Five Elements of a Top-Scoring ACT Essay
By Louis Cheng
(Test Preparation (ACT/SAT/SSAT) and Economics tutor at The Edge Learning Center)
The ACT essay is the last (optional) section in the ACT exam. It consists of a short prompt that talks about a modern issue and offers three perspectives on the issue. The student’s task is to compose an essay which develops her own view on the issue while evaluating the perspectives given. Starting in September 2016, the essay is graded on a scale of 2 to 12, independently scored by two graders across four domains: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use. For detailed descriptions of each criterion, refer to the official scoring rubric, available here.
Given that only forty minutes are available and that students are expected to develop and consider nuanced perspectives on an often complex issue, the ACT Writing section can pose a real challenge to students unprepared for the persuasive task. Fortunately, the prompts that appear in this section are very predictable; the same format is used from one test to another. Because of the very specific requirements laid out in the prompt and scoring rubric, students are expected to include several key elements in their essays. From the many ACT essays which I have read and graded over the years, I find that almost all top-scoring essays include the following five elements:
1. A Clear Frame for the Debate
This pertains to drawing a clear demarcation of the essay’s scope. Let’s take a look at a sample prompt available on the official ACT website. The first thing to note is that the prompt always starts with a heading and a synopsis, both of which offer information and sometimes background context on the issue at hand.
In this case, the issue concerns the implications of the increasing presence of intelligent machines in daily life. A good ACT essay always identifies the issue in a concise form right from the beginning. Moreover, top-scoring essays tend to make use of the given perspectives to frame the debate.
In the current case, while a student may side with Perspective One, for instance, she will still include brief overviews of the two other perspectives to chart out the debate as well as to convey a sense of urgency; this tells the reader that there are various voices on the issue and that the issue does matter.
2. A Clear Thesis
Having framed the scope of the debate, top-scoring essays always include a clear thesis statement as part of the introductory paragraph. A thesis statement is a concise sentence that summarizes one’s position on the issue, which also anticipates the arguments to come in the rest of the essay. Here is an example of a good thesis statement: “We definitely lose more than we gain with the replacement of people by machines because daily encounters no longer require from us basic courtesy, respect, and tolerance for other people, resulting in a cold and anti-social world devoid of human care and emotions.”
The thesis is of utmost importance as taking a clear position is an explicit requirement of the task in the ACT Writing section. In fact, the presence or absence of this element often differentiates between a good and a bad essay: very often, because of the multifaceted nature of the issues given, students are inclined to assume a “neutral” stance that informs the readers that there are many perspectives on the issue, which include Perspective One, Two, and Three, without developing their own views. This is a common pitfall for many otherwise admirable pieces of ACT writing.
In the context of the ACT essay, concessions mean that we give credit to other viewpoints, even though we don’t fully agree with them. Essays that earn high scores usually devote a fair amount of time to this task, detailing how each opposing perspective has its own merits. This demonstrates that the writer is critically engaging with all the given perspectives and ensures that the essay appears nuanced and thoughtful.
Concession is a fairly sophisticated rhetorical strategy and is often a challenge for students not used to this form of persuasive writing. To perform this task successfully, students must learn to be charitable and be able to think from another person’s point of view. For example, a student siding with Perspective One in the above prompt might argue that even though the conclusion reached by Perspective Two is unacceptable, its considerations concerning efficiency in production are decidedly pragmatic, and thus we have much to learn from this perspective. Conversely, a student taking Perspective Two might say that Perspective One’s attention to the alienating experiences of daily encounters with machines is admirable, and thus those who are more economically minded must learn from this often neglected perspective. Because of the sense of credibility and thoughtfulness it demonstrates, spending some time to acknowledge the opposing perspectives makes for a very strong piece of writing.
4. Development and Refutation
This is the meat of the ACT essay. Students must substantiate the claims made in their thesis statements with logical arguments and persuasive examples. While students most probably have had a lot of practice at school at how to justify claims with evidence, the ACT essay actually demands more: students must develop their claims in relation to the perspectives given in the prompt. What this means is that, in a top-scoring essay, one’s own perspective is developed in tandem with the refutation of opposing arguments. This amounts to highlighting the benefits of one’s own position while underscoring the flaws of others. Some ways to achieve this may include the consideration of whether the opposing positions violate any code of ethics or whether any existing policies already achieve the opposing viewpoints’ stated benefits. In any case, a top-scoring ACT essay always argues for one’s own position in relation to the given perspectives in ways that clarify the relationships among the different viewpoints.
From my experience, this is an element that is only present in essays with nearly perfect scores. Oftentimes, students end the essay by simply regurgitating key points made in the previous paragraphs. While this is a decent way to end the ACT essay, it does not make for a memorable read. One way to delight the reader and further strengthen the arguments already made is to extend the position by emphasizing its real-world impact. This amounts to asserting the resulting material repercussions if society follows the position argued for, which often include speculations on what the future holds. For instance, a student arguing for Perspective One in the above prompt may paint a dystopian picture of how the future generations will lose the ability to communicate with each other in any recognizable way because all social bonds are lost. On the other hand, a student arguing for Perspective Three could outline how the prevalence of intelligent machines may force us to completely rethink who we are, just like how the Darwinian discoveries revolutionized how we understand ourselves as animals.
Ending the essay with an extension of the initial claim is very effective at conveying a sense of urgency about the debate, and it shows the reader that the position taken has been thoroughly considered.
An ACT essay that includes all of the five elements is bound to get a high score, which will look good on the ACT score report. Nevertheless, while this discussion is specific to the ACT essay, the five elements detailed above are in fact indispensable to all good persuasive writing. Therefore, in learning how to write the ACT essay in The Edge’s ACT course offerings, students are also preparing themselves for advanced writing tasks encountered in high school and college.