Look, I know that you might not be super excited to write the ACT Essay. In fact, your dread of the ACT Writing section may mean that you’re not even that excited about taking the ACT.
But how would you feel if I told you that I’ve totally figured out how to change that?
Yup. Today, instead of talking about how to get a perfect 12 on the ACT Essay, we’re actually going to talk about how you can succeed at the universe’s all-time greatest school: Hogwarts.
Little-known fact: the 12 things you need to do to succeed at Hogwarts are exactly the 12 things you need to do to get a perfect 12 on the ACT Writing section.
Let’s take a quick look at them before diving in deeper:
- Know what you’re getting into.
- Take a look around the Hogwarts Express.
- Be assured that you CAN be 1 in 10,000.
- Get yourself a time-turner (but only if necessary!).
- Make sure you give the Sorting Hat options.
- Be a Gryffindor and take a risk!
- Be a Ravenclaw and be clever.
- Be a Hufflepuff and keep going.
- Be a Slytherin and be crafty.
- Know that the way you say something is just as important as what you say.
- Go into your O.W.L.s with a plan.
- Take a page from J.K. Rowling’s book and refuse to give up!
How to Use This Post
So what can you expect from this post? We’ll look at an overview of the ACT Writing section, then go into how it’s scored and the skills it tests. We’ll compare the ACT Essay to the SAT Essay and help you decide whether you should take the ACT with Writing or without. If you do decide to take it, we have prompts and grading advice for you to use, as well as point-by-point guides to raising your score 2, 3, or 4 points. Finally, we’ll finish off by looking at a template for a 12-scoring essay.
If you’re new to the essay, you’ll want to start at the beginning with the overview of ACT Writing and possibly even try your first practice essay today with one of the prompts here.
On the other hand, if you already have some experience with the ACT Essay, you may want to start with the guide to improving your score, or even with the template for a high-scoring essay.
Just to make it easier on you, here are links to some of the exciting places in this post where you can start your journey to the perfect ACT Essay!
- Quiz: Should You Take the ACT with Writing?
- Template for a Perfect 12 on the ACT Essay
- The Step-by-Step Guide to Getting a Perfect Score
Table of Contents
- The Least You Should Know About ACT Writing
- How Is the ACT Essay Scored?
- Skills Tested in the ACT Writing Section
- ACT vs SAT Essays
- Giving the Sorting Hat Options: Should I Take ACT Writing?
- ACT Writing Prompts
- For Studious Ravenclaws: How Can You Grade Your Practice ACT Essay?
- ACT Writing Test Struggles: Be a Hufflepuff and Keep Going
- Be as Crafty as a Slytherin: The Ultimate Guide to Improving Your ACT Writing Score by 2, 3, or 4 Points
- How to Get a Perfect 12 on the ACT Essay
- ACT Essay Template: Guide to the Perfect Essay (AKA Go Into Your O.W.L.s with a Plan)
The Least You Should Know About ACT Writing
Before you sit down with your quill and parchment, there are a few things that you definitely need to know about ACT Writing, even if you’re taking the exam tomorrow.
Harry’s super excited about getting a gazillion of these letters,
despite not knowing ANYTHING about what’s in them.
In my opinion, this is the least believable part of the story.
First of all, it’s the last section on the ACT (okay, that phrasing might be a little confusing). This means that after you show off your skills reading and interpreting passages, calculating the square root of x, correcting dangling modifiers, and proving your aptitude for Potions in the Science section, you’re going to sit down and write an essay, just to cap it all off.
The ACT Essay is not required; however, it’s a good idea to take it, for reasons we’ll look at a little later on. It’s important to realize this in any case, because you’ll need to register for the ACT with Writing to make sure you have the chance to take it on the official exam.
Once you’re facing the ACT Essay, what will you see? One prompt in your test booklet, which you’ll respond to on a provided answer sheet, in No. 2 pencil (no mechanical pencils here).
The 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.
Timing for the ACT Essay
From the time you turn the page in your test booklet to the ACT Essay prompt, you’ll have exactly 40 minutes to write your essay. In this time, you’ll have a variety of tasks to accomplish: read the instructions, the prompt, the sample opinions (we’ll get to this a little later), brainstorm, outline and write your essay, and proofread it.
How Is the ACT Essay Scored?
Unlike other sections on the ACT, the Essay is scored between 2 and 12, rather than between 1 and 36. 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.
ACT Writing Subscores
Your ACT Writing score is made up of 4 subscores, in Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. Each of two graders will give you a score from 1-6 in each domain (giving you the opportunity to obtain a total score from 2-12 in each domain). Your four scores are then averaged to give you an overall score from 2-12. Your score report will reveal each of your domain scores, so you will get to see how much of an impact your grammar had on your composite score versus your ideas. You’re going to get a fair amount of feedback on why your essay received the score it did.
Who Does the ACT Writing Scoring?
