ACT Now Scoring Writing Section More Harshly

This past fall, the ACT Writing section began featuring a new essay and scoring rubric. Students who took the ACT before it changed, then sat for the exam again after the changes were made, may have noticed a drop in their Writing scores. You aren’t alone.

After aggregating data from students after the first full semester that the new ACT essay made its appearance, it is clear that the scoring on the Writing section has become much more stringent. One of the biggest changes has been that the ACT essay is now scored on the same 36-point scale as other sections (instead of the old 12 points). On other 36-point sections the national average score is a 21. On the new essay section, however, students are averaging a score of 16.5. 

Here’s what you need to know.

With changes to any standardized test comes a period of trial and error, which is probably what we are seeing. The ACT may just need more time to smooth out the kinks of the new scoring rubric.

It may also be because of the way the essay is graded. On other sections, students have anywhere between 40 and 75 questions to earn points on (that are clearly either right or wrong). Then the ACT scorers just tally up the right answers and adjust the number of correct answers to the 36-point scale. A pretty easy task. But the essay is an entirely different ballgame. On the essay a grader assigns a score out of 6 possible points for 4 different aspects of your essay. These (somewhat subjective) scores are then added to another grader's similar scores and then stretched to meet a 36-point scale. This approach may make it hard for the ACT scorers to create the usual bell curve they shoot for and get the averages to line up with the other sections.

We aren't entirely sure why the ACT hasn't opened up about the score deflation, but we are carefully tracking the data to keep our parents and counselors informed. The ArborBridge ACT curriculum has adjusted its essay scoring on the most recent practice exams to align with the ACT's newly released data. In most cases, students will see a 5-point decrease in their practice essay scores due to this new scale. Why? We want everyone to be prepared for how hard the new scoring system is and give each of our students a shot at working towards their goals with this new knowledge. But rest assured, ArborBridge tutors have been kept up to speed during this whole transition. They understand how to interpret a student's Writing score and map out a game plan to his or her highest score.

Additionally, now more than ever, students should check the standardized test essay requirements of the colleges they plan to apply to. Some schools, in light of both the ACT essay changing as well as the redesigned SAT this coming March, may make the essay section optional. But students should not automatically assume that schools will do so—make sure to visit each school's website before opting out of the ACT essay.

 Still have questions? Don't hesitate to contact a test prep expert at We're always happy to chat!
Megan Stubbendeck

About Megan Stubbendeck

Dr. Megan Stubbendeck is an eight-year veteran of the test prep industry with ten years of teaching experience. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Virginia, where she taught for three years in the History Department. She has been part of the test prep industry since 2007 and has earned perfect scores on the SAT, ACT, GRE, and multiple AP exams. As the CEO of ArborBridge, Megan oversees all aspects of ArborBridge operations and helped to create our innovative curriculum.

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