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The ACT Essay: How to Avoid the Pitfalls and Maximize Your Score

Last September, the ACT adopted a new Writing Test. This new essay task is more complex, but the challenge is not insurmountable; students can still handle it with confidence and skill if they take the right approach. The ACT essay has several new scoring metrics, making it important that they jump through all of the right hoops.

The new ACT Writing Test starts with the prompt which describes a controversial modern issue (such as robots replacing humans in jobs, as seen in the ACT’s first sample prompt, displayed below). The task asks students to “write a unified, coherent essay in which you evaluate multiple perspectives.” Rather than facing a blank page as they did on the old format, students are now provided with multiple, conflicting viewpoints with which they must agree and/or disagree.

It can be easy for a student to miss one of the essay’s necessary components, such as the analysis of the three perspectives and creating his or her own perspective, and these omissions can have severe consequences in the student’s scoring. First and foremost, students must firmly state their own perspective on the issue described in the prompt. The declaration of the student’s own perspective should be done in the introductory paragraph and reinforced throughout the essay. Next, students must address and evaluate each of the three perspectives. The ACT purposely chooses complicated issues with no easy solutions, but by acknowledging the complexities of the issue and explaining the relationships of the different views on the issue, the student can demonstrate that they understand the heart of the Writing task. Finally, students must follow the basics of effective essay writing: have a strong thesis, organize with paragraphs, and thoroughly explain arguments. Following these basic guidelines will help start the student on the path to their best possible Writing score.

So, what does a student need to accomplish in order to achieve a high score? ACT essays will be scored in 4 areas: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use. Here are some tips for each of the ACT Writing sub-scores:

Ideas and Analysis: This sub-score evaluates how well an essay demonstrates an understanding of the issues and the ability to analyze complex arguments. To score highly on this domain, an essay must have a strong central argument and demonstrate an understanding each of the three perspectives, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they relate to the student’s thesis.

Tip #1 – To boost this score, students should look at the language used in high-scoring essays to summarize perspectives and to describe the nuances and tensions between the multiple perspectives. The following example shows some words and phrases that can be borrowed from a portion of a sample essay: “However, some people are more wary of this popular trend of automating the workforce and question whether this progress is truly positive. Their concerns, though, are outweighed by the benefits these machines offer.”

Tip #2 – Complex, contrasting sentences are effective. For example, students can try incorporating sentences structures like “Although there are clearly benefits to robotic manufacturing, there are also some significant drawbacks, as seen in the loss of jobs in the automobile industry.”

Development and Support: This sub-score is based on how well a student has proven his or her thesis. Students often lose points in this sub-score because their arguments are too vague or don’t provide enough precise evidence to back up their claims. Specific details are effective, but so are well-developed hypothetical situations.

Tip # 1 – High-scoring essays have concrete and/or conceptual examples and also establish broader contexts for the situation. For example, a great essay on the “intelligent machines” issue might describe how mechanical looms revolutionized the textile industry (concrete example), explain that technological advances would enable people to focus on arts and sciences (hypothetical example), and also argue that the greater aim for humanity should be toward large-scale prosperity rather than toward preserving traditional jobs and socializing (greater context). Creating a series of arguments like this requires planning and practice.

Tip # 2 – Students should always outline their essays before they start writing, which can get easier with practice before taking the real ACT.

Organization: Essays must be organized in a logical manner with distinctive paragraphs. High-scoring essays typically have effective transitions between paragraphs.

Tip #1 – Keep in mind that scorers don’t have much time to grade each essay, so students can secure a strong Organization score by including transitional statements at the beginning of body paragraphs. For example: “In addition to greater efficiency, one of the benefits of automation is precision, which allows for safer, higher-quality products.”

Language Use: This sub-score looks at the student’s skill in the mechanics of writing. Word choice, voice, tone, and grammar are all taken into account by this subscore.

Tip # 1 – Students should avoid slang, misspellings, and grammatical errors.

Tip #2 – Students should also vary their sentence structure and use relatively sophisticated vocabulary; however they should not use needlessly obscure words.

Tip #3 – The best way to become a better writer is simple: practice writing essays, edit those essays and read more.

Remember, practice helps build confidence with the ACT essay as well as the rest of the test! You can contact Chappaqua Learning Center to set up a practice test, and to get more information and experienced guidance on the ACT and other tests.

By Joshua White

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