The ACT essay

Introduction

Welcome students! I've created this page to make it a little easier for you guys to locate my ACT outline and tips whenever you happen to need them. 

Let's start with the raw truth: the ACT changed this essay last fall, and instituted a new 36-point grading scale for it. People were so confused that they recently had to change the scale back to a 12-point scale. The way they've been grading these essays, generally, has been extremely arbitrary, and in many cases they've really made a mess of things (read this article for more information, if you haven't already). The essay is not part of your composite score and colleges will not be taking this essay too seriously because they are aware of its faults. 

Having said that, you still want to get a decent score. You can check out the ACT's rubric and grading scale here. You'll also find information and essay examples on their site, but I would not put too much stock in this. The essays they present as examples of perfect scores are, in reality, too short for the average ACT grader to award that high a score to them in reality.

 

An organized, structured, and sufficiently long essay should score at least an 8, which is what you need to avoid sending any red flags to your colleges. Scores above that are too subjective to systematically guarantee, but what you'll read here will help you increase your likelihood of achieving a 10 or even a 12. I can tell you from experience that, unfortunately, the longest essays get better scores. So if you can write at least three pages, it will increase your chances of getting a higher score (just make sure you finish your essay). I should also note that better handwriting is heavily correlated with better scores as well. I hate giving you this advice, because it's bad writing advice, but, alas, it works for standardized test essays.

 

The prompt

 

The ACT will always present you with the same type of prompt. It is both analytical and persuasive. It will include an overview of a contentious issue and three perspectives on that issue. You'll be asked to evaluate the various perspectives, formulate an opinion of your own, and argue for it. To save time, you should just choose one of the given perspectives and argue for that rather than coming up with your own perspective. 

How to structure your essay

  • Paragraph 1. Introduction​

 

  • introduce the issue at hand

  • give a range of possible perspectives (While some believe X, critics of that position believe Y, and still others believe Z)

  • state your own position (it is far easier to choose from one of the three perspectives given than to create your own unique position - remember that you only have 40 minutes)

  • Paragraph 2. One of the perspectives you disagree with

  • state this perspective in your own words

  • explain what it means

  • state the implications of this perspective (pros and cons)

  • explain why cons > pros

  • give supporting examples, either hypothetical or real/historical

  • Paragraph 3. Another one of the perspectives you disagree with

  • state this perspective in your own words

  • explain what it means

  • state the implications of this perspective (pros and cons)

  • explain why cons > pros

  • give supporting examples, either hypothetical or real/historical

  • Paragraph 4. The perspective you agree with

  • state this perspective in your own words

  • explain what it means

  • state the implications of this perspective (pros and cons)

  • explain why pros > cons

  • give supporting examples, either hypothetical or real/historical

  • Paragraph 5. Conclusion

  • restate the perspectives briefly

  • restate your own opinion without repeating the same thing you said in the introduction

  • give a statement of impact 

    • *what is a statement of impact? Something like, "If more people understood (perspective you agree with), the world would be a better (or more peaceful, more friendly, more sustainable, whatever) place."

The bottom line

The outline is the substantive part of my advice. It would be the only advice you would need if the ACT actually judged these essays by their own rules and examples.

 

Unfortunately, they don't. We consistently find that students' scores are less dependent on having a good, substantive essay, and more dependent on length and neatness. And again: bad real-world writing advice. But for this purpose, it works well. So...

 

Five cardinal rules of standardized test essays:

1. Finish your essay

2. Write as much as you can (the only student I've had who got a perfect score filled literally all the available space; do not do that if you end up violating rule #1, but aim for at least 3 pages)

3. Split your essay into five organized, discernible paragraphs as per the suggested structure above

4. Write neatly

5. Demonstrate that you understood the prompt

If you do the above five things, you will do fine. You'll fall in the 8-12 range, and that's all that really matters. Also, if your score is too low,  show you how to ask the ACT for a re-score. Almost everyone who has asked for one has gotten a higher score than the original one they received.​

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