10 Tips for Acing the ACT Essay

ACT High School Teachers Test Prep

The ACT Writing Test is an optional, 40-minute component of the ACT. This section tests a student’s ability to craft an organized, well-articulated analytical essay on a presented topic. The prompt presents three distinct perspectives on a complex topic or issue, then construct an essay taking their own stance on the issue through an analysis of the other perspectives provided in the prompt.


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You can check out this comprehensive overview of the ACT essay to share with your students, or use this guide to using the ACT essay rubric in class to prepare your students for the test, but here’s a quick list of some general tips for your students as they prepare for testing day.

#1 Have a Strong, Clear Thesis  

If there were only one skill to impart to your students in preparation for the ACT essay component it would be constructing a strong thesis. If your students are already understand how to develop and present a thesis, they have an immediate leg-up on the exam.

Make sure to stress to them that a thesis is a firm stance on the topic that reflects what they believe about the subject at hand. It should be one sentence, lack any ambiguity, and speak directly to the prompt topic. It’s one of the pillar elements the ACT board readers scan for, so it’s critical that students nail this piece.  

#2 Use Paragraphs Wisely (Especially the Introduction and Conclusion!)

The ACT readers will be reading very fast so it’s critical that the essay flow logically, with a clear beginning, middle, and end–and with one main idea per paragraph.

Because readers will be scanning to look for certain requirements, a strong introduction and conclusion paragraph will do a lot of the heavy lifting for students. Not coincidentally,  these two paragraphs also happen to articulate the thesis.  

Students who can be concise with their ideas will also benefit from focusing on these two paragraphs. In general, they should aim for 3-5 sentences per paragraph. It’s preferable to have more short paragraphs than a couple of long, sprawling ones as it’s much easier on the readers.

#3 Rely on Logic

For the ACT Writing Test, a logical response is the name of the game. Students should stay away from overtly emotion-driven responses (though it is okay and encouraged to use personal experience as a means of support for their thesis).  This is especially true if some of the topics are somewhat controversial or personal, as students may become expansive in their writing.

#4 Write Simply and Succinctly

While students may have been encouraged in the past to use those 10-point words in their writing, it’s best to curb that inclination during the ACT essay.

During the essay, students should avoid superfluous language in favor of simple and succinct language. Even the most well thought-out points can get buried in overly complex or verbose sentences. Writing simply and directly doesn’t make a student sound unintelligent–it makes him or her sound informed and confident!

Additionally, students should use strong transitions (signal words or transitional phrases) to communicate when new ideas are presented and to create an overall flow and improve readability.

#5 Be Mindful of Voice and Tone…

Simple and succinct is critical, but it’s also important to not let it lapse into casual. Students need to aim for an academic voice and tone, steering clear of overly conversational or colloquial language or style.

What does this mean in practice? Students should also avoid contractions, the use of the second person, and all slang.

#6 …And Mindful of Spelling, Grammar and Style

Along the same lines as tip #5, students should make every attempt at proper spelling, grammar, and style conventions. While a couple of minor errors probably won’t negatively impact a score significantly, consistent, avoidable errors will.

It’s not a bad idea to go over common grammar rules such as subject-verb agreement, apostrophe use, comma use, and vague pronoun references (Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab is a great resource in general for this kind of thing).

A few reminders about the dangers of sentence fragments and run-ons might not be a bad idea either!

#7 Don’t Get Hung Up On the Accuracy of the Content

Okay, now this is a tricky one. As teachers we obviously never, ever want to encourage students to be dishonest in their writing or provide faulty information. That being said, ACT writers simply will not have the time to ready every last line of every essay thoroughly–or to fact-check everything they read.

And furthermore, students are likely to get prompts on subjects they’re not entirely familiar with, and speak with confidence on the topic. The goal of the ACT writing assessment is not to prove knowledge on the subject matter, but to prove that a student can construct a well-structured and well-executed essay.

Though students should aim to provide accurate information that supports a particular stance, it doesn’t have to be 100% accurate or encyclopedic. It’s expected that they primarily dissect and respond to the arguments provided in the prompt, supplemented by personal experience if they’re worried about a lack of outside knowledge on a specific subject.

#8 But Be Specific!

Although students are not expected to be experts on the prompt’s topic, they do need be as specific as possible. This includes providing concrete examples and avoiding generalizations and platitudes whenever possible.

Students should also aim for specificity in their own word choices, as opposed to overly general or amorphous terms (“negative” or “positive” for example) that don’t really tell the graders much about the implications of a particular topic or problem.

#9 Pay Attention to Pace

The Writing Exam is only 40 minutes, which means writing the ACT essay is a swift endeavor. A rough guideline is to read the prompt, digest the information, and formulate a stance and structure in no more than 5-8 minutes, and leave 5 minutes at the end to proofread their work. This leaves roughly 30 minutes to write a solid, cogent essay.

Time flies during timed essays (that’s the saying, right?), so encourage your students to wear watches to stay on pace during the exam. And remind them that it is much more important to complete the entire essay than have a single outstanding body paragraph followed by a blank page because time ran out.

#10 Adopt a Practice-Makes-Perfect Mindset

The more students practice timed essays, the better prepared they’ll be to write under pressure. Whether you incorporate actual ACT test prep into your curriculum or not, consider issuing students timed writing assignments occasionally in order to reduce anxiety around sitting for the ACT essay.

Studying sample ACT essays is also an excellent way for students to familiarize themselves with what the ACT considers excellent work.

Lastly, don’t hesitate to go over this checklist in class, or provide it to students if they are studying on their own. Happy essay writing!


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