Update: The ACT announced in June 2016 that it would be going back to an ACT essay score range from 2-12. This post was originally written during the period from September 2015 to June 2016 when the ACT essay was scaled from 1-36. However, the essay itself has not changed and all the same advice below applies. 🙂
Acing the New ACT Essay
So first of all, I’ve been tutoring for the ACT for years. I have advanced degrees in writing-intensive fields. I SHOULD be able to score really well on a timed essay test meant for high schoolers.
But many years ago, when I was just beginning my standardized test tutoring career, I took the SAT and got a 9/12 on the essay. A NINE? I was flabbergasted. I know that for many high schoolers, a 9 is a really good score and one to be proud of. But I tried REALLY hard. I thought I wrote a darn good essay. And I was an adult, for Pete’s sake. So what happened?
What I learned from this experience on the SAT is just how important it is to understand the expectations and biases of the SAT and ACT graders in order to do well on the essay portions of the test. They’ve been trained to give certain scores based on specific characteristics. And so what they expect is a pretty cookie-cutter, straight from your freshman composition class, organized essay. But if you are aiming for a top, top score, you can push the boundaries a little bit, and I will explain exactly how below.
I sat for the September 2015 ACT administration, the first with the new essay format requiring test-takers to evaluate three different perspectives on an issue and present their own. I had studied everything the ACT had released on the new essay at the time (it wasn’t much), and I tested out my theories on what it might take to get a perfect score on the essay I wrote.
Of course, there is not one winning recipe to getting a perfect score on the ACT Writing test, but there are some indicators as to what will help nudge the readers towards checking off those top-range boxes. As it turns out, at least for my essay, my theories worked pretty well. I received a 36 scaled score with a 12 out of 12 on each of the four scoring domains.
Here’s what I learned:
Perfect ACT Essay Tip #1:
Choose the option to agree with one of the perspectives, but modify it slightly.
For most students, I highly recommend that they choose the option to agree with one of the given perspectives rather than choosing the option to present their own. It’s just too risky. The readers might not understand what you are trying to get at and you run the risk of going off topic. You can get a perfect score by agreeing with one of the perspectives, so unless you are a VERY strong writer, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.
However, if you are aiming for a top, top score, I suggest you choose the option to agree with one of the perspectives, but narrow your focus. The topics on the ACT are big ones and the perspectives are often all-encompassing as well. On the sample essays on the ACT student website, you can see that, on the second highest scoring essay, the graders are impressed with the student’s narrowing his or her scope to the implications for capitalism. I can’t reveal the topic the September essay, but imagine this was one of the perspectives:
__________ can be an effective way of achieving social change.
What I did was something like this:
__________ can be an effective means of achieving social change, but only when it is done in a way that brings public visibility to the issue.
That’s a rough approximation but hopefully you see my point. In the body of my essay, I then provided examples in which social injustices were brought to light on YouTube and other social media platforms during the Arab Spring, for example. So I narrowed the scope of my argument to the “public visibility” note that I added onto one of the provided perspectives.
The idea is to get essay graders to perk up a little bit when they read your thesis and then go into the body of your essay with a more positive attitude. Remember that they are reading countless essays that have wishy-washy thesis statements or thesis statements that just repeat one of the perspectives verbatim. Make yours stand out.
Perfect ACT Essay Tip #2:
It’s ok if you are using really common examples, if you employ them well.
After the test, I saw a lot of students online worrying about the fact that they had written about the Civil Rights Movement, and, “Oh my gosh, EVERYONE wrote about the Civil Rights Movement!”
Like many of the other students who took the test, the first thing that popped into my head when I read the prompt was the Civil Rights Movement. So I decided to run with it, but try to do it really well: using specific examples and making sure the examples were key in supporting larger arguments. I wanted to see if I would be punished for not being more creative. Turns out I wasn’t. So don’t overanalyze your choices and waste time trying to think of less common examples just because you think they are going to be the same ones that other people write about. It didn’t appear to hurt my score. That being said if the first things that pop into your head are less obvious examples, go for it. I think that can be a breath of fresh air for your readers too. It’s all about the fresh air, people!
Perfect ACT Essay Tip #3:
Don’t make the graders work hard to follow your train of thought, but don’t be redundant either.
Your essay should be written in a very obvious 5-paragraph(-ish) structure. The five paragraphs aren’t important, maybe you have four or six, but what I mean is an essay that is very structured with an intro, supporting body paragraphs, and conclusion. For a TOP score, though, make sure you use transitions between ideas liberally. You might think you are overdoing it, but remember, the graders are reading your essay quickly. Don’t assume they will work hard to connect the dots. Make it easy for them to do that. The Organization scoring domain is a pretty easy one to do well on if you follow the protocol, so make sure you nab your points here.
At the same time, take care to vary your phrasing when you are plugging in your requisite introductory and concluding sentences for each paragraph. A dead-giveaway of weaker writing is introductory and concluding sentences that say exactly the same thing. So make sure to be varying your words constantly. This will help you score well both in Organization and in Language Use.
Recap: Getting a Perfect Score on the ACT Essay
In brief, a summary of what I found:
- Choose the option to agree with one of the perspectives, but modify it slightly.
