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Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

5 Reasons the New ACT Essay Is a Better Measure of Your Actual Writing Abilities

The ACT writing section includes an optional argumentative essay, which students have 40 minutes to plan, develop, and write. Starting this past September, it has undergone a few changes, such as a revised prompt layout and an updated rubric, in order to score students more fairly on their actual writing abilities. Below, we look at some of these changes and examine how they allow students to more easily showcase their writing abilities on test day.


1. Real-world issues

Prior to the new changes, ACT essay prompts were entirely on school-related topics, such as school uniforms, about which most students neither cared nor thought deeply. Now, the prompts cover a broad range of real-world issues, from intelligent machines to public health, that most likely affect all students to some level. This increased relevance and experience allows students not only to more easily develop strong, personal opinions on the issues (which are expressed in their writing), but also support their arguments more strongly with relevant knowledge or anecdotes.


2. Nuanced argument

While the old ACT essay expected a black-and-white answer (either a student was “for” school uniforms or “against” them), the newest prompt requires a more complex argument. Just as the world is not simply “for” or “against,” students’ opinions — more often than not — are not so simple. Writing essays that actually reflect the way students form their own opinions and weigh arguments against counter-arguments before eventually reaching a conclusion more clearly demonstrates the quality of students’ critical thinking and their ability to articulate their thoughts.

     3. Engagement with other perspectives

With each new prompt, three different perspectives on the issue at hand are presented. Students’ responses are expected not only to convey their own opinions, but acknowledge these given perspectives in some way. Incorporating other viewpoints, whether in agreement or not, is not only a universal writing skill, but also a reflection of students’ abilities to evaluate the validity of various stances.


4. Increased time allotment

Although 10 minutes may not seem like much, the increase from 30 to 40 minutes can be quite significant on test day — every second in such a high-pressure environment counts. These extra minutes may not make or break an essay, but they can be used to flesh out a more convincing argument, or to catch a few misspellings and misplaced punctuation that would have cost a student a point or two.


5. Analytic scoring

Whereas the old ACT essay rubric was “holistic,” giving a student one single score for her essay, the new rubric evaluates essays on various components, such as “Ideas and Analysis” and “Language Use.” Spreading the points across various categories maximizes students’ chances of scoring higher, since a student with, for example, poor organization but excellent analysis could see her subcategory scores balance out to some middle level. Meanwhile, under the old rubric, that same student might have been given a lower score by some grader focused more heavily on organization than any other aspect.


The recent changes to the ACT essay have certainly accomplished their goal of providing students a fairer evaluation of their writing abilities. With these improvements in place, students should feel more confident than ever in choosing to take the ACT and the optional essay portion.


For more information about the ACT and essay writing, check out these CollegVine blog posts:



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Angela Yang
ACT Verbal Division Manager

Short Bio
Angela is a student at Cornell College of Engineering. She enjoys teaching a variety of subjects and helping students realize their dreams.