The Writing portion of the ACT has always been an optional portion of the exam. However, it was significantly revised in fall 2015 with the aim of better testing the kinds of analytical writing skills that are necessary for college work. Some colleges require or recommend that students take it for their application, and others don’t.
With the recent revision of the SAT, the SAT Essay portion has also become optional. In light of this change, many colleges are changing their admissions policies and no longer requiring or recommending the SAT Essay or the ACT Writing section. But what does this whirlwind of change mean for you? Is the optional ACT Writing section still important?
In this article I’ll break it down. First I’ll give a brief of overview of the ACT writing section and how it’s scored, which colleges require ACT Plus Writing, why schools require the Writing section and how they use it, and why other schools won’t require the Writing section going forward. Finally I’ll provide guidance on how to figure out if the ACT Writing section is important for you.
ACT Writing: a Brief Overview
On the ACT Writing section, you’ll be presented with an issue and then three perspectives on that issue. You then have 40 minutes to write a unified essay that addresses the following two tasks:
- Present and support your own opinion on the issue
- Explain how your opinion and at least one of the other three perspectives are related.
The scoring system for the resulting essay is fairly complex. Two graders score your essay in 4 domains from 1-6, giving you a total potential score of 12 in each domain. Your scores between the four domains are then averaged to get your overall score from 2-12. For more on ACT Writing scoring, see our complete breakdown.
It’s important to note that your score on the Writing section does not affect your composite score. However, it is a part of your English-Language Arts subscore, for which your English, Reading, and Writing scores (scaled to a 1-36 score range to calculate the ELA score) are averaged and rounded to the nearest whole number.
The Writing section will also cost you an extra $16-17.
It's a little-known fact that the first step in grading your ACT essay is solving an elaborate maze.
Who Requires ACT Plus Writing?
Most (over two-thirds) of colleges will not require the ACT Writing section for applicants in 2017 and beyond. However, there are quite few institutions that will continue to require it for applicants, especially among elite-tier schools. The Ivy League is notably divided on the issue, with half requiring the ACT Writing section (Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Yale) and half leaving it optional (Columbia, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Brown).
Unfortunately, the ACT’s database of schools’ Writing requirements is very out-of-date and reports many schools as requiring the essay that have in fact dropped the requirement for 2017 applicants. For the most up-to-date information on a school’s position on the ACT plus Writing, check a school’s admissions website.
Those schools that do require Writing have gone on the record with specific reasons for doing so. I’ll break those down in the next section.
Why Do Schools Require the ACT Plus Writing?
You may be curious about why some schools require the Writing section of the ACT in light of the fact that so many schools have made it completely optional. Based on public statements from school officials, there seem to be three main reasons why schools require the ACT’s optional Writing section:
Many schools feel that the revised SAT essay is much better at testing the kinds of analytical skills important for college writing. For those schools that feel the SAT essay is worthwhile, it makes sense for them to also require the ACT’s Writing section for the sake of consistency.
More Information Is Better
Some college admissions offices have the philosophy that all of the information they can get is useful in evaluating applicants. The Writing section provides another data point on a student’s language and writing skills in addition to transcripts and admissions essays. Thus, schools that value having all the information that it is conceivably possible to obtain about a student tend to require ACT Writing.
See Your Writing Skills Under Pressure
The ACT Writing section gives admissions officers a unique chance to see how you use your analytical writing skills under time pressure. Your college admissions essays are polished and tightly edited pieces of writing, while your ACT Writing efforts will be much more raw and unvarnished. Again, it’s another data point for schools.
The infamous Tower of Time Pressure.
These reasons provide some insight as to why schools require ACT Writing—but how do they use your scores?
How Do Schools Use ACT Plus Writing?
If you are applying to schools that require ACT Writing, it’s important to know how they use it in evaluating your application. Is it a critical piece, a bit of extra fluff, or something in between?
I spoke on the phone to admissions officers at different schools about how they use the ACT’s Writing section. Some themes emerged:
- Admissions officers feel that the ACT Plus Writing gives a more “rounded” picture of an applicant’s skills than the ACT without Writing. Essentially, they value having the additional information about an applicant’s language skills as part of their standardized test scores.
- However, they also stress that students are evaluated holistically, and their primary concern would be if a student’s essay score seemed inconsistent with the student’s other writing-based application materials. For example, if your application essay was phenomenal and you got straight-As in your English classes but then a overall score of 5/12 on the essay, that would be a red flag that something bizarre was going on.
The general consensus is that schools do really look at the score, but it’s not a super-important part of the application unless the score seems inconsistent with an applicant’s other qualifications. However, your best bet if you are interested in a given school that requires the Writing section and you want to know exactly how they use it to evaluate applicants is to call the admissions office and ask.
