The ACT Essay - An Introduction
The ACT essay is optional. You are given 40 minutes to write the essay. It is graded out of 12 points. Your score will show up next to your “36” score, but it won’t actually affect it in any way.
August 29, 2020
So, the big question is this: should you even care about your ACT essay? If it’s optional, and it doesn’t really affect your score, then why would any sane person take this thing at all?
Three answers to this question:
- It depends on the colleges. Many competitive universities recommend the “ACT with Essay” when submitting standardized test scores. Because most of you will be applying to the top 100 universities in the United States, I expect every student taking an AP Guru course to take the ACT Essay. It’s up to you to research your colleges of choice and figure out what their policy on this will be.
- It can be used as an indicator to “verify” your actual application essay. Unfortunately, there’s a growing trend of students getting “help” on their essays. Getting guidance and editing is fine, but a lot of essays now are basically written by a professional and submitted as student work. Many colleges will use this essay to see if your writing style is consistent. If you write like Hemingway in your application essay and like a 3-year-old child on your ACT essay, they’ll know something is up.
- It’s so easy to ace that you might as well take it. The ACT Essay is easy to prep for. Although the essay may seem intimidating right now, after you learn our AP Guru essay strategies, you will find that the ACT Essay is perhaps your favorite and easiest part of the ACT.
So honestly, why not just do it? It takes 40 minutes to write - that’s time you’d probably spend watching Netflix on the Saturday of your test. And because it’s at the end of the test, it’s not going to eat into your mental energy.
Overall, my answer would be: just learn to write this essay well because it’s easy, it can’t really do any harm, and it COULD do some good.
Getting a good ACT essay score is so easy that there is no reason for you to avoid it. The ACT essay has nothing to do with your level of writing talent, and everything to do with strategy and knowledge of the grading system. I don’t care if you’re “a math person, not a writer.” It doesn’t matter. In fact, some of the best ACT essay writers I’ve ever worked with were great at math and terrible at English.
So, now since you have decided to give the essay, it’s important to understand what it actually is about.
Basics of the ACT Essay
The ACT will present an issue with context and accompany it with 3 perspectives. The prompt will ask you to
- “Evaluate and Analyze” the three perspectives presented
- “State and Develop” your own perspective
- “Explain the Relationship” between your perspective and the given perspectives
You need to do this in the four lined pages provided to you.
How is the Essay Graded
Once you have sent the essay in, two readers each will give it a score from 1-6 in the following categories:
- ideas and analysis
- development and support
- language use
- Ideas and Analysis
You’ll need to make sure you address and thoughtfully discuss multiple perspectives on the issue. Furthermore, a top-scoring essay should make sure to address an issue in its full complexity. Rather than trying to simplify the issue, make sweeping generalizations, or rely on assumptions, a top scoring essay acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed position.
- Development and Support
Make sure that you support your point with lots of compelling evidence, evidence that fits well together into a unified whole and includes things like exceptions, edge cases, and limits to show that you know specifically where that evidence or logic does and doesn’t apply.
This is an easy one. Harnessing the writing skills you’ve learned throughout school, you just need to lay out your overall essay in a logical way. By following our template, you should be able to receive top scores in this category with ease.
- Language Use
Use rich, interesting vocabulary to show your mastery of the English language. Use sentences that have different lengths and structure, with a professional tone, and make sure to proofread so that there are few to no errors present.
In the chapters to follow, we’ll dissect the above into concrete “checkboxes” that you can cross off one-by-one as you write your essay. Now, you need to understand how the essay graders assign points for these different categories.
The Grading Procedure
For every ACT session, the organization administering the ACT receives hundreds of thousands of essays from students across the world. How does it manage to grade every single one of them in 2-3 weeks?
First, it hires a bunch of teachers who presumably know something about grading papers. But that still does not solve the problem. Next, it has to standardize the grading process so that scores remain consistent across the board and the teachers can get through the sheer number of essays quickly.
