What time is it? It's essay time! In this article, I'm going to get into the details of the newly transformed ACT Writing by discussing the ACT essay rubric and how the essay is graded based on that. You'll learn what each item on the rubric means for your essay writing and what you need to do to meet those requirements.
feature image credit: A study in human nature, being an interpretation with character analysis chart of Hoffman’s master painting “Christ in the temple”; (1920) by CircaSassy, used under CC BY 2.0/Resized from original.
ACT Essay Grading: The Basics
If you've chosen to take the ACT Plus Writing, you'll have 40 minutes to write an essay (after completing the English, Math, Reading, and Science sections of the ACT, of course). Your essay will be evaluated by two graders, who score your essay from 1-6 on each of 4 domains, leading to scores out of 12 for each domain. Your Writing score is calculated by averaging your four domain scores, leading to a total ACT Writing score from 2-12.
NOTE: From September 2015 to June 2016, ACT Writing scores were calculated by adding together your domain scores and scaling to a score of 1-36; the change to an averaged 2-12 ACT Writing score was announced June 28, 2016.
The Complete ACT Grading Rubric
Based on ACT, Inc’s stated grading criteria, I've gathered all the relevant essay-grading criteria into a chart. The information itself is available on the ACT's website, and there's more general information about each of the domains here. The columns in this rubric are titled as per the ACT’s own domain areas, with the addition of another category that I named ("Mastery Level").
ACT Essay Rubric - Scoring Guide
Ideas and Analysis
Development and Support
Blank, Off-Topic, Illegible, Not in English, or Void
demonstrate little or no skill in writing an argumentative essay.
The writer fails to generate an argument that responds intelligibly to the task. The writer’s intentions are difficult to discern. Attempts at analysis are unclear or irrelevant.
Ideas lack development, and claims lack support. Reasoning and illustration are unclear, incoherent, or largely absent.
The response does not exhibit an organizational structure. There is little grouping of ideas. When present, transitional devices fail to connect ideas.
The use of language fails to demonstrate skill in responding to the task. Word choice is imprecise and often difficult to comprehend. Sentence structures are often unclear. Stylistic and register choices are difficult to identify. Errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics are pervasive and often impede understanding.
demonstrate weak or inconsistent skill in writing an argumentative essay
The writer generates an argument that weakly responds to multiple perspectives on the given issue. The argument’s thesis, if evident, reflects little clarity in thought and purpose. Attempts at analysis are incomplete, largely irrelevant, or consist primarily of restatement of the issue and its perspectives.
Development of ideas and support for claims are weak, confused, or disjointed. Reasoning and illustration are inadequate, illogical, or circular, and fail to fully clarify the argument.
The response exhibits a rudimentary organizational structure. Grouping of ideas is inconsistent and often unclear. Transitions between and within paragraphs are misleading or poorly formed.
The use of language is inconsistent and often unclear. Word choice is rudimentary and frequently imprecise. Sentence structures are sometimes unclear. Stylistic and register choices, including voice and tone, are inconsistent and are not always appropriate for the rhetorical purpose. Distracting errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics are present, and they sometimes impede understanding.
demonstrate some developing skill in writing an argumentative essay
The writer generates an argument that responds to multiple perspectives on the given issue. The argument’s thesis reflects some clarity in thought and purpose. The argument establishes a limited or tangential context for analysis of the issue and its perspectives. Analysis is simplistic or somewhat unclear.
Development of ideas and support for claims are mostly relevant but are overly general or simplistic. Reasoning and illustration largely clarify the argument but may be somewhat repetitious or imprecise.
The response exhibits a basic organizational structure. The response largely coheres, with most ideas logically grouped. Transitions between and within paragraphs sometimes clarify the relationships among ideas.
The use of language is basic and only somewhat clear. Word choice is general and occasionally imprecise. Sentence structures are usually clear but show little variety. Stylistic and register choices, including voice and tone, are not always appropriate for the rhetorical purpose. Distracting errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics may be present, but they generally do not impede understanding.
demonstrate adequate skill in writing an argumentative essay
The writer generates an argument that engages with multiple perspectives on the given issue. The argument’s thesis reflects clarity in thought and purpose. The argument establishes and employs a relevant context for analysis of the issue and its perspectives. The analysis recognizes implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions.
Development of ideas and support for claims clarify meaning and purpose. Lines of clear reasoning and illustration adequately convey the significance of the argument. Qualifications and complications extend ideas and analysis.
The response exhibits a clear organizational strategy. The overall shape of the response reflects an emergent controlling idea or purpose. Ideas are logically grouped and sequenced. Transitions between and within paragraphs clarify the relationships among ideas.
The use of language conveys the argument with clarity. Word choice is adequate and sometimes precise. Sentence structures are clear and demonstrate some variety. Stylistic and register choices, including voice and tone, are appropriate for the rhetorical purpose. While errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics are present, they rarely impede understanding.
demonstrate well-developed skill in writing an argumentative essay
The writer generates an argument that productively engages with multiple perspectives on the given issue. The argument’s thesis reflects precision in thought and purpose. The argument establishes and employs a thoughtful context for analysis of the issue and its perspectives. The analysis addresses implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions.
Development of ideas and support for claims deepen understanding. A mostly integrated line of purposeful reasoning and illustration capably conveys the significance of the argument. Qualifications and complications enrich ideas and analysis.
The response exhibits a productive organizational strategy. The response is mostly unified by a controlling idea or purpose, and a logical sequencing of ideas contributes to the effectiveness of the argument. Transitions between and within paragraphs consistently clarify the relationships among ideas.
The use of language works in service of the argument. Word choice is precise. Sentence structures are clear and varied often. Stylistic and register choices, including voice and tone, are purposeful and productive. While minor errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics may be present, they do not impede understanding.
demonstrate effective skill in writing an argumentative essay
The writer generates an argument that critically engages with multiple perspectives on the given issue. The argument’s thesis reflects nuance and precision in thought and purpose. The argument establishes and employs an insightful context for analysis of the issue and its perspectives. The analysis examines implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions.
