The New ACT Essay
Your Full Guide to ACT Writing Section
Since September of 2015, the ACT essay / writing section has gone through a radical change. And that’s amazing news for you.
The ACT essay was always easy to master with a bit of practice and the right techniques. However, the new ACT essay is even easier to perfect than the old one ever could have been. This short guide will teach you exactly what’s changing, how to prepare for the new essay, and how to take full advantage of this new format.
Why did ACT test change?
Honestly, unless you’re in the education business, you probably don’t care too much about the details. The short version: the ACT is trying to fit the CORE curriculum in the long-term hope of becoming a viable high school equivalency exam. By providing an essay that more closely matches and tests CORE standards, they’re hoping that they’ll continue dominating the SAT and become the obvious choice for American high school students. Again, this is amazing news. The CORE is extremely straightforward (and doesn’t incorporate any “tricks” or logical reasoning elements).
The new “CORE-friendly” ACT essay / writing portion just makes this test more beatable than it already was. I’ll leave the rest to the ACT’s PR team. For now, let’s get into what you should do about it.
What is Different?
The new ACT essay / writing section has a few more “moving parts” than the old version.
The old ACT writing / essay section gave you a simple prompt, then asked you to take a side on that prompt and argue your point. The basic format looked something like this:
“Watching TV can be bad for your brain. However, sometimes it’s educational, so some people think it’s good for your brain. So in your opinion, do you think that TV is good or bad?
In your essay, take a position on this question. You may write about either one of the two points of view given, or you may present a different point of view on this question. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.”
The old format couldn’t have been any simpler. “Here are two opinions on a topic. Pick one and then write about it for a few paragraphs.”
The new ACT writing / essay format is much more complicated. But here’s the funny thing:
while the new ACT writing / essay FORMAT is much more complex, the process of WRITING these essays has become VASTLY SIMPLER.
Here’s what it looks like now:
Take the time to read through all of this and really get a feel for what the new ACT writing / essay section looks like. Once you do, we shall move on:
How Do You Write This Thing
(and why is it so much easier)?
In the old ACT essay, you only had to do one thing – pick a side and argue it. Now, you have to do so much! You need to evaluate three different arguments, you need to come up with your own argument, and then you have to relate your argument to the three arguments given. Oh, the humanity!
But here’s the thing: in the old version of the ACT essay, you had to both come up with an argument and come up with the reasons why you support it. In the new ACT essay, all of the arguments and reasoning behind them is provided for you!
It’s the difference between being asked to “make lasagna or pizza for dinner tonight” and “grabbing something off the McDonald’s dollar menu.” Sure, there are more options on the McDonald’s menu – but they’re already cooked for you!
At first, it seems like there’s a ton more to do. In reality, the ACT is doing all of the hard work for you! All you need to do is read carefully, pick what you like, and then follow a simple process to “plug in your opinion.”
My Step by step process for Acing the New ACT Essay / Writing Section >
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The ACT Writing test is a 40-minute essay that you will have to write with pen-and-paper. Although not all schools require the ACT Writing Test, you have to take all four previous tests in order to take the Writing Test. It cannot be done separately from the other sections.
The prompt will describe an issue in a short paragraph, then give you three different perspectives on that issue. Each perspective will be in its own separate box, and they will be labeled “Perspective One,” “Perspective Two,” and “Perspective Three.” Below the perspectives boxes will be the Essay Task, which will look like this:
Notice you must accomplish all three of the bulleted tasks. No matter what perspective you take, your score will NOT be affected if the reader does not share the same opinion. You are only scored on your ability. Here’s how to structure your 40-minutes:
- Step 1 – 5 minutes to Plan
- Step 2 – 30 minutes to Produce
- Step 3 – 5 minutes to Proofread
Thirty minutes may not sound like a lot of writing time, but if we break it down that’s 5 minutes for each paragraph! Aim for 5 paragraphs total, and you’ll be able to finish in the allotted time with a bit of practice, especially if you take enough time to plan out your essay.
How do I Plan? Start by reading the prompt paragraph, and the three perspectives. Part of what you will have to do is choose your OWN position on the topic, and rather than come up with a completely new perspective, choose ONE of the three perspectives that is closest to your own opinion. That perspective will be your thesis, which will be the last sentence of your introductory paragraph. Next, plan out your essay using this template!
ACT Essay Template
This is a sample outline for the ACT essay. Aim for 5 paragraphs. If you have trouble completing 5 paragraphs, see if you can streamline your body paragraphs. They can often be bloated with unnecessary wordiness. Keep the introduction and the conclusion short and sweet.
Paragraph 1 – Introduction (3 sentences)
Begin your essay with two sentences summarizing the other two perspectives (the ones you do not agree with). Your last sentence will be your thesis, and it will be a powerful and confident statement that encapsulates the ideas of the third perspective (the one you do agree with). For example, it could be structured like this:
Regarding the issue of _________, some people mistakenly believe that _________. Others think _____________. However ____________; in fact, ____________.
