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.