There is no question that the ACT is important for high school students who are thinking about applying to college. While the multiple choice sections are designed to assess students’ knowledge in math, English, science and reading, there is also a writing section that assesses students’ abilities to write an essay. Doing well on this section of the ACT can help distinguish you as an accomplished writer to colleges.
Though you can easily understand your score a multiple choice test, you might be left wondering what will earn you a good score on the ACT essay. If you’re aiming for a 12 on the ACT essay, read on for some tips and tricks!
What is the ACT Essay?
While the multiple choice sections of the ACT might be more unforgiving, the ACT essay is a great opportunity to show off your writing skills. According the ACT website, you should aim to write a “unified, coherent essay” in which you:
- clearly state your own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective
- develop and support your ideas with reasoning and examples
- organize your ideas clearly and logically
- communicate your ideas effectively in Standard written English.
To see these ideas in motion, you can take a look at a sample ACT prompt and essay here.
How is the ACT Essay scored?
The ACT essay is scored on a scale of 1 to 12. Your essay will be read and scored by two different grades on a scale of 1 to 6 in four different domains, for a total score out of 12 in each of these four domains. These four scores will then be averaged for a total score out of 12.
For more information about how this section of the test is scored, you can look at the official ACT Writing Test Scoring Rubric.
Tip 1: Know what a 12 looks like
In general, if you are aiming to do well in something, you should know what exemplary work looks like and try to emulate it. This is certainly the case for the ACT Essay, so before you walk into the testing center to write your essay, make sure you know know what essays that scored a 12 in this section look like!
Be sure to read as many sample essays as you can find—these should be available online through a quick Google search. Keep in mind, though, that the structure of the writing section changed in Fall 2015, so make sure that the examples you are looking at are current and align with the structure of the current essay prompt.
As you’re looking at essays that scored a 12, be sure to also look at essays that scored in the middle and essays that received a poor score. Try to understand what went wrong in the poorly scored essays as well as what could be improved in the middle-scoring ones. Take note of what was successful in the high-scoring sample essays that you read—what makes these essays stand out from the middle-scoring ones?
If there are notes from graders that justify the scores of the essays, be sure to pay attention to these as well. Aiming for a high score on the ACT essay section means that you need to try to understand exactly what the graders are looking for. Study the rubric once more and remember what you’ll need to accomplish in each category.
Tip 2: Pick a perspective and stick to it
When it comes to the writing prompt, the ACT website says “The test describes an issue and provides three different perspectives on the issue. You are asked to read and consider the issue and perspectives, state your own perspective on the issue, and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective on the issue. Your score will not be affected by the perspective you take on the issue.”
In order to write a strong essay, you can choose whatever perspective you like—just make sure it’s one that you can support and defend effectively throughout your essay. Scorers are looking for a strong, well-organized point of view, and like it says above, it doesn’t matter whether you agree, disagree, or are somewhere in the middle; what matters is the writing.
It is important to remember that even if you don’t agree with the perspective that you’re writing from on a personal level, your essay needs to show that you can effectively argue a point. In addition, make sure to remember to relate your perspective to one of the perspectives provided in the prompt. Be sure to address the counter arguments as well in one of your body paragraphs, using the perspective opposite to your personal perspective to demonstrate your understanding of opposing views.
Tip 3: Use concrete examples
Grounding your writing in concrete examples is one extremely important element of writing effective ACT essay. You could use this as an opportunity to show off your historical knowledge by relating your argument to a relevant fact or event in history or current events, or you could come up with a rhetorical scenario or example. Including examples might even mean including a personal anecdote (although if you do end up doing this, you should make sure that your story is short and relates directly to your argument).
Take a look at the ways in which the writers of sample essays that scored a 12 managed to seamlessly incorporate examples into their writing. While you don’t have to be an expert on the essay topic, nor are you expected to be able to list off obscure facts and trivia about it, you need to make sure that your essay draws from real concrete examples rather that just vague abstract arguments.
