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ACT Essay: Rubric, Tips, and Tricks

11 min readโ€ขaugust 23, 2021

akhilesh55725

Akhilesh Shivaramakrishnan


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ACT: Essay Section

Welcome to the ACT essay guide! We'll break down the question types and give you some strategies to make sure you get an awesome score on the essay! ๐ŸŽ‰

โ“ What are the ACT Sections?

When you sit down to take the ACT exam, you will have 4-5 sections on the test. If you choose to take the essay, it's 5! Your essay will be the last section of the exam. Here's the order:
  1. English (aka the grammar section) ๐Ÿ“‘
  2. Math ๐Ÿ“Š
  3. Reading ๐Ÿ“š
  4. Science ๐Ÿงช
  5. Writing/Essay๐Ÿ“
For a more in-depth overview on how the ACT exam works, check out this article!
You have about 40 minutes ๐Ÿ•– to write a well-developed essay. Make sure you use each minute of this time to create the best possible essay!

Resources:

Mastering the Prompt ๐Ÿ’ฌ

Let's look ๐Ÿ‘€ at a prompt released by ACT to dissect the key elements of the essay.
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Sample prompt, taken from ACT Essay Samples on Official Website.

When you turn the page on your ACT exam and get to the essay section, you'll be presented with:
  • a debated or controversial topic/issue ๐Ÿ—จ
  • background information about the topic/issue ๐Ÿ“ƒ
  • 3 perspectives that take different stances on the topic/issue presented โ˜‘
  • a set of fun instructions! ๐Ÿ™ƒ
These instructions connect directly with the rubric for the ACT essay, so let's break down the rubric next. ๐Ÿ“„

Mastering the Rubric ๐Ÿ“„

There are 4 categories on which your essay is assessed. 2 graders score your essay on a scale of 1-6 for each of the 4 categories. Their scores are combined for a score out of 12 for each category. โ˜‘
Then, your total category scores are averaged to determine your final ACT essay score. You can earn a maximum of 12 ๐ŸŽ‰ and a minimum of 2.
You can review the entire rubric here, but we'll hit the highlights โœจ on what you need to do to get a high score on each of the four categories.
One thing to note is that the ACT essay is very rubric-oriented ๐Ÿ“ƒ If you do exactly what the rubric asks you to do, you are guaranteed a high score. It is much more formulaic than writing assignments you've likely done in school ๐Ÿซ
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Ready to conquer the essay? Make sure you follow the rubric! Image from Wikimedia Commons, labeled for reuse.

Ideas and Analysis ๐Ÿ’ญ

Here are the rubric descriptors for achieving the highest score of 6 on the ACT essay:
  • writer generates an argument that critically engages with multiple perspectives on the given issue ๐Ÿค”
  • the argument's thesis reflects nuance and precision in thought and purpose ๐Ÿ˜ฒ
  • the argument establishes and employs an insightful context for analysis of the issue and its perspectives โœ
  • the analysis examines implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions ๐Ÿ”€
Let's go through what this actually means in practice:
The first thing you must do is choose a perspective ๐Ÿ’ฌ on the issue. Since the essay prompt already gives you three issues โœ to choose from, it's recommended that you choose one of the three presented to you.
Although you can create ๐Ÿ”Ž an entirely new perspective if you'd like (perhaps if you have extensive knowledge on the subject), it is recommended that you stick with one of the 3 given perspectives due to the time โŒš constraints.
Once you find the perspective that you agree with, you must refine it and add some more detail ๐Ÿ”€ to it. ๐Ÿค” Restating the perspective will get you lower scores on the rubric, so you should try to create a more complex argument using the stated perspective as a basis.
Additionally, you should be able to connect ๐Ÿ”€ your chosen perspective/stance to other perspectives. A low scoring essay might simply agree โœ” with one perspective and disagree โŒ with the others without any support, or "nuance" in the words of the rubric. ๐Ÿค”
On the other hand, a high scoring essay may provide a reason why the other perspectives are not correct. โœ… There should be a clear link ๐Ÿ”ƒ between the perspectives and it should be evident that the relationship between the perspectives is explained. This should occur both in the initial argument as well as later in the essay. ๐Ÿ’ช
Finally, you need to examine the effects of your perspectives. โฉ There should be clear discussion of the "implications, complexities, tensions, values, or assumptions" that accompany your perspective.
In order to do much of this, you need to be able to provide solid support and evidenceโ€”which is our next category! ๐Ÿค“

