the right direction to help you take advantage of what you already have at your disposal.


Take higher math

…and don’t forget Geometry. The ACT math section tests you on arithmetic, pre-Algebra, Algebra I & II, Geometry and a bit of Trig. Students have the most trouble on two sections of the Math test: the higher math questions toward the end and Geometry. Why Geometry? Likely because schools spend more time on Algebra than on Geometry.


Read a book…

…a week. Or at least one a month. Here’s the absolute best advice I can give any student who want to succeed on the English and especially Reading section of the ACT: read. The more you read, the more you understand. Period. The more books you read, the more you build vocabulary, increase your comprehension skills and build the means to eventually analyze literature.


Don't sleep through class…

…unless it’s PE. As a tutor, I can teach all sorts of tricks and strategies to help bump a score, but there is no substitute for content knowledge. If you don’t know the content tested on the ACT, you’ll fail. The core high school classes teach everything any student needs to know to do well on the test. You just have to stay awake.


Write persuasively…

…about anything. The more essays you can get under your belt in high school the better you’ll do on the Essay portion of the test. That section asks you your informed opinion about some issue that affects teenagers. It can be anything from improving school lunch, to abolishing high school sports to requiring community service for high school juniors. Be able to take a position on an issue and back it up with reasonable arguments and facts.


Take an AP course…

…because they are free college credit and free test prep. AP classes can be seen as test preparatory classes, and once you’ve learned how to prep for one test (the AP test of your choice) you’ll have insight into how standardized tests work in general. Also, AP courses tend to teach the comprehension and analysis strategies often tested on the ACT. Plus, those classes look pretty good to college admissions officials anyway.


Take practice tests…

…regularly. Many students bomb their first ACT because they were unfamiliar with the format, timed nature of the test or the content. Don't be surprised! Take a few practice tests and get used to how and what the ACT is going to ask of you.


Take the test more than once…

…and preferably at least three times. There is something about taking the test more than once that improves a student’s score all by itself. Perhaps it is simply the fact that as time passes, students learn more in class and get smarter. Maybe it is because taking the test once gets a student comfortable


Do something to formally prep for the test..

…it really doesn’t matter what, as long as you’re dedicated to try and improve your score. Find some practice tests online. Better yet, pick up a quality prep book. Even better, find a prep class or a tutor to help you. Having trouble deciding which prep option to choose? Go with the best prep you can afford.


Ask an expert about the test…

…like me. Got questions? Shoot me an email. Your guidance counselor can be a good resource too, as can the other posts on this site, the official ACT site,