My ACT Score Dropped: Is this Normal?

Post by Brittany V.

Generally speaking, it’s not that uncommon to see a decrease in your composite ACT score, assuming that the drop is not substantial (4 or more points). Several factors can contribute to a lower composite score on a retest, but there are steps that you can take as a student to help avoid a drop in your score.

What are the odds?

According to a study released by the ACT in 2016, students who took the exam multiple times saw the following results in their composite score:

ACT Score change Increases and Decreases

With 22% of students seeing a drop in their score and 21% seeing no change at all, it is certainly not a guarantee that retaking the exam will yield higher results. That means you have to take preparing for each retest seriously!

These numbers do not take into account how many exams a student has taken in total, but the study did find that the more exams a student takes, the more likely they are to see an increase in the final score. It was also determined that students who started on the lower end of the grading scale were more likely to see a score increase than those who had a higher starting score.

The other major factor was the duration of time between the first exam taken and the final exam:

  • Students who took their first exam sophomore year and their final exam senior year saw an average increase of 2.7 points
  • Students who took their first exam junior year and their final exam senior year saw an average increase of 1.1 points
  • Students who took their first exam and final exam senior year saw an average increase of .6 points

Why do scores drop?

Very often a lower score is not the result of a major issue, but a combination of smaller factors. For starters, every ACT exam is different. The overall subject matter, layout, and style will remain consistent, but the specific questions and passages will change from test to test. Some passages will simply jive better with you than others, and some exams may test a little bit more heavily on concepts that you are confident in. If you are feeling focused, manage your time well, and guess well on the questions you don’t understand, you will see higher section scores and a higher overall composite score. When all of these factors line up on your first exam, you may actually over-perform a bit, which makes the dip in your second score all the more understandable.

Even if that’s not the case and your initial score is a true indication of your skill, it can still be very easy to see a score decrease. Perhaps you run into a passage that you don’t understand well and accidentally mismanage your time. Perhaps you were slightly distracted that day–something as simple as the test center being too hot or cold, an alarm going off outside, or a neighboring student with the sniffles can throw you off for a couple of questions, which can be enough to change your score.

How can a couple of questions affect your score? Because the composite scores are rounded, minor deviations in even one section can have bigger implications than you might think.

Let’s envision a scenario.

On your first exam, you receive a 29 on English, 26 on math, 27 on science, and 30 on reading. This will give you a composite score of 28. But really it’s a 27.5. That makes it all the more easy to see a score decrease. If you retake the exam and just one of the sections sees a decrease of 1 point, that will result in a composite score of 27.

Let’s say, instead, you improve a bit on grammar and bump that section up to a 30. If you see minor fluctuations downward on math and science (which is very common, as it can be the difference in one or two questions) and score a 24 and 26 respectively, but run out of time on the last reading passage and score a 27–your composite score will now be a 26. Even though one of the sections saw an increase, and there were no major decreases in the other sections, it was still enough to lower the composite score by a full 2 points.

How do I avoid a drop in score?

The biggest thing you can do to avoid a score decrease (or stagnation in score) is to give yourself enough time to prepare between your first exam and your final exam. Without dedicating the time to master new material, it’s difficult to pull up the score. It’s also important that you learn from your prior exams. What subject matter do you struggle with? How well are you managing your time? Do you find that you are losing focus towards the end of the test?

Remember, these exams are not just about knowledge of the material; they are also about endurance and test-taking skills. Being able to make smart, time-saving decisions, keeping your energy and focus level high, and knowing how to physically and mentally handle those passages/questions that are just not going your way are all really important skills to learn. These skills are best learned through repeated practice, so it’s important that you take full-length practice exams in between your official exam dates.

As far as what material to review, you want to target the areas that are weaker (although you may want to avoid tackling things that are way out of your comfort zone until you have solidified some of the more manageable concepts). That being said, you don’t want to ignore your strengths! Another benefit of taking full practice exams is that you will be forced to address your weak areas and solidify your stronger ones.

Three times a year, the ACT provides a TIR report, which will allow you to receive a copy of the official exam, along with your answers. These are exceptionally powerful study tools, as you can pinpoint the subject matter, question styles, and passage types that give you the most trouble. You can also locate issues with time management. If you performed well on the majority of a section, but see that most of your mistakes are found towards the end, it’s likely that you either ran out of time or felt pressed for time. You can use this information to more smartly manage your time in the future.

The TIR reports are available for the April, June & December exams. You can order the report online when you register for the exam (or up to five days after the actual exam date). You can order a copy by mail up to 6 months after the exam date.