Development and Support ๐Ÿ™Œ

These are the rubric descriptors for this section of the ACT essay:
  • development of ideas and support for claims deepen insight and broaden context ๐Ÿ”Ž
  • integrated line of skillful reasoning and illustration effectively conveys the significance of the argument ๐Ÿ“„
  • qualifications and complications enrich and bolster ideas and analysis ๐Ÿ’ช
This section is SUPER important because you are providing evidence for the claims you made in the "ideas and analysis" section of the rubric. You MUST be able to discuss ๐Ÿ’ฌ your perspective and provide clear evidence that helps demonstrate the implications, effects, and other factors that surround your perspective. ๐Ÿ™Œ
These reasons and pieces of evidence must be very detailed in order to score in the highest mark bands of the rubric. Often, this means you must use outside knowledge to aid youโ€”solely using what's provided to you in the background information doesn't lend itself to a higher score.
Your best bet here is to make up examples**.** ๐Ÿ˜Ž Yep, you read that right. The examples you use do not have to be true and no one will be fact-checking you. If you feel that a statistic would benefit your essay, make one up! ๐Ÿ˜‰
For example, you could say, "A study done by the New York Times found that 30% of American jobs could be lost to machines over the next 40 years, a concerning statistic that must be acknowledged." ๐Ÿ“ˆ
Although this may not be true at all, it could definitely support a claim that you make. The ACT grader will not be Googling this study! As long as you are able to integrate this evidence seamlessly and support your argument well, you will do good in this section! ๐Ÿ˜‰
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Organization is super important on the ACT essay! Image courtesy of Picserver, labeled for reuse.

Organization ๐Ÿ“‘

These are the rubric descriptors for this section of the ACT essay:
  • response exhibits a skillful organizational strategy ๐Ÿ“‘
  • response is unified by a controlling idea or purpose ๐Ÿ—จ
  • logical progression of ideas increases the effectiveness of the writer's argument ๐Ÿ”ƒ
  • transitions between and within paragraphs strengthen the relationships among ideas โฉ
This section is one of the more formulaic parts of the ACT essay ๐Ÿ“ƒ First off, you need to make sure that your ideas flow throughout your essay. An easy way to make sure this happens is to structure your thesis in the same way your overall essay is structured. This will provide an outline for you to lean on as you write.
Additionally, a high scoring essay will reference the controlling idea or purpose ๐Ÿ—จ in EACH paragraph, whether it is a paragraph that supports your stance or one that acknowledges a counterargument. You should essentially be repeating parts of your thesis in each body paragraph to ensure that your essay is "unified" by this controlling idea. ๐Ÿ“‘
Make sure your essay is separated into paragraphs! ๐Ÿ“This means that it is not all in one big blob of text! ๐Ÿ˜‰ Between each paragraph, include transition words even if you think it might be excessive.
As mentioned before, this part is extremely formulaic, and readers are looking to see that you USED the transitions. โฉ Make sure to include transitions throughout your paragraph as well. Look up some transition words if you're having trouble with this!
An introduction and conclusion are NOT optional. โ€ผ
These paragraphs help tie your essay together ๐Ÿ”€ and contribute to the "organization" section of the rubric. Make sure you include these parts! ๐Ÿ™‚

Language Use ๐Ÿ“

These are the rubric descriptors for this section of the ACT essay:
  • use of language enhances the argument ๐Ÿ™Œ
  • word choice is skillful and precise โœ…
  • sentence structures are consistently varied and clear โœ
  • stylistic and register choices (voice, tone) are strategic and effective ๐Ÿ—จ
  • few minor errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics don't impede understanding ๐Ÿ”ค
This is the "traditional" section of the ACT essay rubric, where you are evaluated on grammar, conventions, sentence structure, and vocabulary. ๐Ÿ”ค
Even though this might seem easy, you want to make sure that you review this section of the rubric. You can take several steps to make sure you earn a 6 on this portion! ๐Ÿ™Œ
The first part is just general grammar. Much of the practice you're doing for the ACT grammar section will help you here. Make sure you don't have run-on sentences or are using the wrong there/their/they're. Simple fixes like these will take you a long way in this section. ๐Ÿ˜‰
That's why it is super important to proofread when you are done! This will help you get those last points. ๐Ÿ“–
You also want to consciously make sure you are varying your sentence structure. Add in some complex sentences. An easy way to do this is by adding in some transitions where appropriate. ๐Ÿ‘
The last part is to use strong ๐Ÿ’ช vocabulary. For example, instead of using "it got worse," use a form of "exacerbate." Use "detrimental" instead of "harmful." As you practice your essays, use a thesaurus to help you find replacements ๐Ÿ”€ for commonly used words. This will help you when you get to the exam!
One way to understand how your essay is graded is to grade essays yourself! ๐Ÿ˜Ž Below, we've included one of the sample writing prompts that ACT released. This is the same one that we referenced earlier.
In addition, ACT also released 6 sample essaysโ€”each one scoring a different mark on the rubric. We haven't put them in order, so try using this rubric and see if you can identify which essay scored 6s, 5s, 4s, 3s, 2s, and 1s on each of the 4 categories. We've included the link to the "answers" on the last slide. ๐Ÿค“