Professors McGonagall and Flitwick, of course! No, sorry. In all seriousness: teachers trying to make the big bucks during their copious free time; retired teachers who want another income stream/to help humanity; experts in test prep who don’t have conflicting interests…you get the idea.
What if One of the Graders Doesn’t Like Me?
Well, first of all, I think you mean, “What if one of them doesn’t like your essay?”, but I get it. We take critiques of our writing rather personally. However, the ACT has a safety net in place for such a situation. If the graders disagree on your essay by more than one point on any domain score, a third grader (don’t worry, not a third-grader) will be brought in to settle the dispute.
How Is My Essay Graded?
Since, as we’ve seen, the ACT Essay is not graded on how much your graders like you, how is it graded? Using this very specific ACT Essay rubric. Again, you’ll be scored from 1-6 in each of the four categories (Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions) by two graders, whose scores are then averaged.
Looking Around the Hogwarts Express: What Does my Score Mean Compared to Other Students’?
What is a good ACT Writing score?
Well. It’s hard to quantify exactly what a “good” score on the ACT Writing section is, just as it’s hard to quantify exactly what a good ACT score is, as many factors can influence what you consider “good.”
With that said.
One of the best ways to see how you well you’ve scored objectively is to look at your ACT Writing percentiles. Your percentile score describes the percentage of students who scored lower than you on the essay. For example, if you’re in the 99th percentile, congrats! You scored better than 99 out of every 100 students taking the exam.
We’ve compiled a table here of percentiles for ACT Writing. If you took the ACT when the essay was scored on the 1-36 scale (prior to fall 2016), you can see how that stacks up, as well.
|ACT Essay Scores 2015-2016||ACT Essay Scores Sept 2016 moving forward||Score Percentile|
A quick note on decimals in percentiles: obviously, there is no such thing as .37 of a person (or if there was, I don’t think he/she/they would be taking the ACT). What this means is that you have to look at your score in a broader pool. For example, if you scored an 11 on ACT Writing, you scored better than 9,937 out of every 1,000 students taking the test.
Can You Be “The Chosen One”?
I know that a score of 12 = 100th percentile is confusing. You can’t score better than 100 out of every 100 students, right? You are one of those 100 students, after all.
All this means is that the decimal is so close to 1 that the ACT has rounded up. It’s likely that the actual situation is that those students scoring a 12 on the ACT Essay scored better than 9,999 out of every 10,000 students.
That alone should show you how tough it is to get a 12 on ACT Writing.
But can it be done? Well, someone has to be that 1 person in 10,000, right?
…or at least, one of them.
Why can’t it be you?
Let’s take a look at how you can get there, after we finish covering ACT Writing 101.
Ordering a Time-Turner: ACT Essay Rescores
Sometimes you’ll take a test, look at your score, and think “this can’t be right.” If this happens to you on the ACT Essay, you can request a rescore.
ACT scores for essays are graded by two professional scorers. Both of them use the ACT’s official Writing Test Rubric. The rescore follows the exact same procedure, but with two new scorers. If the two new people who score your ACT Essay get a different score than the original examiners, your ACT score will be updated. If your score changes, the new scorers can choose to raise your score from the original score you received, or lower it. There’s also a chance that the new scoring session could get the same result a second time. In that case, your ACT Essay score won’t change.
How Do You Request an ACT Essay Rescore, and How Much Does It Cost?
To get your ACT Essay rescored, submit a request for a rescore in writing. Your request will need to include the following: your name, as it appeared on your ACT exam registration forms, the ID on your ACT registration account, and the month, day, year, and location of your exam. You’ll also need to include a check for $50 made out to ACT Student Services. All rescore requests must be sent no later than three months after you received your initial ACT scores.
Written requests should be mailed to:
ACT Student Services
P.O. Box 414
Iowa City, IA 52243-0414
The ACT’s scoring team will notify you of any score changes within 3-5 weeks of the request.
Things to Consider Before Requesting a Rescore
Rescores are expensive and time-consuming. If you’re thinking of getting your ACT Essay rescored (or getting a rescore on the rest of the test), you want to be sure that it’s worth it. There’s a chance your score could go down. And if it does, the new, lower score will become your official score. Your score could also stay the same, which would mean you wasted $50 per rescore request.
Still, sometimes a rescore can help you, or at the very least can’t hurt. It’s best to do a rescore if your scores are just below the minimum requirement to get into school, or if you’re very confident that mistakes were made with your score the first time around.
Skills Tested in the ACT Writing Section
As we’ve seen, your essay will be scored in four different categories: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. But what does that mean for you in terms of preparation? After all, few (if any) of us have taken classes on “Ideas and Analysis.”
What Are the Goals of the ACT Essay?
We can infer the “goals” of the ACT Essay (or rather, the skills it’s asking you to demonstrate) from the four ACT Essay rubric categories we’ve already gone over. Ideas and Analysis means that the scorers are looking for you to demonstrate critical thinking at a reasonably high level; rather than just being able to understand a series of opinions, the ACT Writing section wants you to interpret them and come up with your own thesis.
