What To Know About The ACT’s Optional Writing Section

When you prepare to sign up for the ACT, you might feel unsure about whether or not to take the ACT Writing portion because it’s an optional section. 

Since the section is an additional and optional portion of the ACT, you only need to take the ACT if the schools you are applying to require an ACT Writing score in their application.

However, there are a few factors to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to take the ACT Writing portion. Keep reading to find out more about what the section actually consists of and how to know if you should sign up to complete the optional Writing portion.

What Is The Writing Section Of The ACT?

The Writing section of the ACT is an optional, additional section taken after all other sections of the ACT.

The ACT Writing section is designed to test your ability to craft a concise, well constructed, and compelling essay under a time limit. In shorter terms, it’s basically a test of writing skills you should have picked up throughout your high school English classes.

In this optional section, you will receive a prompt that describes an issue of some kind. The prompt will also include three different perspectives on the issue described. Using the information in the prompt, you will have to write an essay in which you explain your own perspective on the issue. According to the official ACT website, your essay has to “analyze the relationship between your own perspective and one or more other perspectives [provided in the prompt].” Your score is not based on what perspective you take on the issue, but rather how well you were able to communicate your perspective and put it in conversation with other perspectives.

How Is The ACT Writing Section Scored?

The ACT Writing section is not part of your overall ACT score out of 36. Instead, you will receive a separate score if you choose to take the Writing section.

For the ACT Writing section, you will receive five scores from two different graders. The scorers will provide you with a “single subject level writing score reported on a scale of 2-12 and four domain scores that are based on an analytic scoring rubric.” Your subject score will be the rounded average of the four domain scores. 

For instance, Grader 1 will score your essay by giving you a score of 1-6 for each “domain” (section of the rubric). Grader 1 will take the average of the 4 domain scores to come to a final score of 1-6. Grader 2 will repeat this process, and your final ACT single subject score will be the sum of Grader 1 and Grader 2’s final scores. Therefore, if Grader 1 scores your essay as a 5 and Grader 2 scores your essay as a 4, then your total composite ACT Writing score will be 9 (out of 12). 

The four writing domains that your essay is scored on are:

  • Ideas and analysis
  • Development and support
  • Organization
  • Language use and conventions

Each of the writing domains will score your essay based on how well it demonstrated the writing techniques and conventions outlined by the separate domains.

The ideas and analysis domain will score your essay based on its ability to critically engage with the other perspectives given in the prompt. You will be scored in this domain based on your ability to appropriately address the issue given in the prompt and generate ideas relevant to the situation.

The development and support domain will score your essay based on its ability to explain and support your arguments and ideas. For instance, an essay that supports its arguments with both clear rationale and examples will receive a higher score than an essay that might just present an argument without much supporting evidence. If the reader is able to read your essay and understand your logic as you approach the prompt, you would likely receive a higher score in this domain.

The organization domain will score your essay based on the clarity and structure of your essay. It will evaluate your ability to organize your ideas in a way that flows logically and allows readers to clearly follow your points. This domain will determine how well your essay was able to guide readers through complex arguments and how well you showed the relationship between different ideas or points.

The language use and conventions domain will score your essay based on writing conventions like grammar, syntax, word choice (diction), and mechanics. This domain will also consider your writing tone, and whether your tone and style were effective and appropriate to communicate your argument.

What Is Considered A Good ACT Writing Score?

The lowest score you can receive on the ACT Writing section is 2 and the highest is 12. The average score is 6-7. To get a better feel for what a “good” ACT Writing score means, review the percentile chart below with data provided by the ACT itself.

ACT Writing ScoreAssociated Percentile

Keep in mind that percentiles refer to how well you did in relation to other test takers. For instance, if you scored a 12 on the ACT Writing section and are in the 100th percentile, that means you scored higher than or on par with 100% of the students who took the ACT Writing section. The higher your percentile, the better.

How Long Is The ACT Writing Section?

If you register for the ACT with the optional writing portion, you will take the essay section after the four multiple choice sections of the ACT.

The ACT Writing section is 40 minutes long and consists of one writing prompt that you will address in your essay. 

Signing up for the optional essay portion means the ACT will last around 3 hours and 40 minutes, or around 4 hours including breaks in between sections. By contrast, the ACT without the Writing section will last around 3 hours, or 3 hours and 30 minutes including breaks. 

Is The Writing Portion Of The ACT Required?

As mentioned above, the Writing section of the ACT is completely optional.

