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The ACT Essay has changed twice in 12 months. The major change came in September 2015, with a completely new format, new task and new criteria for assessment. The ACT publicized this two months in advance, so alert students had decent warning to prep, using the two released practice tests.

The Major Changes

A new scoring sale also came with the September change. The ACT turned its 2 – 12 scale into one that ran from 8 – 36. The top score you can get on the ACT multiple choice sections is 36, so the change presaged a nice, clean comparison.

However, that comparison turned horrific. Over the last four tests in December, February, April and June, the ACT Essay scores were markedly low. Students scoring between 30 and 36 on the four multiple choice sections routinely got between a 22 and 28 on their essays. As a comparison, a 33 is a score in the top two percent. Students earning a 33 or better are typically able to plan on admission to a “Top 30” university, but a 25 score is only slightly above average. Students with a top score of 25 have almost no chance for a “Top 30” University and only a remote chance at a large merit-based scholarship to a “Top 100” university. Thus, those seemingly low essay scores temporarily dashed a lot of hopes.

In small print, the ACT published percentiles from 0 to 100. These are possible rescuers for good students whose essay scores were in the top percentiles, but showed up in the 21 – 29 range. That top two percent score on the new ACT Essay scale now corresponds to a 28. Thus, students who feel that one essay grade dashed their chances of admission to Stanford can be warmed to see that their mediocre score corresponds to a high percentile. It is yet to be determined how much attention the college admissions committees will pay to the percentile and not the 8 – 36 score.

Ivy Bound happened to have a high percentage of its ACT testers score in the 30s on the first and second testing dates in September and October of 2015. The ACT has not released its data for any outsider to determine whether the September and October ACTs were scored more favorably or whether these first two months attracted a highly talented group of testers. The ACT Essay is optional, so only a small group of students stay to sit for the ACT Essay.

When the widespread low scores became evident in the winter, many questioned the whole scaling. Belatedly, the ACT called attention to itself, admitting that the essay 36 scale should not be correlated with the Multiple Choice 36 scale. In July, the ACT announced it would revert to the 2 – 12 scale for all ACTs starting in September 2016.

How Students Can Be Compared

The best comparison is using percentiles. A 90th percentile is a “Top 10 percent” score no matter what the scaling. This should comfort students who saw mediocre essay scores over the past year and comfort students in the coming year no matter what the scaling.

Top 10 percent is comparable even to students who took the ACT using the old format through June 2015. Thus that score is valid for college admission. Since “super-scoring” colleges take the best scores they see from a student, an applicant showing a 95%, then a 90%, then an 85% will get credited with the 95% score at a super-scoring college.

Super-scoring has traditionally been used by about 50 percent of competitive colleges. However, because both the SAT and ACT have been in flux this year, we suspect many more colleges will use ACT super-scoring for the coming admissions season. Super-scoring helps any student who takes the ACT multiple times, thus our prescription for most juniors and all seniors who have yet to achieve their goal score is to take the ACT several more times. If only your essay score is lacking and you don’t want to test again, call the admissions offices at your target colleges to find out if those colleges are weighing the ACT Essay this year.