Development of ideas and support for claims deepen insight and broaden context. An integrated line of skillful reasoning and illustration effectively conveys the significance of the argument. Qualifications and complications enrich and bolster ideas and analysis.
The response exhibits a skillful organizational strategy. The response is unified by a controlling idea or purpose, and a logical progression of ideas increases the effectiveness of the writer’s argument. Transitions between and within paragraphs strengthen the relationships among ideas.
The use of language enhances the argument. Word choice is skillful and precise. Sentence structures are consistently varied and clear. Stylistic and register choices, including voice and tone, are strategic and effective. While a few minor errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics may be present, they do not impede understanding.
ACT Writing Rubric: Item-by-Item Breakdown
Whew. That rubric might be a little overwhelming - there's so much information to process! Below, I’ve broken down the essay rubric by domain, with examples of what a 3- and a 6-scoring essay might look like.
Ideas and Analysis
The Ideas and Analysis domain is the rubric area most intimately linked with the basic ACT essay task itself. Here's what the ACT website has to say about this domain:
Scores in this domain reflect the ability to generate productive ideas and engage critically with multiple perspectives on the given issue. Competent writers understand the issue they are invited to address, the purpose for writing, and the audience. They generate ideas that are relevant to the situation.
Based on this description, I've extracted the four key things you need to do in your essay to score well in the Ideas and Analysis domain.
- Choose a perspective on this issue and state it clearly.
- Evaluate how true (or untrue) each (of the three given) perspectives is
- Analyze each perspective.
- Compare the remaining two perspectives to the perspective you have chosen.
There's no cool acronym, sorry. I guess a case could be made for "ACCE," but I wanted to list the points in the order of importance, so "CEAC" it is.
Fortunately, the ACT Writing Test provides you with the three perspectives to analyze and choose from, which will save you some of the hassle of "generating productive ideas." In addition, "analyzing each perspective" does not mean that you need to argue from each of the points of view. Instead, you need to choose one perspective to argue as your own and explain how your point of view relates to the perspectives provided by evaluating how correct each perspective is and analyzing the implications of each perspective.
Note: While it is technically allowable for you to come up with a fourth perspective as your own and to then discuss that point of view in relation to each of the three given perspectives, we do NOT recommend it. 40 minutes is already a pretty short time to discuss three different points of view in a thorough and coherent manner - discussing four is nigh-on impossible.
To get deeper into what things fall in the Ideas and Analysis domain, I'll use a sample ACT Writing prompt and the three perspectives provided:
Many of the goods and services we depend on daily are now supplied by intelligent, automated machines rather than human beings. Robots build cars and other goods on assembly lines, where once there were human workers. Many of our phone conversations are now conducted not with people but with sophisticated technologies. We can now buy goods at a variety of stores without the help of a human cashier. Automation is generally seen as a sign of progress, but what is lost when we replace humans with machines? Given the accelerating variety and prevalence of intelligent machines, it is worth examining the implications and meaning of their presence in our lives.
Perspective One: What we lose with the replacement of people by machines is some part of our own humanity. Even our mundane daily encounters no longer require from us basic courtesy, respect, and tolerance for other people.
Perspective Two: Machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs, and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases they work better than humans. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone.
Perspective Three: Intelligent machines challenge our long-standing ideas about what humans are or can be. This is good because it pushes both humans and machines toward new, unimagined possibilities.
First, in order to "state...your own perspective on the issue," you need to figure out what your point of view, or perspective, on this issue is going to be. For the sake of argument, let's say that you agree the most with the second perspective. A essay that scores a 3 in this domain might simply restate this perspective:
I agree that machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs, and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases they work better than humans. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone.
In contrast, an essay scoring a 6 in this domain would likely have a more complex point of view (with what the rubric calls "nuance and precision in thought and purpose"):
Machines will never be able to replace humans entirely, as creativity is not something that can be mechanized. Because machines can perform delicate and repetitive tasks with precision, however, they are able to take over for humans with regards to low-skill, repetitive jobs and high-skill, extremely precise jobs. This then frees up humans to do what we do best - think, create, and move the world forward.
Next, you need to evaluate how true/untrue each perspective is. Since you've already decided you agree with Perspective Two, you presumably think that perspective is true, which will save some work. A 3-scoring essay in this domain would likely be absolute, stating that Perspective Two is completely correct, while the other two perspectives are absolutely incorrect. By contrast, a 6-scoring essay in this domain would, again, show a more nuanced understanding:
In the future, machines might lead us to lose our humanity; alternatively, machines might lead us to unimaginable pinnacles of achievement. I would argue, however, projecting possible futures does not make them true, and that the evidence we have at present supports the perspective that machines are, above all else, efficient and effective completing repetitive and precise tasks.
To analyze the perspectives, you need to consider each aspect of each perspective. In the case of Perspective Two, this means you must discuss that machines are good at two types of jobs, that they’re better than humans at both types of jobs, and that their efficiency creates a better world. The analysis in a 3-scoring essay is usually "simplistic or somewhat unclear."
In contrast, the analysis of a 6-scoring essay "examines implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions."
Finally, you must compare the other two perspectives to your perspective throughout your essay, including in your intitial argument. Here's what a 3-scoring essay's argument would look like:
I agree that machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs, and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases they work better than humans. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone. Machines do not cause us to lose our humanity or challenge our long-standing ideas about what humans are or can be.
And here, in contrast, is what a 6-scoring essay's argument (that includes multiple perspectives) would look like:
Machines will never be able to replace humans entirely, as creativity is not something that can be mechanized, which means that our humanity is safe. Because machines can perform delicate and repetitive tasks with precision, however, they are able to take over for humans with regards to low-skill, repetitive jobs and high-skill, extremely precise jobs. Rather than forcing us to challenge our ideas about what humans are or could be, machines simply allow us to BE, without distractions. This then frees up humans to do what we do best - think, create, and move the world forward.
