Know How to Put the Ingredients Together
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”
STEP 1: Understand the prompt and take a position. 1 MINUTE
STEP 2: Brainstorm examples. 4–5 MINUTES
STEP 3: Create an outline. 5–6 MINUTES
STEP 4: Write the essay. 15 MINUTES
STEP 5: Proof the essay. 3 MINUTES
Step 1. Understand the prompt and take a position. (1 minute)
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 section:
  • 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?”
Current Events failure of 9/11 security led to heightened security at airports
Science babies learn to walk only after trying and failing time and time again.
History can’t think of one
Politics the U.S. Constitution was only written after the failure of the Articles of Confederation
Art can’t think of one
Literature James Joyce became a writer only after failing as a singer
Personal Experience Rod Johnson (your uncle), realized the need for a placement agency in South Carolina after getting laid off
Business 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:
  1. Which examples can you be most specific about?
  2. Which examples will give your essay the broadest range?
  3. Which 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:
1 Introduction Thesis Statement; State Examples
2 Example 1 Topic Sentence for Example 1; Explain Example 1
3 Example 2 Topic Sentence for Example 2; Explain Example 2
4 Example 3 Topic Sentence for Example 3; Explain Example 3
5 Conclusion Thesis rephrased in a broader way; a look into the future
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.
PARAGRAPH 1: INTRODUCTION 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 (NEXT BEST) 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 (NEXT BEST) 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 mind:
  • Organization
  • Development
  • Clarity
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 Sauce.

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 off.

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.
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