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Hate Writing the ACT Essay? Think Again.
Do you hate writing ACT essays? You’re not alone. Student’s requests for ACT Essay tips are an everyday occurrence for me as an ACT prep tutor.
Although I actually don’t consider the ACT Essay to be the most essential part of good ACT test prep, I can still understand why students are so freaked-out by the ACT essay.
There’s something really uncomfortable about being forced to write an essay, under time pressure, and with the feeling that “everything depends on this ACT essay.”
The good news is, the ACT Essay can be a relatively simple exercise in writing that boosts your overall ACT score. Although the ACT essay usually does not directly affect your ACT composite score, it is still an important part of a well-rounded ACT score for college and scholarship applications.
In this article, I’ll cover 9 key ACT Essay tips that any diligent ACT test prep student should be aware of.
A Quick Overview of the ACT Essay.
The ACT Essay is nothing to be afraid of - as long as you prepare for it. (By the way, are you wondering how you’re supposed to find time for ACT test prep in high school? Read this article.)
At the end of the ACT Test, you’ll take the “optional” ACT Writing section. Your essay prompt will provide three distinctly different perspectives on the same central topic. You must evaluate these three perspectives in your ACT essay.
You have only 40 minutes to digest the prompt, plan your essay, and write the whole thing. The good news is, the ACT essay graders are NOT very harsh. They know how much pressure you are under to finish.
Note that the ACT Essay is “optional” for some college and scholarship applications. However, you can’t include your essay scores unless you take the whole ACT test in the same sitting.
Therefore, it’s best to take the ACT with Writing Test. You simply don’t want to have to come back and take the whole ACT test again, just to write the essay.
1. Know the ACT Essay Prompts In Advance.
Here’s the first of my ACT essay tips: If you have to take an essay test, it’s a lot better if you can know the prompt in advance, right?
Well, unfortunately we can’t know exactly what our ACT Essay prompt will be, but we can have a pretty good idea what to expect.
The ACT Essay assignment is made of three parts:
- The controversial topic (different every time).
- Three conflicting perspectives on the topic (different every time).
- The essay task itself (always the same).
The ACT Essay will provide a topic - usually some contemporary social issue that allows some room for controversy. Picture topics like “Is it acceptable to pirate music and videos online?” or “Should public tax money be used to pay for a museum that not everyone will be interested in?”
Then, you’ll get three brief perspectives (one to two sentences each). The three perspectives will each be distinctly different from each other.
Finally, you’ve got the essay task itself, which is always the same for each ACT essay. Your task is to analyze the given perspectives, then provide your own perspective as part of your response.
There are a lot of “moving parts,” but once you’ve practice once or twice, it’s really quite simple and easy to know what to expect. Get your hands on as many recent ACT Essay prompts as possible (Google and Reddit can help).
The more exposure you get to different possible prompts, the more clearly you’ll see the pattern of the ACT Essay… and once you clearly see the patterns of your opponent, you can easily defeat them.
2. Study the ACT Essay Grading Scale.
My second ACT essay tip is to get your info directly from the creators of the test.
Use your copy of the official ACT Prep Guide to the fullest and study the sections on the ACT Essay grading scale.
I can’t cover every detail here, but these are the basic points of a good ACT essay:
- Focuses on the topic. Presents a thesis that clearly states your key argument.
- Clarifies ideas with specific reasons, examples, and details.
- Demonstrates clear links between big-picture concepts and specific supporting ideas and evidence.
- Essay is organized and unified, with a logical thought process behind it.
- Uses precise transition words and phrases to show the logic that connects your ideas.
- Presents a well-developed introduction and conclusion.
- Proper grammar and word usage with few errors.
- Consistently choose words that are precise and varied.
- Use a variety of sentence structures to prevent boredom and repetition.
You need to know exactly what you’ll be graded on. Give the ACT essay graders what they want - by studying what they ask for.
3. Prepare Your ACT Essay Evidence In Advance.
As it turns out, providing your own evidence is not a particularly important part of the ACT essay – most of the time.
Usually, the prompts and perspectives will provide enough material to respond to. And, for most essays you can get away without a whole lot of “hard evidence” for your response.
But, good evidence and examples always make your argument stronger. It’s probably better to use concrete examples in your ACT essay than imaginary hypotheticals. So, the next of my ACT essay tips is to prepare some essay evidence before the day of the test.
That’s why top students prepare some flexible examples and evidence ahead of time. Armed with about 5 good essay examples, you can be pretty sure that at least one of them will be useful on the day of the real ACT test.
What examples should you use? Books from school or personal reading are a good place to start. Pick a couple of books with strong themes and review the plots and characters. Brainstorm (and take written notes) on how each book could provide examples for a possible ACT essay prompt.
Examples from history are also good. But, make sure you spend some time narrowing down the scope of your historical examples, so that you stay focused.
Personal examples are not terrible. It’s always good to be specific and vivid. But most of the time, a good literary or historical example will be more powerful than an example from your personal life.
4. Know How To Structure A Good ACT Essay.
Is it possible to pre-plan the outline or organization of your ACT Essay? Definitely.
Would this help us save time, stay organized, and feel more confident? Oh, yeah.
This brings us to the next of our ACT Essay tips: Build your ACT Essay around a smart, repeatable skeleton.
First of all, go with a simple 5-paragraph structure. This allows you to give an intro, respond to each of the three perspectives, and wrap things up with a conclusion and final thoughts.
- Put your best ideas in your Intro Paragraph and 1st Body Paragraph, where they can’t be missed.