The Development and Support aspect tells us that the ACT Essay is evaluating your ability to craft a whole argument, rather than just a thesis statement. Again, it’s testing your critical reasoning skills: can you determine, in a limited timeframe, what makes for convincing evidence for your argument? The Organization category indicates that the ACT is also testing how clearly you can present this information in a short essay, in a way that makes sense not just to you, but also to the reader.
Finally, you can look on Language Use and Conventions as ACT English in practice. How’s your vocabulary and grammar? Can you write in an efficient and readable way? How eloquent (to an extent) can you be?
Or, in other words, your ACT essay has four major goals:
- Make judgments: the graders evaluate how well you understand the perspectives, and their implications, values and assumptions. Did you understand the question they presented to you? Did you pick a side? Did you understand the strengths and weaknesses of different perspectives on an issue?
- Develop a position: the graders evaluate how well you supported the argument you made in your essay. Did you give clear facts and relevant details that really helped your argument be more persuasive? Did you vary the types of evidence you used? Did you show the graders that you know the difference between assertion (just saying something) and evidence (showing why that assertion is true)? The more specific you can be, the more you show the graders how well you understood the topic and its controversy, which helps out your ‘make judgments’ criterion as well.
- Organization and focus: the graders evaluate how logically you present your ideas. Did you have a clear introduction, body, and conclusion? Are your body paragraphs ordered in a way that makes sense? Can the graders follow your train of thought clearly from beginning to end? Did you use transitions between and among your paragraphs to show the readers how they all link together? Did you stay on topic?
- Communicate clearly: the graders also look at how well you express yourself, in accordance with the rules of Standard Written English, a.k.a. “School, Work, and Business English,” as far as you’re concerned. Did you vary your sentence structure so that some sentences are short and others are long? Is your word choice effective? How is your grammar? If there are errors, are they particularly distracting? Can the readers still get your point or can they not understand what you’re saying?
Why Do Colleges Care About the ACT Essay?
Admissions officers are interested in your ACT Essay scores precisely because they demonstrate, to a certain extent, your skills in the above areas. No matter what you end up majoring in, critical reasoning skills, as well as writing skills, will end up being important. While it can be difficult to judge these skills based on one 40-minute essay, the four categories of the rubric and corresponding scores give admissions officers at least some sense of your experience and skill in these areas.
Where’s That Ideas and Analysis Class Again?
I know it seems like your education might not have prepared you for the ACT Essay. However, you’d be surprised at how much you already know. Your English classes will have taught you a lot about all four categories, while essays you’ve written for History, Social Studies, and even Science classes will have helped you develop skills in the areas of Development and Support and Organization. All the better if you’ve taken a class on persuasive writing or speeches.
How to Study for the ACT Essay Without Studying
I mean…you should do some specific studying for the ACT Essay! But know that you’re already preparing for the essay in your everyday life, even if you don’t know it. Every time you listen to someone’s opinion and evaluate it, every time you respond with your own opinion, you’re using the exact critical reasoning skills that the ACT Writing section tests.
ACT vs SAT Essays
If you’re still on the fence about whether or not to take the ACT at all, and take the SAT instead, comparing the two essays might help. While there are a lot of factors to take into consideration when making this decision, knowing the differences in the essays may just prove to be the tipping factor that helps you decide in favor of one test.
Both the ACT and the SAT each have one essay. The ACT gives you 40 minutes to write it, while the SAT gives you 50 minutes to write it. The essay is optional on both tests. Furthermore, the essay is always the last section on each exam (this hasn’t always been the case with the SAT, but it is now!).
So what is the difference between the two essays? Well, it’s the type of assignment you’ll get.
On the ACT, as we’ve seen, you’ll see three different opinions on a debatable topic; the essay prompt will ask you to evaluate them and come up with your own opinion.
On the other hand, the SAT gives you a rather long (650-700 word) passage to read, then asks you to evaluate how the author develops his or her argument. Unlike the ACT, you do not include your own opinion or arguments on the SAT Essay.
So how to choose?
If you’re good at coming up with an opinion and developing strong examples quickly, the ACT Essay’s the one for on you. But
if you’re better at analyzing other people’s writing (the kind of work you do for most literature essays, for example), the SAT’s the better way to go.
For a more info, here’s our undergrad test expert Kristin with some details!
Giving the Sorting Hat Options: Should I Take ACT Writing?
If you’ve decided to take the ACT: awesome! I get it, though—you have enough decisions to make without throwing one more on top of the pile!
we pretty much already know where you’re going.
Still, you will have to decide whether or not to take the ACT with Writing.
While we don’t have Madame Trelawney’s crystal ball (which, let’s face it, was pretty useless for the most part), we DO have a way to help you decide whether or not to take the ACT Essay section or not: our very own, expertly written quiz!