Again, to summarize what you need to do to score well in the Ideas and Analysis domain:
- Choose a perspective that you can support
- Evaluate how true/correct each perspective is
- Analyze the implications of each perspective
- Compare the other two perspectives to your own (with analysis and evaluation folded in).
To score well on the ACT essay overall, however, it's not enough to just state your opinions about each part of the perspective; you need to actually back up your claims with evidence to develop your own point of view. This leads straight into the next domain: Development and Support.
Development and Support
Another important component of your essay is that you explain your thinking. While it's obviously important to clearly state what your ideas are in the first place, the ACT essay requires you to demonstrate evidence-based reasoning. As per the description on ACT.org [bolding mine]:
Scores in this domain reflect the ability to discuss ideas, offer rationale, and bolster an argument. Competent writers explain and explore their ideas, discuss implications, and illustrate through examples. They help the reader understand their thinking about the issue.The bolded part is the aspect of the ACT Writing rubric that’s most changed from the old ACT essay. You must not only use logical reasoning, but also employ detailed examples to support and explain your ideas. Let’s say you’re discussing machine intelligence and are arguing Perspective Two:
“Machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs, and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases they work better than humans. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone.”
In your essay, you might start out by copying the perspective directly into your essay as your point of view, which is fine for the Ideas and Analysis domain. To score well in the Development and Support domain and develop your point of view with logical reasoning and detailed examples, however, you’re going to have to come up with reasons for why you agree with this perspective and examples that support your thinking.
Here's an example from an essay that would score a 3 in this domain:
Machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases, they work better than humans. For example, machines are better at printing things quickly and clearly than people are. Prior to the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg people had to write everything by hand. The printing press made it faster and easier to get things printed because things didn't have to be written by hand all the time. In the world today we have even better machines like laser printers that print things quickly.
Essays scoring a 3 in this domain tend to have relatively simple development and tend to be overly general, with imprecise or repetitive reasoning or illustration. Contrast this with an example from an essay that would score a 6:
Machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases, they work better than humans. Take, for instance, the example of printing. As a composer, I need to be able to create many copies of my sheet music to give to my musicians. If I were to copy out each part by hand, it would take days, and would most likely contain inaccuracies. On the other hand, my printer (a machine) is able to print out multiple copies of parts with extreme precision. If it turns out I made an error when I was entering in the sheet music onto the computer (another machine), I can easily correct this error and print out more copies quickly.
The above example of the importance of machines to composers uses "an integrated line of skillful reasoning and illustration" to support my claim ("Machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases, they work better than humans"). In order to develop this example further (and incorporate the “This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone” facet of the perspective), I would need to expand my example to explain why it’s so important that multiple copies of precisely replicated documents be available, and how this affects the world.
World Map - Abstract Acrylic by Nicolas Raymond, used under CC BY 2.0/Resized from original.
Essay organization has always been integral to doing well on the ACT essay, so it makes sense that the ACT Writing rubric has an entire domain devoted to this. The organization of your essay refers not just to the order in which you present your ideas in the essay, but also to the order in which you present your ideas in each paragraph. Here's the formal description from the ACT website:
Scores in this domain reflect the ability to organize ideas with clarity and purpose. Organizational choices are integral to effective writing. Competent writers arrange their essay in a way that clearly shows the relationship between ideas, and they guide the reader through their discussion.
Making sure your essay is logically organized relates back to the “development” part of the previous domain. As the above description states, you can't just throw examples and information into your essay willy-nilly, without any regard for the order; part of constructing and developing a convincing argument is making sure it flows logically. A lot of this organization should happen while you are in the planning phase, before you even begin to write your essay.
Let's go back to the machine intelligence essay example again. I've decided to argue for Perspective Two, which is:
“Machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs, and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases they work better than humans. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone.”
An essay that scores a 3 in this domain would show a "basic organizational structure," which is to say that each perspective would be discussed in its own paragraph, "with most ideas logically grouped." A possible organization for a 3-scoring essay:
Paragraph 1: Introduction (with your stated point of view)
Paragraph 2: Intelligent machines don’t really challenge ideas about humanity (analyze perspective 1)
Paragraph 3: On the other hand, intelligent machines can help us (analyze perspective 2)
Paragraph 4: Machines are not making the world worse (analyze perspective 3)
Paragraph 5: Conclusion
An essay that scores a 6 in this domain, on the other hand, has a lot more to accomplish. The "controlling idea or purpose" behind the essay should be clearly expressed in every paragraph, and ideas should be ordered in a logical fashion so that there is a clear progression from the beginning to the end. Here's a possible organization for a 6-scoring essay:
Paragraph 1: Introduction (with your stated point of view)
Paragraph 2: Machines help us because [evidence] (discussion of perspective 2)
Paragraph 3: Some argue that machines are hurting us, but here’s my contrary evidence (comparison of perspective 1 and perspective 2)
Paragraph 4: While I do believe that machines are advantageous, this advantage lies in what they can do for us, not what they reveal about us (comparison of perspective 3 and perspective 2)
Paragraph 5: Conclusion
In this example, the unifying idea is that machines are helpful (and it’s mentioned in each paragraph) and the progression of ideas makes more sense. This is certainly not the only way to organize an essay on this particular topic, or even using this particular perspective. Your essay does, however, have to be organized, rather than consist of a bunch of ideas thrown together.
Here are my Top 5 ACT Writing Organization Rules to follow:
- Be sure to include an introduction (with your thesis stating your point of view), paragraphs in which you make your case, and a conclusion that sums up your argument
- When planning your essay, make sure to present your ideas in an order that makes sense (and follows a logical progression that will be easy for the grader to follow).
- Make sure that you unify your essay with one main idea. Do not switch arguments partway through your essay.
