Know How to Put the Ingredients Together
By now you know all of the ingredients you should use
and the template you should follow to write a great ACT essay. Next
you need to learn the writing process. Follow the five steps we
describe below and you’ll be on your way to a “6.”
Five Steps to a “6”
||Understand the prompt and take a position.
||Create an outline.
||Write the essay.
||Proof the essay.
Step 1. Understand the prompt and take a position.
The first thing you must do before you can even
start to think about your essay is read the prompt very carefully.
Here’s the sample topic we are using throughout this section:
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?
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.
Make sure you understand the topic thoroughly by making
it your own. To do that, use the two steps we discussed in the Ingredients
- Rephrase the prompt. “Failure
can lead to success by teaching important lessons that help us avoid
repeating mistakes in the future.”
- Choose Your Position. (In our example, we
agree with the first question.)
That’s it. One step down, four to go.
Step 2. Brainstorm examples. (4–5 minutes)
You believe the answer to the question, “In your opinion,
can failure lead to success?” is yes. Terrific.
Brainstorming, or thinking up, examples to support
your position is the crucial next step. Plenty of ACT–takers will
succumb to the temptation to plunge straight from understanding the
topic (Step 1) into writing the essay (Step 4). Skipping the brainstorming
session will leave you with an opinion on the topic but with no
clearly thought-out examples to prove your point. You’ll write the
first thing that comes to mind, and your essay will probably derail.
So even though you feel the time pressure, don’t skip brainstorming.
Brainstorming seems simple. You just close your eyes and
scrunch up your face and THINK REALLY HARD until you come up with
some examples. But, in practice, staring at a blank page under time
pressure can be intimidating and frustrating. To make brainstorming
less daunting and more productive, we’ve got two strategies:
Brainstorm by Category:
The best examples you can generate
to support your ACT essay topic will come from a variety of sources,
such as science, history, politics, art, literature, business,
and personal experience. So, brainstorm a list split up by category
in order to organize your thoughts. Here’s the list we brainstormed
for your agreement with the question, “In your opinion, can failure
lead to success?”
||failure of 9/11 security led to heightened
security at airports
||babies learn to walk only after trying and
failing time and time again.
||can’t think of one
||the U.S. Constitution was only written after
the failure of the
Articles of Confederation
||can’t think of one
||James Joyce became a writer only after failing
as a singer
||Rod Johnson (your uncle), realized the need
for a placement agency in South Carolina after getting laid off
||Through watching the failures of its competitors,
Google learned how to create a successful search engine
Let’s say you took four minutes and came up with a list
of eight categories like ours, and got examples for six of them.
That’s still great. That means your next step is to choose the top
three of your six potential examples.
Prepare Ahead of Time:
Brainstorming ahead of time can be a great method, because
it gives you time to do more than just brainstorm. You can actually
prepare examples for each of the eight categories we’ve brainstormed
above in our chart. You could, for instance, read about various
scientists, learning about their successes, their failures, the
impact of their discoveries (positive and negative) and memorizing
dates, events and other facts.
The risk inherent in planning ahead is that you can get
stuck with a topic on the ACT in which all your knowledge about
scientists just isn’t applicable. But while this is somewhat of
a risk, since the ACT essay topics are so broad, you can often massage
your examples to fit. Still, if you don’t want to risk wasting your
time with advance preparation, don’t.
Choose Your Top Three:
When you go through your brainstormed and preprepared
examples to decide which three you should actually use, you need
to keep three things in mind:
Which examples can you be most specific about?
examples will give your essay the broadest range?
examples are not controversial?
The first two reasons are pretty straightforward: Specificity
and variety in your examples will help you write the strongest essay.
The point about controversy is a bit more subtle. Staying away from
very controversial examples ensures that you won’t accidentally
offend or annoy your rater, who might then be more inclined to lower
your grade. For instance, the 9/11 example from our brainstormed
list should be cut. The event just is too full of unresolved issues
to serve as a suitable essay topic, and the last thing you want
to do is upset anyone.
Here’s another example. Let’s say that you’re not so certain
if that story about James Joyce being a singer is even really true,
and you think lots of people might select the babies walking example.
That would mean you decide to keep the examples about the Constitution,
Google, and the story of Rod Johnson.
Now that you’ve narrowed down your brainstormed topics
to the top three, it’s time to move on. Next up: Outlining.
Step 3. Create an outline. (5–6 minutes)
After brainstorming comes the essay-writing step that
students tend to dread most—writing an outline. We’re here to encourage
you to embrace the outline. Love the outline! Live the outline!
At the very least, write the outline. Organizing
your ideas in outline form and then sticking to that outline is
crucial. Though you may feel that you’re wasting your time, the
five or six minutes that you invest in writing out an outline will definitely be
paid back when you write the essay.
Writing the Outline:
Since your outline is a kind of bare-bones “map” of your
essay, the outline should follow our Universal ACT Essay Template.
Here’s a summary of the template:
||WHAT IT SHOULD CONTAIN
||Thesis Statement; State Examples
||Topic Sentence for Example 1; Explain Example
||Topic Sentence for Example 2; Explain Example
||Topic Sentence for Example 3; Explain Example
||Thesis rephrased in a broader way; a look into
As you write the outline, remember that conveying
your ideas clearly is what matters most. Your outline need not be
articulate, or even comprehensible to anyone other than you. However,
it must contain all the essential raw material that will become
your thesis statement, topic sentences, and your concluding statement
when you write your essay.
