Since the ACT Writing test is optional, many students question whether schools even care about it. With the ACT clocking in at almost three hours, it can be tempting to skip the essay instead of spending an additional 30 minutes on the test. However, many schools require you to take the ACT with Writing - and even if it is not mandatory at the schools you are applying to, taking it anyway may show initiative and make you a more attractive candidate.
So, if taking the ACT Writing test can increase your chances of getting accepted, how can you ensure that you get a good score?
In this section of the test, you must write a response to a given prompt. This prompt will present two sides of an argument (usually something related to school), and you are required to choose a side and defend it. For instance, you might be asked, “Should school uniforms be mandatory?”
The side of the argument that you personally agree with may not always be the easiest one to defend. For instance, you may dislike uniforms but find it difficult to think of any argument besides “I just don’t like them.” In that case, you might be better off writing an essay in favor of uniforms.
You may want to start by making a list of pros and cons. Come up with arguments for both sides, and figure out what evidence you could use to support these points. Then, when you have an idea of how strong an argument you could make for each side, decide which point of view will make for a stronger essay.
Your ACT essay score is primarily based on the strength of your rhetorical skills (i.e., how well you can argue a point) and the organization of your essay. Your essay should contain an introduction, a conclusion, and at least two body paragraphs. Make the structure very clear to your reader by using transitions and sticking to one topic per paragraph.
The best way to ensure that your essay will be effective and well-organized is to plan it out before you start to write. Come up with an outline: a good essay might have an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Decide what point you will make in each paragraph and what evidence you will use to support it. In addition to arguing your own points, you should dedicate one body paragraph to picking apart the other side of the argument.
The prompt will usually reference at least one argument for each side (e.g. “Students believe uniforms restrict their freedom, while administrators argue that uniforms remove distractions from the school environment”). The people who grade your essay will be very familiar with the prompt, and they will definitely notice if you all your arguments are taken directly from it. Try to come up with your own arguments, and if you must use the same ones that are mentioned in the prompt, make them your own by supplementing them with compelling, original evidence.
Each point you make should be thoroughly backed up. It is not enough to simply say, “Without uniforms, students’ clothing choices can be a distraction.” You should go one step further to explain why someone’s clothes may be distracting. Use specific examples - if you can, try to draw from personal experience. For instance, you might strengthen the argument about clothing being a distraction by adding, “Students might wear T-shirts with sayings or slogans that offend their peers. At my school, two students actually got in a fistfight once because one of them wore a T-shirt that other students felt had racist connotations.”
In order to form a fully effective argument, you will also need to address the other side. Mention a point that someone might make in favor of the other side of the argument, and then refute it. If there is an obvious counter-argument to one of the points you have made, it is especially important to address this in order to strengthen your argument.
The rubric that graders use to score your essay has three main components: prompt, support and organization, and language. There are three main requirements in terms of the prompt: you must stay focused on the prompt, demonstrate that you fully understand it, and use critical thinking skills.
Your score for “support and organization” is based on five main things. You should develop your argument in a logical and specific way, use relevant and well-developed examples, organize your essay clearly, present your ideas logically, and use transitions effectively. Transitions are one of the easiest ways to clarify the structure of your essay, so take advantage of them.
In terms of language, your vocabulary should be appropriate and varied. Try not to repeat any words excessively, and throw in a few college-level words (but make sure you use them correctly!). You will also be graded on sentence structure - vary the length and structure of your sentences to make the essay smoother and more interesting. Finally, try to keep errors to a minimum. It is okay to make a few mistakes, but you may lose points if there are a lot of errors - especially if the errors affect the clarity and readability of your essay.
A good guideline is to spend 6-7 minutes of the Writing section reading the prompt and planning your essay, then write for 21-22 minutes, and finally spend the last 2 minutes proofreading. At first, you may be intimidated by the thought of writing an essay in 30 minutes, but if you practice and follow these guidelines, the results may surprise you!