Not all essay prompts are created equally. On the ACT Plus Writing test, you'll be given a paragraph describing an issue, two or more perspectives on the issue, and a prompt asking for your perspective on the issue written in essay form. Seems easy, right? So why do you need to improve your writing for the ACT essay if it's so simple? As it turns out, it isn't.
The ACT Essay will earn you two scores: a combined score from two graders between a 2 and 12, and a combined English and Writing score on a scale of 1 to 36, which is merely another way of looking at your writing ability. To grab those higher numbers on the ACT Writing test (or any essay for that matter), you'll need some strategies to improve your writing.
Explanation:It's never a great idea to plunge into an essay without brainstorming for a few minutes. If you're new to the idea, brainstorming is the act of writing down as many ideas associated with the topic as is possible in a few minutes, paying little heed to order or format. You're just getting ideas down on paper. The reasoning behind brainstorming is that you'll have a well of possible support ideas to draw from when you plan and then write your essay. That list will help you make associations in your brain, which can lead to deeper, more thorough and thought-provoking ideas as you write, improving your essay as a whole.
Usage Tip: Give yourself a full minute to put ideas to paper, even if they start to sound silly or meaningless to you. You never know when one of those items on the list will spark an old memory or a piece of data tucked away in your brain, which can be used to strengthen an argument.
Explanation: Outlining is an absolute must to improve your writing for the ACT essay. When some people hear the word, "outline" they think "torture" or "incredibly detailed useless prewriting." Luckily, you're not one of those people. An outline can be very basic, and probably should be when you only have 30 minutes to scratch out an essay! Your quick outline could include just a thesis, paragraph topics, support used inside each paragraph and a rough conclusion. That's it. You just need a bit of a roadmap to help you get where you want to go, which is to the full 12 points.
Usage Tip: Your thesis is the point of your entire essay, and it needs to be focused on one perspective about the topic. Don't try to be cute and say that either perspective in the prompt could be correct and you really don't want to choose because both groups provide good reasoning. That is not going to earn you a good score. No. Don't do it.
Narrow Your Focus
Explanation: Although brainstorming will get you a ton of great ideas, all of those ideas should not end up in your essay. The ACT essays that earn the highest scores are focused, meaning that the tester selects the two (or possibly three if you can write quickly) best ideas to support the thesis, and thoroughly explores and supports those ideas in the essay. Some students try to bolster their thesis with five separate ideas, which doesn't allow for much explanation; ACT graders want to see how well you can explain your points without relying on long lists of anecdotes or statistics.
Usage Tip: When choosing which two ideas to use to support your thesis, consider adding ideas that could be controversial, especially if you have some great ideas for supporting them and shooting down the controversy. ACT graders like to see some spunk, and if you can knock down another person's great argument with sound reasoning, it proves you have some serious critical thinking skills and will earn you a better score.
Explanation: By narrowing your focus, you can probe deeper into the ideas you're using as support. Nothing says "flaky" like a long list of statistics without any explanation. Stay focused, but allow yourself the freedom to contemplate as you write. Ask and answer tough questions about the topic. Use several sentences to explain just one point, adding solid evidence to prove it. Get into the heart of the matter, attempting to explain the motivations, emotions, and even psychology behind your ideas. Dive deep to improve your writing! Shallow essays, even those that offer a wealth of "support" will not earn as high of score as a thought-provoking essay.
Usage Tip: It's okay to ask a question in an essay, as long as your answer is solid and pulls the reader even deeper into your thought process. Don't shy away from uncomfortable issues, either. If you can accurately and respectfully present, support or defend a shaky topic, you'll get points, even if the ACT grader would disagree with you.
Choose a Mature Tone
Explanation: Cute is going to get you nowhere on the ACT essay. Whether or not you dot your "i's" with smiley faces is up to you, but if the tone of your essay is bubbles and sunshine, your message could be lost. The issues presented to you on the ACT will never be about spending the night with friends or going to the mall. The topics given to you will be serious, and to put yourself in your very best light, you should present your information in a mature way. Choose your very best language. Write as if you're composing a lecture to be presented to the President of the United States. Wit is fine, if it's tasteful and doesn't distract from the point you're trying to make. You want to be taken seriously on the ACT essay because it's worth serious points.
Usage Tip: Mature doesn't have to mean boring. To spice up your writing, choose specific words (steel-toed boots vs. shoes, rhododendron vs. flower) and sensory language (describe how things look, feel, sound, etc.) Your graders are living, breathing people who don't want to fall asleep. Wake them up with great word choice.
A Final Note of Encouragement
You've written essays exactly like this before on state standardized tests. You know how to do this, but you will need to practice. Take a peek at my ACT Essay practice prompts, choose one that you like, set a timer for 30 minutes, and challenge yourself to write your very best essay. Repeat until you have an essay you'd be proud to show your favorite teacher. Writing well quickly doesn't come naturally to many testers, so practice prior to sitting for the exam for the best results and the highest score possible.