Five Things You Should Know About Taking the New ACT Writing Test

January 15, 2016 

The ACT Writing section took on a new format in September 2015, which changes the way students should prepare for this optional segment of the test. Here are five things you should know about the New ACT Writing Test.

ACT-writing-updates1. Writing Prompt Design

The enhanced test frames the essay assignment in a more structured way. The previous test presented students with an issue and gave positions for or against the issue, asking the student to take one of those positions or to formulate a different position. Blank space was given for planning, and 30 minutes was allotted for completion of the essay. The current test presents an issue and offers three diverse perspectives on it that encourage critical engagement with the issue. With this additional information, students are required to partake in a discussion and analysis of each of the three perspectives as well as present their own viewpoint. Because the task is more involved, there is more guidance for planning and prewriting, and 40 minutes are allotted for completion of the essay.

2. Contemporary Issues Are Presented

Generally, the topics used on the enhanced writing prompts are more thought-provoking and mature than the old topics. For example, in the past, a topic might be “Should school uniforms be mandatory in schools?” or “Should a student be required to maintain a ‘C’ average to get a driver’s license?”—topics of particular interest or concern to high school students. The topics presented on the enhanced test are less trivial and are more applicable to the general public. For example, the essay topic provided on the ACT website, “Intelligent Machines,” examines the implications of the accelerating variety and prevalence of the presence of technology in our lives: “Automation is generally seen as a sign of progress, but what is lost when we replace humans with machines?” Additional potential topics could be issues around global conflicts, public health, or individual liberty.

3. A New 36-Point Scale – Changed Back To The 12-Point Scale

Prior to September 2015, the ACT writing test was scored on a scale of 1-6 by two scorers for a combined 2–12 score. With the new essay section format also came a new scoring method, where students received four domain scores (Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions), which each have a possible 2–12 score. Students could score as high as 48 points, which was then converted to a score of 1–36. However, in June 2016, the ACT announced that beginning with the September 2016 national test date, scoring will move back to a 2-12 scale, using the average of the four 2-12 domain scores in the categories mentioned above. To help understand the change, ACT has released a white paper on how to compare scores from the 2015-16 tests to the 2016-17 tests.

4. We Still Encourage Students to Complete the ACT Writing Test 

While the ACT Writing section is an optional portion of the test, we generally encourage students to take it. Even if a student’s top-choice school does not require the essay, chances are that other schools she is applying to will require it. It may not be a major part of a student’s preparation, but she should still be prepared to write the essay. We don’t want students to find themselves in the position of having to retake the whole ACT because they discover later that the schools they are applying to require an essay score—so we recommend students complete the section in most cases.

5. Change Is Good

The new essay gives students additional time to work on the essay and provides more background information and guidance about the essay topic so that students are not starting from scratch. As with the rest of the ACT, preparation is key. The more opportunities students have to practice the new essay format, the more likely they are to succeed. 

We hope you now have a better understanding of the new ACT Writing section: what it looks like, how it is scored, and why most students should complete the optional essay. As always, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to us for more information.



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