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Since the introduction of the new style ACT essay in September 2015, students have had to step up their essays! The old prompt was pretty basic – an easy, practical, relatable topic for most high school students. Now, the prompt deliberately discourages the black and white, one-sided arguments that were common on the old ACT writing test.

The new prompt presents an issue that may not be something you have direct experience of – i.e. it may not be specifically about high school. You need to extend your own personal experience and apply it to other issues. Additionally, instead of the 2 opposing points of view that you were presented with on the old style essay, you’re now given 3 different points of view.

For the new ACT writing test, you’ll find that you need to put more thought into planning – that extra 10 minutes will help you create a really well thought out response to the new ACT writing test prompt. Be careful to consider all the perspectives, even if you don’t directly reference all of them. Your essay has to contain a consideration of all point of view, and recognize that the issue you’re presented with is complex, even if you strongly side with one position given in the prompt.


ACT Essay scoring changes

ACT Essay scoring changes published on


Most of us have noticed that the ACT scoring for the new essay introduced in 2015 is …. a little unreliable, to say the least! Most people’s composite scores are much higher than their essay scores (as in, getting a composite score of 30 and an essay score of 20!), and often a student’s scores vary quite a lot across different tests. The ACT has clued in, and decided to devise a new ACT essay scoring procedure. This was announced on the 28th June, and the first test affected will be September 2016.

ACT essay scores new change

Why the changes to the essay score?


The ACT measures something called Standard Error of Measurement – the amount by which your score could be expected to change on a different test date (assuming that you remain the same). The SEM for your composite scores is 1, meaning that if your true score is a 27, you could reasonably get a 26 or a 28. However, on the essay, the SEM was 4, meaning that if you got a 26, that could have easily been a 22 or a 30, or anywhere in between. This is way too high, so what they’ve done is compressed the scale together – your essay score will now be reported on a 2-12 range.


What hasn’t changed in the new scoring?

  • The essay prompts are still exactly the same.
  • Your score is still calculated on the four categories: Ideas & Analysis, Development & Support, Language Use and Organization.
  • You still have two markers grading you out of 6 on each category. Their scores get added together in each category.


What has changed in the new scoring?

  • Your score is no longer out of 36, it’s now out of 12
  • Your new score is simply the average of your scores out of 12 on each category

Help! I don’t know what to write in my ACT essay

Help! I don’t know what to write in my ACT essay published on


The essay topics on the new ACT are very specific, and with the new format, they are sometimes things that you don’t have much experience with. In my opinion, this change is deliberate, and the test makers are trying to gauge how you observe an analyze the world around you – in other words, whether you notice everyday events and actually think about them.

A key change in the new essay is that it hinges on good examples. There is a whole category for this in the marking rubric – it’s called ‘Development & Support’. If you have good examples that prove your point, and you build your argument around them, you should score highly in this category, and you will also know what to write!


When I teach the essay section to my students, I tell them to think of examples that relate to the topic, then construct the essay around them. Just as a side note, I’m mostly focusing on content of the essay here, rather than the structure and format of the essay.


Here’s how I think you can find your examples:

  • Imagine opening a newspaper and reading an article about the given topic. Consider what the headlines would be? I came up with a good one with my student Tim the other day. Our topic was about whether both arts and sciences courses should be mandatory in high school. My article headline was ‘American students behind Asian students in mathematics’, which is a headline I have actually seen! His headline was ‘students lack creativity due to poor arts funding’. The fact that we both came up with opposing stories just illustrates the different points of view on this topic! These could form your examples, illustrating how both are valued and a balance is needed.
  • Think of an example from your own experience. If the topic is ‘Internet Privacy’ – do you think that the government should be able to access our browsing history, or not? Think about how you’d feel if it were your school? Would you change your behaviour – and do you think you should have to? What if you were researching a controversial topic for an essay, but got called in to speak with the principal over it? This is an important question, because it could happen on a government level. For example, some journalists are in regular contact with known terrorists for their reporting – what if the government started reading their communications because of that? The second situation, which you might not actually know about, is just an extension of the one that you thought of based on your experience! Showing that you can draw parallels between different situations like this is a good way to use your analytical skills.
  • If you can think of a historical example, this is often a good idea. It shows that you can appreciate how this issue might have been dealt with in the past, and you can see past the specifics of the modern situation and relate it to something similar. For example, if your topic is technology, think of things that were considered very advanced, but that we now take for granted. Think about the changes they brought in the world and what that meant to everyday people then. Good examples here would be radio, the printing press, weaving machines etc. This is exactly what the “perfect” essay on the ACT website does.


