The ACT essay score is confusing for many reasons. First, it can be difficult to gauge how colleges use the ACT essay score because the score is not used to calculate the Composite score, which is the score that colleges use for admissions.
Second, the ACT essay seems to be scored on a more difficult scaling than the other sections of the test. Almost every student will have a lower essay score than English score (will explain more below). Third, the ACT keeps flip-flopping on how to score the test.
Most colleges will not tell you exactly how much the ACT essay score is specifically used in the admission process. From admissions, I usually hear something like: "We want students to take the ACT with Writing, but we value other parts of the application more". Mainly admissions are noting extremes in the essay score: very low and very high. So, if the mid-range for the score is 22-28 (out of 36) or 6-9 (out of 12), then admissions will probably not give much weight (good or bad) to the score.
Since admissions will notice very high scores (or very low scores) on the ACT essay portion, it is still important to properly prepare for the Writing portion. First, make sure that you familiarize yourself with the new ACT essay prompt style (which was released in September 2015). The most recent edition of The Official ACT Prep Guide is only book with the official prompts and scoring rubric. Second, review my tips for the ACT essay. Third, practice, practice, practice.
For the essay, I really like the College Panda's ACT Essay: The Battle-tested Guide because the person who gives the advice has experience testing for the New ACT Essay prompt (most guides rely on outdated material for this section). Not every college requires the ACT Essay, but many do, so I always recommend sitting for this section.
If you plan to apply to selective or highly selective colleges, you should always take the format of the exam "ACT with Writing", which adds a 40-minute essay to the end of the exam. Some state colleges, like University of California, will NOT accept an ACT score unless the exam included the essay portion. Not all colleges are as strict in the policy, but play it safe: take the ACT with Writing.
Because I work in Southern California and most of my students will be applying to the University of California, I tell all of my students to take the ACT with Writing every single time. The last thing I want to happen is for one of my students to get a really good Composite score, say one that UCLA would love to see, but then tell me that the test was taken without the essay. Guess what? UC Admissions will only consider test scores taken on the same day as the writing portion.
When the ACT switched to the new essay format and grading scale in September 2015, many tutors noticed that the essay scores were often lower than the English section score. These differences in scores seemed to be particularly pronounced when students had high Composite scores (over 30).
In January 2016, because so many have complained about these score discrepancies, including myself, the ACT released a rare qualification that explains the scoring rationale of the essay (not the most fun reading but informative). Then, in June 2016, the ACT abandoned the 1-36 scale entirely, and returned to the 2-12 scale. This, however, does not solve the issue, just makes it less noticeable in the score reports.
As stated above, though, the ACT essay is really not a big factor in admissions. Since last year, even some highly selective colleges have opted out of using the essay portion on the ACT and SAT exams. So, don't get too obsessive or worried if your essay score is slightly lower than the Composite. Move on and focus on other areas of your application profile.
If you take the ACT test with Writing, you will receive a separate essay score (which is not calculated into the Composite score) and an English Language Arts Score (which is an average of English and Reading, plus the essay). It is unclear, again, how colleges will use the ELA score. My guess is the Composite Score will still carry the most weight, since these are not the scores reported to the ranking agencies (and they are just averages of other sections).
With that said, the University of California may use the ELA score, so if you plan to apply there, realize that a low ACT essay score will bring down the ELA score. For example, a student who achieved a 32 in the English and Reading sections but wrote a 8 essay, will see a drop to 29 for the Combined score. Not a huge drop, but the University of California would use the 29, not the 32, for admission purposes.
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