Got a low ACT score? Here’s what you should do

ACT scores
For the 1.4 million ACT test takers in the class of 2023, a record proportion reached none of the benchmarks for college readiness. Source: AFP

The average composite score on the ACT college admission test fell to 19.5 for the class of 2023 — a decline of 0.3 points from 2022 and the lowest level since 1991.

The composite score is the average of a student’s four ACT scores (English, mathematics, reading, science), rounded to the nearest whole number. 

These figures are part of data released by ACT, the nonprofit organisation that administers the college readiness exam.

“This is the sixth consecutive year of declines in average scores, with average scores declining in every academic subject,” ACT CEO Janet Godwin said in a news release.

Worse, 43% of the 1.4 million ACT test-takers, or “Covid cohort seniors” failed to reach ACT’s benchmarks for college readiness — up from 36% in 2019. 

That means their performance in English, reading, maths, and science suggested that they would not be able to earn Bs or Cs in entry-level college coursework. 

“The hard truth is that we are not doing enough to ensure that graduates are truly ready for postsecondary success in college and career,” Godwin said.

These test takers were high school freshmen when the coronavirus pandemic interrupted their education, sending many of them into months of online learning.

The achievement declines on the ACT align with pandemic-era trends from other national exams.

Hence, it is difficult to interpret the scores because of sweeping changes in college admissions and state high school requirements, which could bring down the ACT scores, The New York Times reports. 

Colleges have begun to embrace test-optional admission policies because of concerns that the exams are unfair to low-income students.

This year, 16 states required or highly encouraged the exam, including Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi and Nevada.

These policies potentially lowered average SAT scores since students take the test regardless of whether they plan to attend college.

How are ACT scores calculated?

ACT scores range from one to 36. Your score is based on the number of correct answers for each section. Once you submit your scoresheet, the following happens:

  • The ACT counts the number of correct questions for each section
  • Raw scores are converted to scale scores
  • Scale scores are averaged to create your composite score, rounded to the nearest whole number.
  • Your composite score and individual section scores are sent to the colleges you selected when you registered.

Raw scores are a count of the correct answers in each section. Those are converted to scale scores by ACT.

For those wondering “where can I see my ACT scores?”, test scores will usually be released 10 days after the test data but can take up to eight weeks.

In some cases, your scores can take a longer time to be released.

Here are a few reasons why:

  • Your information on the test admission ticket didn’t match the information on your answer sheet 
  • Your testing centre submitted answer documents late
  • Incomplete or inaccurate test form information
  • You owe registration fees
  • Your testing centre reported irregularity
ACT scores

Getting a good ACT score can help you get into a good college. Source: AFP

Why do ACT scores matter?

If you’re wondering if ACT scores matter, the short answer is yes. 

Admissions committees use these scores to determine an applicant’s ability to handle the rigours of higher education, helping them make more informed decisions about which students are a good fit for their institution.

Here are three reasons why ACT scores still matter:

1. Admissions team use ACT scores to measure your preparedness for uni

Many colleges and universities, including Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University, Seattle University, use ACT scores as part of their admissions decision process. 

Admissions officers may use test scores to assess whether you’re prepared academically and have the potential for success at their institution. 

High test scores can help you stand out from other applicants, especially if your GPA and extracurricular activities are similar to other candidates.

2. Higher ACT scores may qualify you for scholarships and grants

Many colleges and universities use ACT scores to determine merit-based financial aid awards. This type of aid is usually awarded to students based on their academic achievement. 

Some colleges may offer automatic scholarships to students who achieve a particular score on the ACT or SAT. Other schools may consider test scores as one of the factors in awarding merit-based aid.

For example, Alabama State University, Georgia State University, and the University of Arizona offer scholarships automatically based on ACT or SAT scores.

Therefore, having higher test scores can improve your chances of receiving a scholarship or grant.

 3. ACT scores reveal what you’re good (and not good) at

ACT scores can serve as a compass for students in their academic journey, pinpointing areas of strength and weakness 

This way, students can tailor their study plans and choose majors that align with their aptitudes. 

Such personalised insights can help you make well-informed decisions regarding your future career and academic pursuits.

ACT scores

Getting a low ACT score isn’t the end of the road. Source: AFP

What to do if you have a low ACT score?

Scoring lower than you expected on the ACT can be hard, but it’s important to remember that a single test doesn’t solely determine your future. 

While your ACT score is a crucial component of college applications, there are some steps you can take to address a low score and still work towards your academic and career goals.

1. Analyse your score

The first step is to thoroughly analyse your ACT score report. Identify the specific areas where you performed poorly. 

The ACT is divided into four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. You can tailor your approach to improve in these areas by pinpointing your weaknesses.

 2. Retake the ACT

Consider retaking the ACT to try and improve your score. Many students take the test multiple times, and colleges often consider your best score. 

Create a study plan using ACT prep materials or courses to address your weaknesses and improve your chances.

3. Focus on your academics

In addition to standardised test scores, universities also consider your high school GPA and academic performance.

Concentrate on maintaining strong grades in your courses, which can help compensate for a low ACT score.

In fact, some institutions, such as UCLA, prioritise academic GPA and do not consider standardised scores such as ACT because UCLA is a test-blind school.

ACT scores

Most community colleges do not require ACT scores as a general admission requirement. Source: AFP

4.  Consider community college

If your heart is set on attending a four-year college, but your ACT score is a significant barrier, consider enrolling in a community college for a year or two. 

Most community colleges do not require ACT scores as a general admission requirement. As such, this can allow you to demonstrate your academic abilities and transfer to a four-year institution later.

5. Apply to test-optional or test-blind colleges

Some colleges have adopted test-optional or test-blind admissions policies, meaning they do not require standardised test scores. 

Other factors like GPA, course rigour, and extracurricular involvement become even more important in these cases.

Research these institutions and consider applying to those that align with your academic goals.

Examples of test-optional schools include Stanford University, Harvard University, MIT, Columbia University and more. 

Examples of test-blind schools include the California Institute of Technology, UC Berkeley, UCLA and more. 

ACT scores

A growing number of universities now do not require ACT scores. Source: AFP

Alternatives to ACT test 

More universities are recognising the limitations of the ACT test and are exploring alternative methods for assessing a student’s potential. Among them are: 

1. Adopting test-optional or test-blind policies

One notable alternative is the removal of standardised test requirements altogether. A growing number of colleges and universities have adopted test-optional or test-blind policies.

These institutions believe that academic achievements, personal essays, recommendation letters, and extracurricular activities provide a more holistic view of a student’s capabilities. 

This shift aims to level the playing field for students from diverse backgrounds who may not perform well on standardised tests due to various factors.

2. Classic Learning Test

The Classic Learning Test (CLT) is a new exam that some smaller schools have opted to use instead of the more traditional ACT and SAT exams.

For instance, students applying to Florida’s state universities can submit exam scores from the CLT.

Founded in 2015, the CLT is mainly taken by students from private schools or home-schooled students.

Currently, there are over 200 colleges that accept this test. The CLT only takes two hours, is often delivered via computer, and results are issued the same day.

3. Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT)

The SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) has long been recognised as a credible alternative to the ACT for college admissions.

While both standardised tests aim to evaluate students’ readiness for higher education, they differ in key ways.

The SAT emphasises evidence-based reading and writing, as well as maths skills. Additionally, each section of the SAT offers more time per question compared to the ACT, allowing you to take your time when answering each question.