Enough of my Class of 2017 students have taken the ACT that I’m beginning to see a pattern in their Writing scores: compared to these students’ scores on the other sections of the test, their Writing scores have been surprisingly low.  For example, one of my students had an English score of 30 and a Reading score of 27, but her Writing score was a 19.  Another student got a 30 on English and a 34 on Reading but a 20 on Writing, and yet another got a 34 on both the English and Reading sections but a 23 on the Writing section.

In talking with other college consultants, I learned that their students have been getting similar results.  Upon further research, I discovered some articles and blog posts that addressed what appears to be  a nationwide trend that began last September, when ACT changed the way the Writing section is timed, structured, and scored.

Previously, students had 30 minutes to write an essay in which they took a position on a given topic and provided support for it. The essay was scored on a scale of 2-12.  Now, students have 40 minutes and are provided with basic information about and multiple perspectives on a topic.  According to ACT’s website, students are asked to “evaluate and analyze the given perspectives, state and develop your own perspective, and explain the relationship between your perspective and those given.”  The essay is scored on a scale of 1-36, just like the rest of the sections on the test.

The revised instructions definitely seem more difficult, and judging from students’ scores, the Writing section is, in fact, harder.  However, there are a few important things to keep in mind if you are concerned about your score:

  1. A low Writing score may not be as bad as it seems.  The table below is from a report published by ACT.  It indicates that any given Writing score corresponds to a higher percentile than the same score on any other section.  For example, a 27 on Writing is in the 95th percentile, whereas you need a 32 on English or Reading to be in the 95th percentile.

ACT percentiles2. You can request that ACT rescore your essay.  The cost for this is $50, but if your score improves, the fee will be refunded to you.  I’ve heard that several students who’ve had their essays rescored have ended up with higher scores.  To request a rescore, see page 5 of this document.

3. Hundreds of colleges don’t require the Writing section, and many schools that used to do so dropped the requirement after the section was changed last fall.  Even some of the nation’s most selective colleges, like Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and Northwestern, no longer require the Writing.  To find out if a college you’re interested in requires it, check the school’s website or call the admissions office.

Most importantly, don’t let a lower-than-expected Writing score make you think you’re a bad writer.  I’m confident that all of the students I mentioned above will write excellent college application essays, and at most colleges, those essays are much more important than your ACT Writing score, anyway.