When you’re practicing for the essay, brainstorm some topics just to think of potential issues. For example, your issue could be healthcare. Potential essay topics here include who should be responsible for paying for healthcare, public health issues such as obesity or laws governing alternative health. You can then search a news site for the category to see what the issues actually are. Do this a few times, and you’ll be finding some great examples to use!

Remember to use your examples logically, and be clear about what your point actually is. Plan first, and think about which perspective you agree with. If you don’t make a clear argument out of your examples you won’t score highly. Use your examples to decide what your opinion is, and make sure that you develop your point based on your examples, rather than just fitting them in your paragraph whenever you get stuck on what to write next. Also remember to spend 2 minutes proofreading your essay at the end!

Is the new ACT writing test harder?

Is the new ACT writing test harder? published on

Since September 2015, ACT test takers have been writing the the new style essay. Major changes include timing (increased to 40 minutes), the issue (not directly related to high school students, as the old ones usually were) and the 3 perspectives that you have to evaluate.

Generally it’s a more complex task – there is more information given to you at the beginning, and the perspectives don’t take such a one-sided opinion as the older ones did. This means that your argument must be more complex overall – they are looking for some analysis about the validity of the other arguments as well as examples to support your point. It’s not enough to state your opinion anymore.

The scoring has also changed – you are marked in these 4 categories:

  • Ideas and Analysis (your examples and what you say about the Perspectives)
  • Development and Support (how you craft your argument and use the examples and Perspectives)
  • Organization (structure and transitions)
  • Language Use (grammar, sentence structure etc).

These are all scored on the 2-12 range, then scaled out of 36 so you can compare them with your other section scores.


Here’s the sample prompt from the ACT:

The New ACT Essay Prompt


So is the new ACT essay harder?

Basically, yes! For the old writing section the 51st-87th percentiles are the 7-8 range. This would translate to the 21-24 range on the new score (just multiplying by 3 to get the scores out of 36). What we actually see is that those scores are now achieved by students in the 74th – 88th percentiles.

UPDATE: The ACT has finally realised that this is true, and that it’s confusing people! So they have now switched back to the 2-12 scale for essay scores.

Percentile Old writing score (multiplied by 3) New writing score
25th 15 12
50th 21 17
75th 24 21
95th + 27+ 27+

Alternatively, a 50th percentile student would get a 21 on the old essay (if it were scored out of 36), but only a 17 on the new essay.

Whilst this doesn’t necessarily prove that the test is harder, it does prove that students scored lower on the September test than they would have on previous tests. The only exception is at the top end of the scale, where students in the 95th percentile or above score anywhere from a 27 upwards. The most significant score drop is for the average student, who sees a 3 or 4 point drop in their writing score.

Here’s the full percentile chart if you’re interested!

ACT writing score essay September 2015 first new


Why are the scores lower?

This may be because the average student may not have been prepared for the new test. There are not many sample prompts around, and some test prep companies didn’t know about the change. If the same chart for October and December looks more similar to the previous figures, it will appear that students are adjusting.

What can you do to raise your score?

  • Get hold of as many sample prompts as you can, and practice them.
  • Get someone to read over your essay to check that your argument makes sense, and that you’ve effectively used your examples to answer the question.
  • Read this article!