How to Write the ACT Essay

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If you’re taking the ACT with Writing, do not go into your official test date without knowing how to write the ACT Essay. The ACT Essay is a very specific writing exercise and you’ll need to understand how best to give your essay reader what he, or she, is looking for if you’re trying to earn a top score.

The intended purpose of the writing test is to work in concert with your multiple choice Reading and English subtests to show that you have a strong understanding of reading, argumentation, and grammar outside of a multiple choice test.

The ACT Essay Is Not Required By Every College

The best thing you can do for yourself is ascertain whether you need to write the ACT Essay at all. The Writing Test is optional and requires paying an additional fee. Therefore, you don’t want to take the Writing Test unless you’re sure you have to. Every college has its own policy about whether or not it requires you to take the test with writing.

We talk more about writing samples, which are different from the ACT Essay, and what colleges require ACT Writing here.

ACT Essay Writing Basics: The Time Limit and Framework

The ACT Writing Test is administered after you have taken the rest of your ACT multiple choice test. This means you will already have been working for nearly three hours by the time the Essay section starts and you will be tired.  

This is not a moment to wing it.

You’ll be given 40 minutes to write an essay by hand with a plain #2 pencil on lined paper provided by your proctor. Mechanical pencils aren’t permitted, so bring several extra pencils if you’re going to write the ACT Essay.

What The ACT Essay Task Is

The ACT Essay is not a free-for-all personal essay piece. While you do have complete freedom in your response to the provided materials, you must conform to the prompt and do the essay task exactly as prescribed. We’ll explore how the prompts (the topics of your essays) work below.

The ACT Essay task, the format of the essay, and its objective is always the same:

“Write a unified, coherent essay about [the prompt]. In your essay, be sure to:

  • clearly state your own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective
  • develop and support your ideas with reasoning and examples
  • organize your ideas clearly and logically
  • communicate your ideas effectively in standard written English
  • Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of those given, in partial agreement, or completely different.”

So what do you actually write about? What is the prompt?

How To Write the ACT Essay In Light of the Prompt Format

The prompt is the element of the ACT that changes on every test date. The prompt is broken up into two key elements: an overview of the idea you’ll be considering and a group of three varying, specific perspectives about that idea.

The basic assignment is to analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one of the other perspectives given. However, touching on more than one point of view is recommended.

The Most Important Thing to Know About How to Write the ACT Essay

The ACT essay you write should articulate your own perspective on the prompt. The official ACT comment on this is that “You may adopt a perspective from the prompt, partially or fully, or you may generate your own. Your score will not be affected by the point of view you take on the issue.” Nevertheless, this isn’t entirely true.

When they say that “your score will not be affected by the point of view you take,” they actually mean that every perspective is equally valid. In other words, there isn’t a “correct perspective,” nor a right or wrong answer.

The real twist is in understanding the rubric. Yes, you may borrow a perspective from one of the given perspectives, but you may not achieve a top score because you’ll likely struggle to write an evolved essay that thoroughly explores the ideas behind the prompt.

Let’s explore that more closely.

The ACT Essay Scoring Rubric Broken Down

It’s very easy to remember, when you’re doing something that feels as free-form as a writing task, that you’re actually taking a standardized test. Standardized testing requires extremely specific, cohesive grading rubrics.

Think of the ACT Essay rubric like a checklist of things you need to do in your essay in order to earn a top score.

ACT Essay Scoring

Your ACT essay will be read by two graders who will each assign the essay a score of 1 to 6. Those two scores are added up, which means your possible ACT Essay score will be between 2 and 12. A perfect ACT Essay score is a 12.

You must look over the sample essay topics and their coordinating sample essays along with scores on the ACT website to really understand how to write the ACT Essay. Here are the basics: the readers look at 4 different areas to assess your writing, which we’re going to examine next. I’ve found that the easiest way to detect what earns top scores on the ACT is by comparing the description of a 6, a perfect score, and a 5, a quality score.

