Test Prep

3 Students Who Didn’t Break 20 on the ACT Share Their College Acceptances

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If you applied to college this year, the ACT and SAT journey is already well behind you, but you may still be waiting on a few more acceptance letters. If you’re a junior and you’ve been stressing about getting your scores up, there’s still plenty of time for test prep and retakes, so there’s no reason to worry about your scores being final just yet.

But for those students who can’t seem to get their ACT scores up to the average of 21– or higher than that – there is probably some extra anxiety. In many cases, a score below 20 can prevent you from applying to some of your dream schools, but that doesn’t mean college is necessarily out of the question for you. If you’re ready for college in every other way but your ACT score doesn’t seem to be catching up, don’t lose hope.


The reality is that many students who don’t break 20 on the ACT still attend colleges that they love, graduate on time and go on to lead successful, productive lives. To get a feel for how students who applied to college this year (high school class of 2019) fared when their ACT scores didn’t hit 20, check out the profiles of three students who spoke to College Confidential about their admissions journeys.

Student 1: Zach G. – ACT Score of 19

Application Info: Zach had a 3.2 unweighted GPA and a 3.5 weighted GPA and applied as an undecided major.

Where he applied: Zach applied to Mississippi State University, University of Alabama, Old Dominion University and Western Michigan University.

Where he got in: He was accepted at Mississippi State, Old Dominion and Western Michigan. He was denied from the University of Alabama.

Plans to attend: Zach plans to attend Mississippi State. “I eventually want to go to veterinary school and I’ve heard good things about MSU’s vet school, so I think if I go there undergrad, I can hopefully get some exposure to the faculty there and make sure it’s right for me. I also felt like it was the right size and liked the location when I visited the campus.”

Takeaway from Zach: “There were a few schools on my original list of goal colleges that I ended up not applying to because my ACT score wasn’t high enough and there was no point spending the money on the application fees for schools with average ACTs in the 28-30 range. I did take an ACT prep class but didn’t do a lot of the practice exercises that my tutor assigned. That’s not because I wasn’t committed, but it was hard to juggle with my classes and everything else. If I had it to do over again, I would have taken the ACT prep class in the summer so I would have had more time to study. Waiting until the fall of my senior year was cutting it too close.”

Student 2: Annemarie W. – ACT Score of 18

Application Info: Annemarie had a 3.7 unweighted GPA and a 4.2 weighted GPA and applied as a Communications major.

Where she applied: Annemarie applied to American University, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) and East Carolina.

Where she got in: She got accepted at American and East Carolina, but was denied at UNC.

Plans to attend: Annemarie plans to attend American University. “My counselor had predicted that I would probably not get into UNC due to my ACT score (my SAT was below 1000 as well) so she suggested American. I am a communications major and she said American’s program was strong but that they were test-optional, so it’s a good fit for me. After I visited, I knew it was the right place for me, so I applied to American’s Early Decision round. I did not send them my test scores, so the decision was solely made on my other stats. I still ended up applying to ECU as a safety and to UNC because I attended a summer program there that provided me with an application fee waiver, but I knew I wanted American and was really excited that I got in.”

Takeaway from Annemarie: “I have never been a strong standardized test taker. I tried to get accommodations for the tests, but at my school, you can’t get them unless you can prove your grades are being impacted by your need for accommodations and my grades have always been pretty good. So I feel like I’m in the middle area where I can do well when I don’t feel that pressure of time. I would advise any students in my situation to look at the list of test-optional colleges and make sure you have a few of those on your list just in case your test scores are possibly going to keep you out of your goal schools.”

Student 3: Terrance J. -- ACT Score of 19

Application Info: Terrance had a 3.4 unweighted GPA and a 3.7 weighted GPA and applied as a business major.

Where he applied: Terrance applied to the University of Virginia.

Where he got in: Terrance was not admitted to UVA, and is now working on applications to Hampton University and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Plans to attend: “I applied to UVA early and my neighbor told me that the early round was binding, so I didn’t apply anywhere else. It turns out it was not binding. My parents didn’t go to college and my high school counselor spent less than five minutes with me, so this process has been really confusing. When I didn’t get into UVA, I sent out applications to VCU and Hampton. Once I get my decisions and the financial aid packages, I will figure out where I’ll go. I’m also going to apply to community college just in case I don’t get decent financial aid from the four-year schools.”

Takeaway from Terrance: Start the process early, read everything you can online about college admissions, take the free practice tests and study for the tests all you can. "Know which schools are binding and which aren’t, make a list of the deadlines and ask people who have been through the process for help. The whole process is overwhelming if you don’t start early and plan well.”