Act Essay Score Distribution

If you’ve chosen to do the ACT essay, your ACT Writing score is important. Today, we’ll answer the common question “what is a good ACT Writing score?

What Is a Good ACT Writing Score: How it's Scored, Understanding Percentiles, and University Standards for Writing

Before we get too deep into discussing what a good Writing score is on the ACT, let's first understand that the ACT Writing is scored separately—and differently—from the rest of the exam. From there, we will be able to tell you what is a good ACT Writing score and what's not.

How the ACT Writing Section is Scored

Let's quickly review how the ACT Writing section is scored. Unlike the rest of the test, ACT Writing is not scored on a 36 point scale. Instead, ACT writing scores are calculated on a scale of 2 to 12.

Here's how it works: two separate scorers are shown your ACT essay. Each person who scores your essay scores it on a scale of 1 to 6. Then the two separate scores are added together. This allows for a minimum score of 2 and a maximum score of 12.

What is a Good Writing Score on the ACT, In Terms of Percentiles?

One way to tell if you have a good ACT Writing score is to look at your percentile. Your ACT percentiles tell you how well you did compared to other test-takers. For example, if your ACT Writing is in the 90th percentile, that means that 90% of all test takers got a lower score than you did. So basically, the higher your ACT Writing percentile is, the better your score is.

Once you actually receive your ACT Writing score, your percentile will appear on the score report. But you don't have to wait that long to see what the ACT Writing percentiles are. Right below is a chart that converts ACT Writing scores to percentiles, based on current, official ACT data. You can use this chart to determine a good target score for your ACT Essay.

What is a Good Writing ACT Score, by University Standards?

For schools that require or recommend an ACT Writing score, it's easy to know what a good score on ACT Writing is. Just make sure you meet or exceed the requirement.

Now, suppose you're applying to one of the many schools that don't require you to take the ACT essay. When the essay isn't required, a good ACT Writing score should match the percentile the school has set for the general exam. Suppose, for instance, that a school asks for a general ACT score of at least 30. This is a 95th percentile score. In that case, you'll want a comparable percentile on your ACT Writing test, a score of at least 9 or 10.

Want to learn more about ACT percentiles and what a good score on the ACT is? Read on:

Understanding the ACT Percentiles: How do You Compare?

What is a Good ACT Score?

Today the ACT announced that it will no longer grade the ACT Writing Test on a scale of 1–36. Beginning in September of 2016, the ACT will return to the old Writing scale of 2–12.

Why the sudden change?

The ACT no longer believes that a 1–36 score is the best way to report student Writing performance. While the 1–36 scale was designed to better align the ACT Writing score with the rest of the ACT score report, the ACT now realizes that the new scale created a “perceptual problem” for students, counselors, and colleges. In other words, the new scale failed to provide reliable information about students.

Will the Writing task change too?

Fortunately, no. In the midst of so many changes to both the SAT and the ACT, we are pleased to report that the optional ACT Writing task will remain the same. Students will still evaluate three perspectives on a controversial modern-day issue as well as form their own opinions on the issue.

The rubric will also remain the same. Just as with the 1–36 scale, students will be assigned four domain scores: Ideas & Analysis, Development & Support, Organization, and Language Use & Conventions.

How will the grading work?

Even though the ACT is returning to the 2–12 scale, it will not return to its old scoring scheme. Under the old 2–12 scheme, two graders each assigned an essay a single, holistic score from 1–6. The scores were then combined to form a Writing score from 2–12. And that was it! Now things are a bit more complicated. Two graders will assign each essay four separate domain scores. The scores will then be added, averaged, and rounded to the nearest whole number to form a Writing score from 2–12.

For example, suppose one grader assigned a student a 4 for Ideas & Analysis, a 3 for Development & Support, a 4 for Organization, and a 5 for Language Use & Conventions. That grader would submit scores (4, 3, 4, 5) to the ACT. If a second grader assigned scores (3, 4, 4, 4), respectively, the ACT would then add the two sets of scores together (7, 7, 8, 9), average them (31/4=7.75), and round them to the nearest whole number (8).  This student would thus score an 8 out of 12 on the new ACT essay scoring scale.

What about the ELA score?

Last year, the ACT began including ELA (a rounded average of English, Reading, and Writing scores) and STEM (a rounded average of Math and Science) scores on its score reports. The ELA score was easy to calculate and understand when the English, Reading, and Writing scores were all out of 36. Now that the Writing score is out of 12, the ACT will probably just convert the Essay score to a score out of 36 behind the curtain before rolling it into the ELA score.

How does the new scale compare to the old?

If you were caught in the crossfire of old—to new—to newish scoring schemes, then you are probably feeling very confused about how to interpret your scores. Rest assured that you are not alone! The ACT itself changed the charts it uses to compare student Writing performance to that of other students (i.e. percentile charts) dramatically between 2015 and 2016.


Taken from:


Taken from:

As you can see, students who took the exams in 2016 received lower percentiles for identical scores from the 2015 rollout. This created confusion as to which percentile chart is reliable and which chart colleges should use to evaluate student scores.

To add another layer of mystery, the ACT offers several methods of converting between 2015–2016 and 2016–2017 scores. These instructions include reverse engineering a student’s Writing score from an existing ELA score, using the four domain scores to generate a score out of 12, using the ACT’s concordance table based on a comparison between student performance on the September 2015 exam and April 2016 exam (see below), and using student ranking.

The biggest pitfall of all of these methods is that they are based on scores from the 1–36 era. As shown above, this era gave rise to vastly divergent percentile charts and confusing admission metrics. What’s more, it’s probably going to take the ACT some time to gain their footing as they merge the four domain scores of the 1–36 scale with the smaller scoring spread of the 2–12 scale.

What does this mean for students?

Students who prepped for the ACT Writing test do not have to make any adjustments to their writing. Even though the scale is changing, the Writing task and rubric remain the same.

One change that could affect students, however, is super-scoring. Many students who received disappointing Writing scores on earlier exams hoped colleges would superscore their Writing tests. With the introduction of the new scale, however, it will be more difficult for colleges to compare across tests. This could unfortunately reduce the number of colleges willing to superscore.

Fortunately, students who took the ACT exam within the last three months and are dissatisfied with their scores can still mail the ACT a request for a rescore. The request costs $50, but the fee will be refunded if the ACT decides to change the score. The ACT will never lower a student’s Writing score, so it may be worth a try.

While students who sit for the ACT Writing test will no doubt want to earn the highest score possible, we must remember that colleges are the ones who ultimately decide how to interpret Writing scores. Students should therefore talk to their college counselors and college admissions departments where they plan to apply before making any essay-related decisions.

What does this mean for the future of tests?

With all of the recent changes to both the SAT and ACT essays, we can’t help but notice that the optional Writing tests are losing traction. As of today, only 15% of colleges require the SAT or ACT essay, and of those colleges, many choose to place less weight on it than they do other scores. With this new change, colleges will only find it harder to interpret Writing scores. Unless the SAT and ACT find a way to communicate to colleges and the education community that Writing tests can be reliably standardized, look for these tests to continue to fade from the spotlight.

We realize this is a lot to take in all at once. As always, we’ll be sure to keep you updated on all the latest ACT and SAT news.


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