What should I do now?

The most important thing to do is keep moving forward and simply take another exam! Plenty of students will see their scores drop on a retest, but will go on to see substantial score increases when taking the exam again. Do not lose steam or let a disappointing test result discourage you. The students who double down on their efforts and trust in the process will have the best chances of succeeding!

What is a Good SAT or ACT Score?

Guest blog post by J.K. Halsted

I’d like to propose an experiment. Bring a representative from each college to the Museum of Modern Art and sit them in front of Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31 (1950). Readers dabbling in art history might recognize Pollock as one of the premier abstract expressionists, and One: Number 31 as the quintessential example of how indecipherable modern art can be. Here’s an example of something you might find inside the MoMA:

what is a good sat score or act score

Yikes. Talk about abstract.

Georgetown might see a vicious battle between a darker evil and a heroic good. Yale might see a calligraphic choreography of droplets. Hofstra might see a synesthetic fantasia conducted inside a lollipop forest.

Much like looking at modern art, each college formulates a different interpretation of their applicants. These unique interpretations stem from the college’s needs, philosophies, and policies — but nowhere is this more apparent (and confusing) than with SAT and ACT test scores.

You might have heard the strange vocabulary: superscore, single highest sitting, Score Choice, and All Scores. This post seeks to break down these policies and help you figure out how colleges evaluate your test scores.

First, what is superscoring?
Superscoring is a college admissions policy that seeks to evaluate students more fairly. To speak in college admissions jargon, it’s sometimes called “highest combined sitting.” Either way, superscoring involves dividing your standardized exams into their constituent parts and, in order to evaluate you at your best, considering only the highest of those sections.

Here’s an example: suppose you score a composite 1240 on the March SAT. You earned a 630 in the reading and grammar sections (reported as the “ERW” score) and a 610 on the two math sections (the “M” score). You decide to retake the SAT in May and score a 1320, with a 670 ERW and a 650 M. Yay! If a college superscores, they will evaluate your application in the context of your 1320.

Another scenario: suppose you still score a composite 1320 on your May SAT, but this time, you earned a 610 ERW and a 710 M. With superscoring, colleges will evaluate the highest of each section (the 630 ERW from March and the 710 M from May) and recalculate your composite score using these parts. Therefore, in the eyes of most colleges, you’ll have earned a 1340!

In other words, the majority of colleges will ignore your lower score and consider only the higher, especially for the SAT. Policies vary from school to school, so be sure to check each school’s official policy, but the majority of colleges have adopted superscoring. All of the Ivy League schools, for instance, superscore the SAT. [i]

There are two caveats. It may seem tempting to game the superscore and take one exam where you only focus on English and reading and take a later exam only to focus on math. The idea is certainly clever, but unfortunately, there’s no “cleverness” score on the SAT (though maybe they should develop that). Schools superscore to get a more complete picture of a student’s true capabilities. They’ll likely doubt an exam if it’s apparent that a student has focused way too heavily on one section and neglected the other in an attempt to take advantage of the superscore.

Also, you’ll probably notice that this discussion of superscoring has only mentioned the SAT. Most schools are more reluctant to superscore the ACT. This disparity between the two exams may initially seem odd, but the different approaches come from the scaling system each exam uses. Unlike the SAT, the ACT calculates its composite as an average of its four constituent parts. And since the ACT’s scale is smaller (each ACT section is graded out of 36 as opposed to the SAT’s 800), even tiny increases can skew the overall average. That’s not to say no school superscores the ACT—some do, and most others have official “considerations” that seem like superscoring in all but name. Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, superscore the ACT; five other Ivy League schools have “consideration” policies, where they consider a student’s ACT superscore but do not officially calculate it.[ii]

Okay, but what if my college asks for my single highest sitting?
Single highest sitting, also called “single highest test date,” is a policy similar to superscoring – but it doesn’t divide your test into parts. If a school follows a single highest sitting policy, it will evaluate your application in the context of the highest composite score you provide.

Suppose you earn a 1320 composite on the March SAT, with a 660 ERW and a 660 M. On the May SAT, you receive a 1340 composite, with a 600 ERW and a 740 M. Even though a traditional superscoring would mean you earned a 1500 (660 ERW and 740 M), a school that adheres to the single highest sitting policy will only consider your 1340 (600 ERW and 740 M), the highest composite score that you receive.

