The new ACT essay prompts that premiered last fall have been giving even top-scoring students a run for their money. The reason is because the ACT is now asking students to do a lot more in their essay responses. So let’s break it down.
The ACT essay prompt consists of three main parts:
1. Introductory background information on a debatable issue
2. Three different perspectives on this debatable issue
3. The essay task
The example essay prompt on the ACT’s website (which I highly suggest you check out) is about the presence of intelligent machines in our world today. The essay begins with some general thoughts and examples (the robots that are now building cars on assembly lines once manned by humans, the automated checkout counters in grocery stores) and ends with some rhetorical questions for you to consider.
This introduction is intended to make sure you both understand what the heck the perspectives are talking about and to get your creative juices flowing for writing, so make sure you do read it. You can feel free to use any information you see here as a jumping off point for an introduction or as supporting points in your essay.
After this introductory piece, you’ll see the three perspectives. Three (as opposed to two) is interesting because you are not going to be dealing with just one side that is clearly “for” the issue and one that is “against.” Instead, you may find two on one side and one on the other. More likely you’ll find that at least one of the perspectives, if not all of them, is more nuanced. Maybe it provides a different reasoning for the validity of the issue being discussed, or maybe it “approves” of the issue only in certain circumstances. The variety provided by three perspectives makes your task a little harder than an essay in which you are asked to simply argue for or against an issue.
As you can probably tell, these first two parts will change on every ACT; the third part, the essay task, will be the same on every test, which is why you should know it by heart. Here it is:
Write a unified, coherent essay in which you evaluate multiple perspectives on [insert controversial topic here]. In your essay, be sure to:
• analyze and evaluate the perspectives given
• state and develop your own perspective on the issue
• explain the relationship between your perspective and those given
Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of the others, in partial agreement, or wholly different. Whatever the case, support your ideas with logical reasoning and detailed, persuasive examples.
See “The Essay” section below for my thoughts on how to effectively address this prompt.
The Time Limit
You have 40 minutes to write the ACT essay. It’s not a ton of time, but honestly you probably don’t want the ACT to give you any more time after several hours of multiple choice questions. You’re probably ready to get out of there before it even begins. The good news is that with such a short time limit, the ACT really isn’t expecting spectacularness. Just a short, concise essay with a few examples. You can pull that off.
Even though that is not a lot of writing time, I suggest you spend a full 10-15 minutes prewriting and outlining before you begin. That time will pay off in an essay that is far more organized and persuasive than a rambling list of your thoughts as they occur to you.
With three tasks to accomplish: analyzing the given perspectives, developing your own, and explaining the relationship between yours and those given, you need a plan. The ACT graders seem to care most that you are making your own argument, so I suggest you start here: end a brief introductory paragraph with a thesis statement that gives your perspective on the issue. Then devote a body paragraph to each of the three perspectives, ending with the one that you agree with. If you choose to argue for a perspective different from the ones given, you may need a fourth body paragraph. Finally, if you have time, write a brief conclusion (two or so sentences is fine) that wraps it all up.
This isn’t the only way to structure a winning ACT essay, but it definitely makes sure you do everything the prompt is asking you.
Your essay will be scored by two graders who will grant between 1-6 points on four different dimensions: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use. This means you will end up with a total of 2-12 points on each of these dimensions. Your raw scores are then converted to a scaled score from 1-36 points, similar to how the multiple choice sections are scored.
Whereas the SAT essay puts more emphasis on analytical writing, the ACT essay puts more emphasis on argumentative writing. It’s a bit of a different skill set and you may be more suited for one over the other. This doesn’t mean you should plan which test to take based on the optional essay, but it might be a consideration in your overall decision. In any case, the best way to practice writing these specific styles of essays is to practice writing these specific styles of essays. So get practicing with the prompts on the College Board and ACT websites.
By Kristen Fracchia and Chris Lele. Kristin Fracchia and Chris Lele are Magoosh’s resident ACT and SAT experts. They’re the ones who create awesomely fun lessons and practice materials for students. Read more of their articles on the Magoosh High School Blog.
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