Students work on a practice ACT test in this 2011 file photo. (AP Photo/The Enquirer/Patrick Reddy)
Many students are in an uproar over a change to the ACT that has yielded what they call inexplicably low scores on the essay section of the nation’s most widely used college admission test.
Controversy erupted soon after the ACT introduced a revised essay-writing task in September that is being graded for the first time on the same 36-point scale as the rest of the test. Counselors across the country are complaining that many of their top students, who routinely earn marks higher than 30 on other parts of the ACT, are getting writing scores in the low-to-mid 20s.
“I know these kids well,” said Michele Hernandez, a college counselor based in Vermont. “There’s no way they should be getting scores that low on the writing. It’s obviously out of whack.”
Some students dissatisfied with their writing scores have discovered a solution: They can pay ACT $50 to re-score their essay. Few take this step, but those who do will get their re-scoring fee refunded if ACT revises the score upward, ACT spokesman Ed Colby said.
One Rhode Island student took the ACT in September, getting a 19 on the writing section and 30s on the rest of the test. “He’s a pretty good writer,” one of this student’s parents said. “I thought the 19 was odd.” The student asked for a re-score and was rewarded with a huge bump, to 31. There was no explanation for what the parent called a “very dramatic” change. “I was a little disconcerted.”
This parent and some affected students spoke with The Washington Post on condition of anonymity to maintain their privacy in the college application process.
Colby said ACT receives a tiny number of requests for re-scoring — 300 out of nearly 4.3 million tests administered in the last school year. “It’s a very small number of students who use it, and most of them do not receive a score change,” he said.
ACT officials acknowledge that essay-writing scores are trending lower than scores in English, reading, math and science, but they say that scores in one subject aren’t meant to be directly comparable to those in another.
“We urge students to understand that a particular score on the ACT Writing Test doesn’t mean the same thing as a score on any of the other ACT tests,” Colby said. “And colleges understand this.”
[ACT’s college admission testing grows, but scores stagnate]
The ACT essay is an optional 40-minute writing exercise offered after 2 hours and 55 minutes of multiple-choice assessment in English, reading, math and science. Before September, the ACT gave students 30 minutes to compose an essay taking a position on a given issue, with the writing graded on a scale of 2 to 12. The new essay requires students to “develop an argument that puts their own perspective in dialogue with others” in response to a contemporary issue. A sample topic on the ACT website is the influence of “intelligent machines.”
Many colleges don’t require the essay for students who take the ACT. But a number of selective schools, from Harvard and Princeton to the University of California, do require it. Typically, more than half of all ACT test-takers answer the essay question. The essay score doesn’t factor into the overall composite score, which is often considered the most crucial takeaway from an admissions test.
One 16-year-old from the suburbs of Chicago said he took the test in October and got a 36 on each of the four required portions of the ACT. Those top marks ordinarily would be cause for celebration. But his writing score, he said, was a 23.
“I was expecting in the very worst case maybe a high 20 score,” he said. “It really took me aback. It bothers me.”
A 17-year-old who grew up in Washington, D.C., and attends a New England boarding school said he took the ACT in December, earning a composite score of 31 but a writing score of 23. “I was surprised,” he said. “I consider myself a pretty good writer.”
Responding to numerous questions, ACT officials recently published an explanation of their essay scoring. It said that two trained graders read each essay, using a rubric to assign points in four categories: ideas and analysis; development and support; organization; and language use and conventions. A third reader can step in to settle differences.
The ACT analysis showed that grades varied significantly among the five subjects on the overall test. The top 5 percent of students scored 32 or higher in English and reading. But they scored 30 or higher in math and science. And their scores were lower still in writing: 27 to 28 or higher.
Students “are only beginning to get experience with the new writing prompt,” the analysis said. “Research suggests that as students become increasingly familiar with the new prompt, scores may increase and users will better understand the distribution of scores and how they correspond to the percentiles and predicted success in college.”
The controversy comes amid flux in the national testing landscape. The ACT recently overtook the SAT as the nation’s most widely used test, though the SAT remains more popular in the Washington region and many other markets. The College Board is scheduled to debut a new version of its SAT next month, when for the first time since 2005, the SAT’s essay will be optional and the overall top score will be 1600. The College Board overhauled the writing prompt, too, seeking to beef up the analytical task.