“Should I Take the ACT Writing Test?” Test
The Final Word: Be a Gryffindor and Take a Risk
The final answer is, you should probably take the test.
The vast majority of colleges don’t require writing, but the majority of highly competitive colleges do, which means if you aren’t 100% sure where you want to apply yet (and most juniors taking the ACT are not), you might be limiting your options if you don’t take the optional essay.
If you can spare the fee and feel you can get a good score, a decent ACT Writing score opens a lot of doors to you. It certainly doesn’t hurt your odds of being accepted into any school, but of course, every test-taker has different needs and realistically there are some situations where taking the ACT Writing Test may not be practical.
But if you are very uncomfortable with writing or don’t plan to apply to schools that require the essay, well, there’s no need to put yourself through another 40 minutes of agony.
Here’s a slightly more detailed answer:
ACT Writing Prompts
So you’ve decided to continue with the ACT Essay. Great!
Or, you know, 12.
Let’s get into a little more detail. By now, you already know that you’re going to be evaluating three different perspectives on a debatable issue.
But what does that look like in practice?
Glad you asked! Here’s a Magoosh example of an ACT Essay prompt and stimulus.
ACT Essay Prompt: Censorship
Almost since human beings began sharing ideas, the issue of censorship (officially suppressing ideas or writing) has been debated. Proponents of censorship argue, for example, that offensive material might morally corrupt children or that governments have the right to protect their national secrets. Opponents argue that censorship infringes on individual freedom and hinders progress. Censorship has long been an issue regarding books and papers; now, it has become a critical issue concerning the great amount of information on the Internet. Given the continued impact of censorship on various aspects of our lives, it is an issue worth examining.
Read and carefully consider these perspectives. Each suggests a particular way of thinking about the impact of censorship.
Selective censorship prevents children from being exposed to offensive material. It allows parents and caretakers to determine what material children are ready for and when they are ready based on their maturity level.
Censorship intrudes upon freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Individuals have the right to learn about their world, both its positive and negative aspects, and express their ideas on it.
Censorship should not be condoned because it places too much power in the hands of a few: no government or leadership system should be allowed to decide what information should reach the public.
Write a unified, coherent essay in which you evaluate multiple perspectives on the impact of censorship on society. In your essay, be sure to:
- analyze and evaluate the perspectives given
- state and develop your own perspective on the issue
- explain the relationship between your perspective and those given
Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of the others, in partial agreement, or wholly different. Whatever the case, support your ideas with logical reasoning and detailed, persuasive examples.
…And that’s what an ACT Essay prompt looks like!
Want More ACT Essay Prompts?
For Studious Ravenclaws: How Can You Grade Your Practice ACT Essay?
If you went the extra mile and used one of the above prompts for practice, fantastic! What now, though? What do you do with this beautiful practice ACT essay you’ve just written?
The first thing to do is to edit it, particularly if you wrote it under timed conditions (remember: ACT Essay time = 40 minutes). Without the constraints of time, you may see points you wish you’d developed, examples that could have been better, or even ways in which you could have improved your thesis statement.
However, if you’re going to improve significantly, it’s best to get a helping hand for editing. English teachers are a great resource; guidance counselors may also have enough familiarity with the ACT to help edit your essays. In most high schools, one teacher or staff member is usually the point person for standardized tests, and they’re a good place to start.
They can also be useful when it comes to grading your essay. Of course, you can and should use the rubric to grade your essay yourself; however, on the official ACT exam, you’ll have two graders—neither of whom will be as hard (or as easy) on you as, well, you are!
Once you’ve found your designated grader and/or editor, you can use Magoosh’s handy ACT Essay scoring tool to see what your current score would be.
ACT Writing Test Struggles: Be a Hufflepuff and Keep Going
After you’ve written a few practice essays (you can find even more prompts on full-length practice tests, which are a good idea to take regularly anyway!) and worked through scoring and edits with your designated ACT Writing expert, you may notice that you’re struggling in an area or two (or three, or four). That’s only natural—this is a new task for you, after all! And you may be relieved to find that several problems in particular crop up for students facing the ACT Writing test.
Where Most Students Struggle on the ACT Essay
In my experience, students struggle the most to:
- Pick an opinion to side with…
- …and to come up with creative examples to support it.
Notice that these are the first two categories of that good ol’ rubric, “Ideas and Analysis” and “Development and Support.” There are strategies you can use to work on your organization and language usage (and we’ll look at those in a little bit), but a lot of students just don’t trust their own ideas.
Choosing a Side
To help you with #1, Magoosh’s ACT expert David Recine did a little digging. Okay, a lot of digging. He called the ACT. Here’s what he found out:
There is a weird apparent contradiction between the ACT Essay requirements in the official ACT Essay score guide, and the requirements that appear in the ACT Essay examples on the official ACT website.