It’s also worth (re)stating that except for in the most selective tier of institutions, schools that require the ACT Writing section are in the minority. Most schools won’t require or even recommend the new optional essay, and they have their own reasons for doing so.
UC Berkeley does require the ACT plus Writing.
Why Don't Schools Require the ACT Plus Writing?
There are three main reasons that schools have given for not requiring the ACT Writing section going forward:
When the essay portion of the SAT was required, it made sense for schools to require the optional Writing section of the ACT for consistencies’ sake. Now that the SAT essay is optional, however, schools can re-evaluate their stance on the issue. Schools that have decided to not require the optional SAT essay have, in general, also removed their ACT Writing requirement to preserve consistency in testing guidelines between the two tests."
The Writing Section Is Redundant
Some schools feel that they already have sufficient evidence of an applicant’s writing capability through application essays and student transcripts in English. This is particularly true at institutions where multiple essays are required as part of the application.
Requiring the ACT Writing Is a Burden to Underprivileged Students
Some schools are concerned that the extra cost associated with the Writing section may be a deterrent to underprivileged students. University of Pennsylvania has stated that minority and first-generation college applicants are least likely to have a “complete testing profile.” They’ve eliminated the ACT Writing requirement in the hopes of attracting a more diverse applicant pool.
A diverse applicant pool as represented by these decorative squashes.
Is the ACT Writing Section Important for You?
I’ve gone over how and why schools will require or not require the ACT Writing section going forward. But how does this affect you?
Should I Take the ACT Plus Writing?
This comes down primarily to whether or not you are applying to schools that require or recommend the ACT Writing Section. (I generally err on the side of treating recommendations as nicely-worded requirements in the college application process.)
If you don’t take the ACT Writing section and later realize you need it, you will unfortunately have to retake the entire exam! So if there is even a chance you might be interested in a school that does require/recommend the Writing section, you should take it. This is especially salient if you are applying to top-tier schools, as about half of them require the ACT Writing section.
If you know for certain that you are definitively not interested in a single school that requires or recommends the Writing section, go ahead and skip it. But only if you know you won’t change your mind!
Another note here is that if you are very good at timed analytical essay-writing, you might also want to take the Writing section even if you are only applying to schools where it is optional. A stellar score will look good on your application even if it’s not required—in fact, it will show that you took some initiative.
How Important Is My Score?
The answer to this question is not completely clear-cut, as it does depend on the schools to which you are applying. What’s most important in general is that your Writing score is consistent with your other test scores. It certainly doesn’t have to be a perfect correlation—if you get a 36 for your composite and a 9/12 on writing, I wouldn’t stress too much. But if you have a 30 composite and an 6/12 on the essay, that may cause concern among admissions officers that you aren’t ready for college-level writing.
How Can I Succeed on the ACT Writing Section?
If you do need to take the Writing section, you can definitely learn the skills necessary to do well. Here are some general tips:
- Take a few minutes to plan out your essay before you start writing it!
- Be sure to discuss at least two of the perspectives in your essay, and definitely make your own opinion clear.
- Support all of the points you make with specific examples.
- Make sure your essay is logically organized and has an introduction and a conclusion.
- Write more than a page!
These kittens are proud of you!
Because the SAT has made the essay section of the exam optional, schools are taking the time to reevaluate their requirements for the ACT Writing section as well. Many schools have dropped the requirement entirely. However, elite-tier institutions are divided on the issue, with some continuing to require the Writing section and others dropping it.
For those schools that do require the Writing section, it may not be clear exactly how they use it in evaluating your application. The general consensus among admissions officers I spoke to was that the Writing score provided valuable information, but that it was mostly used to check for consistency in an applicant’s language skills.
In evaluating whether the ACT Writing section is important for you, consider the following:
- Are you applying to schools that recommend or require the ACT Writing section? Then take the ACT Plus Writing.
- Are you not sure where you’re applying yet? Take the ACT Plus Writing, because otherwise if you end up needing it later you will have to sit for the whole exam again.
If you are taking the Writing section, how important is your score? Well, it’s most important that your score is generally consistent with the rest of your test scores and application profile. But the good news is that it’s very possible to learn how to write an excellent ACT essay.
My final word, then, would be don’t ignore the Writing section and definitely prepare for it if you’re going to take it, but don’t stress too much about getting a perfect score.
Nothing is truly perfect...except this puppy.
Wondering about the SAT essay? See our expert guide on the importance of the SAT essay.
If you're not sure how important the ACT is for college admissions, see our guide.
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Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.