General Tips and Outlining ๐Ÿ˜Š

Before you start your essay, it is very important that you spend some time outlining your essay! Here are some steps to take as soon as you start this section:
  1. ๐Ÿ“š Read the background information provided on the topic.
  2. ๐Ÿ“‘ Choose the perspective ****(or a combination of perspectives) that you believe you'll be able to provide the most evidence for.
  3. ๐Ÿ’ฌ Come up with 2-3 examples that support your perspective AND some possible counterarguments.
    1. ๐Ÿ“œ These can be real or made up, as mentioned earlier! You can also use personal anecdotes.
  4. โœ Write a thesis that provides a clear focus for the rest of your essay and helps create a unified theme for your paper.
    1. This thesis is going to be the driving force for the organization ๐Ÿ“„ of this paper. The thesis should be in the introductory paragraph (and if possible, repeated in the conclusion paragraph) and should essentially be an overview of what you will be writing in the paper.
  5. Organize your paper. When you're outlining, this can just be in bullet points. Once you outline, the actual writing process will be easier!
      1. ๐Ÿ—จ Introduction: thesis that acknowledges your perspective + intro sentences that cast doubt on alternate perspectives
      2. ๐Ÿฅ‡ Body Paragraph 1: a reason why your perspective is valid + evidence (1-2) to back it up
      3. ๐Ÿฅˆ Body Paragraph 2: a reason why your perspective is valid + evidence (1-2) to back it up
      4. ๐Ÿฅ‰ Body Paragraph 3: acknowledge the opposing stance and prove why your stance is better (a rebuttal)โ€”use evidence to back up your rebuttal
        • You should also discuss the implications of your perspective - either in this paragraph or in body paragraphs 1 & 2.
      5. โ†ชโ†ฉ Conclusion: restating (NOT repeating) your thesis + tying in everything you've said in the paper together
        • Let's look at an example of this! This is my thesis: Although the replacement of machines may have negative short term effects for the job market, in the long term, machines will be able to accelerate our technological growth and push us to towards new possibilities, while also creating a highly skilled workforce.
        • To restate this, I could say: In the short term, replacing machines may not have completely positive effects. However, in the future, machines will not only provide us new opportunities, they will also help us become more industrialized and create a skilled and even more capable workforce.
        Note that this is only one way to structure the paper! โœ Instead of devoting a whole paragraph to just the counterargument, you could instead have 3 body paragraphs ๐Ÿ“ƒ that support your thesis, and provide a short counterargument at the end of each paragraph. It's up to you! Just make sure it's well organized! ๐Ÿ˜
      6. ๐Ÿ•‘You should try to start actually writing your essay within 10 minutes of the session starting This gives you about 30 minutes to put this all together.
      7. Once you have finished writing your essay, PROOFREAD. ๐Ÿค”
          1. โ†ช Make sure you've included transitions throughout your paper. Key places where you should add them include the beginning of paragraphs, the end of paragraphs, and when making your rebuttal.
          2. ๐Ÿ”  Check for spelling and grammar. This might seem minor, but it does have its own section in the rubric! Read your paper and make sure you don't have any major errors.
          3. โœ Indent your paragraphs. Make sure it is evident where a new paragraph begins! This is important for the "organization" part of the rubric.
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Good luck on the ACT essay! You'll do awesome! Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, labeled for reuse.

You're Ready! ๐Ÿฅ‡

One thing you want to keep in mind is that many colleges now do not require the ACT essay! ๐Ÿ˜Check out the admissions page of the colleges to which you're applying to see if they require the essay for admission. A "good" score on the ACT essay isn't necessarily a 12.
Often, students fret because they receive an 8 or a 10. Because the ACT and SAT writing scores are not prioritized as much in admissions any more, your score on the essay is not a "make or break" when you apply to college ๐Ÿ™‚ It just gives colleges another lens through which they can evaluate you. ๐Ÿ‘€
That's it! You're ready for the ACT essay! ๐ŸŽ‰ You can find lots more practice ACT essay sample questions at some of the following sites:
  • Crack ACTโ€”lots of practice prompts!
  • PrepScholarโ€”formatting the ACT essay and some more tips!
Make sure that the essay prompts look similar to the one presented in this guide, as the essay recently underwent some changes. ๐Ÿค”

Need ACT help on additional subjects?

Feel free to check out this compilation of the best ACT practice resources, or our subject guides for each ACT topic below!
Good luck on the ACT! We have tons of resources for youโ€”both for the ACT and ALL AP classes! ๐ŸŽ‰

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