How a 1 Point Increase on the ACT Can Equal $24,000


Today I’m sharing with you a post written by Mark Skoskiewicz, who is the founder of MyGuru, a provider of in-person and online private ACT tutoring based in Chicago, IL.  Mark attended Indiana University-Bloomington and holds an MBA from Northwestern University-Kellogg School of Management. – Lynn O’Shaughnessy

When I talk to parents and students I tell them that the ACT score is one of many factors, and if your child (or you) has prepared reasonably well and taken it a few times, there’s no reason to take it again – you’re probably getting the score that’s appropriate for you.  Instead, just focus on writing awesome essays and submitting a generally strong application to the best schools which might consider accepting you.

But, in some cases, the above approach can be misguided – there could be tens of thousands of dollars directly at stake.


Careful assessment of comparable schools’ admissions policies can reveal surprising alternatives for your child that you didn’t realize existed as it relates to:

  • Re-taking the ACT
  • Obtaining financial aid
  • Choosing a college

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I’m using as an example Indiana University, which is my alma mater.  Let’s see how much merit-based financial aid is at stake for a potential Hoosier freshman based solely on the ACT score.

At Indiana University, the middle 50% range for ACT scores is 25-30, and out-of-state students are supposed to be in the top 3rd of their class to get admitted.  IU offers what are effectively automatic merit-based scholarships for students that meet various criteria.  They do this as a simple way to attract top students who might otherwise choose much more selective, more highly ranked schools.

For an out-of-state student with a 3.8 GPA, the difference between an automatic scholarship of $5,000 per year and $11,000 per year is just 1 point on the ACT.  In other words, if you have a 3.8 GPA, and you scored a 30 on the ACT, you’d get $5,000 per year, but if you scored 31, you’d get $11,000 per year.  If you meet these criteria, these rewards are automatic.

However, it gets more interesting than this.

The ACT score used in these calculations is the “Combined Highest Composite Score.”  In other words, you don’t even need to score a composite of 31 on one actual ACT test, you can use your best scores across sections of multiple tests.  As the IU web-site states:

“For students applying to IU for fall 2013 admission, the ACT score considered is the combined highest composite ACT score – the average of the highest scores from each subtest.  Rather than considering only the best composite scores from any single ACT test date, the combined highest composite ACT score captures the highest scores from each subtest, regardless of test date.  The combined highest composite score will be used for both admission and scholarship consideration.  For students who take the ACT only once, IU will simply use the composite score from the single test date.  IU will only consider official test scores sent directly from the testing agencies.

For example, John took the ACT three times, earning the following results:

John earned a single highest composite score of 22 (on his second test in June 2012).  Since IU considers the combined highest composite ACT score, the highest score from each of John’s subtests will be combined to determine his score.  The scores from John’s second English Test (22), third Mathematics Test (23), first Reading Test (23), and second Science Test (22) average to 22.5 which rounds up to a final combined highest composite ACT score of 23.  The score of 23 is what will be used for admission and scholarship consideration.”

This policy has surprising implications.

In the  example below,  if this student took the ACT one more time and did 1 point better on any one of the sections, he or she would automatically receive $24,000 more in automatic aid.  If you plug these numbers into Excel, you’ll notice that a 1 point increase in any one of the sections bumps the composite up to 31.

ACT Date      English    Math    Reading Science Composite
Apr-12 33 27 31 29 30
Jun-12 32 26 32 27 29
Oct-12 32 25 30 28 29
Current Composite 33 27 32 29 30

Unfortunately, when most students are determining where to go to college, they aren’t also still taking the ACT or SAT.  So, this type of insight needs to be identified early in the process, so a student or parent could realize the implications of just a small improvement in any one section of the test.



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  1. I didn’t realize how 1 point could make such a deference with financial aid and being accepted into a college.

  2. A few years ago my son took the ACT test and got a score of 32, He received a $7000 per year (four year) scholarship at Northern Illinois University. I had a difficult time talking him into taking the ACT one more time to see if he could get one more point, which would give him a full scholarship. He finally agreed, and this time studied very well for the test. He got the 33 ACT score the second time around and received a full ride four year scholarship (including tuition, dorm, books and meals). It was worth about $100,000. I told him he made more money that one day that he retook the test than many people make in two or even three years of work.

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  3. I hope 4 times does not look like overkill, as my senior daughter took the ACT one last time in December. She had a 29 previously, 30 superscored, but unfortunately, several of the schools she has applied to do not superscore. She was quite unhappy when I suggested she take it one last time, but the potential to attend her top choice school due to scholarship money persuaded her. She scored a 31! If you look at how the ACT is scored, especially the English section, it is sometimes a matter of answering one more question correctly. She had a 33 on another test date, missing a total of 4-6 questions in Usage and Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills subscores, but this time scored a 35, missing 1 question total. So she improved her English score by answering perhaps 3 to 5 more questions correctly on a 75 point section. Her Science section jumped 2 points by answering 3 more questions correctly. She scored the same as she had on previous tests, with the exception of Reading, where she scored 1 point lower. Fortunately, she scored her best scores in the other sections on the same testing date, giving her the higher composite. So for all you students who feel like giving up, don’t! It will be interesting to see how the 1-2 point jump in her Composite will affect the scholarship money. Since she applied Early Action to all but one of her schools, several scholarship offers have already come in, ranging from $18,000 to $23,000. She is also attending some additional Scholarship Day Interviews, so the new score may help her ranking there. Virtually all of the schools we contacted about the new score said they would accept the new score, even though she had already applied. I think with the competitive nature of the schools in trying to boost their rankings and mid 50% scores, all but the super elite institutions will be happy to accept new scores. In addition, the ACT lets you choose which scores to send, and many schools do not ask for all the scores, so you wouldn’t necessarily have to reveal how many times the test had been taken.

  4. Is there a maximum number of times a student can take the SAT or ACT without it looking quite odd to colleges?

    I’ve heard that 3 times for the SAT is becoming common place, but 4 would raise eyebrows. What do you think? And, is December of the Senior year the latest date for scores to be considered by most colleges (and even then, it might be too late)?

    1. Hi John,

      I suspect that it doesn’t matter for the vast majority of schools. They want all their students to have higher composit scores so it will look like their student body is smarter.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  5. What Mark is talking about worked for my daughter. She was not happy when we suggested she take the ACT one last time in December of her senior year, but the prospect of boosting her score was enough to get her to agree. She had a goal score that she wanted to achieve as the composite for the December test, but more than that, she wanted to boost her super-score (the composite of the combined highest sub-scores from all tests) because most of the colleges she applied to use super-scoring. We looked at her lowest sub-scores and encouraged her to focus more heavily on those sections of the test. A couple weeks of subject review in ACT prep guides also seemed to help.

    This strategy worked. Not only did she meet her goal for the December score, she also raised her super-score by 1 point! We are waiting to hear what that will do to increase her merit scholarships at a couple schools, but at one that uses a straight GPA and ACT score grid, we already know that the increased score gives her an extra $1000 in merit aid.

    1. Wendy,

      Thanks for sharing. I hope your daughter gets extra scholarship money from all the schools!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy