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Kristin Fracchia

Why are New ACT Essay Scores so Low?

Update: In response to student confusion over the 1-36 scaled scores, the ACT has now returned to a 2-12 scale. Find out more details in this post about ACT Essay FAQs.


Recently, the Washington Post posted an article, an exposé almost, about students who were shocked by their inexplicably low ACT essay scores.

Just to back up, the ACT essay completely changed in September of 2015, and since then we’ve had three administrations of the new essay type in September, December and February; now students are getting angry.

According to the article, and according to anecdotal evidence I’ve heard as well, many high scoring students have been shocked by essay scores that seem way too low. I’m going to guess this is primarily because of two reasons:

  1. There is still some shock at seeing essay scores on the new scale of 1 – 36. The old essay was scored on a scale from 2 – 12. Although we cannot directly draw comparisons between these two scoring scales, you can how differences in scores might seem greater on the new scale with more potential increments in between. So, for example, if you are a very high-scoring student, while you may not have thought a 9 out of 12 sounded so bad on the old essay, maybe you think a 27 out of 36 does because you are comparing it to your composite scores that are graded on the same scale.


  1. Students haven’t learned to write the new essay. It’s MUCH more complicated than the old ACT essay. There are several things the instructions ask you to do, instead of just one, and if you don’t tick off all the boxes, I am sure that the trained graders would not give you a high score. Fair or not, I am pretty sure we are going to see scores rise as students are taught to write for the new essay.


Here are some tips for the new ACT essay to help make sure you get the essay score you deserve:


  1. Answer all parts of the prompt.

a. Analyze and evaluate the perspectives given.

i. This means ALL THREE of them. Don’t leave one out.

b. State and develop your own perspective on the issue.

i. This is the most important part. Make sure you make it clear what your perspective is.

c. Explain the relationship between your perspective and those given.

i. This will be easy if you choose to fully agree with one of the given perspectives, which is perfectly acceptable and the best route for most students.

  1. Have a strong thesis that states an argument (this means something that someone could disagree with)

    a. I am guessing that one of the biggest faux pas students are making on the new essay is starting with a “thesis statement” along the lines of “There are many pros and cons to intelligent machines in our world today.” or “There are many perspectives on the value of intelligent machines in our world today; some people think they are challenging humans to achieve their potential, others think they are taking away our jobs.” The way the prompt is set up naturally leads students into this trap of trying to summarize all of the perspectives in their thesis. Don’t do that. Come up with an assertive thesis statement stating your own perspective, and then deal with the other perspectives in your supporting paragraphs.

    3. Have several specific examples

a. Like your English teachers, the graders are going to ask, “Where’s the support?” Make sure you give at least one specific example in each body paragraph that backs up the argument you are making.


For more tips on how to improve your essay score on an ACT retake, check out these links:


About Kristin Fracchia

Kristin makes sure Magoosh's blogs are chock-full of awesome, free resources for students preparing for standardized tests. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agonizing bliss of marathon running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.

2 Responses to “Why are New ACT Essay Scores so Low?”

  1. Diego says:


    How much do you think the ACT essay matters? I know the question is very general, but usually how much does it influence. I say so because I got an ashaming 5 in my Writing Score compared to a 31 in English and a 33 Composite. I think the main reason was the essay itself, because in my country our native language is Spanish. Therefore, I haven’t really written many English essays in my whole life. And there is the fact that I find the ACT essay particularly difficult compared to the one from the SAT. I got someone check one of my SAT practice essays, and she gave me an 11, so I’m hoping I will get a score near that one in my real SAT. To sum up, if I report the ACT, do you think it will influence a lot?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert Magoosh Test Prep Expert says:

      A 5 on the ACT essay! Ouch! But yes, this is understandable when English isn’t your first language. And at least you scored very competitively on the rest of the test.

      Your highly competitive scores in English and in composite combined with your 5 in writing put you in a complicated situation. Some schools that don’t require an ACT Writing score don’t even look at your Writing score. Other schools that don’t require ACT writing will still consider your ACT Writing score int heir admissions decisions, if you chose to take the Writing portion of the test.

      If you’ve applied to any schools that don’t absolutely require the Writing score, I recommend contacting them and asking them if your low ACT Writing score will hurt you, or if they will simply ignore the Writing score because it’s not required. If a school you hope to get into says that your ACT Writing score DOES hurt your chances of being accepted, then you will unfortunately need to cancel all of your most recent scores and retake the whole ACT exam, this time without the Writing section. Sadly, you can’t jsut selectively cancel an ACT Writing score.

      The silver lining of that scenario is that it sounds like you can excel on every other part of the ACT on a retake, if a retake is needed. And of course, if you’re also applying to top schools that require the ACT essay, you’d need to retake anyway, and really study for the Writing portion the next time around.

      In short, you’re home free if your schools don’t care about your ACT Writing score, but you have a retake ahead of you if writing scores are either considered or required. Check with your schools to see, and good luck!

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