Your ACT essay is scored on four “domains”:
Ideas and Analysis: How skillfully and precisely did you explore the concepts and arguments given in the prompt? Did you discuss your own thesis in light of at least one of the three given perspectives? How clearly and appropriately did you present your own ideas?
Development and Support: How well did you choose and present examples to illustrate your points?
Organization: How clearly and effectively did you structure your essay?
Language Use and Conventions: How fluent, correct, and readable is your academic prose?
(Want to see the official ACT definitions of the four scoring domains? Go here and scroll down to “Scoring Rubric Overview”).
On each domain, two human readers each give you a score between 1-6. Those two numbers are then added to create a final domain score of 2-12.
Your overall subject-level ACT Writing score is the average of your four domain scores. So the lowest possible Writing score is 2, and the highest is 12.
In reality, almost no one ever scores either a 2 or a 12. Even the most competitive universities welcome ACT Writing scores of 9 or 10.
As of 2018, the average ACT Writing score nationwide was somewhere between 6 and 7.
ACT doesn’t share information about score percentiles within individual domains. But for Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions, it’s likely that the 50th percentile is also between 6 and 7.
Many students score a point lower on Ideas & Analysis than they do on the other three domains, especially on their first try. The 50th percentile here is probably between a 5 and a 6.
So what score should you aim for? What percentile do schools want to see on ACT Writing? And how important is it to your overall application?
As you’ve probably guessed, there are no nice clear answers to those questions. It depends on the expectations of the colleges that you’re applying to.
Most schools will tell you the 25th and 75th percentile ACT composite scores among their incoming class. For example, let’s say that the 25th/75th percentile ACT composite score range for UC Santa Cruz last year was 24/31. That means that a student who scored 24 did better than 25 percent of the group, while a student who scored 31 surpassed 75 percent of her peers.
Many schools also share their scoring ranges for each subsection of the ACT. If you can find out what the 75th percentile ACT Writing score is for the college you want to attend, that gives you an excellent target to aim for.
Unfortunately, lots of schools release all of their ACT scoring ranges except for Writing. They’re not required to include it, and they just leave it out.
When that happens, your best bet is to check whether the institution has published a current Common Data Set (CDS) online. The CDS is a collection of detailed information about the university, updated annually. Go to the section called “First-Time, First-Year (Freshman) Admission.” There you can see all of the scoring ranges that the university has available.
If you find the school’s 75th percentile score for ACT Writing, take that as your goal.
Here’s how to determine what a good ACT Writing score is for you:
What if you can’t find any information about what Writing score a school wants?
Don’t let it stress you out. Your Writing score alone won’t tip the balance for or against you, and it may turn out to be a relatively unimportant part of your application package. Prepare thoroughly, write your best essay, and move on.