Are you debating whether or not to take the optional ACT essay? Some schools require it, so we highly recommend that you take it (make sure to register for ACT with Writing).
But no need to stress! The essay follows a predictable format, which means you can practice and prepare beforehand. Take a look at a sample ACT writing prompt and learn five key steps to penning a high-scoring essay.
ACT Writing Prompt
This example writing prompt comes straight from our book Cracking the ACT:
Education and the Workplace
Many colleges and universities have cut their humanities departments, and high schools have started to shift their attention much more definitively toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and away from ELA (English, Language Arts). Representatives from both school boards and government organizations suggest that the move toward STEM is necessary in helping students to participate in a meaningful way in the American workplace. Given the urgency of this debate for the future of education and society as a whole, it is worth examining the potential consequences of this shift in how students are educated in the United States.
Read and carefully consider these perspectives. Each suggests a particular way of thinking about the shift in American education.
|Perspective 1||Perspective 2||Perspective 3|
|ELA programs should be emphasized over STEM programs. Education is not merely a means to employment: ELA education helps students to live more meaningful lives. In addition, an exclusively STEM-based program cannot help but limit students’ creativity and lead them to overemphasize the importance of money and other tangible gains.||ELA programs should be eradicated entirely, except to establish the basic literacy necessary to engage in the hard sciences, mathematics, and business. Reading and writing are activities that are best saved for the leisure of students who enjoy them.||ELA and STEM programs should always be in equal balance with one another. Both are necessary to providing a student with a well-rounded education. Moreover, equal emphasis will allow the fullest possible exposure to many subjects before students choose their majors and careers|
Write a unified, coherent essay in which you evaluate multiple perspectives on the issue of how schools should balance STEM and ELA subjects. In your essay, be sure to:
- analyze and evaluate the perspectives given
- state and develop your own perspective on the issue
- explain the relationship between your perspective and those given
Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of the others, in partial agreement, or wholly different. Whatever the case, support your ideas with logical reasoning and detailed, persuasive examples.
How to Write the ACT Essay
Your job is to write an essay in which you take some sort of position on the prompt, all while assessing the three perspectives provided in the boxes. Find a way to anchor your essay with a unique perspective of your own that can be defended and debated, and you are already in the upper echelon of scorers.
Step 1: Work the Prompt
What in the prompt requires you to weigh in? Why is this issue still the subject of debate and not a done deal?
Step 2: Work the Perspectives
Typically, the three perspectives will be split: one for, one against, and one in the middle. Your goal in Step 2 is to figure out where each perspective stands and then identify at least one shortcoming of each perspective. For the example above, ask yourself:
- What does each perspective consider?
- What does each perspective overlook?
Step 3: Generate Your Own Perspective
Now it's time to come up with your own perspective! If you merely restate one of the three given perspectives, you won’t be able to get into the highest scoring ranges. You’ll draw from each of the perspectives, and you may side with one of them, but your perspective should have something unique about it.
Step 4: Put It All Together
Now that you have your ideas in order, here's a blueprint for how to organize the ACT essay. This blueprint works no matter what your prompt is.
Body Paragraph (1)
|Body Paragraph (2)|
Step 5: (If There's Time): Proofread
Spend one or two minutes on proofreading your essay if you have time. You’re looking for big, glaring errors. If you find one, erase it completely or cross it out neatly. Though neatness doesn’t necessarily affect your grade, it does make for a happy grader.
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There is no question that the ACT is important for high school students who are thinking about applying to college. While the multiple choice sections are designed to assess students’ knowledge in math, English, science and reading, there is also a writing section that assesses students’ abilities to write an essay. Doing well on this section of the ACT can help distinguish you as an accomplished writer to colleges.
Though you can easily understand your score a multiple choice test, you might be left wondering what will earn you a good score on the ACT essay. If you’re aiming for a 12 on the ACT essay, read on for some tips and tricks!
What is the ACT Essay?
While the multiple choice sections of the ACT might be more unforgiving, the ACT essay is a great opportunity to show off your writing skills. According the ACT website, you should aim to write a “unified, coherent essay” in which you:
- clearly state your own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective
- develop and support your ideas with reasoning and examples
- organize your ideas clearly and logically
- communicate your ideas effectively in Standard written English.
To see these ideas in motion, you can take a look at a sample ACT prompt and essay here.
How is the ACT Essay scored?
The ACT essay is scored on a scale of 1 to 12. Your essay will be read and scored by two different grades on a scale of 1 to 6 in four different domains, for a total score out of 12 in each of these four domains. These four scores will then be averaged for a total score out of 12.
For more information about how this section of the test is scored, you can look at the official ACT Writing Test Scoring Rubric.
Tip 1: Know what a 12 looks like
In general, if you are aiming to do well in something, you should know what exemplary work looks like and try to emulate it. This is certainly the case for the ACT Essay, so before you walk into the testing center to write your essay, make sure you know know what essays that scored a 12 in this section look like!
Be sure to read as many sample essays as you can find—these should be available online through a quick Google search. Keep in mind, though, that the structure of the writing section changed in Fall 2015, so make sure that the examples you are looking at are current and align with the structure of the current essay prompt.