- Don't write everything in one huge paragraph. If you're worried you're going to run out of space to write, you can try using a paragraph symbol, ¶, at the beginning of each paragraph as a last resort (if you can't write smaller).
- Use transitions between paragraphs (usually the last line of the previous paragraph and the first line of the paragraph) to "strengthen relationships among ideas" (source). This means going above and beyond "First of all...Second...Lastly" at the beginning of each paragraph. Instead, use the transitions between paragraphs as an opportunity to describe how that paragraph relates to your main argument.
The final domain on the ACT Writing rubric is Language Use. This the item that includes grammar, punctuation, and general sentence structure issues. Here's what the ACT website has to say about Language Use:
Scores in this domain reflect the ability to use written language to convey arguments with clarity. Competent writers make use of the conventions of grammar, syntax, word usage, and mechanics. They are also aware of their audience and adjust the style and tone of their writing to communicate effectively.
I tend to think of this as the “be a good writer” category, since many of the standards covered in the above description are ones that good writers will automatically meet in their writing. On the other hand, this is probably the area non-native English speakers will struggle the most, as you must have a fairly solid grasp of English to score above a 2 on this domain. The good news is that by reading this article, you're already one step closer to improving your "Language Use" on ACT Writing.
There are three main parts of this domain:
- Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics
- Sentence Structure
- Vocabulary and Word Choice
I've listed them (and will cover them) from lowest to highest level. If you're struggling with multiple areas, I highly recommend starting out with the lowest-level issue, as the components tend to build on each other. For instance, if you're struggling with grammar and usage, you need to focus on fixing that before you start to think about precision of vocabulary/word choice.
Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics
At the most basic level, you need to be able to "effectively communicate your ideas in standard written English" (ACT.org). First and foremost, this means that your grammar and punctuation need to be correct. On ACT Writing, it's all right to make a few minor errors if the meaning is clear, even on essays that score a 6 in the Language Use domain; however, the more errors you make, the more your score will drop.
Here's an example from an essay that scored a 3 in Language Use:
Machines are good at doing there jobs quickly and precisely. Also because machines aren't human or self-aware they don't get bored so they can do the same thing over & over again without getting worse.
While the meaning of the sentences is clear, there are several errors: the first sentence uses "there" instead of "their," the second sentence is a run-on sentence, and the second sentence also uses the abbreviation "&" in place of "and." Now take a look at an example from a 6-scoring essay:
Machines excel at performing their jobs both quickly and precisely. In addition, since machines are not self-aware they are unable to get "bored." This means that they can perform the same task over and over without a decrease in quality.
This example solves the abbreviation and "there/their" issue. The second sentence is missing a comma (after "self-aware"), but the worse of the run-on sentence issue is absent.
Our Complete Guide to ACT Grammar might be helpful if you just need a general refresh on grammar rules. In addition, we have several articles that focus in on specific grammar rules, as they are tested on ACT English; while the specific ways in which ACT English tests you on these rules isn't something you'll need to know, the explanations of the grammar rules themselves are quite helpful.
Once you've gotten down basic grammar, usage, and mechanics, you can turn your attention to sentence structure. Here's an example of what a 3-scoring essay in Language Use (based on sentence structure alone) might look like:
Machines are more efficient than humans at many tasks. Machines are not causing us to lose our humanity. Instead, machines help us to be human by making things more efficient so that we can, for example, feed the needy with technological advances.
The sentence structures in the above example are not particulary varied (two sentences in a row start with "Machines are"), and the last sentence has a very complicated/convoluted structure, which makes it hard to understand. For comparison, here's a 6-scoring essay:
Machines are more efficient than humans at many tasks, but that does not mean that machines are causing us to lose our humanity. In fact, machines may even assist us in maintaining our humanity by providing more effective and efficient ways to feed the needy.
For whatever reason, I find that when I’m under time pressure, my sentences maintain variety in their structures but up getting really awkward and strange. A real life example: once I described a method of counteracting dementia as “supporting persons of the elderly persuasion” during a hastily written psychology paper. I’ve found the best ways to counteract this are as follows:
1. Look over what you’ve written and change any weird wordings that you notice.
2. If you're just writing a practice essay, get a friend/teacher/relative who is good at writing (in English) to look over what you’ve written and point out issues (this is how my own awkward wording was caught before I handed in the paper). This point obviously does not apply when you're actually taking the ACT, but it very helpful to ask for someone else to take a look over any practice essays you write to point out issues you may not notice yourself.
Vocabulary and Word Choice
The icing on the "Language Use" domain cake is skilled use of vocabulary and correct word choice. Part of this means using more complicated vocabulary in your essay. Once more, look at this this example from a 3-scoring essay (spelling corrected):
Machines are good at doing their jobs quickly and precisely.
Compare that to this sentence from a 6-scoring essay:
Machines excel at performing their jobs both quickly and precisely.
The 6-scoring essay uses "excel" and "performing" in place of "are good at" and "doing." This is an example of using language that is both more skillful ("excel" is more advanced than "are good at") and more precise ("performing" is a more precise word than "doing"). It's important to make sure that, when you do use more advanced words, you use them correctly. Consider the below sentence:
“Machines are often instrumental in ramifying safety features.”
The sentence uses a couple of advanced vocabulary words, but since "ramifying" is used incorrectly, the language use in this sentence is neither skillful nor precise. Above all, your word choice and vocabulary should make your ideas clearer, not make them harder to understand.
untitled is also an adjective by Procsilas Moscas, used under CC BY 2.0/Resized and cropped from original.
How Do I Use the ACT Writing Grading Rubric?
Okay, we've taken a look at the ACTual ACT Writing grading rubric and gone over each domain in detail. To finish up, I'll go over a couple of ways the scoring rubric can be useful to you in your ACT essay prep.