However, there are a select few colleges in the United States that do require the ACT Writing section. Additionally, there are colleges and universities that do recommend that their applicants take the ACT with Writing. Even if you are not applying to schools that require the ACT Writing section, you might want to check if your target schools recommend it. Beyond strict requirement, there are multiple factors you should consider when you decide whether or not to take the ACT Writing section. 

Complete List Of Colleges Requiring ACT Writing

Only a few colleges require their applicants to take ACT Writing as of 2023. Some of them are listed below:

  • Martin Luther Colleges
  • Soka University of America
  • United States Military Academy, also known as West Point
  • University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
  • Yellowstone Christian College

For a full list, read our article on “Colleges That Require ACT Writing.” If a college requires ACT Writing, they will not review your application unless you have completed the ACT with Writing. If you apply to any of the above colleges without an ACT Writing score, the admissions committee will mark your application as incomplete and will not review it.

Colleges That Recommend ACT Writing

There is a difference between colleges that recommend ACT Writing and colleges that simply accept ACT Writing scores. If a school’s admissions page or admissions officer states that their school recommends ACT Writing, this means a strong score could provide a boost to an application. On the other hand, if a school simply says they will accept ACT Writing scores, this means they will see your score, but it might not matter to the institution in terms of admission and might not affect your application at all.

Here is a list of schools in the U.S. that explicitly state that they recommend taking ACT Writing as of 2023:

  • Bethune Cookman University
  • Colorado School of Mines
  • Morehouse College
  • Molloy College

Does The Writing Section Of The ACT Affect Your ACT Score?

As mentioned above, the writing section of the ACT will not affect your composite ACT score out of 36. 

Instead, your ACT Writing score will be a separate score – for a more in-depth description of ACT scoring, refer to the previous section “How Is The ACT Writing Section Scored?”

Does The ACT Writing Section Score Affect College Admissions?

While this isn’t the answer you probably want to hear, the truth is that it just depends.

If you are applying to a school that explicitly requires that applicants take the ACT Writing section, then yes, the ACT Writing section score absolutely matters. In fact, if you don’t end up taking the optional Writing portion, these schools will not even review your application. 

However, there are only a handful of schools that require the optional Writing portion, meaning most of the schools you apply to will not be ACT Writing required. If you are applying to schools that are ACT Writing recommended, you should probably strongly consider signing up for the optional section. Colleges that explicitly recommend ACT Writing are indicating that a good ACT Writing score could impact your chances of admission, so practicing for and taking the optional section could really boost your application.

For most colleges and universities in the United States, the ACT Writing section is neither explicitly required nor recommended. So, you will need to use your best judgment when determining whether or not to sign up for the ACT with Writing. This must be done on a case to case basis, because everybody is different and will be applying to different schools and programs.

If you have your sights set on a highly competitive school, then you might want to consider taking the ACT with Writing. Since the pool of applicants is extremely strong for highly competitive schools like Ivy League schools, you want to give yourself the best chance of demonstrating skill and academic ability as possible. Practicing and studying for the ACT Writing section and scoring well will definitely be a plus, although it obviously might not be the deciding factor between admission and rejection. Since many students applying to top universities are extremely high achieving, they might have taken the ACT Writing section as well. 

Obviously, different students have different goals, strengths, and interests. So, if you are applying to a STEM-focused school with the stated intention of studying a STEM subject, then it might not be as relevant to college admissions officers what your ACT Writing score is compared to someone who is applying to a humanities college with the intent of studying journalism. However, just keep in mind that every discipline, even STEM, depends on writing to some extent (for instance, STEM-focused schools might want to know you would be able to write successful and publishable research papers). Therefore, if you have strong writing skills and time to practice for the optional Writing section, it would be a good idea to take the Writing portion.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the SAT has recently removed their optional essay portion completely, which has led to some changes in Writing section policy from many schools. One of the best ways to help determine whether or not you should sign up for the optional Writing portion is to look up the ACT Writing score policy for all of the schools you plan on applying to. If the schools you are applying to do not even consider ACT Writing scores in their admissions process, then it’s not worth the time and effort to take the additional section. 

What To Keep In Mind When Deciding Whether Or Not To Take ACT Writing

Cost And Time

The optional ACT Writing section does cost more money to register for. There is an extra $25 fee to sign up and sit for the Writing section. If this additional cost poses an issue, you might be able to qualify for a fee waiver to add the Writing section for free. Keep in mind that you can’t apply for a fee waiver yourself — your high school must apply for you. Therefore, if you think you may need a fee waiver, make sure to work with your school counselor to determine if you are eligible ahead of when you want to sign up for the exam. 

