How is the ACT Essay Scored?

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For those of you who are not just preparing for the ACT, but also wondering how is the ACT essay scored, let’s start with the basics. The multiple-choice subtests of the ACT exam are all converted to a scaled scoring system of 1 to 36. 

However, it might surprise you to know that the ACT Essay isn’t scored out of 36 points. A perfect ACT Essay score is a 12, and that score is awarded to you by two live graders who actually read and assess your writing sample.

Let’s break down the ACT scoring process for a better understanding of how you, the test-taker, really earn your points. 

The ACT Essay is Scored Using a Detailed Rubric

Just because the essay is a writing sample that comes from your own creative mind, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t performing a task that is designed to fit a very specific standardization format. 

I’ve seen so many talented writing students in shock when their essay scores come back because they were so much more interested in pontificating about their ideas and writing creatively than sticking to the highly prescriptive format of the ACT Essay.

When your ACT Essay is scored by referring to a specific, publicly-available chart–and it is–you should think about crafting an essay ahead of time that addresses the demands of that chart. That’s where the strategy of analyzing the rubric comes in.  

ACT Essay Scoring

Your ACT Essay scoring readers are going to look at four key areas of assessment when they read your essay. We’re going to look at them individually below. 

If you’re looking at a top-30 school, your plan should be to aim for two individual scores of 5, which would obviously result in a final ACT Essay score of 10. If you’re looking for top-10 schools–especially if you’re applying for a major in English or Literature–you definitely want to grab a 6 from at least one of your readers to earn that total score of 11 or 12. 

Rather than reinventing the wheel, I think it’s easiest to get an understanding of how the ACT Essay is scored and learn how to toe the lines set by the ACT, simply from analyzing the published rubric. 

So here’s how the ACT sums up the top three scores on the ACT Essay (these are the scores an individual grader assigns your essay): 

  • A score of 6: “Demonstrates effective skill in writing an argumentative essay.” 
  • A score of 5: “Demonstrates a well-developed skill in writing an argumentative essay.” 
  • A score of 4: “Demonstrates you’ve shown adequate skill in writing an argumentative essay.” 

You’ll always want to check with your guidance counselor on this, but for most colleges, a total ACT Essay score of an 8 or 9 is just fine.   

If you want to get competitive, though, you’ll need to work on reading between the lines in the ACT Scoring rubric to understand how to approach those elusive scores of 6. 

All to say, what exactly shows the difference between “effective” and “well-developed” skill in argumentation according to the ACT? 

Let’s uncover how to be fluent in the nuanced language of the ACT regarding the explanations of its four grading areas in their entirety, plus develop a key strategy for test-taking. 

Grading Area 1: Ideas and Analysis

The ACT’s rubric defines “ideas and analysis” in this way: 

Score of 6: “The writer generates an argument that critically engages with multiple perspectives on the given issue. The argument’s thesis reflects nuance and precision in thought and purpose. The argument establishes and employs an insightful context for analysis of the issue and its perspectives. The analysis examines implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions.”

Score of 5: “The writer generates an argument that productively engages with multiple perspectives on the given issue. The argument’s thesis reflects precision in thought and purpose. The argument establishes and employs a thoughtful context for analysis of the issue and its perspectives. The analysis addresses implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions.”

The key to a top score on the ACT Essay is embedded in the description of the differences between a 6 and a 5 in Ideas and Analysis. The most important “idea” you need to grasp, in order to get a 6 from a grader, is an approach to the prompt that shows evidence of insight in your essay. 

Obviously, a lesson on understanding developing argumentative insight goes far beyond what we can explore here, but the way you’d begin to teach yourself to find insight about the prompts is to ask yourself one key question: “Why does the issue the prompt explores matter at all?” In other words, “Why do we care?”

It’s best to ask yourself about why the prompt matters before you read the three perspectives. That way, you don’t start prematurely considering arguments. The perspectives argue what, but your insight is the why

Only the students who explore why the prompt matters on the ACT Essay can expect to score a perfect 12. 

