The New ACT Essay / Writing Section
Big news: in an effort to make the test more accessible, and compete with the new SAT, the ACT has turned its Essay (Writing) section into a multiple-choice test.
OK, not really. But kind of.
As you may have heard by now, the ACT is changing the format of its Writing Test (a.k.a. the essay section). Instead of 30 minutes to write, you are now given 40 minutes to write, and instead of being given only a prompt and an assignment, you will now be provided with a prompt, an assignment, and three different perspectives on the essay. You are then asked to evaluate the different perspectives on the issue, to provide your own perspective, and to explain the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective, using examples, analysis and logic. (In the words of the ACT, students are asked "to develop an argument that puts their own perspective in dialogue with others.")
Below is the exact prompt from a recent essay. Please note that the assignment has been changed frequently, and that any ACT essay prep materials you use may not have been updated to reflect these changes.
The new essay will be scored out of of 12 points. It will also be given a grade of 2-12 in the following areas: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, & Language Use and Conventions. You can read more about those sub-scores here.
While you're at it, you can read an example of a perfect-score essay from the makers of the ACT. However, because I'm not a huge fan of the ACT's sample essay (it includes misspellings and is light on examples and structure), I have also written my own example of a perfect-score ACT essay. Here's another one I wrote as well.
The ACT has released two free sample PDF essays in the new format, in addition to the 3 in the new book. You can find them here and here (scroll to pages 54 and 55 of the new ACT diagnostic test). If you need additional practice prompts, then I would recommend that you check out ACT tutor Shane Burnett's website, Mighty Oak Test Prep, where you can download 6 additional ACT prompts written by him.
Here is how I would classify the change, in general terms:
1) You are presented with a very unbiased account of a situation in our society. Factual observations are made, and rhetorical questions asked, but no opinions or answers are provided.
2) Three different perspectives are given on the issue, usually about two sentences each. They are along the lines of yes / no / maybe, but of course the perspectives are more nuanced than that, since the question is no longer posited as a "true or false?" scenario.
First Question: "Automation is generally seen as a sign of progress, but what is lost when we replace humans with machines?"
Second Question: "In a society that values both health and freedom, how do we best balance the two? How should we think about conflicts between personal health and public freedom?"
Overall, I would say that this is a positive change, even if it is a rather transparent (and abrupt!) reaction to the new SAT redesign. The irony, of course, is that the SAT changed its format to more closely mirror that of the ACT, to which it is losing market share as students are increasingly opting out of the SAT to take the ACT instead.
Why is this a good change? A couple of reasons: it gives you 10 more minutes to write, and instead of having to come up with your own perspectives on the question, they are provided for you already, and you can take your notes directly on the page, circling and underlining key terms and using them to structure your outline. No more racking your brain, wondering what you are going to write about--nearly everything is already provided for you.
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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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