Are you debating whether or not to take the optional ACT essay? Some schools require it, so we highly recommend that you take it (make sure to register for ACT with Writing).
But no need to stress! The essay follows a predictable format, which means you can practice and prepare beforehand. Take a look at a sample ACT writing prompt and learn five key steps to penning a high-scoring essay.
ACT Writing Prompt
This example writing prompt comes straight from our book Cracking the ACT:
Education and the Workplace
Many colleges and universities have cut their humanities departments, and high schools have started to shift their attention much more definitively toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and away from ELA (English, Language Arts). Representatives from both school boards and government organizations suggest that the move toward STEM is necessary in helping students to participate in a meaningful way in the American workplace. Given the urgency of this debate for the future of education and society as a whole, it is worth examining the potential consequences of this shift in how students are educated in the United States.
Read and carefully consider these perspectives. Each suggests a particular way of thinking about the shift in American education.
|Perspective 1||Perspective 2||Perspective 3|
|ELA programs should be emphasized over STEM programs. Education is not merely a means to employment: ELA education helps students to live more meaningful lives. In addition, an exclusively STEM-based program cannot help but limit students’ creativity and lead them to overemphasize the importance of money and other tangible gains.||ELA programs should be eradicated entirely, except to establish the basic literacy necessary to engage in the hard sciences, mathematics, and business. Reading and writing are activities that are best saved for the leisure of students who enjoy them.||ELA and STEM programs should always be in equal balance with one another. Both are necessary to providing a student with a well-rounded education. Moreover, equal emphasis will allow the fullest possible exposure to many subjects before students choose their majors and careers|
Write a unified, coherent essay in which you evaluate multiple perspectives on the issue of how schools should balance STEM and ELA subjects. 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.
How to Write the ACT Essay
Your job is to write an essay in which you take some sort of position on the prompt, all while assessing the three perspectives provided in the boxes. Find a way to anchor your essay with a unique perspective of your own that can be defended and debated, and you are already in the upper echelon of scorers.
Step 1: Work the Prompt
What in the prompt requires you to weigh in? Why is this issue still the subject of debate and not a done deal?
Step 2: Work the Perspectives
Typically, the three perspectives will be split: one for, one against, and one in the middle. Your goal in Step 2 is to figure out where each perspective stands and then identify at least one shortcoming of each perspective. For the example above, ask yourself:
- What does each perspective consider?
- What does each perspective overlook?
Step 3: Generate Your Own Perspective
Now it's time to come up with your own perspective! If you merely restate one of the three given perspectives, you won’t be able to get into the highest scoring ranges. You’ll draw from each of the perspectives, and you may side with one of them, but your perspective should have something unique about it.
Step 4: Put It All Together
Now that you have your ideas in order, here's a blueprint for how to organize the ACT essay. This blueprint works no matter what your prompt is.
Body Paragraph (1)
|Body Paragraph (2)|
Step 5: (If There's Time): Proofread
Spend one or two minutes on proofreading your essay if you have time. You’re looking for big, glaring errors. If you find one, erase it completely or cross it out neatly. Though neatness doesn’t necessarily affect your grade, it does make for a happy grader.
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This post has been updated with current, accurate content for the new SAT that premiered in March 2016 by Magoosh test prep expert David Recine!
You know how much first impressions count for? The people who read and grade your SAT essay (there will be 2 of them) are going to see a couple of things immediately. First, there’s the length and the handwriting, but those only count for so much. Almost immediately, the reader will get to your introductory paragraph.
What you put in that intro is going to be a significant chunk of their first impression, so you’ve got to make sure it’s good.
I’m going to give you a formula to follow for a clear and focused introduction to your SAT essay. No, it won’t guarantee you a high score, but if you follow it, you’ll have fewer choices to make, and that’s a good thing.
In the New SAT’s essay prompt, you will write a response to an opinion piece, either an historical piece of writing (such as an essay by past political leader), or a recently-written editorial about a modern issue. The example opening paragraph below will be based on an article about the benefits of exposing young children to technology. Before you look at the example sentences below, review the article and essay prompt on the official SAT website here.
First sentence – identify and describe the source article
In your opening, you want to immediately identify the reading passage you’re responding to. Name the author, other relevant information such as when the source was written or where it was published, and very briefly describe the source’s content. This demonstrates fundamental reading comprehension. It also makes the purpose of your essay clear—you are analyzing a specific piece of writing.
In “The Digital Parent Trap,” an op-ed for Time Magazine, author Eliana Dockterman asserts the many benefits of exposing children to multimedia technology via computer, Internet and mobile platforms.
The name of the author and the purpose/subject of the article are essential. Include the title and publishing venue for the article if possible. (Sometimes a really long title may not fit well into a sentence, and the publishing venue can also be unwieldy or difficult to correctly determine.)
Second sentence – Explain more about the writer’s purpose and beliefs
Note that in the first sentence above, the brief description of the article’s content appeared at the very end. This placement allows the end of the first sentence to transition smoothly to the second sentence. The second sentence will expand on the ideas from the end of the previous sentence, giving more details about the article’s content, and what the author is trying to do.
Dockterman challenges the traditional beliefs that electronic media is bad for children, saying that exposure to electronic media actually benefits children cognitively, developmentally, and educationally.
Notice the way that this sentence summarizes all key points from the source article, and lists them in the order they appeared. Dockterman first mentions conventional bias against exposing children to electronic entertainment, and then challenges this bias by listing three benefits of mobile technology for children. It’s best to have the second sentence follow the sequence of ideas in the article, as this is the easiest, most straightforward way to give a summary.
Third sentence – Characterize the argument and give your opinion of it
Now that you’ve given a good description of the article and its content, it’s time to actually analyze the article. Think about your own feelings on what you just read, in terms of writing quality. What does the argument look like, structurally? And how well-constructed is the argument?
The author’s argument unfolds clearly as she provides evidence that anti-tech bias exists and is incorrect.
Be careful when you write this third sentence. You may agree with what the author has written, or you may have a difference of opinion. But the focus of the sentence should be your opinion of the author’s writing skill, not your feelings on the rightness or wrongness of the author’s claims. Try to keep this sentence relatively simple and focused.
Fourth sentence – Give the reason for your opinion
Once you’ve stated your opinion on the quality of writing in the article, you need to justify your characterization of the argument. In this case, sentence four will need to explain more about why the Time Magazine article in question “unfolds clearly,” how the author “outlines biases,” and why the author’s evidence is “believable.”
Citing statistics, scholarly research and quotations from experts, Eliana Dockterman credibly demonstrates all of her key assertions.
Fifth sentence – Preview the body of your essay
The fifth sentence is optional, but I advise including it more often than not. By previewing what you’ll cover in the body of the essay, you provide a strong transition between your introduction and the rest of your written piece. The New SAT essay format is more complex than the previous format, and it helps to have a lot of transitions to hold everything together.
Through an impressive array of external sources, the author crafts a multifaceted argument that adults should allow children to use technology and electronic media.
By mentioning an “array” of evidence and a “multifaceted argument,” this sentence indicates that the rest of the SAT essay will analyze multiple pieces of evidence and different aspects of Dockterman’s rhetoric. This helps prepare the reader (in this case SAT scorer) for the sophisticated full written analysis that will follow the introduction.
Practice this intro structure before the day of your SAT
The best way to remember any system is to use it, so make sure you try this structure out a few times. If you have it down pat on the day of your SAT, it’ll make your life a lot easier.
About Lucas Fink
Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.
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