How Much Weight Does the ACT Carry in an Application?

The ACT and College Admission Requirements

University testing policies can be divided into three categories, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The first approach, most common at smaller state schools, is to require a certain minimum ACT threshold for consideration of admission. Applicants who fail to achieve these scores will either be required to undergo remediation or denied admission automatically. The second type is known as test-optional or test-flexible admission. Test-optional schools allow applicants to decide for themselves whether or not to submit test scores, although in most cases those scores will be considered if sent. Test-flexible schools permit the substitution of other assessments, such as Advanced Placement exams, for the ACT or SAT. The third and most widely used method is known as "holistic" admissions. Schools that use holistic admissions, including the most selective institutions in the country, claim to review every aspect of the student, and they therefore have no minimum test scores for their applicants. As we will see below, the lack of a minimum ACT benchmark does not denote an absence of institutional test score expectations.

The Common Data Set and the Importance of Admission Test Scores

Most universities in the United States report information on their undergraduate students via a template that is known as the Common Data Set (CDS). The CDS for a specific university is usually published on that school's website, typically the section devoted to institutional research (this term refers to research on the institution rather than research conducted by the institution). Universities rank standardized admission tests such as the ACT at one of four levels: very important, important, considered, or not considered. Harvard University is an example of a school at which test scores, according to the CDS, are neither very important nor important, but only considered. The CDS-stated weighting of test scores, however, does not always seem to align with actual admission practices, which are better reflected by the average ACT performance of an institution's students.

Average ACT Scores and Institutional Selectivity

Institutional acceptance rates and mean student test scores tend to be inversely proportional; higher average scores generally correlate to lower acceptance rates and vice versa. Harvard University, a highly selective school with an acceptance rate of about 5%, boasts a 25th-percentile ACT composite score of 32 and a 75th-percentile score of 35 for its latest class of first-year students. Less than 7% of these new Harvard students received ACT composite scores below 30. The middle-50% ACT total score range at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a moderately selective school with an acceptance rate of 54%, is considerably lower at 27-31. The majority of the class (52%) at UW-Madison was in the 24-29 ACT range. Utah State University, which admits nearly nine in 10 applicants (acceptance rate of 89%), reports ACT scores of 21 (25th percentile) to 27 (75th percentile). The number of Utah State students in the most recent class receiving ACT total scores of 30 or higher is less than 15%.

ACT Scores and Merit Scholarships

Some merit scholarships for undergraduate study use ACT scores to pre-screen candidates or as one of the selection criteria. These types of scholarships are usually based primarily on test scores and high school GPA. The Academic Merit Scholarship at the University of Mississippi, for example, is awarded on a sliding scale that increases along with test scores, from $1,900 for an ACT score of 26 to $8,850 for an ACT score of 33 or higher. Presidential Scholars at the University of Texas-Arlington receive $10,000 per year for four years. The minimum selection requirements for this award are an ACT total score of at least 30 and a high school class rank in the top 20%.

Taking Both the ACT and the SAT for University Admission

In the current environment of extreme competition in university admissions, it has become fairly common for applicants to take and submit scores for both the ACT and the SAT. Among the latest first-year cohort of students at Princeton University, for example, 65% took the SAT and 54% took the ACT, meaning that nearly one in five successful applicants (19%) submitted scores for both exams. With an approximate class size of 1,560, almost 300 Princeton first-year students took the SAT and the ACT. At the University of California-Berkeley, dual test-takers were even more common at approximately one in three, or roughly 2,800 out of 8,500 students (73% for the SAT and 60% for the ACT). At some schools, there is a correlation between dual test-taking and acceptance, but the exact benefits are difficult to calculate from admission statistics alone (and of course, correlation is not necessarily causation).