So, what does Score Choice mean?
If a school follows the Score Choice system, it means that you, the applicant, can choose which of your standardized test scores to send to that school. Typically, most students will use Score Choice when it comes to SAT IIs. Let’s say you received a 310 on the German SAT (one friend of mine actually did. How? He’s never taken a German class, and accidentally signed up for the wrong test). If you’ve done well on other SAT IIs—like earning a 670 on Bio M and a 720 on US History—then you can choose to disregard your lower scores and submit only the higher ones. Colleges, in turn, won’t see the scores you decide not to send.

But what about All Scores?
If a school follows a “Send All Scores” policy, then you must provide that school with all of your standardized exam results. This might seem unfair, but don’t fret. Colleges recognize that we’re all human, and that we all make mistakes. A poor test score will not obliterate your chances. In fact, challenging yourself with a higher-level exam might even demonstrate your curiosity and willingness to take intellectual risks.

So, what now?
Now that you know the lingo, you can start making sense of confusing admissions presentations. In 2015, the Collegeboard published a comprehensive list of the policies that each participating school follows.[iii] Obviously, schools will continuously update their requirements, so be sure to check with each school about their policies. You’ll typically find that information on the Admissions Department’s website.

As always, remember that your test scores do not define your worth. Scores do not become “good” when they bend closer to the asymptote of perfection; scores are worthwhile and meaningful if they challenge you. I offer zero apologies for my art metaphors, but painting your self-portrait as an applicant involves more hues, tints, and overall nuance than just your test results. Take that, Pollock.


[i] https://blog.prepscholar.com/what-do-ivy-league-schools-think-of-the-act

[ii] https://blog.prepscholar.com/what-do-ivy-league-schools-think-of-the-act

[iii] https://secure-media.collegeboard.org/digitalServices/pdf/professionals/sat-score-use-practices-participating-institutions.pdf

Does Retaking the SAT or ACT Look Bad to Colleges?

Guest blog post by J.K. Halsted

It’s a feeling that every high school student dreads: opening the results of your SAT or ACT and not seeing the perfect score you wanted. Whether that goal was a 1500 or a 1250, there’s an inevitable swell of disappointment, insecurity, and worry. Your mind somehow conjures up the harrowing image of your college dreams washing away.

Don’t worry. Silence your neural inquisitor. You will be okay.

Taking standardized exams is almost never like slaying Dracula: one stake through the heart isn’t enough to stop the vampire. Hardly anyone achieves his or her dream score in a single attempt. Most students, no matter their initial level of satisfaction with their first score, end up retaking the SAT or ACT at least once.[i]

But retaking an exam comes fraught with uncertainty. Many parents and students fret about the extra preparation, doing worse on a retake than on the original, and how schools might potentially penalize them. This post seeks to soothe some of those worries, debunk the gold standard set by the one-and-done testing triumph, and answer that oft-asked question: does retaking the SAT or ACT look bad to colleges?

The short answer is no. Retaking the SAT or ACT does not look bad to colleges; it may actually demonstrate your perseverance and improve your score.

Chances are, you’ll do better on the retake than on your first try. Most students do. In a 2015 study, the ACT found that high school seniors who first took the test in their sophomore year achieved a final score that averaged 2.7 points higher than their first score. The SAT hasn’t published comparable statistics recently, but a 2014 study (completed when SAT scores were calculated out of 2400) showed that students retaking the SAT raised their score by 90 points on average.

So… that’s it! The numbers say that you’ll do better if you retake the exam. Fork over that Nobel Prize, Einstein!

Well, not exactly. You’re more likely to see an improvement in your scores because you’ll figure out what topics to spend more study time on, and you’ll know what taking a standardized exam is actually like.

Actually sitting for a standardized exam is the best form of test preparation that you can get. Once you’ve been through the trenches — crunched in a tiny desk, surrounded by dozens of peers, hammered by the persistent hum of a fan — and still powered through an exam, you’ll be able to accurately say what you can achieve under those circumstances. You’ll also find out what exactly you do (and do not) understand. Suppose you flew through rational functions while studying but floundered when it came time to do them on the exam. That’s an indication that you probably cut a few corners in your studying, and you should practice more rational functions in preparation for your retake.

Furthermore, the first time anyone sits for a standardized exam, they’re bound to be nervous. First-time frights are real. Retaking the exam will let you approach the test with more confidence than you had in your first attempt.

Typically, these two advantages — more thorough preparation and increased confidence — are why some SAT consultants may recommend taking your first SAT in March and another SAT in May. After you reevaluate the way you prepare for the exam, your score will likely increase.

