The problem most students have is that they can’t come up with examples on the spot. And even when they’re able to, they find it hard to give specific details because they don’t know the examples well enough. The result is writer’s block, shallow writing, and ultimately low scores.
That’s why you should always go into the test with a bank of prepared examples. It allows you to minimize the time you spend thinking about what to write.
This chapter contains a few versatile examples you can use to start off your bank of prepared examples. The best essay examples are ones that have a good side and a dark side, making them easy to tweak to support whatever argument you’re making. While the following examples should serve you well in many of the prompts you’ll encounter, it will pay off to come up with your own.
Disclaimer: The following examples are the ones I personally count on and they should work for many of the prompts you might see. However, they will not be usable for every single one. I can’t predict all the weird prompts the ACT might throw at you. You should be willing to put in the work to come up with a few of your own examples and stay flexible should you encounter a tough topic.
There’s a good chance that at some point, either in practice or during the real test, you just know none of your pre-prepared examples apply to the prompt.
Here are your options:
1. Brainstorm examples outside your prepared ones
Once I’m thrown outside my bank of prepared examples, my process is to quickly think of ideas and then write about them using the five W’s: who, what, when, where, and why.
The key here is to come up with examples that you can still discuss in detail. So let’s say that I wanted to use Psy, the Korean rapper, to support the perspective that we value music more today because it’s cheaper and more accessible (an official prompt, by the way).
Here’s an example of how I would use the 5 W’s to figure out what to include in my body paragraph:
If I don’t think I have enough background information on a topic to be able to answer the 5 W’s, I won’t use it as an example.
2. Use several, small-scale examples
If you’re struggling to find one big example to fill out a body paragraph, try using several small-scale examples instead.
Now what do I mean by small-scale examples?
None of these examples are significant enough on their own to fill up an entire paragraph (assuming you don’t anything beyond the basics) but together they make a strong case.
3. Base your examples off of the prompt’s setup paragraph
When you’re trying to come up with examples big or small, the prompt’s setup paragraph can provide much-needed inspiration. Every ACT essay prompt starts off with a paragraph that sets up the three perspectives. This paragraph almost always refers to topics and examples that relate to the issue. While you shouldn’t copy directly from this paragraph, you are certainly allowed to bring up those same topics and examples in your essay.
Let’s return to the tech-free time essay. The setup paragraph from that prompt is shown below:
“In today’s society, we are tied to our digital devices in many ways. We use our phones to text and take pictures, our computers to type up reports and spreadsheets, and our televisions to watch shows and play games. Technology is such an ingrained part of our everyday life that it’s hard to disconnect from the digital world. In fact, we’ve become so dependent on electronic devices that many people are now alarmed. They warn of the damage this dependence can inflict on our health, relationships, and sense of self. To curb our constant need to be connected, they recommend that we intentionally set aside time to be spent away from technology. Because of the increasing presence of technology in our lives, it is important that we examine whether some time away from tech would be beneficial.”
I’ve underlined the portion that brings up examples and topics that you can use. Based on this sentence, you might bring up television show binge-watching as an example to elaborate on, or you might talk about how digital tools such as spreadsheets force businesses to be dependent on software.
Obviously, a little creativity is required, but if you can improvise off of the setup paragraph, no prompt will be able to stump you.
4. Make Up Examples
Before we go into the often “looked down upon” process of making up your evidence, I want you to know that the people grading your essay are not going to fact check what you say on Google, and to be honest, they don’t care about anything you’re saying.
Remember: it isn’t the job of the essay graders to see whether a certain study was actually done in 1976, or whether John Adams actually said this or that - it’s their job to see whether or not you’re following the structure rules that the ACT established. You will not be fact-checked.You can’t make up totally ridiculous, offensive, or boasting evidence, but anything else goes.
But be sure you’re coming up with actual examples, and not just re-stating perspectives! If you’re not sure whether or not your evidence is circular or not, there’s an easy way to figure this out: Your perspectives are general statements that you need to prove or disprove with specific examples - specific facts or realities that prove that your perspectives are true or untrue.
When coming up with examples, try to avoid using personal experience if all possible. I’ve found that students just aren’t great at discussing personal experiences in a sophisticated way. The problem is that most personal experiences don’t make for intellectually rigorous material.
Having said all that, I’ve seen some high scoring essays that use personal experience to great effect. If you know you’re a good writer and English is your best subject, then by all means support your perspective with examples based on personal experience. Otherwise, try coming up with other examples.
I have often seen our AP Guru students often make the following three mistakes when picking examples to write on the ACT Writing section.
Your examples should be well rehearsed with specific events, characters, places, and even dates. The reader should get the impression that you have a complete understanding of what you’re writing about.
For example, the following is an extremely general example from a student’s essay:
Steve Jobs was a genius. He was insistent on great design and a cool brand image. He worked incredibly hard and never settled on anything less than what he wanted. The iPod and iPhone were revolutionary innovations that changed the world. Apple is now one the leading technological companies in the world, with people eagerly lining up for every new product they launch.
The details above are much too generic and spread-out to say anything meaningful. Just because you own an iPhone doesn’t mean you’re an expert. You should be able to discuss how Steve Jobs treated his employees, the changes his inventions brought to society, how he came up with the iPod, specific instances when he didn’t settle on a specific feature, the culture of the Apple stores, etc. Once you understand all the aspects of a topic, then it’s easy to pick and choose what you’ll focus on for any given prompt.
Another mistake students make is having second examples that say the exact same thing as the first. Although both of your examples should support your argument, you want the second example to add on to your argument rather than repeat it.
Think of your examples as layers. The second layer should bring up something new and different that wasn’t mentioned in the first layer. Here’s a super-short exaggerated example of a one-dimensional essay:
Technology has truly revolutionized our society. For example, Justin Bieber was an unknown recreational singer who started making youtube videos of his songs during his free time. Through the internet, his fanbase started growing and people started to recognize him. A major record label eventually signed him and propelled him into the spotlight. He is now one of the most popular singers among the younger generation. Without technology, he never would’ve been given the chance he needed. Similarly, the internet has launched South Korean rapper Psy into international stardom. Prior to his Gangnam Style hit, he was known only throughout Korea. Very few people in the United States and Europe had heard of him. Then when a few celebrities discovered Gangnam Style, they sent messages through social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Within days, the music video went viral and reached millions of viewers. It is only through technology that Psy was able to obtain such a large international fanbase. He is now a global sensation.
Notice how similar the two examples are. Both are about a singer who gained fame through the internet. Though the examples are not bad, it’s a little repetitive. It’s fine for the first example to be a pop star, but the second should branch out into something else, like how LinkedIn and Facebook are excellent channels for job-seekers looking for new opportunities, or how an excellent education can now be obtained just by watching TED Talks, Khan Academy, and Harvard online courses. By discussing slightly different examples, you are adding depth and complexity to your argument. You are saying that your argument holds even in different circumstances.
You can have very relevant examples and develop your perspective, but if they aren’t related back to your perspective explicitly, the reader may be left wondering how everything ties together. In other words, you should spell out how your examples support your perspective. Don’t assume readers will make the connection themselves, even when it’s obvious.