Tip 4: Don’t be afraid to show off your language skills
One of the markers of a successful ACT essay is its use of language. This is a great opportunity to show off some of your ACT/SAT vocabulary words that you might have been studying for the English section of the test. Opt for higher-level vocabulary words when given the chance—as a general rule of thumb, you should aim to use about 1-2 higher level vocab words per paragraph.
Scorers want to see that you can navigate the English language skillfully, and so you should also take the chance to vary your sentence structure when you get the chance. Consider, also, utilizing devices such as rhetorical questions and complex sentences.
If you are going to use more complicated vocabulary and grammar structures, however, make sure you fully understand how to use them. It will reflect poorly upon your writing skills if you include a complicated word that doesn’t make sense in the context of a sentence, or if a grammatical structure that you try to use isn’t quite right. If you’re going to use a semicolon to combine two sentences, for example, make sure you understand that a semicolon is not the same thing as a comma. When in doubt, stick to what you know! It is better to have a less complicated structure that is used correctly versus an attempt at a more advanced grammatical concept that is actually wrong.
Lastly, be sure to keep it real in your writing. While scorers want to see students who are skilled in their use of the english language, it is easy to tell when someone is simply trying to electrify their vocabulary in order to titillate the reader for the written examination. Your writing and tone should reflect who you are as a writer, so remember to keep it down to earth.
Tip 5: Pay attention to timing & your energy level
For the essay section, you will get 40 minutes. This includes time for planning, writing, and editing, so make sure you dole out the appropriate amount of time for each part of the process. You can practice this by timing yourself to write an essay from a sample prompt at home. Start by giving yourself an hour, and gradually work it down to 40 minutes so that you are prepared by the time the testing date rolls around. If you find that you need more time for planning than you do writing, or if you come to learn that you need a particularly large chunk of time to edit, keep these things in mind when it comes time to write your essay for the exam.
The essay will be the last section on the test, so keep this in mind while you complete the multiple choice sections of the ACT. While you should be devoting your full attention and energy to each multiple choice section of the test, keep in mind that once you are finished with all of the multiple choice sections, you will still have to write the essay.
When you get breaks between sections, be sure to eat a snack, drink some water, and use the restroom so that you are not uncomfortable or distracted by the end of the test. While you might be tempted to just breeze through the essay section so that you can finish the ACT, know that you will not be allowed to leave the testing center until everyone has finished the test—so be sure to use up all of the allotted time!
For more information about the ACT and essay writing, check out these blog posts:
What to Bring (And Not Bring) to the ACT
10 Tips to Improve Your ACT Score
Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Essay
A Guide to the Optional ACT Writing Section
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Devin Barricklow is a Political Science and Creative Writing double major at Columbia University. She’s really excited to be able to share her expertise about the college process with students who need advice. When she isn’t writing for CollegeVine, she enjoys reading the poems of Mary Oliver, going to concerts in the city, or cooking (preferably something with lots of bok choy and ginger).
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The ACT Writing section (new as of September 2015) is the only optional part of the ACT. However, optional does not mean unnecessary. A number of colleges do require it to be included with the rest of your ACT scores as part of their application process (if you want to check if your dream school is one of them, you can use the ACT’s own College Writing Test Requirements search tool to find out). If any of the schools you’re considering require you to take the ACT Writing Section, you definitely need to know what constitutes a good ACT Writing Score.
Start improving your ACT writing score (and everything else) today with Magoosh!
Note: This post has been updated to reflect the changes announced for the September 2016 ACT and beyond, released by the ACT in June 2016.
ACT Essay Grader
Before we talk about good ACT Writing scores, it’s important to know what score you’re working with.
If you’re coming to this post after taking your first ACT practice test, you might be wondering how the heck you’re supposed to even grade your essay. You’re thinking, “What even IS my ACT Essay score?”