[SAT to drop essay requirement and return to top score of 1600 in redesign]
How much colleges care about the ACT essay or the SAT essay is an open question.
Of 539 schools that the College Board tracks, 426 will neither require or recommend that students take the SAT essay when the new version debuts. Among them are the public flagship universities of Virginia and Maryland, as well as Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania in the Ivy League. Several highly regarded schools, including Columbia, U-Penn. and U-Va., also are dropping ACT essay requirements. U-Md. said its longstanding policy has been to not require the ACT essay.
[U-Penn. and others drop an essay requirement for standardized tests]
John McLaughlin, an associate dean of admissions at U-Penn., said any essay scores that are submitted will get evaluated along with the rest of an application. He said most admitted students who took the ACT have composite scores of 32 or higher. Asked about the flap over the ACT essay and perceived scoring mismatches, he said: “I can understand the unease.”
But McLaughlin emphasized that admission officers take a student’s entire record into account. “It’s our job to get beyond these numbers.”
This item has been updated.
The SAT, now the No. 2 college test, pushes to reclaim supremacy
College Board releases preview of new SAT exam questions
ACT president: ‘Relax. Tests don’t define us, nor do they determine our future.’
There is no question that the ACT is important for high school students who are thinking about applying to college. While the multiple choice sections are designed to assess students’ knowledge in math, English, science and reading, there is also a writing section that assesses students’ abilities to write an essay. Doing well on this section of the ACT can help distinguish you as an accomplished writer to colleges.
Though you can easily understand your score a multiple choice test, you might be left wondering what will earn you a good score on the ACT essay. If you’re aiming for a 12 on the ACT essay, read on for some tips and tricks!
What is the ACT Essay?
While the multiple choice sections of the ACT might be more unforgiving, the ACT essay is a great opportunity to show off your writing skills. According the ACT website, you should aim to write a “unified, coherent essay” in which you:
- clearly state your own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective
- develop and support your ideas with reasoning and examples
- organize your ideas clearly and logically
- communicate your ideas effectively in Standard written English.
To see these ideas in motion, you can take a look at a sample ACT prompt and essay here.
How is the ACT Essay scored?
The ACT essay is scored on a scale of 1 to 12. Your essay will be read and scored by two different grades on a scale of 1 to 6 in four different domains, for a total score out of 12 in each of these four domains. These four scores will then be averaged for a total score out of 12.
For more information about how this section of the test is scored, you can look at the official ACT Writing Test Scoring Rubric.
Tip 1: Know what a 12 looks like
In general, if you are aiming to do well in something, you should know what exemplary work looks like and try to emulate it. This is certainly the case for the ACT Essay, so before you walk into the testing center to write your essay, make sure you know know what essays that scored a 12 in this section look like!
Be sure to read as many sample essays as you can find—these should be available online through a quick Google search. Keep in mind, though, that the structure of the writing section changed in Fall 2015, so make sure that the examples you are looking at are current and align with the structure of the current essay prompt.
As you’re looking at essays that scored a 12, be sure to also look at essays that scored in the middle and essays that received a poor score. Try to understand what went wrong in the poorly scored essays as well as what could be improved in the middle-scoring ones. Take note of what was successful in the high-scoring sample essays that you read—what makes these essays stand out from the middle-scoring ones?
If there are notes from graders that justify the scores of the essays, be sure to pay attention to these as well. Aiming for a high score on the ACT essay section means that you need to try to understand exactly what the graders are looking for. Study the rubric once more and remember what you’ll need to accomplish in each category.
Tip 2: Pick a perspective and stick to it
When it comes to the writing prompt, the ACT website says “The test describes an issue and provides three different perspectives on the issue. You are asked to read and consider the issue and perspectives, state your own perspective on the issue, and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective on the issue. Your score will not be affected by the perspective you take on the issue.”