Use the ACT Writing Rubric To...Shape Your Essays
Now that you know what the ACT is looking for in an essay, you can use that to guide what you write about in your essays...and how develop and organize what you say! Because I’m an Old™ (not actually trademarked), and because I'm from the East Coast, I didn’t really know much about the ACT prior to starting my job at PrepScholar. People didn’t really take it in my high school in my day, so when I looked at the grading rubric for the first time, I was shocked to see how different the ACT essay was (as compared to the more familiar SAT essay).
Basically, by reading this article, you’re already doing better than high school me.
Vale_Youth_Art_Project_100 by Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington, used under CC BY 2.0/Resized from original.
An artist’s impression of L. Staffaroni (at age 16) (look, junior year was/is hard for everyone).
Use the ACT Writing Rubric To...Grade Your Practice Essays
The ACT can’t really give you an answer key to the essay the way it can give you an answer key to the other sections (Reading, Math, etc). There are some examples of essays at each score point on the ACT website, but these examples assume that students will be at an equal level in each of domains, which will not necessarily be true for you. Even if a sample essay is provided as part of a practice test answer key, it will probably use different context, have a different logical progression, or maybe even argue a different viewpoint.
The ACT Writing rubric is the next best thing to an essay answer key. Use it as a filter through which to view your essay. Naturally, you don't have the time to become an expert at applying the rubric criteria to your essay to make sure you're in line with the ACT's grading principles and standards. That is not your job. Your job is to write the best essay that you can. If you're not confident in your ability to spot grammar, usage, and mechanics issues, I highly recommend asking a friend, teacher, or family member who is really good at (English) writing to take a look over your practice essays and point out the mistakes.
If you really want custom feedback on your practice essays from experienced essay graders, may I also suggest the PrepScholar test prep platform? As I manage all essay grading, I happen to know a bit about the essay part of this platform, which provides you with both an essay grade and custom feedback. Go here to learn more!
Desirous of some more sweet sweet ACT essay articles? Why not start with our comprehensive guide to the ACT Writing test and how to write an ACT essay, step-by-step? (Trick question: obviously you should do this.)
Round out your dive into the details of the ACT Writing test with tips and strategies to raise your essay score, information about the best ACT Writing template, and advice on how to get a perfect score on the ACT essay.
Want actual feedback on your essay? Then consider signing up for our PrepScholar test prep platform. Included in the platform are 5 practice tests, with 5 practice essays that are graded by experts here at PrepScholar.
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Look, I know that you might not be super excited to write the ACT Essay. In fact, your dread of the ACT Writing section may mean that you’re not even that excited about taking the ACT.
But how would you feel if I told you that I’ve totally figured out how to change that?
Yup. Today, instead of talking about how to get a perfect 12 on the ACT Essay, we’re actually going to talk about how you can succeed at the universe’s all-time greatest school: Hogwarts.
Little-known fact: the 12 things you need to do to succeed at Hogwarts are exactly the 12 things you need to do to get a perfect 12 on the ACT Writing section.
Let’s take a quick look at them before diving in deeper:
- Know what you’re getting into.
- Take a look around the Hogwarts Express.
- Be assured that you CAN be 1 in 10,000.
- Get yourself a time-turner (but only if necessary!).
- Make sure you give the Sorting Hat options.
- Be a Gryffindor and take a risk!
- Be a Ravenclaw and be clever.
- Be a Hufflepuff and keep going.
- Be a Slytherin and be crafty.
- Know that the way you say something is just as important as what you say.
- Go into your O.W.L.s with a plan.
- Take a page from J.K. Rowling’s book and refuse to give up!
Read on, future Griffindors, Ravenclaws, and Hufflepuffs! (Slytherins, I think we all know your deal. Go talk to a snake or something.)
How to Use This Post
So what can you expect from this post? We’ll look at an overview of the ACT Writing section, then go into how it’s scored and the skills it tests. We’ll compare the ACT Essay to the SAT Essay and help you decide whether you should take the ACT with Writing or without. If you do decide to take it, we have prompts and grading advice for you to use, as well as point-by-point guides to raising your score 2, 3, or 4 points. Finally, we’ll finish off by looking at a template for a 12-scoring essay.
If you’re new to the essay, you’ll want to start at the beginning with the overview of ACT Writing and possibly even try your first practice essay today with one of the prompts here.
On the other hand, if you already have some experience with the ACT Essay, you may want to start with the guide to improving your score, or even with the template for a high-scoring essay.
Just to make it easier on you, here are links to some of the exciting places in this post where you can start your journey to the perfect ACT Essay!
Table of Contents
The Least You Should Know About ACT Writing
Before you sit down with your quill and parchment, there are a few things that you definitely need to know about ACT Writing, even if you’re taking the exam tomorrow.
Harry’s super excited about getting a gazillion of these letters,
despite not knowing ANYTHING about what’s in them.
In my opinion, this is the least believable part of the story.
First of all, it’s the last section on the ACT (okay, that phrasing might be a little confusing). This means that after you show off your skills reading and interpreting passages, calculating the square root of x, correcting dangling modifiers, and proving your aptitude for Potions in the Science section, you’re going to sit down and write an essay, just to cap it all off.
The ACT Essay is not required; however, it’s a good idea to take it, for reasons we’ll look at a little later on. It’s important to realize this in any case, because you’ll need to register for the ACT with Writing to make sure you have the chance to take it on the official exam.
Once you’re facing the ACT Essay, what will you see? One prompt in your test booklet, which you’ll respond to on a provided answer sheet, in No. 2 pencil (no mechanical pencils here).
The essay is an exercise in both persuasion and analysis. Students are given three perspectives on an issue and asked to “evaluate and analyze” the three perspectives, “state and develop” their own perspective, and “explain the relationship” between their perspective and the given perspectives. They can choose to agree with one of the provided viewpoints or may come up with their own.
Timing for the ACT Essay
From the time you turn the page in your test booklet to the ACT Essay prompt, you’ll have exactly 40 minutes to write your essay. In this time, you’ll have a variety of tasks to accomplish: read the instructions, the prompt, the sample opinions (we’ll get to this a little later), brainstorm, outline and write your essay, and proofread it.
