We are often asked by students if they need to sit for the writing portion of the ACT. Perhaps they heard that taking the ACT essay was optional, or that some schools don’t require it. This is true, but you shouldn’t skip the essay without knowing the details. Here, we’ll go over both what the ACT essay is and whether or not a student should take the ACT essay.
What is the ACT Essay?
The ACT writing portion is an essay section of the test given after the four mandatory sections. Students are given 40 minutes to write an essay analyzing a given issue, stating their perspective on that issue, and analyzing the relationship between their stance and the three given perspectives below the prompt. That may sound a bit confusing so let’s look at an example prompt:
Consider the above prompt: a statement about growing automation in the workplace and three perspectives on that automation. Whenever faced with a new prompt, first think about your stance on this prompt. Your primary task in the essay you write is to take a stance and argue it, using the three perspectives as inspiration for your evidence.
Take a Stance and Argue It
With respect to this prompt, perhaps you believe automation replacing lower skilled jobs is good because it allows members of society to seek more advanced or higher paid employment when those jobs are taken care of. Or, perhaps you believe when everything becomes automated, many people will lose their jobs and be unable to seek alternative employment and thus automation is a bad thing. Either stance is fine for this essay because The ACT essay grader doesn’t care what stance you take.
Generally, it’s always easier to write on whatever your gut reaction is to the prompt as that will be the one you have the most to write about! Once you’ve got your stance, then think about whether each of the given perspectives supports or argues against your stance. Over the course of your essay, you’ll analyze those perspectives, pulling them into your argument both as both argument and counterargument to your opinion.
How do they score the ACT writing portion?
Each essay is graded by two different scorers on a scale of 1-6 for a total of 12 points possible. This score is separate from the rest of the ACT, meaning it does not affect your composite score out of 36. Graders are looking at four different categories:
Ideas and Analysis: This refers to your essay’s ability to clearly state your stance on the given issue (your thesis) as well as reference the specific perspectives given in an essay prompt. A good rule of thumb is to always mention all three of the perspectives at least once!
Development and Support: Here, the graders look for how your essay develops your stance with logical reasoning and specific evidence. This means using specific examples about whatever your essay may be about. In the case of the “intelligent machines” prompt up above, an example of this might be how they replaced traditional notebooks at your high school with iPads and whether or not that is a good choice.
Organization: At its core, the ACT essay portion is looking for students to demonstrate their essay writing ability, just like in the essays you write in school. This means a clearly organized essay with all the parts of an essay you have been taught: intro paragraphs, body paragraphs, concluding paragraphs, topic sentences, thesis statements, etc.
Language Use: Unsurprisingly, graders are looking for both proper grammar use and punctuation. A varied sentence structure and vocabulary will also be awarded higher grades.
Should I take the ACT essay?
The short answer: yes. Though only some schools require it for their application, there is no clear pattern to which do and do not.. For example, even among Ivy League schools their application vary on whether it is required. Therefore, we recommend that you take the essay no matter what. We understand you may not want to sit in a classroom for an additional 40 minutes after such a long test, but trust us — it’s worth it! You would never want to have 40 minutes cost you being able to apply to your dream school.
Since most students take the ACT in their junior year, they usually don’t have a finalized college application list. There’s still summer and fall ahead of you for looking at schools and narrowing down your list. So unless you are absolutely sure you are applying to no schools that require the ACT writing portion, it is always better to just take it.
Should I take the ACT essay every time I take the test?
As of writing this, there is no option on the ACT to send just the essay portion to colleges, nor is there an option to take the ACT essay by itself (without the other four sections). It is possible that when the ACT adds single-section testing, they will also add the ability to take the essay on its own. But for now…
You’re stuck taking it each time. Even if you did great on the essay section on your last test, you should still take it every time you sit for the ACT, just to be safe. Consider this: you got a 30 on your first official test and a 10 on the essay portion, but then on your second official you got a 33 and didn’t take the essay portion at all. Even if you just wanted to submit your 33, you would still have to submit your 30 as well since it has your essay. Therefore, it is always better to just take the essay every time you sit for an official test. Also, since schools that SuperScore pick the highest essay score anyway, it’s in your interest to take it as many times as you are taking the ACT!
How should I prepare for the ACT Essay?
The most important thing to keep in mind is that the ACT writing portion scorers read hundreds of essays each day with the same prompt and passage. This means they are not looking for your essay to blow their minds wide open with a completely brand new approach. No — they are looking for you to follow the above standardized set of criteria, and how well your essay implements them.
The best way to prep for the ACT Essay is practice. If you are taking the essay portion (which we believe you always should), your tutor will assign you practice essays toward the end of your program leading up to the official test. They will then give you feedback on your essay along with an estimate of your score, looking for the same things the official graders of the ACT essay will be. In the meantime though, here are some quick tips to keep in mind for the ACT essay portion:
- Follow the 5 paragraph essay format you’ve been taught in school and you can’t go wrong (opening paragraph that ends with a thesis statement, 2-3 body paragraphs, concluding paragraph summing up your argument)
- Use the given perspectives! The ACT gives them to you for a reason! We find it’s helpful to label them as either “pro” or “con” your stance on the given issue. A great essay then might devote 1-2 body paragraphs using the “pro” perspectives as guideposts followed by examples and 1 body paragraph to discuss how the “con” perspective is wrong.
- Use specific evidence! Think about experiences from your own life that relate to the issue at hand! These essay prompts are meant to be something high school students can relate to, which means hopefully you will specific examples from the real world come to mind. Don’t worry if you don’t remember every detail from them. Even if you get a name or statistic wrong, the graders aren’t looking to make sure you are 100 percent factually accurate (to a point of course — don’t make up inaccurate facts).
- Avoid contractions (can’t, won’t, shouldn’t) as they tend to indicate casual writing.
Good luck with prepping for the essay! If the above information seems like a lot to take in, that’s okay — it is. A great next step towards getting the scores you want on the ACT is to schedule a consultation call with one of our Testive Student Success Advisors!