In order to write a strong essay, you can choose whatever perspective you like—just make sure it’s one that you can support and defend effectively throughout your essay. Scorers are looking for a strong, well-organized point of view, and like it says above, it doesn’t matter whether you agree, disagree, or are somewhere in the middle; what matters is the writing.
It is important to remember that even if you don’t agree with the perspective that you’re writing from on a personal level, your essay needs to show that you can effectively argue a point. In addition, make sure to remember to relate your perspective to one of the perspectives provided in the prompt. Be sure to address the counter arguments as well in one of your body paragraphs, using the perspective opposite to your personal perspective to demonstrate your understanding of opposing views.
Tip 3: Use concrete examples
Grounding your writing in concrete examples is one extremely important element of writing effective ACT essay. You could use this as an opportunity to show off your historical knowledge by relating your argument to a relevant fact or event in history or current events, or you could come up with a rhetorical scenario or example. Including examples might even mean including a personal anecdote (although if you do end up doing this, you should make sure that your story is short and relates directly to your argument).
Take a look at the ways in which the writers of sample essays that scored a 12 managed to seamlessly incorporate examples into their writing. While you don’t have to be an expert on the essay topic, nor are you expected to be able to list off obscure facts and trivia about it, you need to make sure that your essay draws from real concrete examples rather that just vague abstract arguments.
Tip 4: Don’t be afraid to show off your language skills
One of the markers of a successful ACT essay is its use of language. This is a great opportunity to show off some of your ACT/SAT vocabulary words that you might have been studying for the English section of the test. Opt for higher-level vocabulary words when given the chance—as a general rule of thumb, you should aim to use about 1-2 higher level vocab words per paragraph.
Scorers want to see that you can navigate the English language skillfully, and so you should also take the chance to vary your sentence structure when you get the chance. Consider, also, utilizing devices such as rhetorical questions and complex sentences.
If you are going to use more complicated vocabulary and grammar structures, however, make sure you fully understand how to use them. It will reflect poorly upon your writing skills if you include a complicated word that doesn’t make sense in the context of a sentence, or if a grammatical structure that you try to use isn’t quite right. If you’re going to use a semicolon to combine two sentences, for example, make sure you understand that a semicolon is not the same thing as a comma. When in doubt, stick to what you know! It is better to have a less complicated structure that is used correctly versus an attempt at a more advanced grammatical concept that is actually wrong.
Lastly, be sure to keep it real in your writing. While scorers want to see students who are skilled in their use of the english language, it is easy to tell when someone is simply trying to electrify their vocabulary in order to titillate the reader for the written examination. Your writing and tone should reflect who you are as a writer, so remember to keep it down to earth.
Tip 5: Pay attention to timing & your energy level
For the essay section, you will get 40 minutes. This includes time for planning, writing, and editing, so make sure you dole out the appropriate amount of time for each part of the process. You can practice this by timing yourself to write an essay from a sample prompt at home. Start by giving yourself an hour, and gradually work it down to 40 minutes so that you are prepared by the time the testing date rolls around. If you find that you need more time for planning than you do writing, or if you come to learn that you need a particularly large chunk of time to edit, keep these things in mind when it comes time to write your essay for the exam.
The essay will be the last section on the test, so keep this in mind while you complete the multiple choice sections of the ACT. While you should be devoting your full attention and energy to each multiple choice section of the test, keep in mind that once you are finished with all of the multiple choice sections, you will still have to write the essay.
When you get breaks between sections, be sure to eat a snack, drink some water, and use the restroom so that you are not uncomfortable or distracted by the end of the test. While you might be tempted to just breeze through the essay section so that you can finish the ACT, know that you will not be allowed to leave the testing center until everyone has finished the test—so be sure to use up all of the allotted time!
For more information about the ACT and essay writing, check out these blog posts:
What to Bring (And Not Bring) to the ACT
10 Tips to Improve Your ACT Score
Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Essay
A Guide to the Optional ACT Writing Section
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Devin Barricklow is a Political Science and Creative Writing double major at Columbia University. She’s really excited to be able to share her expertise about the college process with students who need advice. When she isn’t writing for CollegeVine, she enjoys reading the poems of Mary Oliver, going to concerts in the city, or cooking (preferably something with lots of bok choy and ginger).