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.
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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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ACT Essay Score:
How Important Is It?
The ACT essay score is confusing for many reasons. First, it can be difficult to gauge how colleges use the ACT essay score because the score is not used to calculate the Composite score, which is the score that colleges use for admissions.
Frequently Asked Questions
#1: How Is the ACT Essay Score
Used by Colleges?
Most colleges will not tell you exactly how much the ACT essay score is specifically used in the admission process. From admissions, I usually hear something like: "We want students to take the ACT with Writing, but we value other parts of the application more". Mainly admissions are noting extremes in the essay score: very low and very high. So, if the mid-range for the score is 22-28 (out of 36) or 6-9 (out of 12), then admissions will probably not give much weight (good or bad) to the score.
#2: How Can I Raise My ACT Essay Score
Since admissions will notice very high scores (or very low scores) on the ACT essay portion, it is still important to properly prepare for the Writing portion. First, make sure that you familiarize yourself with the new ACT essay prompt style (which was released in September 2015). The most recent edition of The Official ACT Prep Guide is only book with the official prompts and scoring rubric. Second, review my tips for the ACT essay. Third, practice, practice, practice.
For the essay, I really like the College Panda's ACT Essay: The Battle-tested Guide because the person who gives the advice has experience testing for the New ACT Essay prompt (most guides rely on outdated material for this section). Not every college requires the ACT Essay, but many do, so I always recommend sitting for this section.
#3: Who Should Write the Essay?
If you plan to apply to selective or highly selective colleges, you should always take the format of the exam "ACT with Writing", which adds a 40-minute essay to the end of the exam. Some state colleges, like University of California, will NOT accept an ACT score unless the exam included the essay portion. Not all colleges are as strict in the policy, but play it safe: take the ACT with Writing.
Because I work in Southern California and most of my students will be applying to the University of California, I tell all of my students to take the ACT with Writing every single time. The last thing I want to happen is for one of my students to get a really good Composite score, say one that UCLA would love to see, but then tell me that the test was taken without the essay. Guess what? UC Admissions will only consider test scores taken on the same day as the writing portion.
To make it easier to find all the amazing books and materials to study for the SAT and ACT, I include links to these items on most pages as part of the Amazon Affiliate program. Just click on the image or text link. That way you know you are purchasing the correct version and edition!
#4: Why is My ACT Essay Score So Much Lower
Than My Composite Score?
When the ACT switched to the new essay format and grading scale in September 2015, many tutors noticed that the essay scores were often lower than the English section score. These differences in scores seemed to be particularly pronounced when students had high Composite scores (over 30).
In January 2016, because so many have complained about these score discrepancies, including myself, the ACT released a rare qualification that explains the scoring rationale of the essay (not the most fun reading but informative). Then, in June 2016, the ACT abandoned the 1-36 scale entirely, and returned to the 2-12 scale. This, however, does not solve the issue, just makes it less noticeable in the score reports.
As stated above, though, the ACT essay is really not a big factor in admissions. Since last year, even some highly selective colleges have opted out of using the essay portion on the ACT and SAT exams. So, don't get too obsessive or worried if your essay score is slightly lower than the Composite. Move on and focus on other areas of your application profile.
#5: What is the ELA Score?
If you take the ACT test with Writing, you will receive a separate essay score (which is not calculated into the Composite score) and an English Language Arts Score (which is an average of English and Reading, plus the essay). It is unclear, again, how colleges will use the ELA score. My guess is the Composite Score will still carry the most weight, since these are not the scores reported to the ranking agencies (and they are just averages of other sections).
Important Exception: University of California
With that said, the University of California may use the ELA score, so if you plan to apply there, realize that a low ACT essay score will bring down the ELA score. For example, a student who achieved a 32 in the English and Reading sections but wrote a 8 essay, will see a drop to 29 for the Combined score. Not a huge drop, but the University of California would use the 29, not the 32, for admission purposes.
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