Most colleges won’t even consider your original scores. Colleges get it. They understand that we’re human, that we all have rough days, and that one number does not reflect our overall ability. Many colleges, therefore, have adopted a practice called “superscoring.” Superscoring involves dividing your standardized exams into their constituent parts and, in order to evaluate you at your best, considering only the highest of those sections.

For the purpose of retaking an exam, the majority of colleges will ignore your lower score and consider only the higher, especially for the SAT. Policies vary from school to school, so be sure to check each school’s official policy, but the majority of colleges have adopted some form of superscoring. Each of the Ivy League schools, for instance, superscores the SAT. [ii]

The ACT is a little different — schools are more reluctant to superscore the ACT because of its smaller score range and its composite average score — but that’s not to say no school superscores the ACT. Some do, and most others have official “considerations” that seem like superscoring in all but name. Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, superscore the ACT; five other Ivy League schools have “consideration” policies, where they consider a student’s ACT superscore but do not officially calculate it.[iii]

But continually retaking exams might not be the best idea. If retaking an exam typically increases scores, some students might want to sign up for every SAT or ACT administration that they can. But if you’ve been preparing effectively, retaking an exam for the fourth of fifth time is unlikely to make any substantial difference.

For one, it’s expensive. Although the SAT and ACT offer fee waivers, exams cost around $50 each per sitting, and costs can rack up quick. But more importantly, scores tend to taper out over time.

So, should you keep retaking the SAT or ACT to improve your score?

Probably not. To borrow some mathematical language, standardized exam scores follow a logarithmic trend (if you already understood that, keep slaying those math sections). In other words, there are major score increases in the beginning, but these dwindle as time goes on. The Collegeboard reports that students see the highest score increase when they take the SAT for the second time — but, after the second testing, a student’s increase in score between exams becomes smaller and smaller. You’re unlikely to see your score jump up 200 points after you’ve prepared and sat for the SAT three times already.

It’s also crucial to weigh the psychological toils of taking another exam. With each exam you take, you’ll have to restudy and give up more time that could be used composing college applications, leading extracurriculars, or working outside of school. Your well-being is more important than any score on an exam.

Have the myths been busted? Retaking an exam will certainly not hinder your college chances. With adequate preparation, your score will typically increase — and that will make you even more competitive in the admissions process. And with superscoring, colleges probably won’t even consider your lower scores.

One-and-done is done. Perhaps we should rewrite Dracula. It’s about time that we slay the vampire not with the single wooden stake, but instead with perseverance highlighted by long-term persistence and practice.

On second thought, that would be pretty bloody.


[i] https://www.collegeraptor.com/getting-in/articles/act-sat/interesting-statistics-student-retaking-actsat/

[ii] https://blog.prepscholar.com/what-do-ivy-league-schools-think-of-the-act

[iii] https://blog.prepscholar.com/what-do-ivy-league-schools-think-of-the-act

How much does your SAT/ACT score matter?

A lot has changed in the last 20 years when it comes to applying for colleges: SAT/ACT tests continue to evolve; teacher recommendations aren’t the differentiator they once were; and now more than ever, we accept that a student’s abilities can’t be measured solely through GPA and SAT/ACT scores. So, where does that leave college-bound students in 2018?

To help parents understand these changes and how they affect the college application process, Curvebreakers presents this first installment in our 3-part College Application Series:

How much does your SAT/ACT score matter?

One big piece of this process continues to be the standardized SAT and ACT exams. Of all the factors impacting a school’s acceptance, we believe these test scores make up approximately 30% of the overall decision. However, they are extremely important for being awarded scholarship money.

Baylor University, for example, has an online calculator to demonstrate how much scholarship money you may be offered based on your SAT/ACT score. Going from a 28 to 33 on the ACT can increase your scholarship money by $14,000 over the course of a four-year degree.

Check out this chart at Colorado State University. For non-resident, incoming freshman, it shows how SAT/ACT scores correlate to their different scholarship tiers:

If a student does not submit SAT/ACT score(s), logically, the remaining parts of the application must be very strong to separate the student from other applicants. Because SAT/ACT scores are not always parallel with academic performance, it is possible for a student with an average GPA to do well on the SAT/ACT. The decision to take either test shouldn’t be overlooked just because of GPA.

The bottom line: the goal with the college application is for the student to stand out as much as possible. Not properly preparing for or not taking the SAT/ACT is a lost opportunity to receive as much scholarship money as possible and help you stand out from the crowd.

Part 2: How does high school GPA influence colleges’ acceptance decisions?