SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

Does Messy Handwriting Hurt Your ACT Writing Score?


Do you have messy handwriting? If so, trust me, you're not alone. Given only 40 minutes to plan and write an essay, most students end up with at least slightly sloppy handwriting. How does bad handwriting affect your ACT Writing score? Can you end up with a lower score? Can you end up with a score of zero? I've got the answers to these questions along with more ACT Writing advice.

Note: this article is only relevant if you'll be taking the paper ACT; students taking the computer-based ACT will not have to write their essays by hand.


Will You Get a Score of Zero for Messy Handwriting?

Bottom line, you can, but it has to be extremely messy. I've tutored many students with handwriting I could barely read who did fine on the essay. Many of my PrepScholar colleagues had the same experience with their students.

However, the official ACT policy says that an essay will receive a zero if the essay is left "blank, off-topic, illegible, not in English or void."

The reality is that all of your handwriting needs to be considered illegible and for you to receive a score of zero. Is your handwriting so terrible that you pick up a letter or essay you wrote a few months ago and cannot read a single word? For the majority of people, the answer is no. If your handwriting is sloppy but interpretable, you will not receive a score of zero.

If your handwriting is completely illegible, you could get a zero, but also, not being able to make out a sentence or word here and there could hurt you as well.


body_minusorange.pngDon't lose points!


Will You Be Penalized At All for Messy Handwriting?

You might. The ACT Writing rubric mentions errors that impede or do not impede understanding. Errors that impede understanding will reduce your score; errors that do not impede understanding will not affect your score. For an in-depth explanation, check out our breakdown of the ACT Writing rubric.

If your messy handwriting impedes on the reader's ability to understand your essay, then you will likely have your score reduced. For example, let's say your handwriting was illegible for one sentence, but that one sentence described a critical example that supported your thesis. Imagine that one sentence was crucial to building your argument. If the reader couldn't understand a single word of it (even if a few words were legible but the reader couldn't make sense of the sentence), then your score would likely be affected since the error would impede the reader's ability to understand your essay.

If your messy handwriting doesn't impede on the reader's ability to understand your essay, then your score won't be affected. For example, if you're sloppy, and your e's can sometimes look like o's and vice versa, then your score likely won't be affected as a reader will likely be able to tell what you are trying to say.


How To Improve Your Handwriting

To make sure you aren't penalized for your handwriting, you should try to improve your messy handwriting.


Write Slower

The easiest way to improve your writing is to simply write slower and make sure you make every letter legible. I find handwriting is usually illegible because students are trying to write way too fast.

But, Dora, how do I write slower if I only have 40 minutes? That is true. 40 minutes is not a lot of time, but you'll get better at making the most of this time and pacing yourself to write a legible essay with practice.

I'd suggest you take as many practice tests as you need to until you've mastered the pacing while keeping your handwriting legible. The amount of practice tests this will take will vary from person to person, but I'd say it takes three to four practice essays to adjust to the pacing and get your handwriting looking tidy. If you want an in-depth guide to pacing your essay, read our full step-by-step guide to writing your ACT essay.



Messy handwriting can be fixed!


Change Your Grip and Pressure

If you still find your handwriting illegible after slowing down and practicing your pacing, you may need to try changing up your grip on the pencil and/or switching up the pressure you put on the page. Too tight a grip or too much pressure on the pencil can make it hard to maneuver.

Try loosening your grip and lowering the pressure on the pencil. This should allow your to maneuver the pencil more finely to create more legible letters.

Also, make sure to grip the pencil closer to the point, farther from the eraser. The closer you are to the eraser, the harder it will be to have fine control over the movement of the pencil. You can test this out and see the difference in writing a word with your hand holding the end of the pencil near the eraser versus the end closer to the tip. I bet the latter is a lot more legible.


Handwriting and Disability: What Are Your Options?

Do you or your child have a disability that leads to messy handwriting? If so, you can request to take the ACT Writing section with special accommodations such as a computer or transcriber. Make sure you get the help if you need it!

Read more about ACT accommodations, including information on the type of accommodations available and how to apply, in our other guide.



  • You'll only get a zero for messy handwriting if your entire essay is illegible.
  • You can still be penalized if only part of your essay is illegible. If the illegible words impede on the reader's understanding of your argument, then your score will likely be reduced.
  • Try to improve your handwriting by slowing down, loosening your grip, and lowering your pressure on the pencil.


What's Next?

Worried about how essay length affects your writing score? Learn more in our full guide. Don't forget to check out our full analysis of the ACT Writing Rubric, with strategies and explanations that can guide you in your essay planning!

Stressed about how to write a great ACT essay? Check out our step by step guide to writing a top-scoring ACT essay.

Looking for additional ACT study help? Read our ultimate Reading, English, Math and Science guides.


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Dora Seigel
About the Author

As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.

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