How to Write the ACT Essay

act essay

Frankly, the ACT Essay section is not the most important part of the ACT test. It doesn’t contribute toward your composite score and college admissions officers don’t read it. However, some colleges require you to take it, and they will be looking at your Essay score, so it’s best to be prepared with some strategies and insights on how to write this overlooked section of the ACT.

Should I Take the ACT Essay Section?

Before you decide to take the optional ACT Essay during the ACT test, check with the colleges you’re interested in to see if they require the Essay section – many do not, and you may not need to take the Essay after all! If you are unsure of the colleges you’re going to apply to, it may be wise to take the Essay section so you don’t have to come back another day to take it. 

How to Get a 36 on the ACT English Section

What are the Details?

The Essay is the last section of the test. You’ll be given a prompt describing a complex issue and three perspectives on the issue. You have 40 minutes to write a persuasive essay about your own perspective on the issue or supporting one of the given perspectives. 

How is the Essay Section Scored? 

Two graders read your essay and give you a score out of 6 in the 4 rubric categories (see the rubric below). These scores are averaged so each grader gives you one score out of 6. Those two scores are then added to become your final score. 

On average, students score a 6.5 on the Essay. We recommend you aim for a 9 or 10 out of 12. This means at least one judge gave you a 5 out of 6!

ACT Essay Scoring Rubric:

ACT Essay scoring rubric
Via ACT.org

To Score High in the Ideas and Analysis Category…

A top score in the Ideas and Analysis category requires your essay to clearly present your perspective and persuade the reader that it is the most logical perspective through a clear thesis and nuanced analysis. 

Keep in mind that the issues that are presented in the prompts are not black and white; therefore, it is your job to show throughout your essay that you understand the nuances of the issue, your selected perspective, and the other given perspectives. 

Are you making any assumptions or only arguing from a specific point of view? You must be aware of your biases and consider how circumstances different from your own may affect the logic of your argument. You must acknowledge the positive aspects of at least one other perspective while maintaining the strength of your argument.  

Students usually fall short when they focus their attention and writing on only one perspective or try to connect all of the perspectives.  Yes, you want to show that you understand the many facets of the issue, but your thesis must center around one perspective in order to write a persuasive essay.  

To Score High in the Development and Support Category…

A top score in the Development and Support category requires you to build on your well-defined thesis with compelling examples.  

Students usually fall short when they spend too much time on background or summary information. Yes, you want to write enough about your example to indicate how it logically relates to your thesis, but you need to get to the point. How does your example contribute to the case you’re building? 

It is not enough to state an example in support of your thesis. You must describe how that example contributes to your perspective. Avoid the trap of circular examples: when you offer an example by saying that it supports your perspective then conclude that it is a good example because it supports your perspective. You have simply written yourself into a circle.

To Score High in the Organization Category…

A top score in the Organization category requires your essay to have a deliberate structure.  

The test graders are not necessarily looking for a certain number of paragraphs or an exact essay structure, but you must thoughtfully construct your essay. Students usually fall short when they fail to plan their essay. Many students think that given the limited time, they are better off using all of their time to write. However, the time you spend planning ensures that your writing time is more efficient and better organized. 

Finally, do not underestimate the importance of a conclusion. A conclusion is helpful to wrap up your argument or to add information that you didn’t have time to include in the body paragraphs. 

Scroll down to “How to Structure Your Essay” for more details on planning your essay. 

To Score High in the Language Use Category…

A top score in the Language Use category requires writing that is grammatically correct and has style.  

Of course the test graders will reduce your score if your essay is filled with grammatical errors!  The good news is that they are less concerned about spelling issues and more concerned about sentence punctuation. Take special care to avoid errors that prevent the reader from understanding your argument.  

As far as having style, you want to start with whatever your natural writing style is then smarten it up a bit. Be thoughtful with your word choice: take care not to use language that is too informal, like slang. Add more style by varying your sentence structure. Remember that long sentences are great for explaining and connecting, and short sentences are best for making emphatic points. If your writing style is more humorous, then as long as you stay on topic and write persuasively you can add some humor to your essay. You want your essay to sound like a polished, logical, persuasive, best version of you.  

Sentence Formulas for the ACT English Section

Students usually fall short when they rush through the writing believing there will be plenty of time at the end to review and edit. Instead, you want to write, re-read, and quickly edit each paragraph as you go. You will find it is easier to fix small mistakes and clarify examples while you the ideas are fresh.

How Do You Study for the ACT Essay?

Studying for the ACT essay is simple: just practice!

Even just writing one essay can prepare you for this section, but it would be better if you have time to write two practice essays!

The first one would give you a sense of the tasks: what aspects are more challenging than you thought, where did you spend the majority of your time, did you plan your essay well. Then the second essay allows you to learn from your mistakes and write a better essay. This way you can enter the test knowing you can write a strong essay!

How to Structure Your Essay

A basic essay structure can help you craft a great essay on test day. Here’s the essay structure we recommend to students:

Introduction

Restate the topic in your own words and clearly define your perspective. 

Body Paragraph 1 

Give specific evidence/support for your perspective – what examples can you use to prove your logic?

Body Paragraph 2 

You must also compare your perspective to the other perspectives. Show how another perspective may seem logical…but actually isn’t. If possible, try to transition the example into support for how your perspective is logical.

Body Paragraph 3  

If you have time, then give another example that you can use to prove your argument. Perhaps something broader than your first example.

Conclusion 

Make sure to save time for a conclusion, even if it is short. If you didn’t have time for a Body 3 paragraph, then you can quickly throw out a broader example in support of your perspective as a way to wrap up the essay. Be sure to restate the topic and your perspective.

What Are Some Strategies for the Essay?

Plan Your Essay

One of the best ways to spend your time is planning your essay.

After you read the prompt, don’t dive right into writing; take a couple of minutes to plan your essay. Write out a rough version of your thesis and then brainstorm examples that support your perspective.

Sometimes during this process, you realize an example works better for a different perspective and that’s ok! Part of writing a persuasive essay is recognizing the strengths of another perspective and then smashing it with how your perspective is still the stronger one. So even though the limited timeframe makes this step seem extravagant, prewriting goes a long way in creating a coherent, organized essay. 

Explain How Examples Support Your Perspective

While writing your essay, remember that you must be able to explain how your examples support your perspective. Don’t just throw an example out there without explaining how it supports your argument! State why the example fits with your perspective, then continue to build a logical argument to the conclusion of your essay.  

Don’t Forget the Conclusion

Finally, don’t forget the conclusion. It’s your last chance for your argument to hit home with your reader. Restate your topic and your perspective. You can even throw in a broad example if you didn’t have time to write about one of your examples earlier in the essay.

What Do the Graders Like to See?

Graders like to see a strong argument, competent grammar, and well-supported examples. 

A longer essay is not necessarily a better essay. The graders don’t really care about length as long as your argument is strong and clearly supported. It’s better to spend time thinking about your examples and strengthening your argument than worrying about length. 

And yes, your grammar matters! Like we mentioned earlier, you want to have well-constructed sentences that vary in length with correct punctuation. Spelling, on the other hand, is not something you need to worry about too much. The test graders are more focused on whether you are misusing vocabulary.  You can write with interesting words, but be sure that you know the meaning of the words you choose. This way, even if you are off by a letter or two, your essay will still be considered well written!

In Conclusion…

(Always include a conclusion!)
Study for the ACT Essay section and do your best on test day, but keep in mind that your Common Application essay or your college application essay is way more important. No one sees your ACT essay but the graders!

For more Essay strategies and practice, enroll in our free, online ACT course at www.olive-book.com.

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