Remember how the ACT Essay prompt presents an issue and three opinions on the issue? Well, in the instructions for the sample ACT Essay prompt on the ACT website, it says you need to “analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective.” Therein lies the contradiction. The official ACT Essay score guide emphasizes the importance of analyzing “multiple perspectives.”
So which is it? To find out, I contacted ACT customer service. The representative I spoke with said that the online essay prompt mentions “at least one perspective” because you need to analyze at least one of the three perspectives to have a chance at a score of more than 2. She then informed me that you need to analyze two or three of the given perspectives to have any chance at a score of 10 or higher. From there, ACT Customer service emphasized that including all three perspectives gives you the best possible chance at the full 12 points.
The customer service rep’s argument in favor of analyzing all three perspectives is supported in The Official ACT Prep Guide. Interestingly, the ACT Prep Guide’s prompts do not indicate that one perspective may be enough. Unlike the essay prompt on the ACT website, the writing instructions in the ACT OG tell you “evaluate multiple perspectives” and “evaluate perspectives given.”
So, if you want the best possible score (and who doesn’t?), you should include all three given perspectives — along with your own — in the new ACT Essay.
So that’s definitely something to keep in mind when you’re shaping your thesis statement.
Here’s some more food for thought, particularly if you’re aiming for that perfect 12. Choose the option to provide your own perspective on the ACT essay, but only switch it up slightly.
Now, this is tricky. You can get a perfect score simply by completely agreeing with one of the three presented perspectives, and for the vast majority of students, this is the best course of action to make sure you don’t go completely off track and end up hurting your score. However, if you consider yourself to be a very strong writer, you might be able to truly impress by adding your own twist on the prompt. In most cases, the easiest way to do this is to narrow the scope of one of the perspectives. For example, if you look at ACT’s official sample essay #5, you’ll see that the graders applauded the student for evaluating the perspectives through the “lens of a particular ideology”: capitalism.
The prompt is about a larger issue–the positive or negative impact of “intelligent machines” in our society–but this student has narrowed the scope, and in doing so, was able to provide a specific compelling argument that didn’t try to address all of life in a five-paragraph essay.
So for you ACT Writing superstars out there who are looking for a score in the 11 to 12 range, take these key tips to heart and get practicing with ACT Writing prompts. The new ACT essay prompt is tough, but practicing with sample prompts and coming up with arguments on the fly will help!
Examples on the ACT Essay
In terms of examples, thinking outside the box is always better. So if something kooky (but relevant) occurs to you, go ahead and use it!
On the first new essay on one ACT, a whole lot of students wrote about the Civil Rights movement. It really just was an obvious example that a lot of students had studied, and it was certainly the first thing that jumped to my mind as well. Now, technically, graders are not supposed to be punishing you for an unoriginal example as long as you do it well. But remember the golden rule: they are only human! If a grader reads 50 essays about the Civil Rights movement in a row, and then they get to yours, and you are writing about something totally different, they are going to sit up and pay attention. Not only that, but it will be more difficult to compare your essay to others. If you write about the same topic as everyone else, it is likely that some people won’t do it as well as you, but that others will do it better. So try not to open yourself to these comparisons. Be original.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t write about a common topic, but if you are going to do it, make sure you pick very specific examples within that topic to demonstrate your knowledge. But if you can think of something that would be less obvious—well, I would go that route.
Where Most Students Lose Points on the ACT Essay—and What to Do About It
Those are some common struggles students face when approaching the essay. But what causes them to lose the most points? Well…
- Unclear structure. To avoid this pitfall, know your essay structure in advance. We’ll get into the best organizational strategies a little later on.
- Vague examples. Give VERY specific examples.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.
As with everything on the ACT, practice makes perfect! That’s one reason why…
So now that you know what causes most students to trip up and lose points, let’s take a look at how you can do the reverse: in other words, get your score on the ACT Writing section as high as possible!
Be as Crafty as a Slytherin: The Ultimate Guide to Improving Your ACT Writing Score by 2, 3, or 4 Points
Now you know how not to lose points—let’s talk about how you can gain them. More specifically, let’s take a look at how you can bring your ACT Writing score up 2, 3, or 4 points.
What Does it Mean to Go up 2, 3, 4 Points on the ACT Essay?
To do this, let’s start by returning to that all-important official ACT Writing Test Rubric. Remember, because the ACT combines two graders’ evaluations for your final score, going up 2 points really means going up one category on the rubric (i.e. from a 5 to a 6); going up 3 points means going up between 1 and 2 categories (i.e. from a 4 to a 6); and going up 4 points means going up 2 categories (i.e. from a 3 to a 6).
So with that in mind, let’s quickly review what the ACT graders are looking for from a perfect 6 ACT essay:
ACT Writing: What You Need for a 12 Essay
|Ideas and Analysis||
|Development and Support||
Now, a few things to keep in mind. No essay is perfect, nor do the ACT graders expect it to be. The graders know you only have 40 minutes to respond to the prompt. They’re just looking for a good first draft.
