It's finally that day you've circled on your calendar—the day when ACT essay scores are released. You log into ACTstudent and look at your essay score. There's an "8" for your overall Writing score as well as four different "domain" scores of 6, 8, 9, and 10. What does your ACT Writing score mean and how is your ACT essay scored? This article will shed some light on both of these things.
Feature image credit: eppny by woodleywonderworks, used under CC BY 2.0/Resized from original.
A Quick Look Into ACT Essay Scoring
On test day, you complete the first four sections of the ACT then write your essay. What happens next?
Once ACT, Inc. receives your essay, it is scanned and uploaded to an essay grading program for graders to score. In addition, ACT.org states that "[a]n image of your essay will be available to your high school and the colleges to which you have ACT report your scores from that test date."
Each ACT essay is scored by two different graders on a scale of 1-6 across four different domains, for a total score out of 12 in each domain. These domain scores are then averaged into a total score out of 12.
NOTE: The ACT Writing Test from September 2015-June 2016 had a slightly different scoring scale; instead of averaging all the domain scores to get a total ACT Writing score out of 12, the domain scores were combined and scaled into a total score out of 36. On June 28th, 2016, however, ACT, Inc. announced that starting in September of 2016, the Writing test would no longer be scored on a scale of 1-36, due to the confusion this had caused. This change to out-of-12 ACT Writing scores is still different from the pre-September 2015 ACT essay scoring, since that system relied on graders giving the essay one holistic score (rather than 4 analytical domain scores).
Because the ACT Writing is optional, your essay score will not be factored into your ACT composite score. It will, however, be factored into your English-Language Arts subscore, which averages your English, Reading, and Writing scores and rounds up to the nearest whole number.
So what are the four domains that your essay is scored across?
#1: Ideas and Analysis
Scores in this domain relate to your discussion of the perspectives on the essay topic.
#2: Development and Support
Scores in this domain reflect how you develop your points with logical reasoning or specific examples.
Scores in this domain relate to your essay's organization on both a macro (overall structure) and micro (within each paragraph) level.
#4: Language Use
Scores in this domain depend on your command of standard written English (including grammar and punctuation); variety in sentence structure and vocabulary is also rewarded in this domain.
For more on what goes into each domain score, read my article on the ACT Writing Rubric.
ACT Essay Scoring: Official Policy
Every essay is graded by two graders, who must score the essay within one point of each other. If the graders' scores disagree by more than one point, a third grader will be brought in to resolve the issue. It's currently unclear whether this means a greater-than-one-point difference in domain score or overall essay score between graders—stay tuned for more information.
While your essay receives scores in each of the four domain areas, the domains themselves are graded holistically. For example, in the Language Use domain, there are no guidelines that instruct scorers to deduct 1 point for every 10 grammatical errors.
Another important part of official ACT essay scoring policy is that factual accuracy is not important. ACT essay graders are not supposed to score essays based on whether or not the facts are accurate. The point of the ACT essay is NOT to write a research paper with well-documented facts on a topic. Instead, you're asked to argue in favor of a perspective on the topic and compare your perspective to at least one other perspective; as long as your examples support your arguments, it doesn't matter if the examples aren't 100% true.
ACT Writing Scores in Practice
While each domain is graded holistically, there are a few key actions you must take if you want to score above a 2/6 in each domain. I've extracted these ACTions via analysis of the essay scoring rubric as well as through scrutiny of the sample essays the ACT provides on its website.
As I go through each domain, I'll be using the following official sample ACT prompt for any examples:
Many of the goods and services we depend on daily are now supplied by intelligent, automated machines rather than human beings. Robots build cars and other goods on assembly lines, where once there were human workers. Many of our phone conversations are now conducted not with people but with sophisticated technologies. We can now buy goods at a variety of stores without the help of a human cashier. Automation is generally seen as a sign of progress, but what is lost when we replace humans with machines? Given the accelerating variety and prevalence of intelligent machines, it is worth examining the implications and meaning of their presence in our lives.
What we lose with the replacement of people by machines is some part of our own humanity. Even our mundane daily encounters no longer require from us basic courtesy, respect, and tolerance for other people.
Machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs, and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases they work better than humans. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone.
Intelligent machines challenge our long-standing ideas about what humans are or can be. This is good because it pushes both humans and machines toward new, unimagined possibilities.
Write a unified, coherent essay about the increasing presence of intelligent machines. In your essay, be sure to
- clearly state your own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective
- develop and support your ideas with reasoning and examples
- organize your ideas clearly and logically
- communicate your ideas effectively in standard written English
Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of the others, in partial agreement, or wholly different.
Ideas and Analysis
You must: Have a clear thesis in your essay.
Because you are writing a persuasive essay, it is imperative that you make your position on the topic clear. Otherwise, how can you persuade someone that your view is the correct view?