- Agreeing with the perspectives offered can help, but put your own spin on it.
- Presenting your own perspective is a risk it’s probably better not to take.
- Don’t overanalyze your choice of examples.
- Be specific.
- Make sure your examples support your essay’s bigger points.
- A five-paragraph essay structure works best on the ACT (though this may mean four or six paragraphs in some cases!)
- Use lots of appropriate transitions.
- Vary your phrasing in each paragraph’s introductory and concluding sentences.
Getting a 36 on the ACT essay is not easy at all. You can think of it as getting two different English teachers to give you A+s instead of As on the same essay. It’s tough. So don’t sweat it if your essay score is a bit lower. Remember it doesn’t affect your composite score and is really more of a bonus than anything when it comes to college admissions. Buuuut….for you perfect score seekers out there, hopefully this firsthand insight into the new ACT essay can help you get closer to your goal :).
About Kristin Fracchia
Kristin makes sure Magoosh's sites are full of awesome, free resources that can be found by students prepping for standardized tests. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agony and bliss of trail running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.
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Sample ACT Essay – Score 6
“School’s out for summer!” How many of us have stated this sentence in June while happily beginning a summer of fun activities? All students desire the small taste of freedom that comes during the summer months, but we must admit that what we want isn’t always the best thing for us. Few students will admit this, but having an extra few months every year to complete our education would be beneficial to young people entering a world that is more global and competitive than ever. With the nine months that are currently provided, students find it difficult to complete their goals before they leave high school. Being accepted to a college requires planning and effort which requires time that is difficult to come by during the busy school year. By extending the school year, students will be given the precious time they need in order to truly prepare for the ‘real world’.
Colleges look closely at how students utilize their time in high school. Do students do well in their courses? Are students afraid of taking difficult courses? Are students ‘well-rounded’ with extracurricular activities? Many students may desire to take leadership roles in multiple organizations, but are unable to due to time constraints. With an extra few months each year, students will be able to fulfill all of these requirements. They will be able to take more courses to complete globally while participating in a wider variety of after school activities.
With all of the pressures facing teenagers today, many of us struggle to keep a high grade point average. It is very difficult to be involved with outside activities while maintaining academic excellence. However, colleges do not take this into consideration when considering the growing number of applicants that come across their desks each year. Many students who are from other nations such as Japan and China spend much more time in school, and are therefore at an advantage when being compared to American students. Students in our country need to step up to the global plate and use all twelve months of the year to achieve their goals.
Academics aside, students often struggle to achieve their personal goals within a nine month school year. A student may face a choice between an AP Calculus course and a music course. Which looks more impressive on a transcript? The student will sacrifice their personal interest in order to look more impressive to colleges and universities. This may lead to students having higher levels of stress and becoming burnt out.
High school is a turning point for many people. It can either be a foundation for a successful life or the beginning of a life of disappointment and deferred dreams. A few extra months of education each year may make all the difference. With the additional time, students can take both the courses they want and the courses they need while having more time to work at a reasonable pace and to reduce stress and pressure. Teenagers work hard to build the foundation for their future, and they need as much time as possible to ensure their success.
Score 6 – Explanation
Sample ACT Essay – No score
Blank test, illegible, not in English, off-topic
Sample ACT Essay – Score 1
In this essay I will be writing about how year long schools are a bad idea. Students already have to go to school for much too long. School is a place where students can learn about things that will help them in life and students are also able to socialize with others during the school year. Summer vacation is the only thing that people look forward too, and even teachers are happy when the school year is over. Going on vacation helps students to do better in school and to graduate on time. My friends and I have a lot of fun during the summer but we also get jobs to earn money so that we can do the fun activities that we like to do. Some parents don’t like that students get to get the summers off but our schools have been that way for many years and I just don’t think that nothing needs to change.
Score 1 – Explanation
Sample ACT Essay – Score 2
If you ask any student if they would enjoy going to school all year, the vast majority would say no. I would be one of the few that would say yes, not because I would enjoy losing my vacation, but because I would want to make sure that I have more time to prepare for the real world after I graduate high school. Along with this, I feel that we waste a lot of time preparing for the tests that we have to take at the end of the year, and this might make up for the time that we lose when we are doing that.
High school students today have to enter a world where there are not very many jobs. Students need to learn more in school and become smarter so that they can get the jobs since many more people are going against them to get these jobs. Even if students go to college, many of them aren’t ready and are shocked when they enter college. Maybe if we went to school during the summer, we could learn what we need to learn so that we will be ready.
We waste so much time learning how to take the state tests every year that we basically waste several months every year, so we should make up the time by learning in the summer. Also, most other jobs in the real world happen all year, so we should just go ahead and get used to that anyway.
Score 2 – Explanation
Sample ACT Essay – Score 3
Experts debate changing the school calendar to year-round schools. Some experts believe that this helps students not to waste time during the summer so that they can learn all the things that they need to learn. Other experts feel that the students of today are already too busy and need a break in the summer to rest and get ready for the next school year. Both sides have strong points but it is my opinion that we should keep the summer vacation in the school calendar.