- Strong thesis and argument preview in your Intro Paragraph (this requires planning, see below).
- Load body paragraphs with simple, clear arguments plus specific supporting examples.
- Use your conclusion to review what you’ve said, and provide any final clarifying thoughts.
Also, a pro tip: Never forget the importance of good transition words, phrases, and sentences. The language you use to transition from one thought to the next is a major part of building a clear and persuasive ACT essay.
Learn my exclusive ACT Essay tips in a complete instant-download course.
5. Plan Your ACT Essay Out With Headers.
As an ACT prep tutor, I notice that a lot of students fail to properly plan their ACT essays in advance.
Here’s another one of my ACT Essay tips: Once you’ve seen the ACT Essay prompt, you should NOT just jump right in to writing your essay. A solid planning stage should always come first. I recommend using 10-20% of your essay time for this planning stage.
The easiest and best way to do this is by plotting out 3-5 “headers” or main hooks to organize your ACT essay around.
You can expect to include an Introduction and a Conclusion in your ACT Essay, so that adds another 2 “headers” to your planning phase.
Once you’ve got the headers written down, sketch out 3-5 bullet points you want to talk about beneath each header. These can be very short, or very detailed. You just want to get your ideas out on paper in visual form.
Starting with a plan, then moving to a sketch of your structure, and finally filling in the details. It’s the same way you build a house. Predictable, dependable, and repeatable.
I know you’re worrying that you won’t have time for this. It already feels like you need all the available time just to write your essay.
Trust me, the time spent will repay itself with a clearer essay, more ideas to talk about, and a higher ACT essay score.
6. Add Some Cool Vocab to your ACT Essay.
If there’s one time-honored trick for getting a better score on the ACT Essay test, it’s to include some extra-special vocabulary words in your essay.
This isn’t nearly as hard as it sounds. Make personalized flashcards of 5 cool vocabulary words you could deliberately use on your ACT essay. Select 5 words that are flexible and will work in a variety of situations. Know these words inside and out - their spelling, primary meanings, and alternate definitions.
When you do practice ACT Essays (see below) be sure to keep your vocab word list nearby. Find opportunities to use them in your practice ACT essays.
Then, on the official ACT test, you’ll be ready - and using standout vocabulary will be part of your natural essay-writing routine.
7. Drill Timed Practice ACT Essays.
Knowing all the theory behind a great ACT essay is one thing. But, putting into practice is another.
There’s only one way to get truly good at the ACT Essay, and that’s to practice these ACT Essay tips and drill timed practice essays until steam comes out your ears.
How do you think I got perfect scores on the ACT and SAT essays? That’s right… a lot of study, and a lot of practice.
There’s some trial-and-error that comes along with mastering the ACT essay. Everyone has personal hangups that they have to get over. You may have trouble brainstorming your essay, or it might just be hard to fill in all the details.
One way or another, your personal difficulties will become obvious when you try your first few practice ACT essays. Observe the points of resistance you face, and create a personal plan to deal with them.
I recommend at least 3 full-length, timed practice ACT essays before you take the real test. This is a minimal investment of time (a couple of hours, max) that will massively increase your confidence.
You can also include full-length practice ACT tests as part of your ACT essay prep. Contact us for a FREE personalized ACT prep consultation and planning session to see how we can help you get a better score on the ACT test.
8. Expect to be Fatigued.
Because the ACT Essay is the last section of the ACT test, you can expect to be pretty tired by the time it arrives.
After all, that’s nearly 4 hours of commuting and ACT testing on a Saturday morning from 8 AM!
Then, you must write a complete ACT essay under timed conditions. It can be hard to think of what to write. Students freeze up. Or, you can just feel too tired to focus.
Practice and experience are key to handling your fatigue. If you’ve practice full-length ACT tests, and drilled yourself on multiple ACT essay prompts, you should feel like you have just enough energy to cross the finish line.
Trust me, everybody feels tired at the end of a full-length ACT test. Even pro tutors.
9. Write as Much as Possible.
Even though you’ll be tired by the time you start your ACT essay, you need to produce as much high-quality writing as possible.
Longer ACT essays score better - as long as your writing remains high-quality throughout.
Don’t forget - everyone else is tired at the end of the ACT test, too. You can set yourself apart by finishing your test with a powerful ACT essay.
One warning, though. Don’t add “fluff” to your ACT essay. Repeating yourself, talking in circles, or veering off-topic are not useful ways of writing a longer ACT essay.
Planning out your ACT essay helps so much. If you know the “headers” of what you’re going to write about, it’s much easier to fill in the details with complete paragraphs (trust me, I do this when I blog - and I write a lot).
By the way - try to use your best handwriting on the ACT essay, even if you’re tired. It helps. Clearer handwriting is easier for the graders to read, and you’ll also be in a “mental space” where clarity matters.
Review and Conclusions
In this article I’ve tried to boil down everything I know about the ACT Essay into a manageable list of 9 straightforward ACT Essay tips.
Learn what the prompts and grading system will be like. Pre-plan your essay structure and examples to use as evidence. Outline your essay first, then write as much as possible.
As you can tell, a lot of ACT Essay prep is about advance preparation. If you know what to expect, and get ready ahead of time, the ACT Essay should stand out as one of the high-scoring sections of your ACT test.
Have any questions about the ACT Essay that I haven’t answered in this article? Be sure to leave them in the comments section below!
Note: A year later I made a complete ACT Essay & SAT Essay course, available for instant download - just follow the link!
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