The ACT Essay

By: Judi Robinovitz | Last Updated: May 26, 2015

Come September 12, the first ACT national test date of the academic year, those students who opt to take the essay portion of the exam will face something new. Of course, for those taking the exam for the very first time, there will be no change. But for students who have already taken the ACT before September 2015, the change will be noticeable.

Even with the changes, the ACT essay will still be OPTIONAL, because the ACT doesn’t require that students complete the Writing section, but most colleges will want to see an essay score. So it’s best if students check with admissions at the school(s) to which they plan to apply before deciding to skip the ACT’s essay.

What will the new Writing section look like?

First, it’s not currently set in stone that the essay test duration will remain 30 minutes. It may be extended in response to the College Board’s 50 minutes for its new, somewhat similar essay exercise.

The ACT Writing section will still focus on a specific, controversial modern-day issue—for example, the role of cell phones in our lives or the importance of art and music in education. Students will still need to express their own opinions and explain why they feel that way.

Here’s a new element to the prompt. The new Writing section will present students with three short excerpts (1¬–3 sentences) from people expressing different perspectives on an issue. Students will have to evaluate these perspectives by talking about their strengths, weaknesses, or biases then compare their own opinions with those viewpoints.

How will it be scored?

As with the current exam, students will receive a total essay score from 2 to 12 points. The Writing section will remain separate from the ACT Composite Score, so that colleges will see a Writing score (out of 12) and a combined English/Language Arts Score that combines the English and Writing sections (out of 36).

Here’s a significant change: students will receive sub scores for the Writing section that evaluate four essay elements:

  • Ideas and Analysis: ability to think critically about the topic and the material in the prompt
  • Development and Support: ability to explain one’s viewpoint and provide evidence in the essay
  • Organization: ability to structure the essay logically
  • Language: ability to use proper grammar, word choice, and rhetorical devices

Currently juniors can only avoid the new essay by taking the April and/or June 2015 ACT.

Sophomore or freshmen who opt for the ACT will see only the new essay.

To give the ACT what it wants, a student must have a very firm essay-writing strategy in place before he sits down to take the test. Only then can a student comfortably succeed at responding to whatever prompt the ACT essay presents.

The NEW ACT essay prompt provides the thesis and examples for the students. To a significant degree, this new format has taken the “guesswork” out of how to structure the essay. The examples are now EMBEDDED IN THE PROMPT. So, there may be one less step for students to take during the 30 minutes they have to complete their writing.

Rather than invent perspectives, students are provided with three, and then asked to analyze those perspectives’ differing viewpoints.

As a result, the ACT essay may be less creative than before, but the new format provides a framework simplifying the task of writing an argumentative essay!

Imagine! In September, a student will be given three opinions (“perspectives”) to examine. The directions will read:

“Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of the others, in partial; agreement, or wholly different.”

Common Core’s Anchor Standard 1 for reading says that students must be able to “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to draw conclusions to support conclusions drawn from the text.”

Well, the ACT essay text will provide a superb starting point. The new test offers up three perspectives, each under fifty words, gifts to the student who can bring sense and cohesion to text analysis. That should, in theory, make it easier for the student to develop his or her own perspective. Rather than grasping at straws, the writer should latch on to concrete words and meanings.

Let’s see how this all translates into practice.

Topics: ACT Test-Prep

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