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By Dan Marlin

Last month, most public school juniors in Wisconsin (and some students at private schools) took the ACT during the school day. Scores have been coming out over the past couple of weeks, so you may be wondering how to interpret them and to use them to make a plan going forward. We have you covered!

Interpreting Your Scores
On each ACT, students receive a score out of 36 on four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. These scores are averaged to create a Composite score, which is rounded to the nearest whole number. (For example, 27.5 and 28.25 both would be rounded to a Composite score of 28.) When students speak to counselors and research college admissions information, this top-line number is often the focus.

For students who have already taken more than one exam, the ACT will also “superscore.” A superscore takes students’ best section scores and averages them to create a new Composite score, which is beneficial to students because it is often higher than Composite scores on individual tests. Though some colleges do not accept superscores (UW-Madison included), most do; students should check with their counselors regarding different schools’ requirements.

In addition to their Composite and section scores, students receive a detailed score report. The ACT’s report (sample here) includes the Composite score, section scores, and percentile ranks. It also contains section-level results. This level of detail is most useful for math, as it shows students’ strengths and weaknesses across concepts and problem types. It is not as intuitive for the other three sections. 

However, on three exams per year, the ACT and SAT release all of the items tested. As tutors, we find that reviewing the problems from actual administered exams is more useful than looking at the score reports. Indeed, going over individual items students miss, one by one, is one of the most important exercises we do!

The ACT’s Test Information Release (TIR) can be requested for the December, April, and June exams, and the SAT’s Question and Answer Service (QAS) is released in October, March, and May. These exams should factor into students’ consideration of next steps. 

Making a Plan
First, students need to decide if they even need to take any additional exams at all! Students should check with their counselors to see if their scores are strong enough for the colleges they are considering. They can also search college websites for the middle 50% of scores (between the 25th and 75th percentile), which can provide a good sense of the scores needed for admission. Remember that superscores are accepted at most colleges and universities. 

In general, scores tend to improve when students take one or two additional exams – students become more familiar with the exams and the feeling of the testing environment. Even if Composite scores on individual exams remain the same, higher section scores can lead to higher superscores, which also makes taking additional exams worthwhile. For instance, if a student’s lowest score in March was Reading, focusing on that section going forward could improve their superscore, even if none of the other sections improve (or only improve slightly).

Students may also be wondering if the ACT is right for them, or if maybe the SAT is better for their skill set. Taking an SAT in May, and comparing the result to the March ACT score, could be a useful way to make that determination. The ACT has “Concordance” resources that allow for direct comparison of ACT and SAT scores.

As part of any plan, students can continue to test into their senior year, even if they plan to apply Early Decision or Early Action. The remaining exam dates and regular registration deadlines for the Class of 2024 are below. The fall SAT dates are “anticipated” but not yet confirmed by the College Board. Each exam also has a late registration deadline that requires an additional fee. 

I have also starred the test dates for which the ACT and SAT release exam questions; as I mentioned above, we often recommend targeting those exams so that students can get their booklets back (either via PDF or electronically on the ACT/SAT websites) and review the individual problems they missed.

Exam Date Regular Registration Deadline Exam Date Regular Registration Deadline
April 15* Already passed May 6* Passed; late deadline April 25
June 10* May 5 June 3 May 4
July 15 June 16
September 9 August 4 August 26
October 28 September 22 October 7*

* = Questions released

I’ve cut this list off at the October ACT and SAT because those are typically the last dates when students can test and still submit scores for Early Decision and Early Action. Note that this is a general guideline; for some schools, even those exams might fall too late in the calendar. It’s a good idea for students to check with a counselor and/or the schools they are interested in to confirm the latest exam the schools will accept.

One final thing to consider: many schools (though not all) remain test-optional, meaning they will look at standardized test scores if students submit them but won’t penalize students if they don’t. Our view is that taking more exams can only help students by giving them flexibility: if their score is competitive, they can submit it, and if it remains lower than they’d like, they don’t have to. 

Overall, we know how busy this time of year is for juniors – AP exams, spring sports and activities, final grades, college visits, and college applications on the horizon. Taking the ACT or SAT again might seem like just one thing too many. But by using their March ACT scores to make a plan for the next several months, students can maximize the chances of getting a score that will get them where they want to go!

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