As you’re looking at essays that scored a 12, be sure to also look at essays that scored in the middle and essays that received a poor score. Try to understand what went wrong in the poorly scored essays as well as what could be improved in the middle-scoring ones. Take note of what was successful in the high-scoring sample essays that you read—what makes these essays stand out from the middle-scoring ones?
If there are notes from graders that justify the scores of the essays, be sure to pay attention to these as well. Aiming for a high score on the ACT essay section means that you need to try to understand exactly what the graders are looking for. Study the rubric once more and remember what you’ll need to accomplish in each category.
Tip 2: Pick a perspective and stick to it
When it comes to the writing prompt, the ACT website says “The test describes an issue and provides three different perspectives on the issue. You are asked to read and consider the issue and perspectives, state your own perspective on the issue, and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective on the issue. Your score will not be affected by the perspective you take on the issue.”
In order to write a strong essay, you can choose whatever perspective you like—just make sure it’s one that you can support and defend effectively throughout your essay. Scorers are looking for a strong, well-organized point of view, and like it says above, it doesn’t matter whether you agree, disagree, or are somewhere in the middle; what matters is the writing.
It is important to remember that even if you don’t agree with the perspective that you’re writing from on a personal level, your essay needs to show that you can effectively argue a point. In addition, make sure to remember to relate your perspective to one of the perspectives provided in the prompt. Be sure to address the counter arguments as well in one of your body paragraphs, using the perspective opposite to your personal perspective to demonstrate your understanding of opposing views.
Tip 3: Use concrete examples
Grounding your writing in concrete examples is one extremely important element of writing effective ACT essay. You could use this as an opportunity to show off your historical knowledge by relating your argument to a relevant fact or event in history or current events, or you could come up with a rhetorical scenario or example. Including examples might even mean including a personal anecdote (although if you do end up doing this, you should make sure that your story is short and relates directly to your argument).
Take a look at the ways in which the writers of sample essays that scored a 12 managed to seamlessly incorporate examples into their writing. While you don’t have to be an expert on the essay topic, nor are you expected to be able to list off obscure facts and trivia about it, you need to make sure that your essay draws from real concrete examples rather that just vague abstract arguments.
Tip 4: Don’t be afraid to show off your language skills
One of the markers of a successful ACT essay is its use of language. This is a great opportunity to show off some of your ACT/SAT vocabulary words that you might have been studying for the English section of the test. Opt for higher-level vocabulary words when given the chance—as a general rule of thumb, you should aim to use about 1-2 higher level vocab words per paragraph.
Scorers want to see that you can navigate the English language skillfully, and so you should also take the chance to vary your sentence structure when you get the chance. Consider, also, utilizing devices such as rhetorical questions and complex sentences.
If you are going to use more complicated vocabulary and grammar structures, however, make sure you fully understand how to use them. It will reflect poorly upon your writing skills if you include a complicated word that doesn’t make sense in the context of a sentence, or if a grammatical structure that you try to use isn’t quite right. If you’re going to use a semicolon to combine two sentences, for example, make sure you understand that a semicolon is not the same thing as a comma. When in doubt, stick to what you know! It is better to have a less complicated structure that is used correctly versus an attempt at a more advanced grammatical concept that is actually wrong.
Lastly, be sure to keep it real in your writing. While scorers want to see students who are skilled in their use of the english language, it is easy to tell when someone is simply trying to electrify their vocabulary in order to titillate the reader for the written examination. Your writing and tone should reflect who you are as a writer, so remember to keep it down to earth.
Tip 5: Pay attention to timing & your energy level
For the essay section, you will get 40 minutes. This includes time for planning, writing, and editing, so make sure you dole out the appropriate amount of time for each part of the process. You can practice this by timing yourself to write an essay from a sample prompt at home. Start by giving yourself an hour, and gradually work it down to 40 minutes so that you are prepared by the time the testing date rolls around. If you find that you need more time for planning than you do writing, or if you come to learn that you need a particularly large chunk of time to edit, keep these things in mind when it comes time to write your essay for the exam.
The essay will be the last section on the test, so keep this in mind while you complete the multiple choice sections of the ACT. While you should be devoting your full attention and energy to each multiple choice section of the test, keep in mind that once you are finished with all of the multiple choice sections, you will still have to write the essay.
When you get breaks between sections, be sure to eat a snack, drink some water, and use the restroom so that you are not uncomfortable or distracted by the end of the test. While you might be tempted to just breeze through the essay section so that you can finish the ACT, know that you will not be allowed to leave the testing center until everyone has finished the test—so be sure to use up all of the allotted time!
For more information about the ACT and essay writing, check out these blog posts:
What to Bring (And Not Bring) to the ACT
10 Tips to Improve Your ACT Score
Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Essay
A Guide to the Optional ACT Writing Section
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Devin Barricklow is a Political Science and Creative Writing double major at Columbia University. She’s really excited to be able to share her expertise about the college process with students who need advice. When she isn’t writing for CollegeVine, she enjoys reading the poems of Mary Oliver, going to concerts in the city, or cooking (preferably something with lots of bok choy and ginger).