ACT Writing Tips

The ACT Writing test is a 40-minute essay that you will have to write with pen-and-paper. Although not all schools require the ACT Writing Test, you have to take all four previous tests in order to take the Writing Test. It cannot be done separately from the other sections.

The prompt will describe an issue in a short paragraph, then give you three different perspectives on that issue. Each perspective will be in its own separate box, and they will be labeled “Perspective One,” “Perspective Two,” and “Perspective Three.” Below the perspectives boxes will be the Essay Task, which will look like this:

ACT Essay Task

Notice you must accomplish all three of the bulleted tasks. No matter what perspective you take, your score will NOT be affected if the reader does not share the same opinion. You are only scored on your ability. Here’s how to structure your 40-minutes:

  • Step 1 – 5 minutes to Plan
  • Step 2 – 30 minutes to Produce
  • Step 3 – 5 minutes to Proofread

Thirty minutes may not sound like a lot of writing time, but if we break it down that’s 5 minutes for each paragraph! Aim for 5 paragraphs total, and you’ll be able to finish in the allotted time with a bit of practice, especially if you take enough time to plan out your essay.

How do I Plan? Start by reading the prompt paragraph, and the three perspectives. Part of what you will have to do is choose your OWN position on the topic, and rather than come up with a completely new perspective, choose ONE of the three perspectives that is closest to your own opinion. That perspective will be your thesis, which will be the last sentence of your introductory paragraph. Next, plan out your essay using this template!

ACT Essay Template

This is a sample outline for the ACT essay. Aim for 5 paragraphs. If you have trouble completing 5 paragraphs, see if you can streamline your body paragraphs. They can often be bloated with unnecessary wordiness. Keep the introduction and the conclusion short and sweet.

Paragraph 1 – Introduction (3 sentences)

Begin your essay with two sentences summarizing the other two perspectives (the ones you do not agree with).  Your last sentence will be your thesis, and it will be a powerful and confident statement that encapsulates the ideas of the third perspective (the one you do agree with). For example, it could be structured like this:

Regarding the issue of _________, some people mistakenly believe that _________. Others think _____________. However ____________; in fact, ____________.

Let’s say the essay was about saving the environment. You introduction could be structured thusly:

Regarding the issue of protecting the environment, some people mistakenly believe that recycling and more awareness would be enough to solve the world’s pollution and waste management problems. Others think our world economy’s dependence on oil and fossil fuels is the main source of the problem. However, both these perspectives are too limited; in fact, to truly guarantee our environment’s long-term stability, it is vital that we invest our money and resources in developing alternate technologies.

From this introduction, we have clarified our position: alternative technology is the way to go! We also have clarified the two positions we will attack: recycling/awareness and oil/fossil fuel criticism.

Be sure to reuse key words from each perspective so it is extremely clear which perspectives you are criticizing, and which of the three you are strongly supporting. Do not mention the individual perspectives by number. It is more subtle if you can write your essay as if it is not based on a prompt at all!

Paragraph 2 – Criticism of One Perspective (4-6 sentences)

In this paragraph, you should explain how recycling and awareness doesn’t work. You have three tasks in your body paragraphs:

  • Introduce the perspective you will attack.
  • Demonstrate you understand it.
  • Explain why it is incorrect or ineffective. You should be spending the majority of your body paragraph doing the third step: explaining why it is incorrect or ineffective. You must convince the reader through very concrete detail how your position on the issue is correct. If you can incorrect a SPECIFIC real-world example, that will make your essay even stronger! Check out our “example list” below for an idea on how you can brainstorm possible examples, even before Test Day!

Paragraph 3 – Criticism of Second Perspective (4-6 sentences)

In this paragraph, you should explain how dependence on oil and fossil fuels doesn’t work. Just like you did in the first body paragraph, you will:

  • Introduce the perspective you will attack.
  • Demonstrate you understand it.
  • Explain why it is incorrect or ineffective.

Paragraph 4 – Prove Why Your Perspective is Best (4-6 sentences)

Use a transition phrase, and reiterate your thesis in the first sentence. In the rest of the paragraph, elaborate why it is correct. Again, if you can use a specific example, that would be ideal.

Paragraph 5 – Conclusion (2 sentences)

In your conclusion, warn about the future consequences if your perspective were not considered. Then reinforce the correctness of your own thesis. This takes care of having to come up with a conclusion- you’ll already know what to do! Here’s how it might look:

Although some people insist _________ or __________, these perspectives are shortsighted. In order to ________________, the only viable solution is __________.

How to Get Specific Examples

You may not know the prompt topic, but you CAN make a list of extremely specific people, places, current events, etc. from which you could draw on Test Day!

You’ll see a list of examples below – come up with your own list BEFORE Test Day that you can “pull from.”

Example List (sample)

  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Martha Stewart
  • 9/11 (e.g. NYPD/NYFD, post-9/11, etc.)
  • Global Warming
  • Steve Jobs
  • Vietnam / Gulf / Iraq War
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (book)
  • Citizen Kane (movie)
  • A Tale of Two Cities (book)
  • The Scarlet Letter (book)
  • Othello (play)
  • Britney Spears
  • Kanye West
  • Lena Dunham and “Girls”
  • The Olympics
  • 12 Years a Slave (book or movie)
  • Marie Curie
  • Sigmund Freud
  • NASA
  • Adolf Hitler
  • World War I
  • Ancient Egypt

Notice that your examples can be from literature, politics, current events, history! Think about 4-5 topics you covered in each of your classes in the past year. You already know about these, so there might be a way to incorporate them into your essay!

For example, in our sample above, if we were discussing why recycling and awareness doesn’t work, you could say that people don’t just change their behaviors because they are more aware of negative things, and use “12 Years a Slave” as an example. Even though the book was written in 1853, many people did not change their minds about the evils of slavery until years later. Don’t feel like you need to shoehorn examples if they really don’t fit, but you might surprise yourself with how creative you can be!  One specific example per body paragraph is enough. Try to make them different. For instance, if you’re going to use “12 Years a Slave” for one paragraph, don’t use books for the other two paragraphs. Perhaps choose a current event, or an item from history to prove your other points.

ACT Essay Scoring

Like the other sections of the ACT, your Writing score will be out of 36. You will also receive sub-scores (between 1-12) in four individual categories:

  • Ideas and Analysis
  • Development and Support
  • Organization
  • Language Use and Conventions

These scores do not add up to the final score, but they break down your writing abilities to give colleges more clarity on your strengths. Your score is given by two independent readers, who will assign a score between 1-6 in each of these four areas. These sub-scores are added together to get a raw score, and that raw score is then converted into the final scaled score. Make sure you familiarize yourself with what a reader is looking for in a “perfect” essay:

ACT Essay Scoring

As long as you follow the template here, choose a clear perspective on the prompt, and thoroughly criticize the other perspectives, and support your ideas with clear, specific examples, it isn’t too challenging to get a perfect score!  Ready to practice? Try out some of our sample ACT Writing prompts.