Your ACT Essay: Does It Matter?
I’ve been a pro ACT prep tutor for years now, and I get all sorts of questions about the ACT Writing test (often called the “ACT Essay.”)
And, one of the most common questions I hear from parents and students is, “Does my ACT Essay score even matter to colleges?”
It’s not a strange question, considering the ACT Essay is the only “optional” part of the whole test.
So, does your ACT Essay score matter for college, or is the whole section really just a waste of time?
Well, first it pays to understand the ins-and-outs of the ACT Writing section before you decide. Read on to find out more…
What the ACT Essay Is: A Brief Overview
The ACT Writing assignment’s goal is to measure your ability to take a position on a controversial issue, and to analyze multiple different perspectives on that topic. You should demonstrate a clear and logical thought process, with powerful supporting evidence.
Unlike every other section of the test, the ACT Writing section is “optional”. Therefore it’s always given at the end of ACT test, so that any students not taken it may leave the testing center early.
Essay prompts tend to relate to controversial topics that can be seen from a diverse set of viewpoints. Students are provided with three preexisting responses to the prompt, and essentially asked to debate the strengths and weaknesses of each argument in their essay.
Before you finish, you’re also supposed to give your own viewpoint on the issue, and support it (preferably with hard evidence). You’re given a 40 minute time limit, and you can learn more about the ACT Essay grading rubric here.
There’s also an extra fee about $16 to take the ACT Writing section, generally paid at the same time as standard registration for your ACT test.
Note well! Usually, your ACT Writing score only counts if this “optional” section is taken the same day as your entire ACT test! That means you can’t come back later and decide “Oh, I’d like to add an ACT Essay score to my highest overall ACT test score.”
Who Actually Sees Your ACT Essay Scores?
So, who actually looks at your ACT Essay scores?
Naturally, most students are worried about College Admissions officers seeing their ACT Writing tests. As you will learn below, some colleges care more about your ACT Essay than others. And, different colleges may look at different aspects of your ACT Essay, depending on their admittance criteria.
Next up are parents. As we all know, parents tend to be pretty concerned with their kids’ test scores! As a professional ACT tutor, I hear a lot of concern in parents’ voices when they ask us about the ACT Writing section.
After that (if you have them) are your ACT Prep Tutor and your high school College Counselor. If you have a 1-on-1 ACT prep tutor, they should have a plan for your ACT Essay prep. Likewise with your college counselor; at the least, he or she should be able to offer some basic advice.
Last but not least: You will also look at your ACT Essay score yourself! So, your personal pride is on the line as well. Even if this seems like a dry and dusty academic exercise, we should still strive to show our best work and effort.
What Do Your ACT Essay Scores Tell Colleges?
When we say the Harvard Admissions Officer “looked at” my ACT Essay score, what do we really mean by that?
Can they actually see our original essay the way we wrote it? Or, do they only get access to the “score report?” And, how detailed is the score breakdown? Is it specific, general, or somewhere in between?
In other words, what do your ACT Essay scores actually tell colleges when they look at you?
Well, ACT Essay scores are designed to give a quick overview of a student’s ability to handle a standardized Writing assignment. This is a good example of a “typical” writing assignment you might face in college, so it’s a pretty good way to assess your academic readiness for university.
This score also allows colleges to compare students from different high schools and backgrounds.
So, your ACT Essay scores are designed to measure your Writing abilities and compare them to other high schoolers. That’s what most colleges are looking for when they check your ACT Writing scores.
Although most colleges can see your ACT Essay (scanned and uploaded, exactly as you wrote it on test day), most don’t bother looking. They’re more interested in glancing at your ACT Essay sub-score than re-reading your entire essay in your original handwriting.
And why do colleges not want to bother reading your ACT Essay?
- Well, first of all, the admissions department is simply too busy to read a bunch of extra essays.
- Second of all, they already have access to a score quickly summarizing your ACT essay performance.
- And third, each college usually has its own application essays, and most admissions officers prefer to read those instead.
Why Do Colleges Look At Your ACT Essay Scores?
So, if the ACT Writing section is optional, and most colleges don’t even read your essay, then why do colleges even bother looking at your ACT Essay scores?
Well, some college admissions officers think the essay score gives a more “rounded” picture of an applicant.