As you sketch out your outline, consider where you want
each example to go. We suggest that you put what you consider to
be your strongest example first, followed by the second strongest,
and then the least strong. We suggest this because the essay is
a timed section, and if you run out of time and can only fit two
example paragraphs between your intro and conclusion, they should
be your best two examples. Here’s a sample outline we’ve written
based on the topic and examples we have already discussed. Notice
that we’ve placed our examples in strongest to weakest order starting
in Paragraph 2.
||Failure can lead to success teaching lessons,
learning mistakes. Three examples: 1) U.S. Constitution and Articles
failure 2) failed dot coms lead to better more successful online
businesses 3) guy who started successful recruiting business after
getting laid off.
|PARAGRAPH 2: EXAMPLE 1 (BEST)
||U.S. Constitution developed by studying the
failures of previous document, Articles of Confederation. By studying
failures the U.S. became true revolutionary democracy.
|PARAGRAPH 3: EXAMPLE 2
||Google studied competitors’ struggles, then came up with
better technological solution and better business model. Since failure
is good teacher, intelligent companies look for failure everywhere,
even in rivals, to learn and evolve.
|PARAGRAPH 4: EXAMPLE 3
||Johnson founded job placement agency based
on difficulties finding a new job after getting laid off. Studied
his failure; found problems lay with system, not with him.
|PARAGRAPH 5: CONCLUSION
||Failure often seen as embarrassing. People
try to hide it. But if you or society take responsibility for it
and study it, history shows failure leads to success for everyone.
Your outline does not have to be written in complete
sentences. Notice how in the example above we drop articles and
pronouns and write in a note-taking style. Write just enough to convey
to yourself what you need to be able to follow during the actual
writing of your essay. Once you have the outline down on paper,
writing the essay becomes simply a job of polishing language and
ideas, rather than creating them from scratch.
Step 4. Write the essay. (15 minutes)
Writing the essay consists of following your outline and
plugging in what’s missing. Your outline should already contain
a basic version of your thesis statement, one topic sentence for
each of your three examples, and a conclusion statement that ties
everything together. The final product will be about ten more sentences
than what you’ve jotted down in your outline. So, all together your
essay should be about fifteen to twenty sentences long.
As you write, keep these three facets of your essay in
Following your outline will make sure you stick to the
Universal ACT Essay organization template. That means organization shouldn’t
be a problem.
As far as development goes, you should
make sure that every sentence in the essay serves the greater goal
of proving your thesis statement, as well as the more immediate
purpose of building on the supporting examples you present in the
introduction and in each example paragraph’s topic sentence. You
should also make sure that you are being specific with
your examples: give dates, describe events in detail, and so on.
By clarity, we mean the simplicity of
the language that you use. That involves spelling and grammar, but
it also means focussing on varying sentence length and structure,
as well as including a few well-placed vocabulary words that you
definitely know how to use correctly.
Do not break from your outline. Never pause for a digression
or drop in a fact or detail that’s not entirely relevant to your
essay’s thesis statement. You’re serving fast food, and fast food
always sticks to the core ingredients and the universal recipe.
If You Run Out of Time:
If you’re running out of time before finishing the introduction,
all three example paragraphs, and the conclusion, there’s still
hope. Here’s what you should do: Drop one of your example paragraphs.
You can still get a decent score, possibly a 4 or 5, with just two.
It is more important that you provide two well-written examples
than three poorly written examples. Just be sure to include an introduction
and a conclusion in every ACT essay.
The Finished Essay–Our Example:
Here is an example of a complete ACT essay. It’s based strictly
on the outline we built in Step 3 of our Five Steps to a “6” with
a focus on clear, simple language and the occasional drop of Special
Learning the lessons taught by failure
is a sure route to success. 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
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.
Unlike the United States, which had its fair share
of ups and downs over the years, the Internet search engine company,
Google, has suffered few setbacks since it went into business in
the late 1990s. Google has succeeded by studying the failures of
other companies in order to help it innovate its technology and business
model. Google identified and solved the problem of assessing the
quality of results by using the number of links pointing to a page
as an indicator of the number of people who find the page valuable. Suddenly,
Google’s results became far more accurate and reliable than those
from other companies, and now Google’s dominance in the field of
Internet search is almost absolute.
The example of Rod Johnson’s success also show how
effective learning from mistakes and failure can be. Rather than
accept his failure after being laid off, Johnson decided to study
it. After a month of research, Johnson realized that his failure
to find a new job resulted primarily from the inefficiency of the local
job placement agencies, not from his own deficiencies. A month later,
Johnson created Johnson Staffing to correct this weakness in the
job placement sector. Today Johnson Staffing is the largest job placement
agency in South Carolina, and is in the process of expanding into
a national corporation.
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. The examples of history
and business demonstrate that failure can be the best catalyst of
success, but only if people have the courage to face it head on.
In the Practice Essay section at the end of this chapter,
we’ll provide analysis to explain more fully why we think this essay
deserves a “6.” For now, it’s time to move on to the final step
of our Five Steps to a “6”—proofing your essay.
Step 5. Proof your essay. (3 minutes)
Proofing your essay means reading through your
finished essay to correct mistakes or to clear up words that are
difficult to read. If you don’t have three minutes after you’ve finished
writing the essay (Step 4), spend whatever time you do have left
proofing. Read over your essay and search for rough writing, bad
transitions, grammatical errors, repetitive sentence structure,
and all that special sauce stuff. You should also be on the lookout
for instances in which bad handwriting makes it look as if you’ve
made a grammatical or spelling mistake.
If you’re running out of time and you have to skip a step,
proofing is the step to drop. Proofing is important, but it’s the
only one of the Five Steps to a “6” that isn’t absolutely crucial.