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Catrina Coffey

Should the ACT Essay Be Five Paragraphs?

Note: This post has been updated to reflect changes to the new ACT essay beginning September 2015. 

Ahoy, Magooshers! Today we’re tackling the age-old question “Should the ACT Essay Be Five Paragraphs?”

The short answer? Not anymore. In theory, if you can make a coherent, persuasive argument within the time limit, it doesn’t matter how many or how few paragraphs you have (as long as you have some paragraphs–writing all in one big blob is no good).

The more practical answer, though, is ALL HAIL THE FIVE-PARAGRAPH ESSAY.


What is the Five Paragraph Essay Format?

In case you’re unfamiliar, the five-paragraph essay is a standard essay format that is taught in many, many schools. It’s essentially a framework that you can drape almost any topic over and still have a solid structure at the end. It also makes sense on an essay question that presents you with three different perspectives to analyze. You can devote one paragraph to each perspective and end on the one that most agrees with your own perspective, so you can develop it a little further. (For more on structuring the new ACT essay, check this out.)

Your basic five-paragraph essay starts with the introduction. Here, you introduce the debatable topic and state your thesis. For the ACT Writing Test, the topic is given to you, and your thesis will be your opinion about the topic they’ve presented.

Your next three paragraphs are the body of your essay. On the old essay (and on many essays you write in school) this is where you put your examples, reasons, and evidence for your thesis. The new ACT essay is a little different since you are provided with three perspectives to analyze. But this actually makes your life quite a bit easier. You don’t even have to decide what each paragraph should be about! Each paragraph can be devoted to analyzing one of the three perspectives using solid, specific evidence and reasoning.  I suggest that you order the perspectives in the way that will best support your overall argument. This typically means putting the perspective you agree with most in the third body paragraph. Then you can further develop your own perspective within that paragraph or include it as a separate fourth body paragraph if appropriate. It also helps a lot to have a clear transition between each paragraph.

The final paragraph is the conclusion. You do not have to restate every argument you’ve made in the body, but you should summarize your argument and restate your thesis in different words. If you can, try to end with something that sounds like it ties everything together. For example, if you use a quote in the introduction, reference it in the conclusion. Little things like that make the essay feel more cohesive.

(One quick note: this will be discussed more in detail in a post about how the ACT Essay is graded, but the introduction and conclusion do not have to be very long. Even one sentence can do the trick, although you should strive for two to three as long as you have the time. The body of the essay is where all the action lies, and that is what will make or break your essay’s persuasiveness.)

Now, this may sound terribly boring. And, admittedly, it isn’t the most exciting way to write. But can you imagine walking into your ACT with the pre-write for your essay already half written? All you have to do is get the specific topic and decide which side to write. You are already ahead of the game!

Why the Five Paragraph Essay Rules the ACT

If you’re not convinced yet, here are a few more reasons, in addition to the one above, why the five-paragraph essay is totally awesome for the ACT:

  • You don’t have to wonder how to structure your essay on test day. You can spend more of your prewriting time on the content you want to discuss. And you’ll need it! That’s more time to think of a solid thesis and specific, concrete examples because you already know how you’re going to write your essay.
  • One of the criteria for the ACT Writing Test score is “structure and organization.” You use the five-paragraph essay, and you’re killing that category. One less piece to worry about? Aww yeah!
  • One of the other criteria for the ACT Writing Test score is that your thesis is clear. You use the five-paragraph essay, and your thesis is stated right up front. The graders don’t have to try to find it; you spelled it out for them in the first few sentences.
  • Speaking of the ACT graders, they’re going to have a much easier time understanding your argument because they’ll be able to find where you put everything. A predictable format that shows you made a conscious choice to clearly organize your thoughts — I can’t think of anything the graders would want more!


So, I hope I’ve convinced you of the usefulness of the five-paragraph essay structure. You have enough to occupy your mind when you’re taking the ACT. Make your life easier and make the five-paragraph essay your new best friend.

For more on structuring your ACT essay, including how many paragraphs to use, check out our Tuesday ACT video from our ACT expert, Kristin Fracchia!

About Catrina Coffey

Catrina graduated from Rider University with a B.A. in English. She’s been helping students prepare for standardized tests since 2011. In her spare time, you can find her reading anything within arms’ reach, playing video games, correcting grammar, or studying word derivations. (Did you know that procrastinate comes from the Latin word cras, which means “tomorrow”?)

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