The organization standardizes the process by asking graders to put their own opinions aside and solely correct using set guidelines. Any flashes of your literary brilliance will be glossed over in a ruthless grading procedure that only cares about whether your work matches the standard model.
Your job, then, is not to write a masterpiece. This isn’t your IB English class. The teacher won’t be looking at every word and dissecting all your punctuation marks. Instead, your job is simply to write something that fits the guidelines. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be innovative and it doesn’t have to be in your voice and style. Just give them what they want.
Length of your Essay
One question that all my students ask me: Does the length of my ACT essay affect my score? The short answer is: YES. Longer essays usually get better grades.
If you aren’t filling all four pages of your booklet, it’s not the end of the world. But if you’re barely filling up two pages, that’s going to be a problem.
However, there’s a risk here: the longer your essay is, the more chances there are for you to go off-topic, break up your structure, or put in random sentences that kill the flow of your essay. You especially don’t want to go off topic that’s the ultimate essay score destroyer. By planning your essay in advance and sticking to the template you’re about to learn, you will ensure you do not go off-topic.
Step by step process
How can you crank out an essay in 40 minutes? Here’s my step by step process when I first open the writing section screen:
- Read the informational paragraph at the beginning of the prompt. It only takes 30 seconds and it gives you context for what you’ll be writing. It might also help you think of the examples you’ll use in your essay.
- Read the three perspectives.
- Choose one of the three perspectives to be your own stance.
- Come up with an example for the perspective you support and one each against the perspectives you disprove of.
- Don’t read the essay task - it’s always the same. You should know from practice what the assignment is.
- At this point, it’s time to start your essay. You should start typing the essay within 5 minutes of the starting time.
- It’s pretty smooth sailing once the essay starts coming together in your mind. Just follow the template for the body paragraphs and the conclusion.
- Always have a conclusion. The graders will punish you if you don’t have one. I’d rather cut one of my body paragraphs short than run out of time before the conclusion.
The topics you will write about will be different, but the overall structure and the way you write will be identical every time.
Flaws to Avoid
As I keep repeating to my AP Guru students, its often more important to know what not to do then what to do. So, the following are list of points that are ACT Writing point killers and should be avoided at all cost.
- Not writing about the topic presented. If you write about a subject other than the one presented by the ACT, you’ll automatically get a 0. Write your essay about the prompt provided, please
- Not developing a clear thesis. Selecting a point of view and then supporting it with evidence is the entire point of writing this essay - if you don’t have a clear thesis, you’re never going to get a good score.
- Lack of a coherent “thread” throughout your essay. Put simply, if your essay is all over the place, you’re going to get a terrible score. If you randomly skip to certain points, or omit evidence, or keep switching from A to B to D to A again, you’re in trouble. You need an intro, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion, and you need them in that order.
- Avoid Circular Reasoning. “Circular reasoning” is any form of argument in which you try to prove a point by simply repeating it with different wording. Your using different words, but I’m still saying the exact same thing.
- Providing irrelevant examples or evidence. Irrelevance will kill your ACT essay score, and this is where most “good writers” get in huge trouble - they try to be creative, but they end up being incoherent. Your evidence and examples can stink, but they need to be related to the point you’re trying to prove.
- Bad grammar. Remember: the essay is grouped in with the English section. If you make tons of grammatical errors, you’re going to lose points. A single mistake here or there won’t affect your score, but once you hit a critical mass of mistakes, you’re cooked.
- Lack of transition between paragraphs. Each paragraph you write will be dedicated to a certain idea. There’s nothing worse than toggling between ideas with no transition whatsoever.
- Errors in spelling and vocabulary. If you constantly misspell words or use them incorrectly, you’ll lose points. Once again - a couple tiny mistakes won’t matter, but there’s a critical mass you can’t afford to hit.
- Illegible handwriting. If I can’t read it, I can’t understand it. If I can’t understand it, it makes no sense.