Your essay does not have to DO ALL THE THINGS in each category in order to be given that score. If an essay meets most or almost all of the criteria for a 6, then it’s given a 6.
But remember, the ACT readers don’t expect perfection. If your grammar isn’t perfect, or if your essay doesn’t have paragraphs, it isn’t a deal-breaker. Your essay has to meet most or almost all of the criteria for each category to be given that score, not every single one.
Bringing Your ACT Essay Score Up 2 Points
You can gain 2 points on the ACT Essay with some adjustments to the way you think about the prompt and craft your argument. Generally, these adjustments are pretty minor. How minor, you may wonder? Let’s take a look at how a test-taker could move from a 5 to a 6 (and thus move from a 10 to a perfect 12) on the ACT Essay.
ACT Writing: What You Need to Go From a 10 to a 12
|Category||Criteria for a 10 Essay||Criteria for a 12 Essay||How is the 12 Essay Different?|
|Ideas and Analysis||
|Development and Support||
I’ll be the first one to admit that the differences between many of these criteria are subtle (if not, as in the case of the last, nonexistent!) However, if you examine them carefully, you’ll see that the main difference between an ACT essay that receives a 5 and an ACT essay that receives a 6 is that the 5 essay is competent and works well with the material that’s provided, while the 6 essay expands the ideas in thoughtful and nuanced ways. This principle goes for everything from the thesis itself to the word choice.
Bringing Your ACT Essay Score Up 3 Points
Bringing your ACT Essay score up by 3 points is a tricky goal. Why? Because raising your score by 3 points means that you’ll be attempting to move up by 2 points from one grader and 1 from the other.
Because you’ll need to bring your score up 2 points (for example, from a 4 to a 6) with one of your graders, it’s actually a good idea to aim for this 2-point raise in your score from both for an increase of 4 points. You may only end up getting a 3-point bump, but it’s better to aim too high than too low!
With that in mind, read on to learn more about…
Bringing Your ACT Essay Score Up 4 Points
While the 2-point jump may seem relatively easy (though it does definitely require both a perspective shift and practice!) a 4-point increase on the ACT Essay may seem more intimidating. Going from a 10 to a 12 on the essay sounds a lot easier than going from an 8 to a 12, after all.
But the biggest difference between an 8 essay and a 12 essay is the same difference that we can see between a 10 essay and a 12 essay, just of a different order of magnitude. While a 12 essay, as we just saw, is nuanced and the 10 essay is competent, the 8 essay is basically pretty good. An 8 essay does what the prompt asks, but that’s pretty much all it does.
To get those extra four points on the ACT Essay, you’ll need to consider exactly how you’re addressing each criterion. So let’s take a look at the precise differences between an 8 and a 12 essay:
ACT Writing: What You Need to Go From an 8 to a 12
|Category||Criteria for an 8 Essay||Criteria for a 12 Essay||How is the 12 Essay Different?|
|Ideas and Analysis||
|Development and Support||
Bringing Your ACT Essay Score Up Generally
That’s all well and good, I can hear you saying, but what if I’m not aiming for a perfect score on the ACT Essay? What if I’m currently writing 4 essays and I want to bring my score up to 8? Is that possible?
Oh, it’s possible. It’ll take practice and commitment, but you can get there in the end.
Here’s what you’ll need to do: look at the above shifts between a 10 and 12 essay, then between an 8 and a 12 essay. Notice that the lower the ACT essay scores get, the less precise and clear aspects of the writing are.
This is all the more true for an essay scoring 6 or below. If you’re scoring in this range, you need to think about specifics in every aspect of your essay. Make your thesis statement much more specific. Make your examples much more specific. Make your language choices much more specific (“violet” instead of “purple” or “colorful” or even “interesting,” depending on the context).
How to Get a Perfect 12 on the ACT Essay
We’ve seen how to boost your score to the perfect 12—but what if you’re just starting out? Or what if you’re current essay is a 6 or below, and you know that you’ll need to overhaul your approach to the essay to end up with that elite, perfect score?
ACT Writing: Breaking Down the Steps
First of all, perfect scorers on the ACT Essay are systematic in their approach to the Writing section. By that, I mean that they don’t rely on their existing writing skills and hope they can just wing it on test day. Instead, they plan ahead as much as possible, focusing not only on what they should be doing during each minute (yup!) of the writing section, but also on how they should be doing it.
In case you were wondering what you can do to become part of this elite group, I’ve got you covered. Here are the steps to writing the perfect ACT Essay!
Step 1: Break Down the Prompt (5 Minutes)
As you read the prompt and three opinions, two questions should be at the front of your mind:
- What is the prompt’s main idea?
- How can I summarize each of the three opinions?
