What To Know About The Writing Section Of The ACT

The ACT Plus Writing includes an optional supplement to the standard exam. The half-hour test assesses your writing skills – especially those writing skills emphasized in your high school English courses and in entry-level college composition classes. We’ll go over if you should register to take the additional Writing Test, what the prompt looks like, how to optimize your exam grade, and exactly what the ACT scorers are looking for when they read your essay. If you think you need additional assistance, you may want to contact an ACT tutor or review an ACT prep book.

What does the Writing Test look like? The writing portion of the ACT gives a single prompt that describes an issue and the opposing points of view on the subject. You will be asked to state your position and adopt one or more of the stances described in the question. Your score will not be affected by your viewpoint.

Since the Writing Test is optional, do I actually need to take it? It depends on where you are applying. Some colleges and universities have decided to either require or recommend their ACT-taking applicants (as opposed to the SAT) opt for the Writing Test. Others have decided that Writing Test scores are not necessary. In other words, you should decide if you want to take the writing portion based on the requirements of the colleges to which you are applying. For example, Princeton and Yale both require the ACT Plus Writing, while Notre Dame and Johns Hopkins University recommend it, and Georgetown University has decided the supplement is not needed altogether. If you are planning on applying to multiple schools, contact the admissions office or check online to find out their preferences when it comes to the writing exam. Even if they do not require it, most colleges will accept scores from the ACT Plus Writing.

But my dream school doesn’t require the Writing Test. So do you really, really need to sit through another 30 minutes of the ACT? Unless you think you’ll do terribly, it’s safest in the long run to take the writing exam in case you change your mind, apply elsewhere, or are not accepted to your first choice school. If you’re planning on applying to school(s) that don’t require the writing supplement, but change your mind and decide to apply to one that does, you wouldn’t want to have to retake the entire ACT just to include the Writing Test. That said, it’s best to take the ACT Plus Writing so you are not limiting yourself in the college admissions process.  

Does it matter when I take it? It actually doesn’t - the ACT Plus Writing exam is offered on all national test dates in the United States, US territories, Puerto Rico, and Canada. It is also available on four international test days in other areas, and for Special or Arranged Testing.

Does taking the ACT Plus Writing affect the price? Yes. Taking the standard ACT (with no writing) is $34 and taking the ACT Plus Writing is $49.50. The extra price tag includes score reports for up to four colleges when you list a valid code when you register online. However, the extra $15.50 writing exam fee is refundable on request if you are absent or decide to take the standard ACT (with no writing) before test day.  

What exactly am I being scored on? The ACT raters have a set of criteria that they use to judge each individual essay. Grades are given based on how well you articulate your perspective, use supporting evidence and logic, and maintain an emphasis on your position throughout the essay.  Your ability to organize ideas logically and how well you communicate your argument through writing are also judged.  

How can I optimize my score? Make sure you understand the prompt and the issue at hand – it’s okay to take another minute and reread the question. Be careful when picking a stance and remember that you don’t necessarily have to take the position you believe. Instead, argue the perspective that you can give the best evidence for.

Before beginning, use your Writing Test booklet to jot down some notes, organize your essay or create a brief outline. Brainstorm some reasons and examples you can use to explain your point of view on the topic. Keep in mind how others could respond to your viewpoint and how you could disprove their arguments. Spending a few minutes planning the layout of your essay ahead of time will help keep you on track and organized while you’re writing.  

In your introduction, explain the issue and your position in a clear and rational way. In the next paragraph or two, elaborate on the topic in a larger context or describe the implications and why it is especially problematical. Be persuasive and address how those in opposition could respond to your viewpoint and provide a convincing counterargument. Stay focused on the subject and present specific examples. Your essay will be stronger if you clarify logical relationships by employing transitional phrases and words, varying sentence structure, and using precise and diverse word choices. Wrap up your essay with a powerful conclusion that summarizes or reinforces your argument.

Time is short on the Writing Test, so make the most of the 30 minutes. While you may also use ACT practice tests to prep for the rest of the exam, don't forget to prepare accordingly for this portion as well. On the test, remember to recheck your work before time is up, and fix any errors in grammar, punctuation, or spelling, and make sure that all words are easy to read.