Most colleges evaluate you “holistically,” which also helps them catch red flags and inconsistencies in your application. For example, they might compare your grade in 11th grade English class to your ACT Essay score.
The colleges want to see consistency here, because a major difference would be a red flag that something weird was going on with either your school grades or your ACT Essay.
Not all colleges will look at your ACT Essay score. Which ones do or don’t, and how can you find out for yourself? Keep reading to learn more…
What Colleges Will Look At Your ACT Essay Scores?
So, we’ve established that not every college will even look at your ACT Essay scores. Some schools will ignore them completely.
How are you to know which colleges do look at the ACT Essay? Well, there’s only one way to be sure - and that’s to find out for yourself, one college at a time.
Understand this: every college and university has its own standards for admission. And, these standards are subject to change at any time. Therefore, no list of colleges that look at your ACT Essay could possibly be guaranteed complete or up-to-date.
However, each college should list their ACT Essay requirement on their admissions homepage. So, bust out the Google and your spreadsheet of top colleges and start doing your own research. For example, here are some Texas colleges that look at your ACT Essay.
The ultimate way to be sure if the ACT Essay matters to a particular college is to call the school yourself.
Don’t be intimidated. It’s easy to look up their contact info with the internet and contact their admissions department by phone or email. This way, you aren’t relying on second-hand information that may be out of date.
It’s best not to trifle with your college applications. Therefore, always personally verify whether or not your top-choice colleges currently require an ACT Writing/Essay score to go along with your application.
So, Does Your ACT Essay Score Actually Matter?
Here’s the bottom line. For most high school students, your ACT Essay score matters a little bit, but least of all compared to the other sections of the ACT.
Treat ACT Essay seriously, and prepare for it wisely. Practice ahead of time, and understand your enemy. But, if you already have a great overall ACT score, you probably don’t need to retake *just* for the ACT essay.
However - remember that many colleges just require that you take the ACT Essay - just not that you get a high score. Still, when it comes to your college chances, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Don’t forget the silver lining: if your ACT Essay score is exceptional, it may help you stand out a bit more - especially if you’re applying for something like an English or Creative Writing program.
Given everything I’ve said, here’s the bottom line for how I view things as a professional ACT Tutor:
- Highly competitive students should definitely try to ace the ACT Essay.
- Mid-range students should definitely take the ACT Essay, but not stress over it.
- Less competitive students should only take the ACT Writing if necessary for the colleges they apply to, and should not stress about it.
You Can Get A Higher ACT Essay Score. Here’s How:
The keys to a perfect ACT Essay are the same as they are for all standardized essay tests:
- Give the graders what they want.
- Practice until perfect.
Luckily, we’ve written plenty of articles to help you prepare. Start with these two:
To get you started, here are a few simplified notes on acing the ACT Essay:
Be sure to analyze all three perspectives in your essay, but also to stay on topic. This can be a delicate balance. Also, for simplicity, it’s usually best to just say that your opinion is exactly the same as one of the given perspectives.
Show your strongest writing skills on your ACT Essay. Vocabulary, sentence structure, and overall organization contribute to your final score. Also, use your best handwriting so the graders have an easier time reading your work.
Don’t forget that the ACT Essay comes at the very end of a 4-hour test. That means you’ll be fatigued by the time you start writing. Whenever possible, try practicing in a “tired” state of mind to simulate the feeling of the real thing.
Does Your ACT Essay Matter? Review and Conclusions…
At the end of the day, your overall ACT composite score matters much more than your Essay, which is a supplementary score.
Focus first on locking down the cornerstones of the ACT Test: the Reading, Math, English, and Science sections. Get good at basic testing skills like the use of elimination. Learn to master the hardest multiple-choice questions.
Then worry about the Essay, after those primary sections are mastered.
Also, nothing good comes without effort. Whether you’re talking about the ACT Essay, the Science Section, or the Math Section, the keys are preparation and practice.
If you need a high ACT essay score, do the right stuff to prepare. Don’t just sit on your butt. Give your blood, sweat, and tears for a higher ACT score and it will pay off with better colleges, scholarships, and career options!
Get Higher ACT Scores Today!
Practice makes perfect. When it comes to the ACT Essay, a bit of study and practice will go a long way towards a higher score.
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