7 Strategies to Tackle the ACT Essay Prompt

April 27, 2015 

Are you intimidated by the ACT Writing test? In school, teachers generally allow you a week or two to write research papers, so tackling an ACT essay prompt in 30 minutes might seem unrealistic at first. ACT_Essay_Prompts-Cybrian77

On the Writing section of the ACT, you are asked to respond to a debate related to an issue that will be familiar to high school students. Knowing that you have to make an argument rather than a literary analysis might come as a relief, but the long paragraph of instructions that accompanies the ACT essay prompt could cause some intimidation:

This is a test of your writing skills. You will have thirty minutes to write an essay in English. Before you begin planning and writing your essay, read the writing prompt carefully to understand exactly what you are being asked to do. Your essay will be evaluated on the evidence it provides of your ability to express judgments by taking a position on the issue in the writing prompt; to maintain a focus on the topic throughout the essay; to develop a position by using logical reasoning and by supporting your ideas; to organize ideas in a logical way; and to use language clearly and effectively according to the conventions of standard written English. (www.act.org)

But remember—you can find ways to prepare in advance for the Writing section. With these seven strategies, you’ll be ready to produce a top-scoring ACT essay within the allotted time.

1. Understand How the ACT Is Scored

Start by having a solid understanding of what you need to do to earn a high score. Have you ever been given an assignment accompanied by a rubric? A rubric is a document that outlines the expectations of an assignment and the demonstrated skills required for each score level. You can approach the ACT Writing test in the same way. Two scorers will each read your essay and give it a rating on a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 being the best score. What do you need to do to earn a 6? When you work on your practice ACT writing prompts, keep this ACT rubric in mind. According to the article, the writer who earned a 6 “recognizes the complexity of the issue, creates a clear thesis, and then supports it with well thought-out and varied examples.” To further understand the grading process, click to read comments and grades from actual ACT essay prompts.

2. Pace Yourself

You have a lot to accomplish in just 30 minutes, but the last thing you want to do is panic. Practice prompts will help you get a feel for how to produce a developed essay in a short period of time. Create a strategy based on your strengths and weaknesses. If writing the essay is easy for you once you have your ideas in front of you, spend a little more time prewriting and coming up with valuable examples. Your writing should then flow easily. By contrast, if you need more time to actually put the pieces together, keep that in mind—and don’t spend too much time prewriting. The first few times you sit down to practice, set a timer, and see how long each part takes you. This will help you keep a good pace on test day.

3. Pick a Side

Your ACT essay prompt will present a controversial topic, and you’ll need to pick a side. We can’t express this enough: The essay scorers are not concerned with which side you pick but with how well you are able to write convincingly (and correctly) in support of your position. To provide food for thought, two perspectives on the debate are typically presented in the prompt itself. Remember, however, that the instructions require you to “take a position on the issue”—and “a” is the operative word.

To familiarize yourself, consider the following ACT essay prompt (click here for several more practice ACT writing prompts).

In some high schools, many teachers and parents have encouraged the administration to adopt a dress code that sets guidelines for what students can wear in the school building. Some teachers and parents support a dress code because they think it will improve the learning environment in the school. Other teachers and parents do not support a dress code; they think it restricts an individual student’s freedom of expression. In your opinion, should high schools adopt dress codes for students? (Source: The Real ACT Prep Guide, 2008)

If you were responding to the above prompt, you wouldn’t want to spend the first half of your essay supporting the implementation of a dress code, and halfway through begin arguing against it. Also remember that instead of taking one of the two stated positions you can propose a different answer or solution to the question. For the above ACT prompt, you might instead argue that requiring school uniforms would be more beneficial than having a dress code that provides general guidelines that individuals could interpret differently. Regardless of whether you choose one of the two provided sides or create your own argument, commit to it and stay the course for your entire response. Acknowledging counterarguments and refuting them are conducive to earning the highest score, but be sure you don’t fall into the trap of supporting both sides as you go. Plan your argument ahead of time, choose the side you feel you can best support with specific examples, and write with confidence.ACT_essay_prompt_strategies-jeffrey_james

4. Read Often

When you are reading articles for school or on your own time, mentally practice picking a side and identifying supporting examples. Take notes as if you were preparing for an ACT essay prompt. If choosing a side is the most difficult part for you, condition your brain to select one and formulate ideas about how to defend it. Through this exercise, you won’t get hung up on selecting a side on the ACT test.

5. Stay On Topic

If thinking about a dress code reminds you of your favorite skirt that would be prohibited under new dress code rules, that’s fine—but don’t write about it. All details you use to support your answer need to be relevant, so read the prompt at least twice to be sure you understand what’s being asked of you (it may help to circle or underline key words) and plan your response prior to writing. Essays that are off topic will receive a score of zero. Don’t let your stream of consciousness steer you off course. Essays earning top marks will be well developed, logically organized, and cohesive, so stick to the topic as planned.

6. Use Specific Examples as Evidence

Once you’ve chosen your position, you must support your side with specifics. While ACT essay prompts will give you an example of reasoning for both sides, reach beyond these basics and create a detailed, solid backing for your argument. If you think that a dress code would restrict freedom of expression, don’t just say, “I think it wouldn’t allow students to express themselves.” That’s an okay place to start, but you need to give specific examples as to how it would be restrictive, and why that’s bad. For example, you could back up your reasoning by citing the First Amendment, which grants citizens freedom of expression. Whatever position you choose, make sure you back it up with a logical, detailed response.

7. Dress Up Your Essay

Some students excel at selecting an argument or don’t have a problem with time management, but still can’t quite produce a “6.” Remember what is expected on the top-scored essay and try “dressing it up.” Start your essay with an interesting hook, finish with a compelling quote, and utilize transition phrases. A top-quality essay should grab the reader’s interest, flow well between concepts and paragraphs, and be tied together with smooth transitions.

A one-on-one ACT tutoring program can help you implement these writing tips and improve your skills to be prepared for any ACT essay prompt that comes your way.


Practice ACT Writing Prompts-Guidelines and 3 Examples

Sample ACT Essay Prompt with Comments & Grades


Photo Credit: Cybrian77, Jeffrey james pacres


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