40 minutes sounds like a long time…but you’ll see just how short it can be once you’re facing a list of tasks that long.
How Is the ACT Essay Scored?
Unlike other sections on the ACT, the Essay is scored between 2 and 12, rather than between 1 and 36. Two graders will individually score students from 1-6 on the four domains: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. These scores will be added together between the two graders, and the final ACT essay score from 2-12 is an AVERAGE of all the domain scores. Students will still receive an ELA score, which combines the essay score with their score on the ACT English multiple-choice section.
ACT Writing Subscores
Your ACT Writing score is made up of 4 subscores, in Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. Each of two graders will give you a score from 1-6 in each domain (giving you the opportunity to obtain a total score from 2-12 in each domain). Your four scores are then averaged to give you an overall score from 2-12. Your score report will reveal each of your domain scores, so you will get to see how much of an impact your grammar had on your composite score versus your ideas. You’re going to get a fair amount of feedback on why your essay received the score it did.
Who Does the ACT Writing Scoring?
Professors McGonagall and Flitwick, of course! No, sorry. In all seriousness: teachers trying to make the big bucks during their copious free time; retired teachers who want another income stream/to help humanity; experts in test prep who don’t have conflicting interests…you get the idea.
What if One of the Graders Doesn’t Like Me?
Well, first of all, I think you mean, “What if one of them doesn’t like your essay?”, but I get it. We take critiques of our writing rather personally. However, the ACT has a safety net in place for such a situation. If the graders disagree on your essay by more than one point on any domain score, a third grader (don’t worry, not a third-grader) will be brought in to settle the dispute.
How Is My Essay Graded?
Since, as we’ve seen, the ACT Essay is not graded on how much your graders like you, how is it graded? Using this very specific ACT Essay rubric. Again, you’ll be scored from 1-6 in each of the four categories (Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions) by two graders, whose scores are then averaged.
Looking Around the Hogwarts Express: What Does my Score Mean Compared to Other Students’?
What is a good ACT Writing score?
Well. It’s hard to quantify exactly what a “good” score on the ACT Writing section is, just as it’s hard to quantify exactly what a good ACT score is, as many factors can influence what you consider “good.”
With that said.
One of the best ways to see how you well you’ve scored objectively is to look at your ACT Writing percentiles. Your percentile score describes the percentage of students who scored lower than you on the essay. For example, if you’re in the 99th percentile, congrats! You scored better than 99 out of every 100 students taking the exam.
We’ve compiled a table here of percentiles for ACT Writing. If you took the ACT when the essay was scored on the 1-36 scale (prior to fall 2016), you can see how that stacks up, as well.
|ACT Essay Scores 2015-2016||ACT Essay Scores Sept 2016 moving forward||Score Percentile|
A quick note on decimals in percentiles: obviously, there is no such thing as .37 of a person (or if there was, I don’t think he/she/they would be taking the ACT). What this means is that you have to look at your score in a broader pool. For example, if you scored an 11 on ACT Writing, you scored better than 9,937 out of every 1,000 students taking the test.
Can You Be “The Chosen One”?
I know that a score of 12 = 100th percentile is confusing. You can’t score better than 100 out of every 100 students, right? You are one of those 100 students, after all.
All this means is that the decimal is so close to 1 that the ACT has rounded up. It’s likely that the actual situation is that those students scoring a 12 on the ACT Essay scored better than 9,999 out of every 10,000 students.
That alone should show you how tough it is to get a 12 on ACT Writing.
But can it be done? Well, someone has to be that 1 person in 10,000, right?
…or at least, one of them.
Why can’t it be you?
Let’s take a look at how you can get there, after we finish covering ACT Writing 101.
Ordering a Time-Turner: ACT Essay Rescores
Sometimes you’ll take a test, look at your score, and think “this can’t be right.” If this happens to you on the ACT Essay, you can request a rescore.
ACT scores for essays are graded by two professional scorers. Both of them use the ACT’s official Writing Test Rubric. The rescore follows the exact same procedure, but with two new scorers. If the two new people who score your ACT Essay get a different score than the original examiners, your ACT score will be updated. If your score changes, the new scorers can choose to raise your score from the original score you received, or lower it. There’s also a chance that the new scoring session could get the same result a second time. In that case, your ACT Essay score won’t change.
How Do You Request an ACT Essay Rescore, and How Much Does It Cost?
To get your ACT Essay rescored, submit a request for a rescore in writing. Your request will need to include the following: your name, as it appeared on your ACT exam registration forms, the ID on your ACT registration account, and the month, day, year, and location of your exam. You’ll also need to include a check for $50 made out to ACT Student Services. All rescore requests must be sent no later than three months after you received your initial ACT scores.
Written requests should be mailed to:
- ACT Student Services
P.O. Box 414
Iowa City, IA 52243-0414
The ACT’s scoring team will notify you of any score changes within 3-5 weeks of the request.
Things to Consider Before Requesting a Rescore
Rescores are expensive and time-consuming. If you’re thinking of getting your ACT Essay rescored (or getting a rescore on the rest of the test), you want to be sure that it’s worth it. There’s a chance your score could go down. And if it does, the new, lower score will become your official score. Your score could also stay the same, which would mean you wasted $50 per rescore request.
Still, sometimes a rescore can help you, or at the very least can’t hurt. It’s best to do a rescore if your scores are just below the minimum requirement to get into school, or if you’re very confident that mistakes were made with your score the first time around.
Skills Tested in the ACT Writing Section
As we’ve seen, your essay will be scored in four different categories: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. But what does that mean for you in terms of preparation? After all, few (if any) of us have taken classes on “Ideas and Analysis.”
What Are the Goals of the ACT Essay?