Since you have limited time and have to compare your perspective with at least one other perspectives anyway, the most straightforward thing to do choose one of the three perspectives given to you by the ACT to argue for in your thesis.
Alternatively, you may choose to take a more nuanced perspective (that may combine aspects of more than one of the ACT perspectives); however, if you do this, it's important to make sure your perspective isn't so nuanced as to be unclear.
For example, acknowledging that intelligent machines challenge what we think humans can be (both in positive and negative ways) is a clear, yet nuanced thesis that combines aspects of Perspectives 1 and 3. Stating that intelligent machines push humans and machines toward new, previously-unimagined possibilities but also take away our humanity because of changes to our daily encounters is an unclear thesis that argues for both Perspectives 1 and 3 being true. This second thesis is not only unclear, but will run into difficulty with the next part of ideas and analysis: comparing your perspective to at least one other.
You must: Discuss the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective.
The prompt explicitly states that you need to "analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective." If you fail to discuss how your perspective relates to any other perspective, it will be very difficult to score above a 2 or 3 in the Ideas and Analysis Domain.
The easiest way to do this is to take your perspective and compare it to one of the perspectives the ACT lays out for you. With the above "Intelligent Machines" prompt, for instance, you could compare your position to at least one of the following: how machines cause us to lose our own humanity (Perspective One), how they are efficient and create prosperity (Perspective Two), or how machines challenge us and push us to new possibilities (Perspective Three).
It is possible to come up with your own perspective and compare it to another perspective that isn't at all mentioned in the prompts the ACT lays out; however, because time is of the essence in the ACT essay, you'll probably find it more efficient to form your own perspective (possibly from a combination of a couple of the given perspectives) and compare it to the ACT perspectives that don't match yours.
Development and Support
You must: Support your discussion of each perspective with either reasoning or example.
There are a couple of ways you can support your arguments. One way is to use reasoning, which tends to be more abstract. For example, if you were using reasoning to support your argument for Perspective Two, you could discuss how machines taking over lower skill jobs frees up humans to do higher skilled tasks that require more creative thinking.
The other way you can support your points is through use of specific examples. For example, to support Perspective Two, you could use the example of how the mass-production of clothes has made it less expensive for everyone to own things like good boots.
For a high score in this domain, you must: Discuss both positive and negative aspects of the perspectives you disagree with as well.
In order to achieve a high score in this domain, you must show that you understand the complexities of the issue. The main way to do this is to discuss the pros as well as the cons of the perspectives you disagree with.
For instance, if you agree with Perspective Two in the above prompt (machines make us more efficient and that's good), if you compare it to Perspective One, you should provide a brief instance of that perspective being "sort of" true before moving on to show how it is not as true as Perspective Two. Learn how to juggle both sides of a perspective in our article on how to write an ACT essay step-by-step.
You must: Group your ideas logically.
Writing an organized essay will make it easier for the essay graders to follow your logic and reasoning. Grouping your ideas logically can mean separating out ideas into different paragraphs (for instance, putting each perspective into its own paragraph), or it can involve clearly linking different aspects of the same idea in the same paragraph. No matter how you plan out your essay, try to make it as easy as possible to follow your arguments.
You must: Write clearly.
Being able to communicate clearly is a key skill for college and life in general, so it makes sense that it would be tested on the ACT (a college entrance exam). ACT essay graders care more about the clarity of your thoughts than the fanciness of your language. Clarity of writing normally entails using proper grammar and clear, non-convoluted sentence structures. Throwing in fancy vocab won't get you anywhere if it makes things less clear instead of more clear (I've seen this happen too many times to count).
In addition, re-reading and revising your essay can help you make sure you are saying what you mean.
Example of an unclear sentence: Machines are more practical because they are cheaper and so you can hire less people to do the work and pay less money overall and so you have a better profit margin.
Example of a clearer sentence (revised): Machines are more practical and cheaper in the long run because you can hire fewer people to get the same work done.
TURNS out, the steam engine was more practical (and cheaper in the long run) than a thousand people pushing and pulling a train by hand.
What Does This Mean for Your ACT Essay?
From the lists of actions above, you can probably tell that the most important part of the ACT essay is to be clear. The ACT Writing test is designed to measure insight, not just how advanced your vocabulary is. Remember to...
#1: Be clear up front what your perspective on the issue is. Don't hide your thesis.
#2: Make it obvious when you're discussing your perspective (and make sure to discuss the relationship between your perspective and at least one other).
#3: Support each argument with reasoning and/or specific examples.
#4: Take time to plan so you can write an organized essay.
#5: Focus on writing clearly before you start worrying about using advanced vocabulary.
Want to learn more about how to write an ACT essay? Read my step-by-step guide to ACT Writing.
You've learned what your essay needs to include. But how you do you decode the prompt? Follow along as I teach you how to attack ACT Writing prompts.
Is a longer ACT essay always a better ACT essay? Find out how essay length can affect your score on ACT Writing here.
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Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.