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How is the ACT Essay Scored?

Students often wonder the process by which the ACT essay gets scored, and how it affects their overall score on the ACT. This article will help to address those questions. First, I’ll talk about the ACT scoring procedure, then I’ll cover the areas on the ACT score rubric (and how to use them to do better in each of the areas). Finally, I’ll address how the ACT Essay relates to your overall score. And, if you want our deepest strategic tips for the ACT Essay, be sure to get your hands on our Complete ACT Essay and SAT Essay Course, available for immediate direct download - only through our online store!

What is the ACT Essay Task?

The ACT Essay task is an optional essay (which you should take if any of the colleges to which you’re applying require it) that takes place at the end of the multiple-choice test. The time limit for the ACT Essay test is 40 minutes, and your essay task is to write an argumentative essay on a specific topic that places your opinion in dialogue with each of three perspectives given on the ACT essay prompt.

How Does Your ACT Essay Get Scored?

Two graders read your ACT essay and assign it a score from 1 to 6 in each of the following areas:

Ideas and Analysis

Development and Support

Language Use and Conventions


The graders then combine their scores, giving you anywhere from 2 to 12 points in each of the four areas. These four scores are then averaged to calculate your overall essay score.

ACT Score Domains and How to Improve

The first area on the ACT score rubric is Ideas and Analysis. (Descriptions for each of the domains taken from the official ACT site.)

Ideas and Analysis—Scores in this domain reflect the ability to generate productive ideas and engage critically with multiple perspectives on the given issue. Competent writers understand the issue they are invited to address, the purpose for writing, and the audience. They generate ideas that are relevant to the situation.

How to improve in this area:

This is a difficult area to improve upon. Make sure that you provide thoughtful and intelligent commentary and analysis on your own examples and on each of the perspectives. You should understand each side of the issue and be able to anticipate and address counter-arguments to your own view, as well as flaws in the logic of the perspectives or the way the issue is framed. Don’t simply speak in generalities: give specific examples, and make sure that you spend 2-3 sentences examining and analyzing each example and each perspective.

Development and Support—Scores in this domain reflect the ability to discuss ideas, offer rationale, and bolster an argument. Competent writers explain and explore their ideas, discuss implications, and illustrate through examples. They help the reader understand their thinking about the issue.

How to improve in this area:

Don’t just assume the reader has a full knowledge of the issue at hand. Take the time to explain your ideas, provide reasoning, and, most importantly, provide detailed, specific, descriptive examples. Many students write in generalities with no details or examples to back them up! Remember that the burden of PROOF rests on you, the essay writer. It is not enough to simply state your general opinion over and over again. Instead, offer examples.

Organization—Scores in this domain reflect the ability to organize ideas with clarity and purpose. Organizational choices are integral to effective writing. Competent writers arrange their essay in a way that clearly shows the relationship between ideas, and they guide the reader through their discussion.

How to improve in this area:

This should be an easy area to do well on, so make sure you are organized when you write your essay. An essay should function like a machine, wherein each part is designed for a specific function and each part works together with the other parts to create a coherent whole. The essay is a vehicle for advancing your argument! Remember to have an introductory paragraph that introduces the issue, frames the debate, and ends with a clear and forceful thesis. Your body paragraphs should have topic sentences, detailed support, and analytical commentary, in that order. Each paragraph should end by re-connecting to your thesis. Don’t forget transition words!

Language Use and Conventions—Scores in this domain reflect the ability to use written language to convey arguments with clarity. Competent writers make use of the conventions of grammar, syntax, word usage, and mechanics. They are also aware of their audience and adjust the style and tone of their writing to communicate effectively.

How to improve in this area:

This is one of the more difficult areas to improve upon quickly, but I advise you to learn and master the rules of grammar, read a lot of books, and study essays that are effective to learn how they’re so effective. Remember to write grammatically-correct sentences with no spelling errors. Sentence variety (having sentences of different length and construction) can help. Using specific words in an appropriate way can also help. Make sure your essay is formal in tone.

How Does the ACT Essay Affect Your Composite Score?

It doesn’t! It’s a separate score. Your ACT Composite score is the average of how you did on the multiple-choice sections. Colleges look at the essay score separately.

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