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Catrina Coffey

ACT Essay Scores

Update: This post has been updated to reflect the changes to the ACT essay beginning on September 12, 2015. 


Hi there, Magooshers!

We’ve been posting like crazy about the new ACT Essay (and updating our old posts like this one to match)!  We’ve talked about “How to Write the ACT Essay” and given some of our “Top Tips for Writing the ACT Essay.” Today, though, we’re going to talk about something near and dear to the heart of any soon-to-be college student like yourself. We’re going to look at how the ACT Writing Test is scored, and what that means for you.



Heart Kittens
Your ACT Writing score is made up of 4 subscores, in Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. Each of two graders will give you a score from 1-6 in each domain (giving you the opportunity to obtain a total score from 2-12 in each domain). Your four scores are then averaged to give you an overall score from 2-12. Your score report will reveal each of your domain scores, so you will get to see how much of an impact your grammar had on your composite score versus your ideas. This is a different system than the old essay, which was graded holistically. You’re going to get a lot more feedback on why your essay received the score it did. So that means you aren’t going to be in a situation where the graders are going to proclaim, “Poor word choice here! He said degenerate when he meant denigrate! F-minus!”

Picured above: Not Going to Happen
This also means, more than ever, that every aspect of your essay counts. Whereas ideas and support may have carried a little more weight than grammar and organization before, now everything is weighed equally. However, it’s important to remember that the graders understand you’re under a strict time limit here and don’t have much time to edit your work. One spelling error is not going to bring your score down; rather, graders are trained to look for patterns of mistakes.  They do not expect perfection in a forty-minute essay. All they’re really looking for is a good first draft.


What if One of the Graders Doesn’t Like Me?

Well, first of all, I think you mean, “What if one of them doesn’t like your essay?”, but I get it. We take critiques of our writing rather personally. However, the ACT has a safety net in place for such a situation. If the graders disagree on your essay by more than one point on any domain score, a third grader will be brought in to settle the dispute.  


More Scores

On your score report, you will also see an English Language Arts (ELA) score. This score combines your essay score with your scores on the English and Reading multiple choice tests. This score is a separate score that does not impact your overall composite score, but may be requested by colleges (albeit rarely).  

Also on your score report, you will see comments from the ACT graders about your essay. They’ll tell you if they thought you made and articulated your judgments clearly, developed your ideas sufficiently, sustained your focus, organized and presented your ideas well, and if you communicated clearly — and to what extent. These comments are supposed to help you identify your strengths and weaknesses in your writing. Useful, no?

No Cat
So, for example, you could see a comment that says “Your essay generates an argument that responds to multiple perspectives on the given issue,” or you could see “Your essay generates an argument that critically engages with multiple perspectives on the given issue.” Can you see the difference? The first one is the basic level — they expect you to have an argument. But “critically engages”–that’s higher-level thinking and definitely a higher-level essay.


The Rubric

Now, a few things to keep in mind. No essay is perfect, nor do the ACT graders expect it to be. The graders know you only have 40 minutes to respond to the prompt, and, as I said above, they’re just looking for a good first draft.

Your essay does not have to DO ALL THE THINGS in each category in order to be given that score. If an essay meets most or almost all of the criteria for a 6, then it’s given a 6.

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 3.31.16 PM

Note: To view the complete rubric, click here.


As you can see, your ACT essay has four major goals:

  • Make judgments — the graders evaluate how well you understand the perspectives, and their implications, values and assumptions. Did you understand the question they presented to you? Did you pick a side? Did you understand the strengths and weaknesses of different perspectives on an issue?
  • Develop a position — the graders evaluate how well you supported the argument you made in your essay. Did you give clear facts and relevant details that really helped your argument be more persuasive? Did you vary the types of evidence you used? Did you show the graders that you know the difference between assertion (just saying something) and evidence (showing why that assertion is true)? The more specific you can be, the more you show the graders how well you understood the topic and its controversy, which helps out your ‘make judgments’ criterion as well.
  • Organization and focus — the graders evaluate how logically you present your ideas. Did you have a clear introduction, body, and conclusion? Are your body paragraphs ordered in a way that makes sense? Can the graders follow your train of thought clearly from beginning to end? Did you use transitions between and among your paragraphs to show the readers how they all link together? Did you stay on topic?
  • Communicate clearly — the graders also look at how well you express yourself, in accordance with the rules of Standard Written English, a.k.a. “School, Work, and Business English,” as far as you’re concerned. Did you vary your sentence structure so that some sentences are short and others are long? Is your word choice effective? How is your grammar? If there are errors, are they particularly distracting? Can the readers still get your point or can they not understand what you’re saying?


That’s a lot of ground to cover. Reading that, you might be thinking that this sounds really hard.

Write all the things
But remember, the ACT readers don’t expect perfection. If your grammar isn’t perfect, or if your essay doesn’t have paragraphs, it isn’t a deal-breaker. Your essay has to meet most or almost all of the criteria for each category to be given that score, not every single one.

So, Magooshers, now you know how the Enhanced ACT Writing Test will be scored! If you haven’t already, check out our other posts on the ACT Writing Test, and write on!

write all the things2


About Catrina Coffey

Catrina graduated from Rider University with a B.A. in English. She’s been helping students prepare for standardized tests since 2011. In her spare time, you can find her reading anything within arms’ reach, playing video games, correcting grammar, or studying word derivations. (Did you know that procrastinate comes from the Latin word cras, which means “tomorrow”?)

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