Take a minute to write (or scribble) your answers to these two questions on the prompt itself. For the prompt’s main idea, you shouldn’t need to write more than three sentences. For the three opinions, one sentence each should do.
The reason it’s a good idea to take notes at this stage is so that you won’t forget these main ideas later. After all, these ideas will most likely show up (just with better handwriting and in your own words) in your actual essay.
Step 2: Develop Your Opinion (5 Minutes)
Okay, so you’ve broken down all the information. Now it’s time to come up with some opinion(s) of your own.
Take a moment to reread your summary of the prompt. It’s time to decide what you believe (or what’s easiest for you to argue). When you’ve come up with your opinion, write it on the prompt. Using arrows, point to the parts of the prompt that support your idea. The arrows will help you find this information (and save time) as you write your essay.
Step 3: Make Connections (5 Minutes)
You have your opinion and supporting information from the prompt. Now it’s time to make connections between your ideas and those in the three opinions.
That’s right, we’re going to be drawing more arrows! Review the opinions for ideas/beliefs that are either close to your own opinion are dramatically opposite. These are the ideas you’re either going to be agreeing with or disproving in your essay, so you should know where they are.
Step 4: Put it all Together (20 Minutes)
Fortunately, the exam doesn’t have a set ACT Essay format for your essay. You get some freedom, but trust me, I’ve seen how freedom can become a double-edged sword. It’s easy to think “I’ve got this” and then go all over the place. Scores suffer, and I don’t want that to happen to you.
Step 5: Proofread—Don’t Edit! (5 Minutes)
Since “Language Use” is its own separate grading category, it is worth your time to catch any errors you may have inadvertently made while writing quickly. However, don’t be tempted to use this time to rewrite your essay! Accept the fact that you’re going to have to stick with the thesis and examples you chose, and focus on correcting spelling and grammar, and making your language choices more precise.
What Should the Introduction Do?
You want to 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.
Okay…What About My Examples?
You have a certain level of “creative liberty” when it comes to your evidence. You can make up evidence and details if you need to, as long as they’re plausible. As far as the ACT is concerned, you can make up a book, survey, study, etc. that supports your argument. Just don’t give the author of your fictional study the name “Dr. J. Jacob Jingleheimer-Schmidt.”
Why is this okay on the ACT? Well, you’ve only got 40 minutes to come up with a clear, reasoned, well-supported, cogent, persuasive essay on the topic given to you. You don’t have the time or resources for research, but you have to make the argument somehow. If you had the ability to do even a quick Google search, you would. Since you can’t, make up something that sounds plausible if you have to. Just support your argument. That’s what the graders care about.
Writing Rules You Must Know to Get That Perfect Score
Like Hermione, you need to be aware that it’s not just what you say—it’s how you say it.
Remember that, in addition to your ideas, organization and examples, the ACT graders will also evaluate you on your language use. This means that polishing your written English is vital before test day (it also means that this study will do double duty, as it will also help you prep for the ACT English section).
How can you do this? Get organized early and check out Magoosh’s guides to the finer points of English grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary that the ACT graders will be looking for. Here are the ACT writing tips you need before test day:
ACT English Grammar: Everything You Need to Know
- ACT Grammar Basics, Part I
- ACT Grammar Basics, Part II
- Singular and Plural Forms
- Style and Usage
- Verb Formation
- Comma Splices
- 50+ SAT Grammar Rules You Need to Know to Get a Great Score
ACT English Punctuation: Everything You Need to Know
ACT English Vocabulary: Everything You Need to Know
- ACT Vocabulary
- Top Tips for ACT Vocabulary
- Boost Your Vocabulary, Boost Your ACT Score: Part I
- Boost Your Vocabulary, Boost Your ACT Score: Part II
ACT Test Day: Essay Timing
You know how you’re going to come up with your thesis. You know how you’re going to organize your essay. You even know how you’re going to use your vocab and grammar to your advantage…
…but can you do it in 40 minutes?
Timed practice is the key to mastering this, but even masters of the ACT essay will occasionally find that they’re running out of time.
It happens. You look at the clock, and you realize that time’s almost up. Don’t panic—there are ways to save your essay… and your score!
Here are some steps you can take to adjust your pace and writing when the clock is running down.
If you are running out of ACT writing time, stay focused. Running out of time can be very distracting. You may feel the urge to stop, take a deep breath, and think about what you should do. Any pause you make to just think should be minimal. Focus on continuing to write, while adjusting your pace and approach.
Adjust Your Pace
Write faster. If you’d been writing at a more careful pace to avoid errors and make good word choices, focus less on these minor aspects of writing. Speed up and just aim for getting the essay done. Word choice and errors do affect your score in some ways, but an incomplete essay will get a much lower score than an essay that just has a few mistakes.
Mix It Up
When you speed up, you will naturally change your approach a little, because you won’t have time to check your writing for the smaller details, as I mentioned above. But there are other more substantial changes you can make as you approach the rest of your essay.
