The ACT essay changed in a few ways as of September 2015.
Students now have four sheets of paper to try to fill instead of three, and 40 minutes to do so instead of 30. The essay prompts are different, too.
Instead of a simple problem relevant to teenagers — usually a school-related issue on which a couple of contrasting opinions were presented as examples — the new prompts discuss more comprehensive social issues. An ACT prompt today may ask teens to discuss the role of intelligent machines in our world, the relationships among individual rights and public health concerns, or the conflict between the need for order in society and personal responsibility to fight injustice.
Below a short explanation of the topic are three text boxes, each of which introduces a different perspective on the issue. High school students taking the test are instructed to evaluate and analyze each of these perspectives, develop their own points of view on the subject, and explain the ways in which their opinions overlap with and/or differ from those presented in the text boxes.
This new format is a more complex and strictly defined challenge than the old one, so while certain qualities of a high-scoring essay still apply, students need to do more to get top marks.
Scoring is no longer “holistic,” as it was before fall 2015, with two readers each assigning a score of 0–6 to make up a final score of 0–12. Instead, the new grading system has this pair of readers recording a score from 0–6 in each of four different categories: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use. The composite score of 0-48 is then scaled to a 0-36 range to match the other four section scores of the ACT. (The essay score is not included in the composite ACT score; it is listed separately in the score report.)
In order to achieve top essay scores in each category, follow these rules:
1. Make it long.
In the eyes of ACT graders, a long essay is still a good essay. Any piece of writing that is shorter than three pages will almost certainly fail to earn a top score.
2. Be organized.
In order to make your long essay meaningful, you'll have to be organized. Take three to four minutes before you start writing to plan. A solid structure will look something like this:
- Body paragraph discussing the first perspective
- Second body paragraph discussing the second perspective
- Third body paragraph discussing — you guessed it — the third perspective
- One (optional) paragraph explaining your own unique perspective
- Final paragraph for your conclusion
Clearly indent your paragraphs, but don't skip lines; your goal is to fill them all!
3. Have a point to make.
Decide on an overarching point to your essay while you’re outlining and jotting notes. Refer to it in the introduction where you state your thesis clearly and unequivocally. It doesn’t much matter what your stated opinion is, as long as it is not overtly political, religious, or possibly offensive to your reader. It doesn't even have to be something you actually believe. Rather, choose your opinion based on what you’ll be able to support most easily and persuasively with evidence. Thread your main point throughout the essay, and pull it together tightly in the conclusion.
4. Illustrate each perspective with an example.
For a top score, you must discuss each of the three perspectives and support your point with real or made-up examples. These examples should suggest reasons why some people hold the views laid out in the three perspectives – or why you hold them, too. Your support does not have to be deep, complicated, or even true. It does have to be emphatic and strongly favor your point.
5. Keep your reader awake.
Bore leads to snore leads to low score — and you don't want that! Engage your reader with lively, varied sentence structure, throwing in an occasional semicolon or parenthetical insert. Why not pose a rhetorical question? Employing subject-predicate inversion, too, can bring verve to your style. Don't use ordinary adjectives when extraordinary ones will do. Substitute fancy words for plain ones. Truly, the word "overkill" does not apply to the ACT essay. Sometimes, though, just using a mature expression could mean the difference between a boring sentence and a standout one.
6. Keep up a good flow with judicious emphasis.
Your essay should flow strongly and naturally from one point to the next. Use clear emphasis words — such as “so,” “therefore,” “furthermore,” “moreover,” “finally,” and “after all.” Set up your contrasts with powerful signifiers like “nevertheless,” “paradoxically,” “diametrically opposed to,” and “in contrast to.”
7. Gain inspiration from scored essays.
The third edition of the official “Real ACT Test Prep Guide" does not include information on the new essay. None of the popular test prep guides published in 2015 were written with full knowledge of the new essay scoring, either.
There is only one source for a few real scored essays: the ACT website. Read the sample essays and scrutinize their top-scoring examples, which range from scores of 1–6. Read them in order so you can really see the difference from one grade to the next. Study the Scoring Explanations, especially, to see what factors contributed to each essay's success in the eyes of essay graders.
Follow this link to find more free advice on preparing for the ACT from Noodle Experts like Karen Berlin Ishii. Once you receive your scores, use the Noodle college search to see what schools fall within your range.