We can infer the “goals” of the ACT Essay (or rather, the skills it’s asking you to demonstrate) from the four ACT Essay rubric categories we’ve already gone over. Ideas and Analysis means that the scorers are looking for you to demonstrate critical thinking at a reasonably high level; rather than just being able to understand a series of opinions, the ACT Writing section wants you to interpret them and come up with your own thesis.
The Development and Support aspect tells us that the ACT Essay is evaluating your ability to craft a whole argument, rather than just a thesis statement. Again, it’s testing your critical reasoning skills: can you determine, in a limited timeframe, what makes for convincing evidence for your argument? The Organization category indicates that the ACT is also testing how clearly you can present this information in a short essay, in a way that makes sense not just to you, but also to the reader.
Finally, you can look on Language Use and Conventions as ACT English in practice. How’s your vocabulary and grammar? Can you write in an efficient and readable way? How eloquent (to an extent) can you be?
Or, in other words, your ACT essay has four major goals:
- Make judgments: the graders evaluate how well you understand the perspectives, and their implications, values and assumptions. Did you understand the question they presented to you? Did you pick a side? Did you understand the strengths and weaknesses of different perspectives on an issue?
- Develop a position: the graders evaluate how well you supported the argument you made in your essay. Did you give clear facts and relevant details that really helped your argument be more persuasive? Did you vary the types of evidence you used? Did you show the graders that you know the difference between assertion (just saying something) and evidence (showing why that assertion is true)? The more specific you can be, the more you show the graders how well you understood the topic and its controversy, which helps out your ‘make judgments’ criterion as well.
- Organization and focus: the graders evaluate how logically you present your ideas. Did you have a clear introduction, body, and conclusion? Are your body paragraphs ordered in a way that makes sense? Can the graders follow your train of thought clearly from beginning to end? Did you use transitions between and among your paragraphs to show the readers how they all link together? Did you stay on topic?
- Communicate clearly: the graders also look at how well you express yourself, in accordance with the rules of Standard Written English, a.k.a. “School, Work, and Business English,” as far as you’re concerned. Did you vary your sentence structure so that some sentences are short and others are long? Is your word choice effective? How is your grammar? If there are errors, are they particularly distracting? Can the readers still get your point or can they not understand what you’re saying?
Why Do Colleges Care About the ACT Essay?
Admissions officers are interested in your ACT Essay scores precisely because they demonstrate, to a certain extent, your skills in the above areas. No matter what you end up majoring in, critical reasoning skills, as well as writing skills, will end up being important. While it can be difficult to judge these skills based on one 40-minute essay, the four categories of the rubric and corresponding scores give admissions officers at least some sense of your experience and skill in these areas.
Where’s That Ideas and Analysis Class Again?
I know it seems like your education might not have prepared you for the ACT Essay. However, you’d be surprised at how much you already know. Your English classes will have taught you a lot about all four categories, while essays you’ve written for History, Social Studies, and even Science classes will have helped you develop skills in the areas of Development and Support and Organization. All the better if you’ve taken a class on persuasive writing or speeches.
How to Study for the ACT Essay Without Studying
I mean…you should do some specific studying for the ACT Essay! But know that you’re already preparing for the essay in your everyday life, even if you don’t know it. Every time you listen to someone’s opinion and evaluate it, every time you respond with your own opinion, you’re using the exact critical reasoning skills that the ACT Writing section tests.
It doesn’t hurt if you’re on the debate team, either.
ACT vs SAT Essays
If you’re still on the fence about whether or not to take the ACT at all, and take the SAT instead, comparing the two essays might help. While there are a lot of factors to take into consideration when making this decision, knowing the differences in the essays may just prove to be the tipping factor that helps you decide in favor of one test.
Both the ACT and the SAT each have one essay. The ACT gives you 40 minutes to write it, while the SAT gives you 50 minutes to write it. The essay is optional on both tests. Furthermore, the essay is always the last section on each exam (this hasn’t always been the case with the SAT, but it is now!).
So what is the difference between the two essays? Well, it’s the type of assignment you’ll get.
On the ACT, as we’ve seen, you’ll see three different opinions on a debatable topic; the essay prompt will ask you to evaluate them and come up with your own opinion.
On the other hand, the SAT gives you a rather long (650-700 word) passage to read, then asks you to evaluate how the author develops his or her argument. Unlike the ACT, you do not include your own opinion or arguments on the SAT Essay.
So how to choose?
If you’re good at coming up with an opinion and developing strong examples quickly, the ACT Essay’s the one for on you. But
if you’re better at analyzing other people’s writing (the kind of work you do for most literature essays, for example), the SAT’s the better way to go.
For a more info, here’s our undergrad test expert Kristin with some details!
Giving the Sorting Hat Options: Should I Take ACT Writing?
If you’ve decided to take the ACT: awesome! I get it, though—you have enough decisions to make without throwing one more on top of the pile!
we pretty much already know where you’re going.
Still, you will have to decide whether or not to take the ACT with Writing.
While we don’t have Madame Trelawney’s crystal ball (which, let’s face it, was pretty useless for the most part), we DO have a way to help you decide whether or not to take the ACT Essay section or not: our very own, expertly written quiz!
“Should I Take the ACT Writing Test?” Test
The Final Word: Be a Gryffindor and Take a Risk
The final answer is, you should probably take the test.
The vast majority of colleges don’t require writing, but the majority of highly competitive colleges do, which means if you aren’t 100% sure where you want to apply yet (and most juniors taking the ACT are not), you might be limiting your options if you don’t take the optional essay.
If you can spare the fee and feel you can get a good score, a decent ACT Writing score opens a lot of doors to you. It certainly doesn’t hurt your odds of being accepted into any school, but of course, every test-taker has different needs and realistically there are some situations where taking the ACT Writing Test may not be practical.
But if you are very uncomfortable with writing or don’t plan to apply to schools that require the essay, well, there’s no need to put yourself through another 40 minutes of agony.
Here’s a slightly more detailed answer:
ACT Writing Prompts
So you’ve decided to continue with the ACT Essay. Great!