According to the ACT, an essay with a score of 6 “demonstrates effective skill in writing an argumentative essay,” while essays with a score of 5 “ demostrate well-developed skill in writing an argumentative essay.”  

What shows the difference between an “effective” and a “well-developed” skill? We can uncover that in the nuanced language of the ACT’s explanations of the four grading areas.

Grading Area 1: Ideas and Analysis

Here’s the “ideas and analysis” explanation of the ACT:

Score 6: “The writer generates an argument that critically engages with multiple perspectives on the given issue. The argument’s thesis reflects nuance and precision in thought and purpose. The argument establishes and employs an insightful context for analysis of the issue and its perspectives. The analysis examines implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions.”

Score 5: “The writer generates an argument that productively engages with multiple perspectives on the given issue. The argument’s thesis reflects precision in thought and purpose. The argument establishes and employs a thoughtful context for analysis of the issue and its perspectives. The analysis addresses implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions.”

I cannot underscore this enough: the key difference between and a 6 and a 5 on the ACT Essay is the evidence of insight in your essay.

While I can’t teach you how to be insightful in a single article, the easiest way to get you to do it yourself is to encourage you to ask yourself one key question when you’re reading the prompt, and before you read the three perspectives: Why does this issue matter at all?

If you build your essay around that key thought, why the issue matters and what’s at stake, you’ll more easily be able to 1. Develop your own perspective on the prompt and 2. Write so that you interact with and effectively analyze the multiple alternate perspectives.

Grading Area 2: Development and Support

More from the “development and support” explanation of the ACT:

Score 6: “Development of ideas and support for claims deepen insight and broaden context. An integrated line of skillful reasoning and illustration effectively conveys the significance of the argument. Qualifications and complications enrich and bolster ideas and analysis.”

Score 5: “Development of ideas and support for claims deepen understanding. A mostly integrated line of purposeful reasoning and illustration capably conveys the significance of the argument. Qualifications and complications enrich ideas and analysis.”

There it is again: if you’ve shown an insight into the issue in the prompt not already addressed in the perspectives, you’re more likely to use supporting ideas that develop the insight you’ve already shown.

Grading Area 3: Organization

Do not forget while you’re doling out all that insight, that this is still a writing sample and your organization matters:

Score 6: “The response exhibits a skillful organizational strategy. The response is unified by a controlling idea or purpose, and a logical progression of ideas increases the effectiveness of the writer’s argument. Transitions between and within paragraphs strengthen the relationships among ideas.”

Score 5: “The response exhibits a productive organizational strategy. The response is mostly unified by a controlling idea or purpose, and a logical sequencing of ideas contributes to the effectiveness of the argument. Transitions between and within paragraphs consistently clarify the relationships among ideas.”

Do you see how the organization in the 6 score is based on your communication of a controlling idea or purpose? This means that as you develop an argument that supports your insight, every paragraph will build on that idea.

This is different than writing three paragraphs that give three reasons your perspective on the prompt is a good one.

Grading Area 4: Language Use

Here’s where all the studying you’re doing for the ACT English section really pays off; you’ll be able to use all those elevated punctuation alternatives and understandings of subordinate clauses to make your sentence structure pop.

Score 6: “The use of language enhances the argument. Word choice is skillful and precise. Sentence structures are consistently varied and clear. Stylistic and register choices, including voice and tone, are strategic and effective. While a few minor errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics may be present, they do not impede understanding.

Score 5: “The use of language works in service of the argument. Word choice is precise. Sentence structures are clear and varied often. Stylistic and register choices, including voice and tone, are purposeful and productive. While minor errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics may be present, they do not impede understanding.

Again, in a top scoring essay, even the language and sentence structure you choose can and should enhance your central, insightful idea rather than just supporting it.

Practice

As we said at the beginning, you must practice writing multiple ACT essays before you take the real test. Talk out these ideas with a study partner or a teacher and learn to identify when you’ve figured out the potential insight and how to build an argument around it.

Also, check out study options for ACT test prep via The Princeton Review, ACT Online, Kaplan, and others to get ready for the essay and earn the score you want.

Good luck!