iStock_000000177024XSmallThe ACT underwent some changes in 2015 none more dramatic than the optional essay section. It was completely overhauled aimed at getting more to what colleges want students to demonstrate.  Seniors going for a final retest before application submission found themselves straddling two different versions of the essay portion. Most juniors have only tested with the new essay.

“My essay score doesn’t match the rest!” “I did really well on the old type of essay test – what happened?!” “Does ACT really have the new essay scoring figured out yet?” “ACT essay readers need some training!” These are the shouts of our exasperated clients at LEAP.

After four ACT’s under the new essay requirements, we have some take-aways, opinions and advice. 

  • It’s not your imagination, those essay scores are lower and particularly in 2015 didn’t seem to “fit” with our students’ scores on the other parts of their ACT.
  • With the February 2016 scores, we’ve seen much higher scores. One LEAP client received a 30 and another a perfect 36! Are we getting better at prepping the new type of prompt? Do students do better on subsequent attempts? Is ACT perhaps grading a little different? The answer is likely yes to some degree on all of those factors. However the student with the 36 essay score had never taken an actual ACT before.
  • In examining your essay scores, there are four subscores, however the scaling to move from a raw to scaled score is NOT adding up the the four subscores. This is the same on the other four portions of the test. For instance the English score 1-36 is not the sum of usage and mechanics and rhetorical skillsThis is not a change.
  • Remember, the essay is optional and therefore doesn’t affect the Composite score which is the main score colleges look at. Go to the ACT site to search the database of which colleges have reported they will require and count the essay in their admission process.
  • You’ve heard you can pay ACT $50 to have your essay reviewed to check for errors. This is true, and they will refund the fee if they find an error. I don’t know that I’d recommend this as a wise investment; I’ve just not known ACT (or SAT for that matter) to admit to many mistakes over the years – even when student answer sheets were lost! They said it was the high school’s fault or the shipping company’s, but not their fault.  However, the option is there if you feel strongly.

Some advice.

  • Continue to take the ACT essay portion of the ACT when you retest. This offers room for improvement whether yours or ACT graders. By continuing to take the essay portion, you’ll have it attached to your highest ACT Composite you send to colleges and leave the door open to applying to all colleges regardless of testing requirements.
  • Ask your high school counselor for an actual PDF copy of your essay through ACT’s Essay View service. Then review what you wrote while having the essay scoring rubric close by. By the way, we are looking for current examples for our staff of a wide variety of scores and keep the student name anonymous. You can email your PDF to
  • Practice, practice, practice in a timed setting whether independently or part of an organized test prep program like LEAP’s.

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