One thing you can do is develop your ideas less for the remainder of the essay. Suppose you have two paragraphs left to write. Maybe your previous paragraphs has three supporting ideas for each topic sentence. To save time, include just one or two supporting details in your remaining paragraphs.
The same goes for the remaining structure of your essay overall. If you used transitional phrases and sentences earlier in the essay, skip them for the rest of the essay. And even if your introductory paragraph was three, four, or even five sentences long, your concluding paragraph can be just one good sentence– or maybe two.
Quickly select your most important ideas. Look at the original passage in the ACT essay prompt. What are the main ideas in the introduction and the three perspectives given. How simply can you put those ideas? And which ideas can you ignore and leave out of your essay, while still making your essay as complete as possible?
Worry about completion, not perfection. If you try maintain top quality while rushing to beat the clock, you will fail. And as you feel yourself failing to write a perfect essay, you’ll start to feel upset and distracted, and you’ll slow down.
Instead focus on completing the essay, ensuring it contains every important key idea, some support for each of the key ideas, and a clear conclusion. With your eyes on that prize, distractions will melt away, and you’ll speed up instead of slowing down. In the best of scenarios, you may speed up enough that you still have at least a little time to go back and make a few last minute (or last second) improvements before your time is cut off.
A Note on the 5-Paragraph Essay
Should the ACT Essay be five paragraphs?
The short answer? Not necessarily. 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. And if you’re aiming for that perfect score, just make slight adjustments to the standard format; we’ll take a look at how to do this in the next section.
What is the Five Paragraph Essay Format?
In case you’re unfamiliar with it, 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.
Your basic five-paragraph essay starts with the introduction. Here, you introduce the debatable topic and state your thesis.
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. Since you’re provided with three perspectives to analyze, 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.
How to Use the 5-Paragraph Essay Format to Your Advantage
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 what your perspective is. You’re already ahead of the game!
ACT Essay Template: Guide to the Perfect Essay (AKA Go Into Your O.W.L.s with a Plan)
At the end of the day, how to write an ACT Essay? We can use that 5-paragraph format to get a 12 on the ACT essay by nuancing it a little bit and, if feeling particularly ambitious, sneak in an extra paragraph before the conclusion.
What does this look like in practice? Here’s one organization strategy that should work well if you choose 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.
And if you’re dying to see what this looks like in actual practice, wonder no more! Kristin will show you exactly how she’s going to write a great ACT essay from start to finish. In the video, Kristin is taking on the role of a student seeing an ACT essay question for the first time, evaluating the perspectives, brainstorming, outlining, and finally writing each paragraph of the essay. And she’ll give you all of her most important tips along the way, so stick it out :).
Remember, this is just one essay, and it is not necessarily perfect. But, hey, no one is perfect in 40 minutes! There are thousands of successful ways to approach this essay.
(For more prompts like the one she’s using in the video, check out Magoosh ACT.)
What differentiates a “perfect 12” essay? Primarily specificity and precision. However, those two qualities have to run deep, affecting everything from your thesis statement to your organization, from your choice (and explanation) of your examples to the mechanics and vocabulary you use.
But even if you don’t think of yourself as a great writer, remember that you can still get a perfect score on the ACT Essay: you just need to learn the conventions, practice a ton, and constantly evaluate your work so you can keep improving. Is it easy? No. But is it impossible? Also no.
On test day, let all thoughts of perfection fall away. Just focus on what you’ve learned in your practice, and on writing the best essay you possibly can. And be proud of yourself—you’ve earned it!
After all, some of the best ACT moments come after the test. As mega-scorer Magoosh student Ori C. tells us, “I’d say the best part [of the experience] was when I was sitting on the bus and got a Magoosh notification saying that my ACT scores had probably been posted. I went on the ACT website and screenshotted my scores to text to my parents. Finally seeing the scores verified that all my hard work had paid off.”
So the major takeaway here? If you want to get that perfect 12 on your ACT Essay…be like J.K. Rowling (who had the first Harry Potter book rejected by 12 publishers!) and refuse to give up!
Want to ace all sections of the ACT? Check out our posts:
- How to Get a Perfect 36 on ACT Reading: An Intergalactic Guide
- How to Get a Perfect 36 on ACT Math: The Jurassic Guide
- How to Get a Perfect 36 on ACT Science: The Dark Knight’s Guide
- How to Get a Perfect 36 on the ACT Reading Test: A Tropical Guide
With many thanks to Kristin Fracchia, Catrina Coffey, David Recine, and Thomas Broderick for their contributions to this post.
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About Rachel Kapelke-Dale
Rachel is a High School and Graduate Exams blogger at Magoosh. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University, an MA from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She has taught test preparation and consulted on admissions practices for over eight years. Currently, Rachel divides her time between the US and London. Follow Rachel on Twitter, or learn more about her writing here!
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