The ACT Writing section (aka the essay) is brand spankin’ new starting with the September 12, 2015 ACT exam, with a scoring update starting with the September 10, 2016 ACT: see the scoring section below! Here are our expert answers to your most pressing questions about the ACT writing prompts so you can write an ACT essay worthy of the Pulitzer on your upcoming test.
What’s the difference between the old and new ACT essay question?
In short, the new ACT essay prompt asks students to do a lot more. The old essay asked test-takers to consider issues such as whether or not students should be required to wear school uniforms or whether or not fast food chains should be required to post nutrition information. In other words, as the ACT puts it, it was an exercise in persuasion. The new essay is an exercise in both persuasion and analysis. Students are given three perspectives on an issue and asked to “evaluate and analyze” the three perspectives, “state and develop” their own perspective, and “explain the relationship” between their perspective and the given perspectives. They can choose to agree with one of the provided viewpoints or may come up with their own.
This is a lot to ask high school students to do! Particularly in a timed writing situation (the silver lining is that the ACT is giving you a little more time to do it…see below!). This makes it all the more important to have a strategic approach to make sure you hit all of the required parts of the question in an organized, well-written essay. Keep reading for our best tips on how to do this.
Where can I find ACT essay examples?
UPDATE: You can find another practice essay prompt released by the ACT in the 2015-2016 Preparing for the ACT guide here.
How can I prepare for the new ACT essay?
Practice planning and drafting an essay based on the sample ACT essay prompts above. Do them within the time limit. Then review the ACT sample essays posted by the ACT on the official ACT prompt and the rationale for the scores they received. Review the rubric the graders will be using. This knowledge is power. Remember, you are writing for the graders, so give them what they want.
What are your top tips for success on the new ACT essay?
After poring through the sample essays and grading guidelines for the new ACT essay, here are my conclusions on what will help you get your best score:
- Make sure your introductory paragraph introduces the perspectives provided in the prompt and ends with a thesis statement that states your own perspective and why you believe it.
For example, based on the released ACT example prompt on Intelligent Machines here, this could potentially be your introduction:
Although intelligent machines might cause us to question what makes us human, it is too extreme to say that they cause us to either to lose our humanity or push us to become super-human. Humans and machines can work in concert: machines can be employed to take on tasks that are menial, tedious, and time-consuming, leaving humans free to work on tasks that require a human mind and spirit.
Notice that the first sentence summarizes the first and third perspectives in the prompt and the thesis statement agrees with the second. This sets up a structure for your essay in which you will evaluate the three perspectives and explain why you agree with one of them.
- Choose one of the given three perspectives to agree with (at least mostly) and avoid the option to present your own.
With three different perspectives to evaluate and a limited amount of time to write, you are going to be able to cover more ground if you choose to agree with one of the provided perspectives. Three viewpoints is already a lot to evaluate. If you choose to present your own viewpoint, this means you now have to elaborate on FOUR perspectives. You can get a perfect score by agreeing with one of the given perspectives. Don’t make your life harder.
- Know your essay structure in advance. Here’s one organization strategy that should work well if you follow my advice to agree with one of the perspectives.
- Brief intro paragraph (2-3 sentences)
- Evaluation of the first perspective you did not choose with specific examples
- Evaluation of other perspective you did not choose with specific examples
- Evaluation of the perspective you agree with and further development on why you agree with it using specific examples (this should be a longer paragraph than the first two, or it could be split into two paragraphs)
- Brief conclusion (approx 2 sentences): make a final case for your argument
This structure ensures that you answer all three parts of the question: evaluating the three perspectives, developing your own, and explaining the relationship between your perspective and the others.
- IMPORTANT UPDATE: In the Fall of 2016, the ACT announced that students are no longer required to address all 3 perspectives; they just need to address their perspective and AT LEAST one other perspective. Until we have more information on essay scores received this fall, we are sticking to the advice above so that you have plenty of material to analyze and thus boost your “Ideas and Analysis” score. However, if you have trouble with finishing the essay on time, I suggest you only address one other perspective and then go into your perspective (so 4 paragraphs total); you cannot be penalized for that!
- Give VERY specific examples
This has always been the case on the ACT essay. For each of the three perspectives, make sure you give specific examples. And the more specific they are, the better. You don’t need a lot–two or three good ones do the trick. Examples from historical and contemporary events and circumstances tend to go over best. Personal examples can also work, but graders seem to be biased towards outside examples–they seem to carry more weight.
- Leave time to proofread at the end
Since “Language Use” is its own separate grading category now, it is worth your time to catch any errors you may have inadvertently made while writing quickly.
Is the new ACT essay still optional?
Yes. Students can still choose whether or not they want to take the essay, and it will still be the last section of the test for students who choose to take it. As always, keep in mind that many colleges require or recommend the ACT with Writing, so know your potential college requirements before registering for the test. If you are not sure, you can register for Writing and drop it before the test date if you change your mind (you can even do that on test day, but you won’t get a refund).
Is the scoring the same as the old essay?
Note: This information has been updated based on the ACT’s announcement in June 2016 that the ACT essay will be going back to a score from 2-12 in September 2016 instead of a score from 1-36.
The history is a little complicated. Here’s the breakdown of how the scoring has changed on the ACT Essay, and how it will be scored now:
Old ACT Essay (pre-September 2015): Students received an essay score from 2-12. This was based on the combined score of two graders grading the essay holistically from 1-6.
New ACT Essay (September 2015 through June 2016): Students received a scaled score out of 36 (similar to the other multiple choice sections of the test). They also received what are called domain scores out of 12 in four categories: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. These scores did not add up to the overall score, but were intended to give students and schools more information on the writer’s strengths. Two graders independently scored students out of 6 on each of the four domains. These points are added up to a raw score, which was then converted to a scaled score out of 36. Students also received an ELA score, which combined their essay score with their score on the ACT English multiple choice section.
New ACT Essay (September 2016 onwards): The ACT decided to go back to an essay score range of 2-12. This is largely because of the confusion (to put it nicely) and outrage (to put it less nicely) the new scaled scores caused. Scoring the essay on a scale of 1-36 naturally resulted in students comparing their essay scores to their multiple choice section scores, since the score ranges were the same. The ACT says this is not what it intended, and, in fact, percentiles were drastically different for different scaled scores on the essay than for the same scaled scores on multiple choice sections.
So now, we are back to a range from 2-12. But this does not mean the new essay is scored holistically.
Rather, two graders will individually score students from 1-6 on the four domains: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. These scores will be added together between the two graders, and the final ACT essay score from 2-12 is an AVERAGE of all the domain scores. Students will still receive an ELA score, which combines the essay score with their score on the ACT English multiple choice section.
What is the time limit for the new ACT Writing section?
The ACT knows it’s asking you to do more, and so it is giving you a little more time to think and plan than it did on the old essay. The time limit for the old essay was 30 minutes. You will now have a 40 minute time limit to write the new ACT essay.
Can Magoosh help me with the new ACT essay prompts?
You bet we can. Magoosh ACT online prep is available with video lessons on how to completely destroy the new ACT essay and sample writing prompts to practice with! And don’t forget to keep your eyes on our blog here for all the latest intel on the ACT as soon as we get it.
(Email email@example.com for more information about Magoosh’s ACT prep options.)