Update: The ACT announced in June 2016 that it would be going back to an ACT essay score range from 2-12. This post was originally written during the period from September 2015 to June 2016 when the ACT essay was scaled from 1-36. However, the essay itself has not changed and all the same advice below applies. 🙂
Acing the New ACT Essay
So first of all, I’ve been tutoring for the ACT for years. I have advanced degrees in writing-intensive fields. I SHOULD be able to score really well on a timed essay test meant for high schoolers.
But many years ago, when I was just beginning my standardized test tutoring career, I took the SAT and got a 9/12 on the essay. A NINE? I was flabbergasted. I know that for many high schoolers, a 9 is a really good score and one to be proud of. But I tried REALLY hard. I thought I wrote a darn good essay. And I was an adult, for Pete’s sake. So what happened?
What I learned from this experience on the SAT is just how important it is to understand the expectations and biases of the SAT and ACT graders in order to do well on the essay portions of the test. They’ve been trained to give certain scores based on specific characteristics. And so what they expect is a pretty cookie-cutter, straight from your freshman composition class, organized essay. But if you are aiming for a top, top score, you can push the boundaries a little bit, and I will explain exactly how below.
I sat for the September 2015 ACT administration, the first with the new essay format requiring test-takers to evaluate three different perspectives on an issue and present their own. I had studied everything the ACT had released on the new essay at the time (it wasn’t much), and I tested out my theories on what it might take to get a perfect score on the essay I wrote.
Of course, there is not one winning recipe to getting a perfect score on the ACT Writing test, but there are some indicators as to what will help nudge the readers towards a good ACT writing score. As it turns out, at least for my essay, my theories worked pretty well. I received a 36 scaled score with a 12 out of 12 on each of the four scoring domains.
Here’s what I learned:
Perfect ACT Essay Tip #1:
Choose the option to agree with one of the perspectives, but modify it slightly.
For most students, I highly recommend that they choose the option to agree with one of the given perspectives rather than choosing the option to present their own. It’s just too risky. The readers might not understand what you are trying to get at and you run the risk of going off topic. You can get a perfect score by agreeing with one of the perspectives, so unless you are a VERY strong writer, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.
However, if you are aiming for a top, top score, I suggest you choose the option to agree with one of the perspectives, but narrow your focus. The topics on the ACT are big ones and the perspectives are often all-encompassing as well. On the sample essays on the ACT student website, you can see that, on the second highest scoring essay, the graders are impressed with the student’s narrowing his or her scope to the implications for capitalism. I can’t reveal the topic the September essay, but imagine this was one of the perspectives:
__________ can be an effective way of achieving social change.
What I did was something like this:
__________ can be an effective means of achieving social change, but only when it is done in a way that brings public visibility to the issue.
That’s a rough approximation but hopefully you see my point. In the body of my essay, I then provided examples in which social injustices were brought to light on YouTube and other social media platforms during the Arab Spring, for example. So I narrowed the scope of my argument to the “public visibility” note that I added onto one of the provided perspectives.
The idea is to get essay graders to perk up a little bit when they read your thesis and then go into the body of your essay with a more positive attitude. Remember that they are reading countless essays that have wishy-washy thesis statements or thesis statements that just repeat one of the perspectives verbatim. Make yours stand out.
Perfect ACT Essay Tip #2:
It’s ok if you are using really common examples, if you employ them well.
After the test, I saw a lot of students online worrying about the fact that they had written about the Civil Rights Movement, and, “Oh my gosh, EVERYONE wrote about the Civil Rights Movement!”
Like many of the other students who took the test, the first thing that popped into my head when I read the prompt was the Civil Rights Movement. So I decided to run with it, but try to do it really well: using specific examples and making sure the examples were key in supporting larger arguments. I wanted to see if I would be punished for not being more creative. Turns out I wasn’t. So don’t overanalyze your choices and waste time trying to think of less common examples just because you think they are going to be the same ones that other people write about. It didn’t appear to hurt my score. That being said if the first things that pop into your head are less obvious examples, go for it. I think that can be a breath of fresh air for your readers too. It’s all about the fresh air, people!
Perfect ACT Essay Tip #3:
Don’t make the graders work hard to follow your train of thought, but don’t be redundant either.
Your essay should be written in a very obvious 5-paragraph(-ish) structure. The five paragraphs aren’t important, maybe you have four or six, but what I mean is an essay that is very structured with an intro, supporting body paragraphs, and conclusion. For a TOP score, though, make sure you use transitions between ideas liberally. You might think you are overdoing it, but remember, the graders are reading your essay quickly. Don’t assume they will work hard to connect the dots. Make it easy for them to do that. The Organization scoring domain is a pretty easy one to do well on if you follow the protocol, so make sure you nab your points here.
At the same time, take care to vary your phrasing when you are plugging in your requisite introductory and concluding sentences for each paragraph. A dead-giveaway of weaker writing is introductory and concluding sentences that say exactly the same thing. So make sure to be varying your words constantly. This will help you score well both in Organization and in Language Use.
Recap: Getting a Perfect Score on the ACT Essay
In brief, a summary of what I found:
- Choose the option to agree with one of the perspectives, but modify it slightly.
- Agreeing with the perspectives offered can help, but put your own spin on it.
- Presenting your own perspective is a risk it’s probably better not to take.
- Don’t overanalyze your choice of examples.
- Be specific.
- Make sure your examples support your essay’s bigger points.
- A five-paragraph essay structure works best on the ACT (though this may mean four or six paragraphs in some cases!)
- Use lots of appropriate transitions.
- Vary your phrasing in each paragraph’s introductory and concluding sentences.
Getting a 36 on the ACT essay is not easy at all. You can think of it as getting two different English teachers to give you A+s instead of As on the same essay. It’s tough. So don’t sweat it if your essay score is a bit lower. Remember it doesn’t affect your composite score and is really more of a bonus than anything when it comes to college admissions. Buuuut….for you perfect score seekers out there, hopefully this firsthand insight into the new ACT essay can help you get closer to your goal :).
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About Kristin Fracchia
Dr. Kristin Fracchia currently focuses on our MCAT and LSAT Prep, but she also has expertise in a wide range of standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT, GRE, and GMAT, as well as college and grad school admissions. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004. She enjoys the agony and bliss of long distance trail running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.
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