What is the ACT Writing Test? - Learn About the Essay and How It is Scored

February 17, 2018

The ACT Writing Test is a 40-minute essay at the end of the ACT that measures a student's writing skills.  The test features one prompt that will discuss a complex issue and provide three separate perspectives on the issue.  You will be asked to read the prompt, consider the three perspectives given, and write an essay in which you describe your own position on the issue and evaluate and analyze at least one of the three other perspectives. 

 

While the ACT Essay is optional, we recommend that students always take the ACT with Writing, as some colleges and universities require students to submit the ACT with the Writing scores.    

 

In this article, I'll introduce you to the ACT Essay, describe how the scoring works, and give you a few tips along the way to help you achieve a higher score on your ACT Essay on test day.

 

The Essay Prompt

 

The ACT Writing Test will feature a one-page prompt on a complex issue along with three different perspectives on that issue.  The prompts will be on a topic that high school students will be familiar with (smart phones, public vs. private school, casual dress, etc.).  

 

Take a look at this example prompt below:

The first paragraph introduces the topic being discussed while detailing some differing positions on the issue and providing some potential examples.  This first paragraph is really to just introduce students to the topic that they will need to discuss in their essay, but it is not the main part of the prompt to focus on.

 

 

The 3 perspectives are where you need to pay closer attention, as you will need to use these perspectives in your essay.  

 

 

At the bottom of each prompt, there will be an "Essay Task" Box.  This box describes exactly what the assignment is for the ACT Writing Test:  

 

It is critical that students know what their assignment is before taking the ACT.  Many students who are not familiar with the Essay Prompt will accidentally write an essay that does not address the points above correctly and, consequently, they receive poor scores.

 

 

The first bullet point is the most critical: you MUST clearly state your own position and discuss at least one other perspective.  The task here is NOT to write an essay entirely about your opinion about Intelligent Machines; this is the most common mistake students make.  Instead, you must describe your own position while also addressing the other perspectives provided in the prompt and detailing why you agree or disagree with those perspectives.  

 

Most students discuss 2 of the 3 given perspectives or all 3 given perspectives in their essays.  We always recommend that students separate each perspective that they discuss into different body paragraphs.  This will help the students keep their thoughts more organized and helps the readers more easily spot the various perspectives being discussed.                    

 

Scoring

 

The ACT Writing Test is scored on a scale of 2-12. Your essay will be graded by two readers and given four scores from 2-12 in the categories of Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. Your overall score will be the rounded average of the four domain scores.

 

 

Since the ACT Writing Test is optional, the Writing Test score does not affect the composite ACT score.  On ACT score reports, the Writing Test is reported as a separate score.

 

 No perfect scores here.  A perfect on the ACT Writing Test is a 12.  

 

The ACT Writing Test is graded in 4 domains:

 

Ideas and Analysis:  This score reflects a student's ability the generate interesting ideas on the topic and critically analyze the prompt and perspectives given.  Strong writers are able to thoroughly understand and analyze the issues that they are asked to address and put forth insightful ideas that go beyond agreeing or disagreeing with the given perspectives.

 

 

Development and Support:  Scores in this domain reflect a student's ability to develop and support the ideas that they have put forth in the essay.  This development and support is accomplished by discussing your ideas, providing your rationale, and supporting your argument.  Strong writers are able to clearly state their ideas, consider both the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments, and illustrate their position through specific and well-developed examples.

 

 

Organization:  This score corresponds to your ability to clearly organize your ideas within the essay.  The organization score reflects both the organization of paragraphs within the essay and the organization of ideas and arguments within each paragraph.  Strong writers use organization to help clearly guide the reader through the topics covered and arguments made within the essay.

 

Don't let your essay be messy like the man on the left.  Getting organized will pay off with some better scores! 

 

 

Language Use and Conventions:  Scores in this domain depend on a student's ability to properly use written English to clearly convey his or her arguments.  You can think of this score as a reflection of writing ability, as graders will be considering word choice, flow between sentences, varying sentence structure, tone, transitions, and grammar.  Strong writers are able to use properly written English to write an essay that clearly communicates their position and smoothly flows between various ideas and arguments.  

 

How Is Your Score Calculated?

 

The ACT Writing Score is just the average of your scores from 2-12 on the 4 domains discussed in the previous section.  The average is then rounded to the nearest number to give you your ACT Writing Score.

 

Let's take a look at an example student's scores below:

 

Ideas and Analysis = 8

Development and Support = 8

Organization = 6

Language Use and Convention = 8 

 

To find the overall score, just take an average: (8 + 8 + 6 + 8)/4 = 7.5  

 

The score of 7.5 would round up to an 8, so this student would receive a score of 8.  

 

How Long Do The Readers Take to Grade The Essay?

 

The readers grading the essay will only read each essay for 2-3 minutes.  That is not very long!  It is critical to take time before you begin writing to outline (we recommend 5-10 minutes) to make sure your position on the prompt is very clear.  Before you begin to write, you should have a clear outline of what your position is, what your supporting examples are going to be, and what you thesis statement is going to be.    

 

 Imagine grading this many essays...there is no way wouldn't read them all carefully!

 

Also, make sure you take the time to write a strong introduction, lead with your strongest body paragraph, and have a clear conclusion.  In the 2-3 minutes, the readers will not have time to read your entire essay carefully.   A strong introduction, first body paragraph, and conclusion will help you score better, as these parts of the essay are where most readers will spend the time reading your essay carefully.  The rest of the essay will be more likely to read more quickly.  

 

So What is A Good Score?  

 

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question.  A good score depends on each student's scoring goals and writing abilities.  If you are a good student and an average writer, I would recommend setting a goal for a Writing score of 8.  The majority of good students will end up with 7's or 8's on the Essay.  If you are a stronger writer, shoot for the higher scores of 9, 10, 11, or 12.  

 

 

To give you a better sense of what these scores actually mean, take a look at the table below that lists the ACT Writing scores and the nationwide percentiles.    

I know that an 8 sounds really far away from a 12, but an 8 is 88th percentile!  That is a good score.  Anything above an 8 puts you in the top 5% of students nationwide.

 

What's Next?

 

To learn more about the ACT Essay, go here to check out another sample ACT Prompt and some sample essay responses released by the ACT.

 

Keep an eye out for more ACT Essay Tips in new blog posts coming soon.  

 

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