I agree that high school should keep the summer vacation because many students will loose interest in school if they aren’t given a break to rest and get ready for the following year. School is very busy for students with both educational and extracurricular activities, and if students don’t get to rest sometimes, they will get burned out and will do worst at school instead of better. Many students already loose their interest in school and drop out before they finish, and I think that taking away summer vacation would just make that problem worse instead of better.
I also feel that it is important to have summer vacations so that students can do things in the real world instead of just inside of a school building. Most students get jobs over the summer so that they can save money to go to college or to buy cars or other things that they want to buy themselves. Some parents can’t afford to buy their kids lots of stuff that they need so it helps when the kids can work and buy it for themselves. Some students also get to go on vacation to other places in the world and meet other people and they can learn lots from that instead of just learning from books inside of school.
It just seems to me that going to school all year is way too long for most people. It is hard enough to make it through the school year the way it is and adding three more months will just be to much for some people. Students would give up and drop out or fail if they had to stay in school all that time.
Score 3 – Explanation
Sample ACT Essay – Score 4
Educators debate the usefulness of a summer vacation in todays changing world. Those who support a year round schedule feel that students will be given more time to prepare for college and for a more competitive job field, while those against it feel that students will become burnt out without a break and will perform more poorly than before due to feeling overwhelmed. There are advantages and disadvantages to each side of the argument, but I feel that having a 12 month school year would be counterintuitive for many reasons, such as a loss of interest and motivation, loss of real life experiences and the fact that three extra months of learning will not solve the bigger issues that face our educational system.
Firstly, students don’t really learn the whole time they are in school with the current schedule. Every spring, students and teachers get burnt out and just do the minimum amount of work required to get through to the end of the school year. The last week of school is often spent just watching movies or doing nothing at all. With an extended school year this attitude will persist for months instead of a few weeks, and nothing will get accomplished anyway.
Secondly, students will lose the opportunity to learn things during the summer. Yes, it is possible to learn outside of school! Many students get jobs during the summer in order to help with expenses. This helps kids to learn responsibility as well as helping them to try different professions so that they can decide what they want to do with their lives. Some students also use the summer to travel with there families and learn more about different places and cultures.
Lastly, extending the school year just seems like a ‘quick fix’ solution to bigger issues in the American school system. Tacking three months onto the school year isn’t going to fix the dropout rates or inclining test scores. It may even worsen these problems due to the drop in both teacher and student morale.
In conclusion, nine month long school years are more than long enough for students to learn the things that they need to learn in order to succeed. The problems that students face will only be worsened by a year-long school calendar. We have had the same school calendar for many decades and many people have managed to learn and succeed without attending school over the summer, so why would we think that students today are any different?
Score 4 – Explanation
Sample ACT Essay – Score 5
Demand for excellence in both academics and extracurricular activities are forcing high school students to work their fingers to the bone in order to reach the high standards that are applied to them in today’s society. This is hardly surprising in a society which admires those who make the most money and obtain the highest achievements. Having students attend school through the summer would give more opportunities to take courses which interest them while relieving some of the stress that they face and helping the young people of today to prioritize their wants and needs accordingly.
Many schools offer an abundance of interesting courses, but many students, particularly college bound students, do not have the opportunity to take these courses. Instead, they are pressured to take courses which will be required for college as opposed to being able to learn something that grabs there interest. College admissions are more competitive than ever, so students will take difficult and more ‘impressive’ courses in order to have a leg up instead of being able to learn about things that they enjoy.
Life for teenagers today is more stressful than ever. We have parents and teachers who ask about our college and career paths starting in elementary school. Stress is a real problem for many young people today. They have to consider many things: Where should I go to college? How will I pay for college? What should I choose for my career? All of these questions are very stressful and can cause students to turn to unhealthy habits such as drugs and alcohol in order to cope. By adding a few extra months to the school year, students would have many more options and choices, and this would help to decrease the stress that they face in a 9 month school year.
Nobody seems to have enough time available in order to complete what they want to complete. Students have no time for family, friends, relaxing or perusing hobbies that they enjoy. Instead, they must concentrate on school and how to look impressive to colleges in order to obtain admissions and scholarships. Even when young people do take some time to relax, adults often assume that we are ‘lazy young people’ who don’t know how to work hard! While some teenagers are lazy (just the same as there are lazy adults!), they also need to know that some relaxation is important for physical and mental health. While some people may think that this is achieved through a three month summer vacation, they should realize that most teenagers just take on jobs or internships to earn money instead of just relaxing… and before they know it, they are back in the stressful school environment. Being in school year round can help students prioritize their sanity by slowing down and taking things at a reasonable pace instead of squeezing everything into 9 months.
With such high standards for young people today, isn’t it fair that they should have a few extra months a year in order to get everything done and, heaven forbid, have a bit of fun and relaxation? Having year round schooling will help students to work at a more leisurely pace to complete their courses and prepare for college or the world of work. They will be able to learn about things that interest them instead of just what they ‘should’ learn for college, and they will be able to have more time to relax and learn how to prioritize their health and mental well being. Having year round schooling will benefit students for years to come.