Are you debating whether or not to take the optional ACT essay? Some schools require it, so we highly recommend that you take it (make sure to register for ACT with Writing).
But no need to stress! The essay follows a predictable format, which means you can practice and prepare beforehand. Take a look at a sample ACT writing prompt and learn five key steps to penning a high-scoring essay.
ACT Writing Prompt
This example writing prompt comes straight from our book Cracking the ACT:
Education and the Workplace
Many colleges and universities have cut their humanities departments, and high schools have started to shift their attention much more definitively toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and away from ELA (English, Language Arts). Representatives from both school boards and government organizations suggest that the move toward STEM is necessary in helping students to participate in a meaningful way in the American workplace. Given the urgency of this debate for the future of education and society as a whole, it is worth examining the potential consequences of this shift in how students are educated in the United States.
Read and carefully consider these perspectives. Each suggests a particular way of thinking about the shift in American education.
|Perspective 1||Perspective 2||Perspective 3|
|ELA programs should be emphasized over STEM programs. Education is not merely a means to employment: ELA education helps students to live more meaningful lives. In addition, an exclusively STEM-based program cannot help but limit students’ creativity and lead them to overemphasize the importance of money and other tangible gains.||ELA programs should be eradicated entirely, except to establish the basic literacy necessary to engage in the hard sciences, mathematics, and business. Reading and writing are activities that are best saved for the leisure of students who enjoy them.||ELA and STEM programs should always be in equal balance with one another. Both are necessary to providing a student with a well-rounded education. Moreover, equal emphasis will allow the fullest possible exposure to many subjects before students choose their majors and careers|
Write a unified, coherent essay in which you evaluate multiple perspectives on the issue of how schools should balance STEM and ELA subjects. 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.
How to Write the ACT Essay
Your job is to write an essay in which you take some sort of position on the prompt, all while assessing the three perspectives provided in the boxes. Find a way to anchor your essay with a unique perspective of your own that can be defended and debated, and you are already in the upper echelon of scorers.
Step 1: Work the Prompt
What in the prompt requires you to weigh in? Why is this issue still the subject of debate and not a done deal?
Step 2: Work the Perspectives
Typically, the three perspectives will be split: one for, one against, and one in the middle. Your goal in Step 2 is to figure out where each perspective stands and then identify at least one shortcoming of each perspective. For the example above, ask yourself:
- What does each perspective consider?
- What does each perspective overlook?
Step 3: Generate Your Own Perspective
Now it's time to come up with your own perspective! If you merely restate one of the three given perspectives, you won’t be able to get into the highest scoring ranges. You’ll draw from each of the perspectives, and you may side with one of them, but your perspective should have something unique about it.
Step 4: Put It All Together
Now that you have your ideas in order, here's a blueprint for how to organize the ACT essay. This blueprint works no matter what your prompt is.
Body Paragraph (1)
|Body Paragraph (2)|
Step 5: (If There's Time): Proofread
Spend one or two minutes on proofreading your essay if you have time. You’re looking for big, glaring errors. If you find one, erase it completely or cross it out neatly. Though neatness doesn’t necessarily affect your grade, it does make for a happy grader.
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The newest section of the AP English Language and Composition Exam, the synthesis essay, is one of three essays you will be completing during the examination’s 2-hour free-response period. However, you’ll also have a 15-minute reading and planning period just for this essay, and if you use this time to plan effectively, you can’t go wrong.
Before we get into specific advice on how to handle the AP English Language and Composition synthesis essay, you need to know what this part of the test really is. It is very similar to the argumentative essay you will also write as part of this exam, except that you are provided with a wealth of source material from which to draw some support for your ideas.
While this in some ways makes the AP English Language and Composition synthesis essay easier than the argument essay (because you can use quotations, point to authoritative sources for support, etc.), there is an extra element of complexity, and the AP readers want to see how well you can sort through your source material and put it to good use – which makes planning all that much more important. This brings us to our first tip…
1. Use Your 15-Minute Planning Period Wisely.
The main purpose of this 15-minute period is to give you time to read the source materials. This essay will present you with several sources providing different information about or opinions on a certain topic. Make sure you don’t just skim them, but read them closely – make notes, underline key sections you may want to quote later, etc.
You should also begin outlining your essay and considering your opinion on the subject; have this opinion in mind before you start writing the essay, as you will use it to construct your thesis.
You’ve already learned how to structure persuasive essays in this class and in other classes you have taken; put that knowledge to good use now, and have your main points set out before you start writing. Try to have a thesis statement written by the time you start the essay – your thesis should establish your opinion and the general reasons you feel this way; the rest of your essay will go on to justify and exemplify these reasons. Also write down some of the main points upon which you will base subsequent paragraphs and mark quotes or sections of the sources you can use in each of these paragraphs.
2. Evaluate Your Sources.
Every source you can use for the AP Language and Composition synthesis essay will have a small box above it explaining where it comes from and who said it – to see exactly what this looks like, check out the free synthesis essay sample questions at AP Central. There are also public sample questions available there for the rest of the AP English and Composition Exam.
Keep all information about your sources in mind when you’re quoting them or using them to support your arguments. What journal an article appeared in can say a great deal about its potential biases. For example, consider a question on the environmental impacts of corporate practices – an environmental journal is obviously going to be biased in favor of more environmental regulation, while a report from a company spokesperson will probably gloss over some of the negative impacts of his company. Think critically.
3. Keep Your Tone Consistent.
There is no hard-and-fast advice about what tone you should take – some students try to inject a little humor into their essays while others prefer to be as serious as possible, some are extremely critical and others more accepting. However, the one thing you really have to do while writing the AP Language and Composition synthesis essay (or any other essay) is keep your tone consistent. Jot some tone-related ideas down as you outline during the 15-minute reading period, and keep in mind everything you’ve learned about tone and other aspects of rhetoric so far this year.
4. Use Rhetorical Technique to Your Advantage!
The various rhetorical practices you’ve been learning about all year can be put to good use here. This class and this test aren’t just about recognizing and analyzing these techniques when others use them, but about preparing you for college and your career by teaching you how to use them effectively yourself. However, this isn’t just about writing a beautiful essay, so read on to Tip # 5!
5. Your Argument Must be Well-Crafted.
The AP English Language and Composition Exam synthesis essay does not have right or wrong answers; rather, it asks you for your opinion. The AP Examiner cannot take points off because she disagrees with you. However, you must show logical basis for your opinion, drawing on both the sources AND your own knowledge and experience.
To do this, make sure you have a clear and complete thesis. Make sure the ideas expressed in the beginning of each paragraph or section support the thesis, and that you in turn show how those ideas are supported by a source or through your own knowledge and experience. Don’t generalize or write anything down that you can’t support.
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