If you have a child in high school, you may be aware that the SAT was completely revamped last year. What you might not know, however, is that the ACT has also made some changes. For the most part these changes are minor, and they have not been publicized to the same extent as the changes to the SAT. The single biggest change is to the optional writing section of the ACT, which, like the SAT, has been overhauled from the ground up. Being aware of these changes can help you give the best possible guidance to your high school student.
The first thing to know is that the writing test is still optional. That probably leaves you wondering whether or not your child should take it. There is not a simple yes or no answer, because some colleges require it and some colleges do not. If a student has a short list of schools to which she plans to apply, it’s very easy to research and find out whether the writing test is required or not. If the student is 100% certain that no schools she is interested in require it, then there really is no reason for her to take it.
That said, most students take the ACT for the first time their junior year, and the typical junior may not have a solid list of colleges picked out yet. If this is the case, the student should err on the side of caution and sign up for the writing test. In general, more competitive colleges are more likely to require the writing test, so students considering applying to competitive schools should always sign up for the writing. Many schools recommend the writing test rather than requiring it, and if a school you’re interested in recommends something, you should do it. In general, schools do NOT use the test for admissions purposes. Instead, results of the test help the college determine whether the student needs to take a composition class. Performing well on the writing test could lead to the student being exempt from this class, which could save some time and money.
I advise most students to take the writing test every time they take the ACT, for the simple reason that you can’t separate the writing test from the rest of the test when you send scores to colleges. Let’s say a student takes the ACT without the writing and makes a 25 the first time, and he takes the test again with the writing and makes a 23. If he ends up applying to any schools that require the writing, he will have to send both scores. If he took the writing both times, he could just send the 25, and schools would not have to know that the 23 ever happened. Students need to take as much control as possible over what information they send to colleges, and if they take the writing test every time they take the ACT, they can decide which scores to send or not send.
About the test itself, it is important to know that the new writing task is MUCH more challenging than it used to be. The old writing test gave students 30 minutes to write a basic persuasive essay about a “teen-friendly” topic such as, “Should community service be a high school graduation requirement?” or “Should high schools have dress codes?” Many students could complete this task with minimal preparation and receive an adequate score.
On the new test, students are given more time (40 minutes) to read the prompt, plan the essay, and actually write it, but the task is much more complex than it used to be. They are given a prompt about a societal issue (two samples I have seen were over artificial intelligence and the balance between public health and individual freedom). These prompts include a lengthy paragraph for the student to read that provides some background information and context. Students are also given three different perspectives on the topic to read, each of which is explained in a paragraph. Once they have read all of the information, they must write an essay in which they analyze the different perspectives provided, state and develop their own perspective, and explain the relationship between their perspective and the ones provided.
Many students I have worked with are not prepared for the complexity of both the new style of prompt and the task itself; however, the new test is much more aligned with the higher level writing they will be expected to do in college. The best way for students to prepare for the writing test is to practice. Students can’t expect to go in cold and do fine the way they could with the old writing test. ACT.org provides sample prompts as well as sample scored essays, so students can see what a high-scoring essay looks like and what a low-scoring essay looks like.
In terms of scoring, essays are scored on a 2-12 scale -- two different readers assign a score of 1-6, and the scores are added together. Students are scored in four domains: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. They are also assigned one overall score from 2-12 that represents an average of the four domains. One important fact to remember is that the writing score does NOT affect the overall composite score for the ACT. It is included alongside the other scores on the score report, but it does not get factored in at all.
Ultimately, whether or not to take the writing test is an individual decision for each student. It can be difficult to convince your teenager to do something that is clearly marked “optional,” especially when doing it requires extra preparation and hard work. With that said, in my mind the pros outweigh the cons, and I do believe most students should take the writing test. Even if a student does not test out of freshman composition, the writing test is a glimpse into college level writing, and just the experience of practicing for and taking it can help prepare students for the next step in their lives.