With numerous changes being made to both the SAT and ACT recently, along with the general stress that comes from test season and your college applications, it may be hard to know what to expect when you sit down to take your standardized tests. That’s why we’re here to help. In this post, we will unpack the ACT essay and offer tips to help you succeed. (For help on some of the other sections, be sure to check out A Guide to the English Section of the ACT and A Guide to the Reading Section of the ACT.)

Introduction to the optional writing section of the ACT

The Writing section, which consists of a single essay, is an optional component of the ACT, meaning you can take the rest of the exam without completing this portion. However, many colleges require you to complete the Writing section as part of their applications, so be sure to find out which of the schools you’re applying to have this requirement before you sign up for the test.

Recently, the ACT Writing section underwent some changes, and is now designed to test your ability to communicate in writing by analyzing different perspectives, expressing your own perspective, and composing a clear and organized essay. You are expected to show evidence of writing skills you should have learned throughout high school and will need to use in introductory college courses. To learn more about the changes to the content in the new ACT Writing section, read our post, 5 Reasons the New ACT Essay Is a Better Measure of Your Actual Writing Abilities.

Structure and content

In addition to changes in what the Writing section analyzes and the content it includes, the structure of the exam is also a little different. Instead of having 30 minutes to complete the section, you will now have 40. It’s still not a lot of time, so remember to use it wisely. Still, 10 minutes can make a world of difference.

For the prompt, you will be given a summary of an issue or topic, along with three statements depicting three different perspectives on that issue. These topics cover a range of real-world issues. The ACT website offers Intelligent Machines as one example of a Writing prompt:

Sample Prompt:

Intelligent Machines

Many of the goods and services we depend on daily are now supplied by intelligent, automated machines rather than human beings. Robots build cars and other goods on assembly lines, where once there were human workers. Many of our phone conversations are now conducted not with people but with sophisticated technologies. We can now buy goods at a variety of stores without the help of a human cashier. Automation is generally seen as a sign of progress, but what is lost when we replace humans with machines? Given the accelerating variety and prevalence of intelligent machines, it is worth examining the implications and meaning of their presence in our lives.

Read and carefully consider these perspectives. Each suggests a particular way of thinking about the increasing presence of intelligent machines. 

Perspective One

What we lose with the replacement of people by machines is some part of our own humanity. Even our mundane daily encounters no longer require from us basic courtesy, respect, and tolerance for other people. 

Perspective Two

Machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs, and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases they work better than humans. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone. 

Perspective Three

Intelligent machines challenge our long-standing ideas about what humans are or can be. This is good because it pushes both humans and machines toward new, unimagined possibilities.

After reading the prompt, you should discuss each of the perspectives provided (Perspectives One, Two, and Three). Make sure you understand these perspectives so you can analyze them accurately and articulately while developing your own argument about the issue. While you should offer your own perspective, also be sure to acknowledge the other perspectives and provide counterarguments to solidify your own thesis. Your own thesis (main argument) should take a nuanced position that leans to one side, but takes into account the other perspectives.

While you write, keep the domains on which the graders will assess your essay in mind. Organization matters, so make sure to provide an introduction that clearly displays your thesis argument and a conclusion, as well as the progression of your ideas. You should provide plenty of supporting evidence in your body paragraphs. Your completed essay should be at least 425-words long. If you’re not sure how long that is, try counting words in your practice test so you get a better feel for how much of a page 425 words in your handwriting fill, so you’ll have a clearer idea for the actual test. Since everyone’s handwriting is different, there’s really no set rule on what that looks like.

This may seem a bit daunting given the time limit, but if you allow yourself enough advance preparation and practice beforehand, it will feel much more manageable. The ACT website offers the following writing tips:

  • clearly state your own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective
  • develop and support your ideas with reasoning and examples
  • organize your ideas clearly and logically
  • communicate your ideas effectively in standard written English

Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of those given, in partial agreement, or completely different.

It is especially important to keep the last point in mind: it doesn’t matter what stance you take on the issue at hand, as long as you do what the prompt is telling you to do, and you explain your ideas logically, articulately, and effectively.

Standards and scoring

For the Writing section, two readers will each individually grade your essay on a 1-6 scale in four different domains, which include Analysis, Development Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. To learn more about each of these domains and see sample essays, visit the ACT website. The domain scores are then averaged between the two readers’ scores and scaled for a final numerical score between two and 12. Note that previously, you would receive a score out of 36, matching the other sections of the ACT, but this scoring system has been dropped for the 2016-2017 school year. This score is not factored into your composite score, but colleges will see it on your score report, along with the domain scores and an image of your essay.

Should I take the optional writing section?

As we mentioned above, some colleges require you to complete the Writing section, so be sure to check with the schools (each school’s requirements can be found on their respective admissions sites) before signing up to take the test.

If you do have the option, take into account your anticipated field and major when making your decision. For instance, if you are planning on majoring in English or another humanities area, it probably is a good idea to take it, since you want to show colleges that you have strong writing skills. On the other hand, if you are planning on majoring in Math or Biology, it probably won’t be as relevant to your field of study, so it may not be as important to include the essay with your application. However, even if you are not considering studying an area that is directly relevant, it might still be a good idea to include the Writing section if you are a strong writer, because it can give you an opportunity to shine. Plus, writing is a multidisciplinary skill that you will definitely need in the real world.

Want to ace your ACT? Check out our comprehensive ACT program. We match you with two personal tutors—one for English and Writing and another for Math and Science—to get the top results. Click here to learn more about the program and sign up.

For more information on the ACT and strategies and tips for success, read some of our other blog posts:

What Is a Good ACT Score?

New SAT vs. ACT (or Why You Should Take the ACT Instead)

When Should I Take the SAT or ACT?

13 Tips for ACT Test Day

How the ACT’s Graded: A Breakdown

For more advice on the Writing section of the ACT, check out these posts:

5 Reasons the New ACT Essay Is a Better Measure of Your Actual Writing Abilities

3 Grammar Rules Every Student Messes up on the ACT

The 50 Best Vocab Words for the ACT Essay

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine