The ACT essay may seem daunting, especially at the end of a long and rigorous test. The good news, however, is that if you know how to write a standard five-paragraph persuasive essay, then with a little practice you can transfer those skills to a high-scoring ACT essay.
The ACT essay prompt begins by giving some sort of background information on a current issue. Then, the ACT gives three “perspectives” about the issue. The instructions are to “write a unified, coherent essay about [insert topic here].” According to the sample prompt on the official ACT website, you must also:
- clearly state your own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective
- develop and support your ideas with reasoning and examples
- organize your ideas clearly and logically
- communicate your ideas effectively in standard written English
The ACT also instructs, “Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of those given, in partial agreement, or completely different.”
The ACT website gives examples of essays in each score range. You should definitely read the examples that scored 5 and 6. These essays state a clear thesis and focus on proving it correct. While it may be tempting to address one perspective in each body paragraph, top-scoring essays focus on the thesis and weave most or all of the perspectives into one coherent argument. You don’t need to give all the perspectives equal weight, but rather you should focus the most on proving your own thesis correct.
So how do you write a “unified, coherent” essay? First, read through the given perspectives thoroughly. When reading through them, analyze them. Think about what each perspective assumes and what each perspective leaves out. Next, choose a perspective to side with. If you can quickly come up with your own perspective and are confident in your ability to argue it clearly, go ahead. It’s also fine, however, to go with one of the three perspectives given. A good option is to choose from the given perspectives and then narrow it down to something more specific or to add a “twist.” For example, if the perspective is “The electoral college is beneficial,” you might write, “The electoral college is beneficial to states with smaller populations, which gives farming areas a much-needed advantage.”
Next, develop a thesis statement and make a plan. Your thesis statement should clearly state your position without simply restating one of the perspectives. Make a quick outline with three main ideas and/or examples to support your thesis. Use one main idea for each paragraph you plan to write, minus the introduction and conclusion. Decide how you’re going to address one or both of the other perspectives in these body paragraphs. You should also decide when you’re going to address the counterargument, either throughout your body paragraphs or in a separate paragraph. You only have 40 minutes for the test, so don’t spend more than 10 minutes organizing before you start writing.
Introduce your position in the first paragraph. Establish the perspective you plan on siding with, and present your main ideas and/or examples in order. For the electoral college prompt, you might say, “The electoral college gives farmers a voice, allows for rural voices to be heard in Washington D.C., and helps elect a president that represents all citizens.”
Use a paragraph to address each of your main ideas. Begin each paragraph with a clear topic sentence, and then give details and examples to support that idea. Stick to the standard five-paragraph essay format you’ve probably learned in school, with clear transitions between each idea. Weave the other perspectives into your argument, but don’t mention the perspective number. Instead, explain how the ideas in that perspective relate to your position. You should also address the counterargument, which is what opponents would say against your thesis. You can do this throughout your essay or devote a separate paragraph to it. Take care not to simply mention the counterargument—you must also explain why it’s wrong, or why the benefits of your argument outweigh any valid points the opposition might make.
Sum up your essay in the conclusion. Restate your argument without repeating it word-for-word. You might want to end with an “action step,” or a statement about how your ideas connect with the larger world. For example, for the electoral college essay you might write, “All in all, the electoral college does more good than harm. It gives farmers and rural voters the opportunity to elect a candidate that also considers their needs, along with those in the urban centers of the country. After all, a president should be for all citizens, not just those who have a pretty house in a big city.”
If time permits, proofread your essay for mistakes, misspelled words, punctuation problems, and illegible writing. Try to be as neat as possible, but it’s better to have erasures or cross-outs than to leave errors on the page. If you don’t have time for this portion, it’s okay. The ACT doesn’t expect this to be a perfectly polished final draft. However, you should use all the time you are given to ensure it’s as good as possible.