Should You Take the ACT Plus Writing Test?

Essay As an ACT tutor, one of the most frequent questions I’m asked by students is whether or not they should take the ACT Plus Writing test. Don’t let the fancy name throw you off; the ACT Plus Writing Test is just the ACT with an essay added onto the end. Unlike the SAT essay, however, the ACT essay is optional, so most ACT-takers inevitably wonder if it’s worth the extra time and effort to prepare for the ACT essay.

When I speak to any of my students about this in person, I always ask them the following questions, which I’ll now give to you:

  • Do the colleges you are applying to require it?
  • How much time do you have to prepare for the upcoming ACT?
  • How comfortable are you with timed and/or in-class essays in general?

So, let’s start with question 1. If you can’t answer that question now, not to worry, this handy search engine on the ACT website can find out the answer for you. I would recommend that you search for the requirements of both your “reach schools” and your “safety schools”. I say this because you’ll find as you get deeper into the college application process, you may change your mind about which school you actually want to attend. Maybe you thought that you wanted to go out of state, to one of your reach schools, but now you’ve decided that you’d like to stay closer to home. Or maybe you’ll realize that you could be a candidate for scholarship to a school that wasn’t on your mind a few months ago, because it didn’t have an elite name. In other words, be sure to cover all of your bases, so that you don’t run into a situation where you have to take an additional ACT just to get the essay score, because now you’re trying to get into a school (that requires the essay) that you’d previously overlooked.

An aside, your essay score will not affect your score for the English section, nor will it affect your composite score. In other words, if you get your dream composite score on the ACT (like a 32 or higher!) and you don’t do so hot on the essay, your overall score won’t drop. The only additional thing that happens when you take the ACT essay is that you will receive a Writing test score on a scale of 1-36 (as well as individual scores for Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions) and an image of your essay will be available to colleges that you have the ACT send that test date’s scores to. This means that worrying about how the ACT essay will “make you appear to colleges” shouldn’t be a determining factor in your decision. The primary factor that will help you choose whether or not to do the essay is whether or not any of your reach or safety schools require the essay.

Onto question two. If you are, at the moment, fairly certain that you won’t be applying to schools that require the essay, you may still be one the fence about taking it because you can’t quite dismiss the thought that in the future you may want to apply to a college that does require it. This is especially relevant if you are a junior, since you still have a good deal of time to get your dream score and figure out what colleges you want to apply to. If this is you, I would ask you to consider how much time you have to prepare for the upcoming ACT. If you are extremely busy in the morning, afternoon, and night with homework, extra-curriculas, and other work, and you only have a month or so until the ACT, you may want to spend your time focusing on studying for the other four sections. Basically, it may be a better use of your time to focus on less, that way you can really improve your test-taking habits, rather than to try to cram everything in at once. However, once you’ve taken one official ACT, if you do need to get an essay score, you will want to start carving out time to add the essay to your studying plan.

As a tutor, I believe that the ACT essay is actually fairly straightforward to prepare for, just as long as you have enough time. So, if you can commit to both writing at least 3 or 4 practice essays before test day and reviewing those tests using the ACT grading rubric so that you can steadily improve, I’d tell you to go ahead and do it.

Finally, my last question for you is how comfortable you feel writing in-class essays or timed essays in general.  If you struggle with these, the ACT Plus Writing may actually be an opportunity for you to improve this skill. It is a skill! In college, you will regularly be asked to write in-class essays on both your mid-terms and your finals, so learning how to write an essay under timed conditions while you are still in high school is a skill with long term benefits.

Happy Studying!

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By Rita Pearson