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Writing a Smashing ACT Essay is as Easy as One, Two, Three (and Four, Five, Six)

The ACT Essay is unlike anything you’ve ever written in school. Think of it as a prevent-defense at the end of the football game when you’re up by a touchdown. Or think of it as a dance routine where you do every basic move perfectly, and nothing more, and you’ll get a great score.  

More to the point, imagine that you’ll receive a better college education for writing the essay if you simply follow a short list of rules, because that is pretty close to reality. A good essay score helps admissions offices see you as a competent communicator, something colleges are clamoring for these days.

That’s the mindset you need when you approach the ACT Essay. The essay is an exercise in following directions far more than a test of whether you can write a brilliant novel in a half-hour. 

What should you know about the ACT essay?

You don’t have much time. You only have 30 minutes to scribble down your answer to a given scenario and question. Count on a sore wrist by the end!

The people who grade your essay don’t have much time. Your essay will be examined by two graders. They have two minutes to read your essay. Each will give you a score 1-6. Those two scores are added together to give you your final score of 2-12. A “2” is a terrible score, a “6” is an average score, anything “8” or over is a good score and “11” and “12” are fantastic but almost never awarded.

You must be able to write quickly and legibly. Make sure to bring your best handwriting on game day. Even a brilliant essay can get a “2” if the graders can’t read it.

Each essay prompt follows the same pattern.  Each essay prompt presents a topic, provides two views on the topic, ask you a question and then asks you to offer an argument in favor of or in disagreement with the issue in question. Often it is a “yes” or “no” question; other times you have to work a bit harder than simply answering yes or no. Don’t assume you’ve got a straight up or down vote until you study the essay prompt.

Sentence 1: Presents the topic

Sentence 2: Gives the “for” side

Sentence 3: Gives the “against” side

Sentence 4: States a proposal in question form for you to answer in writing

So what does an ACT essay prompt look like? Take a gander at this example:

As a response to bullying, economic inequality between students and security concerns, many schools now require students to wear school-approved uniforms while in the school building. Supporters say that uniforms prevent the formation of exclusive cliques and help school officials determine who should and should not be in the school building. Opponents say that simply changing students’ clothing will not prevent cliques, that uniforms put an undue financial burden on parents, and that the security benefits are minimal at best. In your opinion, should schools require students to wear uniforms?

Did you recognize which sentences were which? Let’s break it down:

Sentence 1: Presents the  topic : “As a response to bullying, economic inequality between students and security concerns, many schools now require students to wear school-approved uniforms while in the school building.”

Sentence 2: Gives the “for” or “yes” side“:  Supporters say that uniforms prevent the formation of exclusive cliques and help school officials determine who should and should not be in the school building.”

Sentence 3: Gives the “against” or “no” side: "Opponents say that simply changing students’ clothing will not prevent cliques, that school uniforms put an undue financial burden on parents, and that the security benefits are minimal at best.”

Sentence 4: States a proposal in question form for you to answer in writing: “In your opinion, should schools require students to wear uniforms?”

Now that you've read the question, what about the writing? 

So what’s the strategy for the ACT essay? Your overall strategy is simple:

Write a six-paragraph essay that makes clear and concise arguments backed up by concrete examples. Beyond that, your attack strategy is to complete the following maneuvers in precise order.

First, re-read the question. You know what to pay attention to now.  Understand what the proposal really means.

Then decide which position you’d like to take. Will you answer “yes” or “no” to the proposal stated in the question?

Create an outline. You’ll write down your position, three arguments for your position and a “counter argument debunking.” Follow your outline exactly as you write your essay.

The ACT Essay Outline

In the first minutes of the essay section, you’ll create an outline for your six paragraph essay.  Here is the format:

I.                    Answer to the prompt (your thesis goes here)

II.                  Argument 1

III.                Argument 2

IV.                Argument 3

V.                 Counter argument beatdown

VI.                Conclusion (Restate your thesis statement. Just write “yes” or “no” here again.)

And that is how you create a great six-paragraph ACT essay outline!