Additionally, the Writing section lasts 40 additional minutes as mentioned previously, meaning you will be at the test center after the required, multiple choice portions of the ACT have concluded. Students who didn’t sign up for the ACT Writing section will leave the testing center and those who have signed up for the additional section will stay.

Anticipated Score

If you are a strong writer and feel comfortable writing essays, then you should consider taking the ACT Writing portion even if you are not applying to colleges that require or recommend the ACT Writing section. 

Since the Writing section score is not included in the total composite score for the multiple choice sections of the ACT, it’s not considered to be super important unless you are applying to a school that has ACT required or recommended policies. So, if you’re a strong writer and feel confident in your ability, taking the ACT Writing section will just be another way to emphasize your communication and writing strength. If you are not a strong writer and struggle with English classes (and are not applying to an ACT required or recommended school), then you might not want to sign up since there is a larger risk to reward ratio. 

Generally, admissions officers do not place as much weight onto the ACT Writing score as they would for an applicant’s English grades and application essays. However, it is possible that a strong ACT Writing score can slightly boost an applicant’s chances of admission if they have demonstrated they have a slightly weaker English academic background (based on school transcripts). 

Study Schedule

In addition to the monetary cost associated with signing up for the additional Writing portion, there is also a time commitment required if you decide to take the ACT with Writing. 

If you sign up for the Writing section, then you should read through the grading rubrics to get an understanding of what they are looking for in an essay. You should also look for ACT Writing prompts and practice writing a cohesive essay in 40 minutes to practice writing under the stress of a time limit. 

For students who might be cramming for the ACT multiple choice sections and are working under a very tight timeframe, it might not be the best idea to also sign up for the ACT Writing section (again, unless they are applying to an ACT Writing required or recommended school). You should not sacrifice any ACT multiple choice section study time to study for the Writing section, as your composite ACT score is much more important than your ACT Writing score. Studying and preparing for the ACT Writing section should be an additional effort, not one that takes time away from your ACT preparation.

How To Prepare For The ACT Writing Section

The best way to prepare for the ACT Writing section is to review the scoring rubric and practice writing using ACT essay prompts. 

The ACT official website provides six different sample prompts that you can use to practice. Below, we’ll include the first sample prompt from the ACT’s website.

“This sample prompt, Intelligent Machines, is representative of the prompts that will be used for the ACT writing test.

The test describes an issue and provides three different perspectives on the issue. You are asked to read and consider the issue and perspectives, state your own perspective on the issue, and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective on the issue. Your score will not be affected by the perspective you take on the issue.

Sample Prompt: 

Intelligent Machines

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.

Read and carefully consider these perspectives. Each suggests a particular way of thinking about the increasing presence of intelligent machines. 

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.”

The official ACT website also includes sample responses, so you can read the sample essays they provide in response to the prompts in order to get a feel for what your essay might resemble. They even provide 6 different responses that receive different scores so you can read the difference and understand what essays might score well and what essays might not. Read the sample responses for the above prompt here.

For specific strategies and approaches to use in the ACT Writing section, read our article on “ACT Writing Tips To Ace Your Essay.”

ACT Writing Tips

  • Don’t force extremely complex vocabulary. Including complex vocabulary words here and there can definitely boost your ACT score and perceived writing skills, but not if you are oversaturating your essay with complicated terms. Especially if you’re not sure how to spell a word or are shaky on its meaning, it’s best to choose a simpler word that you do know how to spell and use.
  • Use legible handwriting. Graders don’t want to struggle to even read your essay. Give yourself the best chance of communicating your ideas by practicing clean and legible handwriting.
  • Keep tone and audience in mind. Remember that your audience is an ACT Writing section grader, so don’t be overly casual in tone and stay away from inappropriate language.
  • If possible, write as much as you can. ACT graders tend to reward longer essays, so if you can, try to write at least four paragraphs across 2-3 pages. However, if you don’t have any more points to make, do not repeat yourself just to pad your word count.

Prepare For The ACT Writing Section With SoFlo Tutors

Whether you’re planning on taking the ACT with or without the optional Writing section, work with SoFlo Tutors to boost your scores. SoFlo Tutors are students at top universities across the United States that scored in the highest percentiles of the SAT and ACT. Schedule a free consultation call or visit our website to learn more!

About The Author

Emily is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and will be working in marketing in New York City. In her free time, she enjoys painting and playing the guitar.

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