Usually the ACT Essay is given only perfunctory attention during test prep. It’s a shame, because with the right guidance, this is an area in which all students are capable of a top score—especially math/science types who may not see writing as their strong suit.
Because every student has strengths that can be leveraged for the ACT Essay, the best instruction teaches to individual assets. For example, students who excel in math can learn how to use their natural aptitude for sequential reasoning and strong procedural memory to absolutely dominate this essay.
Even though the wording of the ACT Essay prompt changes with each test, the theme is predictable: it involves an authority figure proposing a policy to control an aspect of school life. (e.g., “Should high schools adopt a dress code?”) At their core, all ACT Essay prompts boil down to: “Which conditions will better facilitate teenagers’ learning?” The ACT asks that students take a stand on one side of the argument. [NOTE: this blog post applies to the June 2015 ACT. The new ACT Essay format debuts September 12.]
An experienced ACT Essay tutor will tailor instruction to your unique assets, however in most cases students will benefit from preparing a variety of supporting examples, anecdotes, quotes, references, etc., in advance and working with a writing coach/editor to get their language as precise, clear, and concise as possible. (Ask us if you need help identifying material that is relevant and sufficiently versatile.)
Like all sections of the ACT, time constraints for the essay are intense. As they say, time management is important on the SAT, but on the ACT, it’s EVERYTHING. Students have only 30 minutes to plan and write six paragraphs. Committing a few potential passages to memory, along with several go-to transitional phrases, is one of the many professional tricks that can help you save precious minutes on test day.
For all students, we recommend advance research. A tutor can be very helpful, but you don’t need one to get started! The internet is packed with educational theories, and of course student motivation and behavior is all around you to observe. Parents can help by bringing relevant current events to students’ attention, seeking out their opinions, and asking follow-up questions to better understand how they arrived at their point of view. For the ACT Essay—to paraphrase Hamlet—there is no good or bad opinion, but reasoning makes it so. ACT Essay graders aren’t allowed to penalize students for their point of view. They are only interested in whether or not the reasoning and examples are relevant and support the thesis. (However, since the ACT essay’s next-to-last paragraph should address counterarguments, it is beneficial for students to practice diplomatically articulating opposing points of view.)