Or, you know, 12.
Let’s get into a little more detail. By now, you already know that you’re going to be evaluating three different perspectives on a debatable issue.
But what does that look like in practice?
Glad you asked! Here’s a Magoosh example of an ACT Essay prompt and stimulus.
ACT Essay Prompt: Censorship
Almost since human beings began sharing ideas, the issue of censorship (officially suppressing ideas or writing) has been debated. Proponents of censorship argue, for example, that offensive material might morally corrupt children or that governments have the right to protect their national secrets. Opponents argue that censorship infringes on individual freedom and hinders progress. Censorship has long been an issue regarding books and papers; now, it has become a critical issue concerning the great amount of information on the Internet. Given the continued impact of censorship on various aspects of our lives, it is an issue worth examining.
Read and carefully consider these perspectives. Each suggests a particular way of thinking about the impact of censorship.
Selective censorship prevents children from being exposed to offensive material. It allows parents and caretakers to determine what material children are ready for and when they are ready based on their maturity level.
Censorship intrudes upon freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Individuals have the right to learn about their world, both its positive and negative aspects, and express their ideas on it.
Censorship should not be condoned because it places too much power in the hands of a few: no government or leadership system should be allowed to decide what information should reach the public.
Write a unified, coherent essay in which you evaluate multiple perspectives on the impact of censorship on society. In your essay, be sure to:
- analyze and evaluate the perspectives given
- state and develop your own perspective on the issue
- explain the relationship between your perspective and those given
Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of the others, in partial agreement, or wholly different. Whatever the case, support your ideas with logical reasoning and detailed, persuasive examples.
…And that’s what an ACT Essay prompt looks like!
Want More ACT Essay Prompts?
You can find an official sample ACT writing prompt here, and you can find another ACT Writing practice prompt released by the ACT in the Preparing for the ACT guide here.
For Studious Ravenclaws: How Can You Grade Your Practice ACT Essay?
If you went the extra mile and used one of the above prompts for practice, fantastic! What now, though? What do you do with this beautiful practice ACT essay you’ve just written?
The first thing to do is to edit it, particularly if you wrote it under timed conditions (remember: ACT Essay time = 40 minutes). Without the constraints of time, you may see points you wish you’d developed, examples that could have been better, or even ways in which you could have improved your thesis statement.
However, if you’re going to improve significantly, it’s best to get a helping hand for editing. English teachers are a great resource; guidance counselors may also have enough familiarity with the ACT to help edit your essays. In most high schools, one teacher or staff member is usually the point person for standardized tests, and they’re a good place to start.
They can also be useful when it comes to grading your essay. Of course, you can and should use the rubric to grade your essay yourself; however, on the official ACT exam, you’ll have two graders—neither of whom will be as hard (or as easy) on you as, well, you are!
Once you’ve found your designated grader and/or editor, you can use Magoosh’s handy ACT Essay scoring tool to see what your current score would be.
ACT Writing Test Struggles: Be a Hufflepuff and Keep Going
After you’ve written a few practice essays (you can find even more prompts on full-length practice tests, which are a good idea to take regularly anyway!) and worked through scoring and edits with your designated ACT Writing expert, you may notice that you’re struggling in an area or two (or three, or four). That’s only natural—this is a new task for you, after all! And you may be relieved to find that several problems in particular crop up for students facing the ACT Writing test.
Where Most Students Struggle on the ACT Essay
In my experience, students struggle the most to:
- Pick an opinion to side with…
- …and to come up with creative examples to support it.
Notice that these are the first two categories of that good ol’ rubric, “Ideas and Analysis” and “Development and Support.” There are strategies you can use to work on your organization and language usage (and we’ll look at those in a little bit), but a lot of students just don’t trust their own ideas.
Choosing a Side
To help you with #1, Magoosh’s ACT expert David Recine did a little digging. Okay, a lot of digging. He called the ACT. Here’s what he found out:
There is a weird apparent contradiction between the ACT Essay requirements in the official ACT Essay score guide, and the requirements that appear in the ACT Essay examples on the official ACT website.
Remember how the ACT Essay prompt presents an issue and three opinions on the issue? Well, in the instructions for the sample ACT Essay prompt on the ACT website, it says you need to “analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective.” Therein lies the contradiction. The official ACT Essay score guide emphasizes the importance of analyzing “multiple perspectives.”
So which is it? To find out, I contacted ACT customer service. The representative I spoke with said that the online essay prompt mentions “at least one perspective” because you need to analyze at least one of the three perspectives to have a chance at a score of more than 2. She then informed me that you need to analyze two or three of the given perspectives to have any chance at a score of 10 or higher. From there, ACT Customer service emphasized that including all three perspectives gives you the best possible chance at the full 12 points.
The customer service rep’s argument in favor of analyzing all three perspectives is supported in The Official ACT Prep Guide. Interestingly, the ACT Prep Guide’s prompts do not indicate that one perspective may be enough. Unlike the essay prompt on the ACT website, the writing instructions in the ACT OG tell you “evaluate multiple perspectives” and “evaluate perspectives given.”
So, if you want the best possible score (and who doesn’t?), you should include all three given perspectives — along with your own — in the new ACT Essay.
So that’s definitely something to keep in mind when you’re shaping your thesis statement.
Here’s some more food for thought, particularly if you’re aiming for that perfect 12. Choose the option to provide your own perspective on the ACT essay, but only switch it up slightly.
Now, this is tricky. You can get a perfect score simply by completely agreeing with one of the three presented perspectives, and for the vast majority of students, this is the best course of action to make sure you don’t go completely off track and end up hurting your score. However, if you consider yourself to be a very strong writer, you might be able to truly impress by adding your own twist on the prompt. In most cases, the easiest way to do this is to narrow the scope of one of the perspectives. For example, if you look at sample essay #5 on actstudent.org, you’ll see that the graders applauded the student for evaluating the perspectives through the “lens of a particular ideology”: capitalism: