Know Your Ingredients
Know Your Ingredients
To write a tasty ACT essay, you’ve got to know the necessary ingredients. The different grades of 1–6 are based on the quality of your essay in four fundamental categories:
  1. Positioning: The strength and clarity of your stance on the given topic
  2. Examples: The relevance and development of the examples you use to support your argument
  3. Organization: The organization of each of your paragraphs and of your essay overall
  4. Command of Language: Sentence construction, grammar, and word choice
1. Positioning
ACT essay topics will address issues that pertain to high school students. A typical ACT topic will give you a statement that addresses ideas like dress codes, block scheduling, justice, the definition of success, or the importance of learning from mistakes. Though this list may sound overwhelming at first, the broadness of the topics means that with a little thought you can come up with plenty of examples to support your position on the topic.
Philosophers take years to write volumes on the topics of justice or success. On the ACT, you get 30 minutes. Given these time constraints, the key to writing a great ACT essay is taking a strong position on an extremely broad topic. A solid position requires you to employ two strategies:
  • Rephrase the Prompt
  • Choose Your Position
Here’s a sample prompt with the directions you will find on the test:

Many successful adults recall a time in their life when they were considered a failure at one pursuit or another. Some of these people feel strongly that their previous failures taught them valuable lessons and led to their later successes. Others maintain that they went on to achieve success for entirely different reasons. In your opinion, can failure lead to success? Or is failure simply its own experience?

Assignment:

In your essay, take a position on this question. You may write about either one of the two points of view given, or you may present a different point of view on this question. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.

Rephrase the Prompt
Rephrase the prompt in your own words and make it more specific. If you rephrase the question:

“In your opinion, can failure lead to success?”

you might come up with a sentence like:

“Failure can lead to success by teaching important lessons that help us avoid repeating mistakes in the future.”

Putting the ACT essay question in your own words makes it easier for you to take a position confidently since you’ll be proving your own statement, rather than the more obscure version put forth by the ACT.
Choose Your Position
Agree or disagree. When you choose an argument for a paper in school, you often have to strain yourself to look for something original, something subtle. Not here. Not on the 30-minute, fast food essay. Once you’ve rephrased the topic, agree or disagree with it. It’s that simple.
At this point, you may be thinking, “I could argue the ‘agree’ side pretty well, but I’m not sure that I totally believe in the agree side because . . .” Drop those thoughts. Remember, you’re not going to have a week to write this essay. You need to keep it simple. Agree or disagree, then come up with the examples that support your simple stand. And don’t take a position that straddles both sides of the issue.
2. Examples
To make an ACT essay really shine, you’ve got to include excellent examples. There are two things that make excellent ACT examples stand out from the crowd:
  • Specific Examples
  • Variety of Examples
Specific Examples
Strong examples discuss specific events, dates, or measurable changes over time. You must write about things that have happened in detail.
Let’s say you’re trying to come up with examples in support of the position that “Learning the lessons taught by failure is a sure route to success.” Perhaps you come up with the example of the American army during the Revolutionary War, which learned from its failures in the early years of the war how it needed to fight the British. Awesome! That’s a potentially great example. To make it actually great, though, you have to be able to say more than just, “The American army learned from its mistakes and then defeated the British Redcoats.” You need to be specific: Give dates, mention people, battles, tactics. If you use the experience of the American Army in the Revolutionary War as an example, you might mention the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which officially granted the Americans independence and gave the United States all lands east of the Mississippi river.
Don’t be intimidated if you can’t instantly recall the dates of pivotal historical events. Any descriptive details that you can provide will strengthen your argument, whether they are personal examples or historical facts. Just make sure to choose examples that you know a lot about in order to be specific. Knowing that the Americans defeated the British is the start of a great example, but you need to show specifically how the American victory answers the question, “In your opinion, can failure lead to success?” What failures on the part of the British government and army led to the Americans’ success? (Morale issues, leadership differences, inadequate soldiers and supplies, the Battle of Yorktown, and so on.) The one-two punch of a solid example and details that use the example to prove your argument make the difference between a good ACT example and a great one.
Variety of Examples
The other crucial thing about ACT essay examples is how much ground they cover. Sure, you could come up with three examples from your personal life about how you learned from failure. But you’re much more likely to impress the raters and write a better essay if you use a broad range of examples from different areas: history, art, politics, literature, and science, as well as your own life. That means when you’re thinking up examples, you should consider as wide a variety as possible, as long as all of your examples work to prove your argument.
To answer the question, “In your opinion, can failure lead to success?” you might choose one example from history, literature, and business or current events. Here are three examples that you might choose from those three areas:
  • History: The Americans’ victory over the British in the Revolutionary War.
  • Literature: In spite of David Copperfield’s difficult childhood, he eventually found personal and professional happiness.
  • Business or Current Events: The JetBlue airline succeeding by learning from the mistakes of its competitors.
A broad array of examples like those will provide a more solid and defensible position than three examples drawn from just one or two areas.
3. Organization
No matter what topic you end up writing about, the organization of your essay should be the same. Whether you’re asked to answer, “Can failure lead to success?” or “Does progress always come at a cost?” the structure of your essay should be almost identical. The ACT is looking for those standard ingredients, and the structure we’re about to explain will make sure those ingredients stand out in your essay.
So what’s this magical essay structure? Well, it’s back to the trusty fast food analogy: A good ACT essay is a lot like a triple-decker burger.
No matter what the topic is, how you feel about it, or which examples you choose, you should always follow this five-paragraph structure on your ACT essay. The first and last paragraphs are your essay’s introduction and conclusion; each of the middle three paragraphs discuss an example that supports and illustrates your argument. That’s it.
Just as important as the organization of your entire essay is the organization within each of the five paragraphs. Let’s take a closer look at each paragraph next.
The Top Bun: Introduction
The introduction to an ACT essay has to do three things:
  • Grab the rater’s attention
  • Explain your position on the topic clearly and concisely
  • Transition the rater smoothly into your three examples
To accomplish these three goals, you need three to four sentences in your introduction. These three to four sentences will convey your thesis statement and the overall map of your essay to the raters.
The Thesis Statement:
The thesis statement is the first sentence of your essay. It identifies where you stand on the topic and should pull the raters into the essay. A good thesis statement is strong, clear, and definitive. A good thesis statement for the essay prompt, “In your opinion, can failure lead to success?” is:
Learning from the lessons taught by failure is a sure route to success.
This thesis statement conveys the writer’s position on the topic boldly and clearly. In only a few words, it carves out the position that the essay will take on the very broad, vague topic: learning from failure yields success.
The Essay Summary:
After the thesis statement, the rest of the first paragraph should serve as a kind of summary of the examples you will use to support your position on the topic. Explain and describe your three examples to make it clear how they fit into your argument. It’s usually best to give each example its own sentence. Here’s an example:
The United States of America can be seen as a success that emerged from failure: by learning from the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, the founding fathers were able to create the Constitution, the document on which America is built. Google Inc., the popular Internet search engine, is another example of a success that arose from learning from failure, though in this case Google learned from the failures of its competitors. Another example that shows how success can arise from failure is the story of Rod Johnson, who started a recruiting firm that rose out of the ashes of Johnson’s personal experience of being laid off.
Three sentences, three examples. The rater knows exactly what to expect from your essay now and is ready to dive in.
The Meat: 3 Example Paragraphs
Each of your 3 example paragraphs should follow this basic format:
  • 4–5 sentences long
  • The first sentence should be the topic sentence, which serves as the thesis statement of the paragraph. It explains what your example is and places it within the context of your argument.
  • The next 3–4 sentences are for developing your example. In these sentences you show through specific, concrete discussion of facts and situations just how your example supports your essay thesis statement.
Below we’ve given you an example of a strong meat paragraph:
The United States, the first great democracy of the modern world, is also one of the best examples of a success achieved by studying and learning from earlier failures. After just five years of living under the Articles of Confederation, which established the United States of America as a single country for the first time, the states realized that they needed a new document and a stronger government. In 1786, the Annapolis convention was convened. The result, three years later, was the Constitution, which created a more powerful central government while also maintaining the integrity of the states. By learning from the failure of the Articles, the founding fathers created the pivotal document of a country that has become both the most powerful country in the world and a beacon of democracy.
The best meat paragraphs on the ACT essay are specific. The ACT’s essay directions say it loud and clear: “Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.” In its topic sentence, this paragraph states that the United States is one of the great examples of “a success achieved by studying and learning from earlier failures.” It then uses the specific example of the Articles of Confederation, the Annapolis convention, and the Constitution to prove its position. It’s specific throughout and even includes a few dates.
Transitions Between Meat Paragraphs:
Your first meat paragraph dives right into its topic sentence, but the second and third meat paragraphs need transitions. The simplest way to build these transitions is to use words like another and finally. That means your second meat paragraph should start off with a transitional phrase such as, “Another example . . .”
A slightly more sophisticated way to build transitions is to choose examples from different sources, such as history and business. If the first paragraph is about a political instance of learning from failure and the second is from business, make that fact your transition: “As in politics, learning from failure is a means to gaining success in business as well. Take the case of . . .”
The Bottom Bun: Conclusion
The conclusion of your essay should accomplish two main goals:
  • Recap your argument, while broadening it a bit.
  • Expand on your position and look to the future.
To accomplish these two goals, your conclusion should contain three to four sentences.
The Recap:
The recap is a one-sentence summary of what you’ve already argued. As in the thesis statement, the recap should be straightforward, bold, and declarative. By “broadening” your argument, we mean that you should attempt to link your specific examples to other fields, such as politics, business, and art. Here’s a recap example:
The examples of the Constitution, Google, and Rod Johnson make it clear that in the realms of politics and business, the greatest successes arise from careful considerations of the lessons of failure.
Expand on Your Position:
The last two or three sentences of the essay should take the argument you just recapped and push it a little further. One of the best ways to push your argument further is to look to the future and think about what would happen if the position that you’ve taken in your essay could be applied on a broader scale. Here’s an example:
Failure is often seen as embarrassing, something to be denied and hidden. But as the examples of the U.S. Constitution, Google, and Rod Johnson prove, if an individual, organization, or even a nation is strong enough to face and study its failure, then that failure can become a powerful teacher. As the examples of history and business demonstrate, if everyone had the courage and insight to view failure as a surefire way to learn from mistakes, success would be easier to achieve.
The Bottom Bun wraps up the entire ACT essay. And there you have it! If you follow the template we have just provided, and break down the essay into its core ingredients, your ACT essay will be strong, clear, and easy to write.
The Universal ACT Essay Template
To make sure you really get the essay organization we’re suggesting, we’ll sum it all up. Here’s the ACT essay outline you should use, no matter what topic you get or what position you take:
Length Purpose
The Introduction
Thesis Statement 1 sentence Describe your position clearly and concisely.
The Essay Summary 3 sentences Lay out the three examples you will use to support your thesis statement.
Example Paragraph #1
Topic Sentence 1 sentence Describe your example and fit it into the context of your overall thesis statement.
Example Development 3–4 sentences Show how your example supports your argument. Be as specific as possible.
Example Paragraph #2
Topic Sentence 1 sentence Describe your example and fit it into the context of your overall thesis. Provide a transition from the previous example paragraph.
Example Development 3–4 sentences Show how your example supports your argument. Be as specific as possible.
Example Paragraph #3
Topic Sentence 1 sentence Describe your example and fit it into the context of your overall thesis. Provide a transition from the previous paragraph.
Example Development 3–4 sentences Use specific facts to show how your example supports your argument. Be as specific as possible.
The Conclusion
Recap 1 sentence Summarize your argument and examples, and link the examples to broader things like politics, history, art, business, etc.
Broaden Your Argument 2–3 sentences Expand your position by contemplating what would happen in the world if other groups followed the argument you make in your essay.
4. Command of Language
Taking a clear position and defending it with solid detailed examples is a strong start to a successful ACT essay. But the ACT–raters also care about the mechanics of your writing, which we call your “command of language.” Think of your command of language as your fast food essay’s Special Sauce—it’s the coating of perfect word choice, grammar, sentence structure, and spelling that oozes through your entire essay. An ACT essay with a clear position and strong examples won’t get a perfect score without the Special Sauce, so pay close attention to these three facets of your essay:
  • Variation in Sentence Structure
  • Word Choice
  • Grammar and Spelling
Variation in Sentence Structure
Sentence structure is very important. Sentence structure, if done well, can keep your readers engaged and help make your essay exciting and easier to read. Sentence structure, if it is monotonous and unchanging, can make your essay sound boring and unsophisticated. Sentence structure is important on the ACT essay. Sentence structure is also important in essays you write for school.
Did you notice how dull that entire last paragraph became after the first two sentences? That’s because every one of those sentences not only started in the same way but also all had the same predictable, plodding rhythm.
Now go back and look at the earlier sample meat paragraph on the Constitution. Notice how the various sentences start differently and also have different internal rhythms. These variations in sentence structure keep the writing vibrant and interesting. Focus on changing the structure of your sentences as you write the essay. You don’t have to invert every clause, but you should be careful not to let a few sentences in a row follow the same exact structure. You’ve got to mix it up. Here’s the boring first paragraph of this section rewritten with varied sentence structure:
Sentence structure is very important. Varying the structure of your sentences keeps your reader engaged and makes your writing easier to read and more exciting. Monotonous and repetitive sentence structure can make your essay sound boring and unsophisticated. Mixing up your sentence structure is crucial on the ACT essay—it’s also important to consider when writing essays for school.
Much easier to read and far less repetitive, right?
Transitions Between Sentences:
One great way to vary your sentence structure while increasing the logical flow of your essay is to use transitions. Transitions provide the context necessary to help readers understand the flow of your argument. They’re words, phrases, or sentences that take readers gently by the hand, leading them through your essay. Here are some examples of different kinds of transitions you can use to spice up your sentence structure:
  • Showing Contrast: Katie likes pink nail polish. In contrast, she thinks red nail polish looks trashy.
  • Elaborating: I love staying up late. Even more than that, I love sleeping in until noon.
  • Providing an Example: If you save up your money, you can afford pricey items. For example, Patrick saved up his allowance and years later purchased a sports car.
  • Showing Results: Manuel ingested nothing but soda and burgers every day for a month. As a result, he gained ten pounds.
  • Showing Sequence: The police arrested Bob at the party. Soon after, his college applications were all rejected, and eventually Bob drifted into a life of crime.
Overly Complex Sentences:
Sometimes students think writing long, complicated sentences will impress teachers. Maybe, but it won’t impress ACT essay-raters. Keep your sentences short and simple. Complex sentences are difficult to understand, and your ACT essays should be as clear and easy to read as possible.
We could fill an entire book with guidelines for creating simple and succinct prose. Instead, we’ll give you two handy rules to simplify the sentences that you write on the ACT essay:
  1. Never write a sentence that contains more than three commas. Try to avoid sentences with more than two commas. (Unless you need to include a list.)
  2. Never write a sentence that takes up more than three lines of ACT-essay paper.
Those rules are certainly not foolproof, but abiding by them will keep you from filling your ACT essay with overly complex sentences and will ulitmately make your essay easier to understand.
Word Choice
When students see that “word choice” plays a part in their essay score, they often think they have to use tons of sophisticated vocabulary words in order to score well. That belief is wrong and potentially damaging to your ACT essay score. If you’re straining to put fancy words into your essay, you’re bound to end up misusing those words. And misusing a sophisticated word is a worse offense than not using one at all.
Word choice doesn’t mean that you have to go for the big word every time. It means you should go for the proper word, the best word, the word that makes your essay as clear as possible. Let’s look at part of the paragraph about the Constitution:
The United States, the first great democracy of the modern world, is also one of the best examples of a success achieved by studying and learning from earlier failures. After just five years of living under the Articles of Confederation, which established the United States of America as a single country for the first time, the states realized that they needed a new document and a stronger government. In 1786, the Annapolis convention was convened. The result, three years later, was the Constitution, which created a more powerful central government while also maintaining the integrity of the states. By learning from the failure of the Articles, the founding fathers created the pivotal document of a country that has become both the most powerful country in the world and a beacon of democracy.
This is 6-level writing, but it isn’t teeming with five-syllable words. What the passage does do is use every single word correctly. When it includes an uncommon word, like beacon, it uses the word appropriately and effectively. Now that’s good word choice.
So don’t try to use a word unless you know what it means. Don’t go throwing around tough words in the hope that you’ll impress your rater. The likelihood is that you’re going to use the word incorrectly and give the rater a bad impression. Instead, keep it simple, and stick to words you know well.
Grammar and Spelling
A few grammar or spelling mistakes throughout your essay will not destroy your score. The ACT understands that you’re bound to make minor mistakes in a rushed 30-minute essay.
Raters are instructed to look for patterns of errors. If a rater sees that your punctuation is consistently wrong, that your spelling of familiar words is often incorrect, or that you write run-on sentences again and again, your score will suffer.
You need to be able to write solid grammatical sentences to score well on the essay. As for learning the grammar, well, you’re in luck. We cover all the rules of basic grammar and usage in the Usage/Mechanics Questions on the English Test section of this book.
Help | Feedback | Make a request | Report an error