Every student should take the ACT and SAT “optional” essay at least once. There are many schools that require the essay score for a student’s application to even be considered.
But should students take the essay every time? Short answer: probably. Here’s why.
Our average student increases six points on the ACT, but more often than not students need to take the test multiple times to achieve such a large increase. Suppose a student takes the ACT for the first time with the essay in September of their junior year and scores a 28 out of 36 composite and a 10 out of 12 on the essay. Most of our students would then continue to take the ACT in October, December, and February. On the February test, if they score a 33 composite but do not take the essay, then for many schools they will still have to submit that first ACT score of 28 (or any other ACT test score with an essay score attached). Although almost all schools say that they will only judge students based on their highest composite or superscore, the 28 composite adds nothing to the student’s application and, if anything, could only take away from it.
In contrast, if the same student scored a 33 and re-took the essay and scored a 10, then they could potentially delete all of their past ACT scores (as long as they did not score higher in any section on the other tests) and colleges would only see the score of 33. There is nothing wrong with doing this, and the ACT actually allows you to do so for free. Some of our students increase 10 points or more (our highest increase last year in 2016 was from a 22 to a 34); in these cases, re-taking the essay becomes all but necessary given the large gap between initial and final composite scores.
Taking the essay costs $16, but this money is well-spent if it allows a student the opportunity to only report her best scores. It is an extra 40 minutes, but, luckily, it comes at the end of the test, so students can relax at that point. We only recommend students not re-take the essay when they can be almost certain that they will use a prior test score because they are only re-taking the test to increase their superscore in one or more sections.
The essay is by far the easiest part of the test. As long as students write a lot (they have to write more than 2.5 pages to be considered for a score above an 8) and follow a very simply outline, then they are almost guaranteed a good score.
Given the low cost and effort and the opportunity to gain more control over what tests students report, re-taking the essay makes sense for most students.