The ACT Part 6: Essay

Note: this post has been updated to reflect recent changes to the ACT essay.

This is the sixth in a six-part series on the ACT.

Read Part 1 – Intro, Part 2 – English, Part 3 – Math, Part 4 – Reading, Part 5 – Science

And finally, we come to the Essay section. The Essay is optional but required by some colleges. Unless you’re 100% sure that every college you’re applying to doesn’t require it, then you should take it. It’s just an extra 40 minutes at the end of the test. If you don’t do the essay and apply to a college that requires it, you’ll have to retake the entire test.

As I said in Part 1, the Essay score doesn’t count toward your composite score. So why should you even care about it?

Because some colleges care about it. You might have a composite score in the 30s, but if your essay score is dismal, that could raise a red flag for the admissions department: this student can’t write! You don’t want that to happen, so take the essay seriously. Don’t freak out over it; just do your best.

Learning to write well is the most important skill for success in college. You can go to class every day, complete all the assigned reading, and have brilliant things to say about what you’ve learned. But if you can’t communicate your thoughts in writing, your professors won’t know how brilliant you are!

Furthermore, most high-paying jobs require some amount of writing. If your emails to your boss or to clients are filled with mistakes and nonsensical sentences, you can bet they’ll notice.

But learning how to write well isn’t easy. It takes years of practice. I can’t teach you how in a two-hour class, much less a blog post. But I can recommend a wonderful little book called Writing with Style by John Trimble. It’s very short and easy to read. He basically shows you all the mistakes every college freshman makes (everybody makes the same mistakes) and then shows you how not to make them. He’s got a lot to say, but the most important part is: Write to be understood. Keep your sentences short and to the point.

Back to the essay . . . You will be presented with three viewpoints on an issue (environmentalism, healthcare; it could be anything really). Your job is to analyze and evaluate the three perspectives, provide your own perspective, and explain the relationship between your perspective and the three perspectives given.

Two graders will score your essay on four metrics, each on a scale of 1-6:

Ideas & Analysis (1-6)
Development & Support (1-6)
Organization (1-6)
Language Use (1-6)

These four scores are averaged for each grader, so you’ll get two scores on a scale of 1-6, which are then added for your final score, on a scale of 2-12. Simple!

Short essays get low scores, so be sure to use the full 40 minutes, and make your essay as long as possible (without repeating yourself).

The best way to prepare for the essay is to read the sample essays and scoring explanations on the ACT website.

If you’re concerned about the essay, you may want to contact your target schools and find out if they require the essay and what kind of score they’re looking for. In most cases, an 8 (on the 2-12 scale) is probably good enough, but higher is always preferred.

Again, the essay does not affect your composite score, and the composite is the primary benchmark colleges will be considering.

Want to know where you stand? Send us your essay, and we’ll grade it for free! Just send us an email with “practice essay” in the subject line, and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

This concludes our series on the ACT. If you live in the Austin area, you can sign up for a free practice test. And, of course, we’ve got ACT classes going all year long. If you’ve still got questions about the ACT (or anything!) we’d love to hear from you!

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