To start, let your essay sit for a day or two before grading it (it’s helpful to get some distance). Then, follow the official scoring rubric from ACT, and ask a trusted friend/teacher/parent to do the same. Be as objective as possible as you grade—you won’t do yourself any favors by inflating your score!
Then, use our handy ACT Essay Grading tool to find your score:
ACT Writing Test Scorer
Click the button below to get started:
All right, now you know what your ACT essay score is. Let’s try to figure out how your essay ranks.
What’s Considered a Good ACT Writing Score?
This is always a tricky question, because the easy answer is that you should try to get the highest score you can. But that isn’t really helpful, is it?
Of course, a lot depends on the schools to which you apply (see ACT scores for the top 100 universities to learn more). Generally, the more selective the school, the higher your score should be to be competitive. Those universities that require the ACT Writing will almost always have an average score range on their admissions website, so make sure you do your research. Most schools do not provide a cut-off score, so theoretically a below-average score will not eliminate you from being considered for admission. Then again, it won’t help you either.
Okay, But Really…I Want Numbers!
All right, all right, let’s talk numbers.
What’s a good ACT Writing score? First off, remember that the ACT Essay is now scored from 1-6 in four categories by two graders. This gives you four scores from 2-12. You then receive a final ACT Essay score from 2-12 that is the average of these four scores. This is the score you will be reporting to colleges. For more detail on how the essay is scored, make sure you check out Rachel’s article on ACT Essay scores.
This is a change from September 2015 to June 2016, when the ACT essay scoring scale was 1-36. If the old scoring scale applied to you, you should have received notice from the ACT about how to convert your score to the new 2-12 range. The ACT also has a good resource to help you convert 2015-2016 ACT essay scores to 2016-2017 essay scores. To understand your percentile, you can use this “Norms Chart”.
That’s a Lot of Numbers… So What Is a Good ACT Writing Score?
If you took the test after September 2016, you’re using the 2-12 scale. And what’s a good ACT Writing score now, using this scale? Shoot for a minimum of 8 on the essay. This will be enough to not raise any eyebrows amongst college admissions officers. For extremely competitive schools, aim for a score of 10+.
ACT Writing: Essay Percentiles
If you’re still wondering just how good your scores are, here’s the breakdown for ACT essay scores and percentiles:
As you can see from this table, the mean, or average, score on the ACT Writing section falls slightly below 7. It’s a good idea to aim for the 75th percentile, so in this case a good ACT writing score would be an 8 or above (16 or above on the old ACT). A 10 or above would put you in the 97th percentile, which is great! If you aspire to Ivy League or other highly-selective schools, a 10 is the threshold you should try your best to reach to be safe.
How Have People Been Doing on the New ACT Writing?
Last year, the Washington Post reported that ACT Writing scores after the essay change were lower than people expected. And honestly, this is exactly why the ACT decided to go back to a separate 2-12 scale: too many students were comparing their essay scaled score from 1-36 to their multiple choice scaled scores from 1-36, when in reality the percentiles were very different.
If you are ever concerned that your essay score is inaccurate, however, you can ask for your essay to be re-scored. The $50 fee for the re-score will be refunded if you do get a higher score.
So what’s the takeaway from all of this? Really, a few key points:
- Research the schools you plan to apply to, and see which of them require the ACT Writing test.
- At the least, shoot for an 8+ overall score for a “good” ACT Writing score.
- A score of 10+ is an ideal score for applications to selective schools.
- If you believe your essay has been mis-scored, you may request a re-score for a fee.
- Don’t panic!
This post was originally published in February, 2016 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.
About Elizabeth Peterson
Elizabeth holds a degree in Psychology from The College of William & Mary. While there, she volunteered as a tutor and discovered she loved the personal connection she formed with her students. She has now been helping students with test prep and schoolwork as a professional tutor for over six years. When not discussing grammar or reading passages, she can be found trying every drink at her local coffee shop while writing creative short stories and making plans for her next travel adventure!
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