Let’s say the essay was about saving the environment. You introduction could be structured thusly:
Regarding the issue of protecting the environment, some people mistakenly believe that recycling and more awareness would be enough to solve the world’s pollution and waste management problems. Others think our world economy’s dependence on oil and fossil fuels is the main source of the problem. However, both these perspectives are too limited; in fact, to truly guarantee our environment’s long-term stability, it is vital that we invest our money and resources in developing alternate technologies.
From this introduction, we have clarified our position: alternative technology is the way to go! We also have clarified the two positions we will attack: recycling/awareness and oil/fossil fuel criticism.
Be sure to reuse key words from each perspective so it is extremely clear which perspectives you are criticizing, and which of the three you are strongly supporting. Do not mention the individual perspectives by number. It is more subtle if you can write your essay as if it is not based on a prompt at all!
Paragraph 2 – Criticism of One Perspective (4-6 sentences)
In this paragraph, you should explain how recycling and awareness doesn’t work. You have three tasks in your body paragraphs:
- Introduce the perspective you will attack.
- Demonstrate you understand it.
- Explain why it is incorrect or ineffective. You should be spending the majority of your body paragraph doing the third step: explaining why it is incorrect or ineffective. You must convince the reader through very concrete detail how your position on the issue is correct. If you can incorrect a SPECIFIC real-world example, that will make your essay even stronger! Check out our “example list” below for an idea on how you can brainstorm possible examples, even before Test Day!
Paragraph 3 – Criticism of Second Perspective (4-6 sentences)
In this paragraph, you should explain how dependence on oil and fossil fuels doesn’t work. Just like you did in the first body paragraph, you will:
- Introduce the perspective you will attack.
- Demonstrate you understand it.
- Explain why it is incorrect or ineffective.
Paragraph 4 – Prove Why Your Perspective is Best (4-6 sentences)
Use a transition phrase, and reiterate your thesis in the first sentence. In the rest of the paragraph, elaborate why it is correct. Again, if you can use a specific example, that would be ideal.
Paragraph 5 – Conclusion (2 sentences)
In your conclusion, warn about the future consequences if your perspective were not considered. Then reinforce the correctness of your own thesis. This takes care of having to come up with a conclusion- you’ll already know what to do! Here’s how it might look:
Although some people insist _________ or __________, these perspectives are shortsighted. In order to ________________, the only viable solution is __________.
How to Get Specific Examples
You may not know the prompt topic, but you CAN make a list of extremely specific people, places, current events, etc. from which you could draw on Test Day!
You’ll see a list of examples below – come up with your own list BEFORE Test Day that you can “pull from.”
Example List (sample)
- Oprah Winfrey
- Martha Stewart
- 9/11 (e.g. NYPD/NYFD, post-9/11, etc.)
- Global Warming
- Steve Jobs
- Vietnam / Gulf / Iraq War
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (book)
- Citizen Kane (movie)
- A Tale of Two Cities (book)
- The Scarlet Letter (book)
- Othello (play)
- Britney Spears
- Kanye West
- Lena Dunham and “Girls”
- The Olympics
- 12 Years a Slave (book or movie)
- Marie Curie
- Sigmund Freud
- Adolf Hitler
- World War I
- Ancient Egypt
Notice that your examples can be from literature, politics, current events, history! Think about 4-5 topics you covered in each of your classes in the past year. You already know about these, so there might be a way to incorporate them into your essay!
For example, in our sample above, if we were discussing why recycling and awareness doesn’t work, you could say that people don’t just change their behaviors because they are more aware of negative things, and use “12 Years a Slave” as an example. Even though the book was written in 1853, many people did not change their minds about the evils of slavery until years later. Don’t feel like you need to shoehorn examples if they really don’t fit, but you might surprise yourself with how creative you can be! One specific example per body paragraph is enough. Try to make them different. For instance, if you’re going to use “12 Years a Slave” for one paragraph, don’t use books for the other two paragraphs. Perhaps choose a current event, or an item from history to prove your other points.
ACT Essay Scoring
Like the other sections of the ACT, your Writing score will be out of 36. You will also receive sub-scores (between 1-12) in four individual categories:
- Ideas and Analysis
- Development and Support
- Language Use and Conventions
These scores do not add up to the final score, but they break down your writing abilities to give colleges more clarity on your strengths. Your score is given by two independent readers, who will assign a score between 1-6 in each of these four areas. These sub-scores are added together to get a raw score, and that raw score is then converted into the final scaled score. Make sure you familiarize yourself with what a reader is looking for in a “perfect” essay:
As long as you follow the template here, choose a clear perspective on the prompt, and thoroughly criticize the other perspectives, and support your ideas with clear, specific examples, it isn’t too challenging to get a perfect score! Ready to practice? Try out some of our sample ACT Writing prompts.