Even if you’re not going for a perfect score, considering the why of the prompt can help you write an ACT essay that’s more likely to score a 5 than a 4 from a reader. Considering why the prompt matters helps you develop your own perspective, and when you have your own perspective, you’ll be able to write more interactively with the given perspectives, yielding a more thorough, lively essay.   

Grading Area 2: Development and Support

Your ACT Essay is scored on the basis of your “development and support,” as well: 

Score of 6: “Development of ideas and support for claims deepen insight and broaden context. An integrated line of skillful reasoning and illustration effectively conveys the significance of the argument. Qualifications and complications enrich and bolster ideas and analysis.”

Score of 5: “Development of ideas and support for claims deepen understanding. A mostly integrated line of purposeful reasoning and illustration capably conveys the significance of the argument. Qualifications and complications enrich ideas and analysis.”

Again, ACT essays with perfect scores show insight into an issue that was not already addressed in the given perspectives. As you develop your essay, your supporting ideas need to broaden the reader’s understanding of the context and, of course, why the prompt matters. 

This is so much easier to do if you’ve created your independent perspective on the prompt, because you won’t find yourself in a yes/no stance in which you’re essentially saying, “Yes, perspective A is right. Yes, we should do the same thing that perspective A says. As perspective A mentions…” and so on and so forth.

There’s no room for the expansion of ideas when you’re relentlessly agreeing with someone else’s thoughts; you’ll likely be too constrained and will probably end up showing only an “adequate” ability to write argumentatively. The end result with be you receiving a score of 4 from a reader. 

Grading Area 3: Organization

Some students may think that the “organization” grading area simply measures whether you appropriately wrote a classic 5-paragraph essay; however, organization on the ACT Essay scoring also assesses if you’ve effectively organized your thoughts to back up your argument. 

Score of 6: “The response exhibits a skillful organizational strategy. The response is unified by a controlling idea or purpose, and a logical progression of ideas increases the effectiveness of the writer’s argument. Transitions between and within paragraphs strengthen the relationships among ideas.”

Score of 5: “The response exhibits a productive organizational strategy. The response is mostly unified by a controlling idea or purpose, and a logical sequencing of ideas contributes to the effectiveness of the argument. Transitions between and within paragraphs consistently clarify the relationships among ideas.”

Students who earn perfect scores in the organization category organize their ACT essays to continually support and develop the insightful stance they’ve taken on the prompt. These essays are never “Three simple reasons why I’m right.” 

These essays don’t stop and start ideas, either. They argue in a growing, cohesive manner, continually returning to their thesis but also considering all sides of the issue–without feeling like they’re jumping around. 

Grading Area 4: Language Use

Your ACT Essay is also a way of proving that you are as familiar with the conventions of grammar and composition as your ACT English multiple-choice test shows. This is where you show that you know how to use these conventions and apply these rules without prompting. 

Skillful use of sentence structure and language will bring your ACT Essay score up to a competitive level.  

Score of 6: “The use of language enhances the argument. Word choice is skillful and precise. Sentence structures are consistently varied and clear. Stylistic and register choices, including voice and tone, are strategic and effective. While a few minor errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics may be present, they do not impede understanding.”

Score of 5: “The use of language works in service of the argument. Word choice is precise. Sentence structures are clear and varied often. Stylistic and register choices, including voice and tone, are purposeful and productive. While minor errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics may be present, they do not impede understanding.”

Again, in a top-scoring essay, even the language and sentence structure you choose can and should enhance your central, insightful idea rather than just supporting it. 

There’s one additional key detail on language: the ACT Essay is not a spelling test, but ACT Essay readers are likely accomplished spellers themselves. While not always important to teenagers who communicate with each other over text message, spelling matters to the sort of adults who read essays professionally. If you want to use a word you can’t spell and you know a synonym for it that you can spell, then use the synonym. 

Read Real Examples To Increase Your ACT Essay Score

The ACT website has a thorough analysis of real sample ACT essays written across the scoring scale. Make sure you take the time to go over the sample essay topics and their coordinating ACT Essay scores as you learn how to create a top-scoring ACT Essay.