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!
Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will approve and respond to comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! :) If your comment was not approved, it likely did not adhere to these guidelines. If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!
The ACT is a standardized examination used for college admissions, and the test results are accepted by all four-year undergraduate institutions in the United States. The ACT is a four-subject, multiple-choice exam that can be taken with or without an optional writing section (the former is officially referred to as the ACT Plus Writing, while the latter is known as the ACT (No Writing) or simply the ACT.
The four subjects tested by the ACT are English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science, in that order. Each of the sections of the ACT is referred to as a “test,” and therefore, a full ACT exam contains an English Test, a Mathematics Test, a Reading Test, and a Science Test (if you were taking the ACT Plus Writing, then you would also have a Writing Test).
The exam has 215 multiple-choice questions and takes approximately three-and-a-half hours (including breaks) to complete. Students taking the ACT Plus Writing will test for an additional half hour. The writing test is an essay, and does not have a multiple-choice element. The entire testing day, including administrative protocols, typically takes between four-and-a-half and five hours.
You will be given a score from 1 to 36 for each of the English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science Tests; these four scores are then averaged into a Composite (overall) score, also from 1 to 36. Students taking the ACT Plus Writing will also receive a Writing test subscore from 2 to 12, as well as a Combined English/Writing score reported on a 1 to 36 range. Although students taking the ACT Plus Writing will receive a Combined English/Writing score, taking the Writing Test does not affect your English Test score or your Composite score. You can see the Combined English/Writing score conversion scale here.
The ACT is administered six times a year in the U.S., U.S. territories, Puerto Rico, and Canada: September, October, December, February, April, and June. Outside of these areas, the test is given five times a year: October, December, February, April, and June.
You can view the fees associated with registering for the ACT and sending your ACT scores to colleges here. Note, students taking the ACT Plus Writing will pay a higher registration fee than students taking the ACT (No Writing). If you are interested in requesting a waiver of your ACT registration fees, click here to view the procedure required for the waiver request.
The English Test
The English test is 45 minutes long, and is comprised of 75 multiple-choice questions spread over 5 passages (each passage has 15 associated questions: 5 x 15 = 75). The questions cover English usage and mechanics (punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, and word usage), as well as rhetorical skills (organization, style, and approach in writing). You will not be tested on spelling or asked to provide vocabulary definitions, nor will you need to enumerate grammatical rules. You are expected to demonstrate command of the English language, and be able to identify incorrect usage.
The five passages of English Test are written in prose, and each of these passages will be followed by multiple-choice questions. The questions may ask you to analyze a portion of the passage and determine if it grammatically correct, identify the way phrases and words are used in the passage, or determine the way sentences and phrases work within the passage to convey meaning and understanding.
View sample English Test questions.
The Mathematics Test
The Mathematics test is 60 minutes long, and involves 60 multiple-choice questions. As per the ACT, it measures “the mathematical skills students have typically acquired in courses taken by the end of 11th grade.” Although all mathematics problems on the ACT can be solved without a calculator, you are allowed to use a calculator for the Mathematics Test; however, there are some calculators which are not permitted. You can view the ACT’s calculator policy here (Note: If you use a prohibited calculator, you run the risk of being dismissed from the test, and having your test cancelled).
The Mathematics Test is 40% pre-algebra/elementary algebra, 30% intermediate algebra/coordinate geometry, and 30% plane geometry/trigonometry. You will be given a Mathematics subscore in each of these three broad areas, in addition to your overall Mathematics Test score. You will be required to have knowledge of basic (addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, fractions, etc.), intermediate (quadratic equations, inequalities, functions, matrices, and geometric shapes and formulas, etc.), and advanced (proofs, trigonometric functions, advanced geometry, etc.) concepts. For an explanation of what you can expect in the Mathematics Test, click here.
View sample Mathematics Test questions.
The Reading Test
The Reading Test is 35 minutes long, and involves 40 multiple-choice questions. The test measures your reading comprehension level.
The Reading Test consists of four passages which, as per the ACT, “are representative of the level and kind of reading required in first-year college courses.” Each of these passages will be followed by multiple choice questions. In these questions, you will be asked to explain both what is directly stated in the passage, as well as what is implied by the information in the passage. The questions will test your ability to find main ideas within a passage, interpret details, compare examples, understand sequences and cause-and-effect situations, use context to determine the meaning of words and statements, and find a narrator’s purpose and voice based on their writing and tone. You will not be required to answer questions that require the knowledge of concepts outside of what is stated or implied in the passage.
The passages cover a range of topics in the humanities, natural sciences, prose fiction, and social studies.
View sample Reading Test questions .
The Science Test
The Science test is 35 minutes long, and involves 40 multiple-choice questions. As per the ACT, it “measures the skills required in the natural sciences: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem solving.” You are not allowed to use a calculator on any part of the Science Test; this means that all operations can be solved without the aid of one. In order to best grasp the content of the Science Test, you should have completed courses in earth science, physical science, and biology.
The Science Test presents you with seven sets of information, each followed by 5 to 7 multiple-choice questions that ask you to interpret and infer from the information given. The scientific information in the questions can be in the form of graphs or tables, experiment descriptions, or scientific writings/essays. You will be required to understand the concepts being presented, examine the information and conclusions provided, and develop you own viewpoints, predictions, hypotheses, and determinations based on this information.
The Science Test is 38% data representation (3 passages of 5 questions each involving tables and graphs), 45% research summaries (3 passages of 6 questions each involving descriptions of experiments), and 17% conflicting viewpoints (1 passage of 7 questions involving inconsistent hypotheses or views). For a more detailed description of what is included in each question type, click here.
View sample Science Test questions.
The Writing Test
The Writing Test is 30 minutes long, and requires you to write one essay. It evaluates writing and composition skills at the college entry level. As per the ACT website, the Writing Test “consists of one writing prompt that will define an issue and describe two points of view on that issue. You are asked to respond to a question about your position on the issue described in the writing prompt. In doing so, you may adopt one or the other of the perspectives described in the prompt, or you may present a different point of view on the issue. Your score will not be affected by the point of view you take on the issue.”
View sample Writing Test prompts.