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The ACT Writing section is a beautiful work of an evolving college admissions process. Indeed, it has found a way to stamp another number on students' heads. The question then becomes, what is a good number? What is a good essay score?
The ACT reports that any essay at a score of 10 or above is in the 99th percentile. An essay at the score of 9 is at the 94th percentile. An essay at the score of 8 is at the 86th percentile. An essay at the score of 7 is about where the average would be.
Now, many of you, I am sure, are worried that an 8 is "merely" the 86th percentile. Don't try to admit otherwise: I know how ambitious college confidential goers are. However, I would argue that the subjectivity of ACT scoring and the dynamics of writing an essay in 30 minutes are known by college admissions counselors, helping to remedy the "horror" of an 8 (which I would argue is actually a very impressive score).
Below, I have posted the mid-range ACT essay scores from a few, top universities: Princeton, MIT, and Duke. All have mid-ranges of 8 to 10. While these three schools all admit mostly students who are in the top 1 to 5 percent of their classes, the range of essay scores for many of these students stretch down into lower percentiles. While the bottom of the composite mid-range for these schools hovers around a 31 (at the 97th percentile), the bottom of the essay mid-range is an 8 (down at the 86th percentile). From this, I think it can be inferred that the an essay score in the general range of 8 or above is acceptable for top insitutions and that these top institutions don't weigh the essay as heavily. It is simply not feasible to expect all intelligent students to be able to write a stellar essay in a mere thirty minutes.
On the otherhand, an essay score of 6 or 7 brings you down into the 37th to 51st percentile. If you are a student aiming for a top institution, you may want to consider retaking with a score of 6 or 7 (or below). I think then that it could be reasoned that the "threshold" for a strong score rests at an 8. From this, you are demonstrating sufficiently strong essay writing skills relative to the general population, but there is so much elasticity in essay scores because of the time aspect and the subjective and skewed nature of the grading that anything higher isn't going to boost admissions chances significantly.
Hope this helps.
From the ACT:
National Percentiles for Each Essay Score...
12 - 99
11 - 99
10 - 99
9 - 94
8 - 86
7 - 51
6 - 37
5 - 11
4 - 7
3 - 2
2 - 1
All From Each School's Common Data Set:
On the Writing Alone...
Princeton Mid-50%: 8 to 10
MIT Mid-50%: 8 to 10
Duke Mid-50%: 8 to 10
On the English-Writing Composite...
Stanford Mid-50%: 29 to 32
UC Berkeley Mid-50%: 26 to 31