Did you take the ACT and get a score lower than the one you were aiming for? Are you wondering whether to retake the ACT or how many times you should take it?

Don’t worry! The ACT isn’t an IQ test; you can often improve your score by retaking the exam (as long as you continue studying for it!). In fact, an ACT Technical Brief reports that students who took the test more than once earned an average composite score that was 2.9 points higher than students who took it once. An extra 2.9 points could make all the difference if you’re near the average score for your dream school or you want merit scholarship money.

When deciding whether to retake the ACT, there are a few key questions you should keep in mind:

Where is your score compared to the average of the schools you plan to apply to?

A good rule of thumb is that you should aim for an ACT score that is at least at the average for the most competitive school you plan to apply to.

If your scores are below the average for the schools you plan to apply to, you should retake the ACT. If your scores are below the 25th percentile (the bottom of the interquartile range), it’s particularly important to retake the ACT.

Yet, retaking the exam can only do so much. If your scores are below the average for the schools you’re planning to apply to, it would be worth broadening your list of schools to include universities with lower ACT averages. You could also apply to schools that do not require the ACT.

How did your test score compare to practice tests?

If your test score was much lower than your practice test scores, it is worth retaking the test. Whether you had a migraine on the day of the test or the testing environment stressed you out, it’s possible that conditions on test day could have lowered your score.

However, you shouldn’t simply retake the test and hope for the best. Try to identify any conditions that may have affected your performance between the practice test and the actual test.

For example, if you felt stressed, panicked, or overwhelmed during the test, you may suffer from test anxiety. Test anxiety is nervousness that is so bad that it interferes with your performance on the test. Getting enough sleep, studying the material fully, meditating, and taking deep breaths when you feel afraid can help calm test anxiety. If these strategies don’t work, it may be worth seeing a doctor who can help you with other coping measures.

If you have an accommodation for a learning difference (such as ADHD or dyslexia) in school, you should look into getting accommodations on the ACT as well.

If you ran out of time during the actual test, make sure that you were timing your practice tests correctly. Try taking a few more timed tests to get a better sense of how quickly you need to move.  

Do you want/need scholarship money?

If you want or need scholarship money, it is particularly important to get the highest ACT score you can.

Many scholarships and schools have a minimum ACT score requirement. For example, Clemson University considers applicants with ACT scores over 29 for scholarships (as long as they are ranked in the top 10% of their class). Increasing your ACT score can increase your chances of earning scholarship money.

How many times have you taken the ACT?

If you have only taken the ACT once, it makes a lot of sense to retake it to see if you can increase your score. However, if you have taken it 3 or more times without seeing much improvement, it may be time to take a different approach. Try new study tools, wait until you have covered more of the test material in class, or consider working with a tutor or mentor to try to raise your grades.

You can take the ACT up to 12 times, but we wouldn’t recommend that. Retaking the test is expensive, and studying for it takes time away from other crucial pre-college work, like pursuing/holding leadership roles in extracurriculars and writing your essays. If you have taken the test 3-4 times, it is worth looking at a few colleges with average ACT scores close to yours or considering schools where the ACT is optional.

How much time do you have before your applications are due?

This question feeds into our point above that the ACT is only one of several key pre-college activities. If your college deadlines are less than 4-6 weeks away, it would be better for you to focus on strengthening your essay and application materials instead of retaking the ACT.

If you have more than a few months before applications are due and you want to improve your score, go for it! You’ll have time to work on other parts of the application later.

Can you try a new study strategy or technique? Are you studying the content on the test in school?

It’s helpful to think about how you’ve been studying for the test when deciding whether to retake it. Have you used a variety of study methods or focused on one? Are you still studying key ACT concepts (e.g., algebra, geometry, trigonometry) in class, or are you working on more advanced material (e.g., calculus)? Have you been moving through study materials quickly or identifying questions you’ve missed and trying to solve them again?

If you have been studying for the test in one way, like taking several practice tests or using flashcards, consider trying a different study method. You can also try different study materials or sources of study materials.

At Fathomr, we develop free, high-quality content to support a variety of different study strategies:

If you are still a year or two out from applying to college and/or you haven’t covered all the ACT material in class yet, it may be worth waiting to retake the exam until after you cover the material in class. The increased understanding of the content you will get from studying it in greater depth in school should help you raise your ACT scores. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t study for the ACT separately as well!

The Takeaway:

Retaking the ACT can be very helpful if you’re below the average score for the schools you want to apply to or if you want to increase your chances of getting a scholarship. It’s particularly helpful if you have only taken the test once.

However, if you’ve taken the test several times without raising your score, it may be better to focus on strengthening other parts of your college applications, like your essays.

Throughout the process, remember to be kind to yourself. There are several factors other than test scores that are important in the college admissions process and several ways to reach your goals. You have a lot to contribute to a university, no matter what your score is.

Photo: zgl19931111, Pexels

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