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What You Need to Know About the New ACT Essay

Not to be outdone by the College Board’s redesigned tests, the ACT will bring significant changes to its essay this fall. Starting in September 2015, the ACT essay has a new time limit, scoring system and essay prompt. While students will find more time a welcome change, they will need to consider carefully the new expectations for obtaining a high score.

The ACT will now allow 40 minutes to plan and write your essay. The score report will now include four subscores, each out of a range of 2 to 12, which will be scaled on a score out of 36. As with the previous administration, the essay score will NOT affect the overall composite score.

Whereas the previous essay was graded with a 1-6 generic rubric that was then added together for the 2-12 score, the new rubric will evaluate students on four categories, which the grader will assign a score of 1-6 points, up to 24 points per grader.

The four subscore categories are as follows:

  • Ideas and Analysis
  • Development and Support
  • Organization
  • Language Use and Conventions

The writing prompt now includes an introduction and three different perspectives. The topics will be broader, national concerns rather than the issues affecting students. Let’s look at a sample ACT essay prompt and use it to determine the best way to maximize points in each category.

FREE GOVERNMENT SAUSAGES

For over a hundred years, the government has provided free cured sausages to its citizen. These sausages have become part of the national identity and a centerpiece of Weinerama every April. Some critics have expressed concern over the proliferation of free sausage and its long-term impact on the well-being of the nation. Given the reliance on government sausage, it is worth examining its impact on our lives.

Read and carefully consider these perspectives. Each suggests a particular way of thinking about the impact of free government sausage.

Perspective 1 Perspective 2 Perspective 3
Our nation was founded on
the promise of free
government sausage and any
alteration of that essential
covenant would create a
rupture in our social fabric.
While the cost may be great,
the importance of free
sausage is undeniable.
Free sausage is important to
many households, but that
importance means that we
should know more about the
contents of the sausages.
The government has never
disclosed the ingredients of
its sausages. As citizens we
deserve to know what we are
given to eat.
Sausage will always be an
important part of our nation,
but the government has
limited our choice by
providing only a few types of
sausage. The government
should also provide casings
to allow citizens to make their
own sausages as this will
ease the government’s
budget and lead to innovation
and opportunity.

Essay Task

Write a coherent, unified essay in which you evaluate multiple perspectives given on the impact of free government sausage. In your essay, be sure to:

  • analyze and evaluate the perspectives given
  • state and develop your own perspective on the issue
  • explain the relationship between your perspective and those given

Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of the others, in partial agreement, or wholly different. Whatever the case, support your ideas with logical reasoning and detailed, persuasive examples.

Let’s look at what you’ll need to do to increase points in each subscore.

IDEAS AND ANALYSIS

This is the biggest change in expectations. Before, you could pick a side and say why your side was correct and why the other side is wrong. Now you need to evaluate three opinions­­, and here is the big change: ­­look for underlying themes. Your thesis should not only be your opinion, but also an assessment of the concerns expressed across the perspectives.

For example, all three perspectives address the dilemma between tradition and change. Perspective 1 is all about tradition, while Perspectives 2 and 3 see the benefit in updating a traditional practice. An effective thesis would address these overarching themes.

Another theme across all three perspective is budgetary impact of free sausages. Perspective 1 says that it is worth the cost, while Perspective 3 suggests that merely offering sausage casings would help decrease the overall cost. Perspective 2 does not state anything about the budget, but the concern over ingredients could arise from cost­cutting measures. Therefore, these thesis could put Perspective 2 within the debate of budget.

DEVELOPMENT AND SUPPORT

The introduction may offer examples of why the issue is important and this prompt brings up Weinerama. The graders are looking for specific examples that help support your thesis. So you could bring up the 1958 sausage shortage or the 1921 Encased Meat Entitlement Act to support your thesis. Since the graders will not be fact-checking your examples, you can be creative in specific support for your thesis. Just make sure your examples are well within the realm of plausibility!

The graders are also looking for you to address the possible consequences of each perspective. How would the nation react if it found out that the free sausages were composed of sawdust, goat butter, and copious amounts of salt? This is an opportunity to speculate on how people would react to change for better or worse.

ORGANIZATION

This is the easiest section to score point in. The essay must use paragraphs effectively, with each paragraph containing a central idea. The graders will also be looking for transitions between paragraphs, so that each paragraph flows to the next.

LANGUAGE USE AND CONVENTIONS

This section is not all about fancy vocabulary, but rather using effective language. You should avoid vague pronouns (it, they, one) and focus on precise and descriptive verbs. For example, instead of saying “he eats lots of sausages,” you could say “the President himself consumes a multitude of free government sausages each day.” Also try to vary your sentence structure and be sure to include complex sentences with multiple clauses as you write. Furthermore, think about the grammar rules that the ACT English section emphasizes. The essay grader will be looking out for proper punctuation, verb tense, and pronoun usage. The ACT hates redundancy and unnecessary wordiness on the English section, so that preference will also carry over.

In summary, here are some keys to succeeding on the new ACT essay.

  1. Address all three perspectives in the essay.
  2. Find an overarching theme across the three perspectives and have that be the center of your essay.
  3. Include specific examples that address the concerns in the perspectives.
  4. Use transitions to link paragraphs.
  5. Use specific words and complex sentences.

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  • Allison Matlack

    Thank you, Matthew, for one of the clearest descriptions of the changes to the ACT writing section I’ve read. The example you gave was very clarifying and the suggestions you offer about how to improve your score are very helpful. I have to say (as an educational consultant who works with college-bound students) the amount of analysis, planning, and writing required seems daunting. Do you think this essay question format is considerably more challenging than the previous ACT essay format? Than the new SAT essay format?

  • Allison, I appreciate the feedback and I’m glad the article was helpful. The approach I presented is designed to maximize points. If a student picks his or her favorite perspective, that essay will receive some points, but not get near the maximum score. I agree that this will be more difficult for a majority of students and I’m curious to see how ACT essay graders respond to the first batch on September’s test.

    The new ACT essay is certainly more challenging than the old ACT or SAT essay. Compared to the new SAT essay, which asks students to analyze an article and not include their opinions, I think that the new ACT essay will be easier. The new SAT essay expects a level of analysis usually reserved for AP Lang classes. For students not exposed to AP Lang and its focus on identifying rhetorical devices, I suspect that the new SAT will be particularly tough.

    Both new essays are a better reflection of the rigors of college writing and will show if a student is ready to take college classes with writing requirements. I would imagine that colleges would find these essays more useful, but I can see the new ACT essay prompt being a struggle for many students.