What is a Bad ACT Score?

Do I Have a Bad ACT Score?

First of all, we need to turn that attitude around, mister or missy.

gif of Obama shaking head -magoosh

You’re not getting anywhere with that pessimism.

So let’s qualify things a little bit. Chances are your opinions of what makes a good or bad ACT score are influenced by your friends, your school, your parents.

Furthermore, if you’re really concerned about your ACT score, keep in mind that there are lots of test-flexible and test-optional schools—and more every year. So if you’re worried that your score is truly too low for you to attend college, get that thought out of your head! Take a look at more info about test-optional college admissions to find out more. You may not need to worry about bad ACT scores after all.

But if you’re intent on going to a college that does require ACT scores, you may still worry about a “cut off.” Is there an ACT score below which schools won’t even consider your application? In other words, is there a bad ACT score?

While there’s officially no such thing as a “bad ACT score,” let’s take a quick look at some numbers. According to the U.S. News and World Report, students scoring under 18 on the ACT may have difficulty finding schools that match their profiles well. In addition, almost all colleges listed for which ACT data is available (around 1,337 at the time of publication) have student bodies where 75% or more of the entering class scored 15 or above on the ACT.

Basically, if you’re looking to submit your ACT scores to colleges, 15 is a good baseline to start from.

And to help broaden your perspective, here are even more numbers if you have even more specific goals:

The average ACT score: The current national average ACT score is a 21.

The average ACT score for an Ivy League-accepted student: 33 to 34.

The average ACT score for the #50 ranked national university: 30 (as of the writing of this post, this is the University of Miami)

The average ACT score for the #100 ranked national university: 27 (as of the writing of this post, this is Loyola University Chicago)

The average ACT score for the #200 ranked national university: 23 (as of the writing of this post, this is University of Colorado-Denver)

The average ACT score for the #50 ranked liberal arts university: 27 (as of the writing of this post, this is DePauw University)

The average ACT score for the #100 ranked liberal arts university: 24 (as of the writing of this post, this is Albion College)

The average ACT score for the #50 ranked regional university in the north: 23 (as of the writing of this post, this is Niagra University)

The average ACT score for the #50 ranked regional university in the west: 22 (as of the writing of this post, this is Oral Roberts University)

The point of showing you these numbers is to demonstrate that good or bad is relative to what schools you are applying to. True, all of these numbers are above the national average ACT score, but keep in mind we are talking about highly ranked schools. There are 5300 colleges and universities in the United States alone, not to mention all the great schools that are abroad. And if testing is not really your thing, keep in mind there are over 800 four-year schools that do not use test scores to admit students, including an increasing number of highly-competitive schools. So, basically, what I’m saying is to not give up on your dreams because you think you have a “bad ACT score.”

How do I know if my ACT score is bad for the college I want to go to?

Most colleges and universities publish their 25th to 75th percentile SAT and ACT scores of admitted students. You can find this information readily on their websites or on College Navigator. Or you can check out this post on ACT scores, which shows the 25th and 75th percentile ACT scores for the top 100 colleges in one handy dandy, searchable chart.

The 25th and 75th percentile scores give you the range of test scores for students that scored in the middle 50 percent of all admitted students. So that means that 25 percent of admitted students scored below the lower number of that range and 25 percent scored above.

Although test scores are not everything in college admissions, in general you want to make sure you are inside or above whatever this range is to have a shot. Other factors might carry you in as part of the bottom 25 percent, but many of these students are admitted under special circumstances…maybe they are athletes, for example, or have another special talent to bring.

So if you can hit the average ACT score for a target college, that’s good. And if you have a score over the 75th percentile, that’s great.

How can I turn my “bad” ACT score into a “good” one?

Most students improve on an ACT retake. So if you are unhappy with your ACT score, you should always plan to retake it after you’ve had a chance to prepare some more or learn some more in school.

Also, most students improve with good prep. So find a tutor, class, or online program and take practice tests. It’s certainly not unheard of for students to improve by 6 or more points. The largest gain I’ve seen with a student I’ve worked with was 15 points! You can do it with hard work. We have some advice here on our blog for how long you need to study to get that ACT score you want.


  • Kristin Fracchia

    Dr. Kristin Fracchia has over fifteen years of expertise in college and graduate school admissions and with a variety of standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, with several 99% scores. She had a PhD from the University of California, Irvine, an MA degree from The Catholic University, and BA degrees in Secondary Education and English Literature from the University of Maryland, College Park. She was the recipient of the 2013 Excellence in Teaching Award and the Chancellor’s Club Fellowship from the University of California, Irvine. She’s worked as a high school teacher and university professor, as an independent college and graduate school admissions counselor, and as an expert tutor for standardized tests, helping hundreds of students gain acceptance into premier national and international institutions. She now develops accessible and effective edtech products for Magoosh. Her free online content and YouTube videos providing test prep and college admissions advice have received over 6 million views in over 125 countries. Kristin is an advocate for improving access to education: you can check out her TEDx talk on the topic. Follow Kristin on LinkedIn!

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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