ACT Writing Test Explained

The (Optional) ACT Writing Test, Explained

Why would anyone take a test labeled as “optional”? Students aren’t required to take the ACT Writing Test—so why add it to the rest of the four sections

Whether choose to take the Writing Test depends on the requirements of the colleges you’re considering. Because postsecondary institutions make their own decisions about whether to require the results from the Writing test for admissions or course-placement purposes, ACT makes it optional. Keep in mind, though, that “optional” means you have the option of signing up for it in addition to the rest of the ACT—not that you can choose whether you want to take it on the day of the test. 

Unlike the rest of the ACT, the Writing Test doesn’t lend itself to conventional test-taking strategies. The four required sections are all multiple-choice, but this optional test makes you plan and write a somewhat complex essay in a relatively short period of time. For this test, you’ll want more than just the conventional ACT tutor to provide assistance: you’ll need a tutor experienced in writing, not simply test-taking

To learn more about all the other sections of the ACT, click the image below:

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The ACT Writing Test provides a sample of your writing and reasoning skills

The Writing Test is the final element in the ACT process for those looking to go to elite schools or be admitted to selective programs. While the Reading and English sections may provide insight into your comprehension, analysis, organization, and grammar skills, they don’t really touch on composition, synthesis, and argument. Some schools you’re looking at may want to see a sample of your writing as additional information to consider when reviewing your application. 

If you’re shooting for a spot at one of the upper-echelon colleges in the U.S., or if you are looking to enter a course of study that favors strong writing ability, then you should definitely take the ACT Writing Test. For the rest of the students planning on taking the ACT, it’s fine if you forego the option. In your case, an additional score outside of the required tests of the ACT won’t make your college application any more appealing.

Because it’s optional, the Writing Test is scored separately from the rest of the ACT

If you choose to take the Writing Test, your scores for that section will be separate from those for the other four sections and will not affect your composite score in any way. Instead of operating on the 1-36 scale, your essay score will range from 2-12 in four domains: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. Two readers will grade your essay in each domain on a scale of 1-6, and those two scores will then be added together. Your overall score on the Writing test is the rounded average of the scores you achieved in the four domains. 

1. Ideas and Analysis 

Scores in this domain reflect your ability to generate productive ideas and engage critically with multiple perspectives on the given issue. Competence in this area is based upon your understanding of the issue, the purpose for writing, and the audience.

2. Development and Support

For this domain, scores are based on your ability to discuss ideas, offer rationale, and support an argument. By helping the reader understand your thinking on the issue, you show your competence through explanation, discussion, and illustration.

3. Organization

This domain deals with your ability to organize ideas with clarity and purpose. Organizational choices are integral to effective writing, so you should be arranging your essay in a way that clearly shows the relationship between ideas and guides the reader through the discussion.

4. Language Use and Conventions

Competent writers make use of the conventions of grammar, syntax, word usage, and mechanics. Scores in this domain are based upon your ability to use written language to convey arguments with clarity, as well as how you adjust the style and tone of your writing to communicate effectively.

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You will be prompted with an issue, three perspectives, and instructions for the essay

The ACT Writing test gives you 40 minutes to read the given material and write an essay that analyzes the topic, evaluates each of the three viewpoints, and presents your own argument based on the prompt. Regardless of the issue in the essay you are presented with, the instructions will look the same:

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Note that there is room for great deal of variety in how test-takers approach the essay. You are not being evaluated based on what position you take, but on how you explain and defend that position. And as far as the perspectives are concerned, you can hold any view on the spectrum from full agreement to complete disagreement. As the directions emphasize, your essay should declare your position, analyze and evaluate the given perspectives, and explain how your position compares and contrasts with those perspectives. 

Your strategy is to present your argument while evaluating the given perspectives

Let’s examine an essay prompt from a previously administered ACT. First, you will be given a paragraph briefly introducing a certain issue.

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Read the paragraph issue and identify what you should be responding to regarding the issue. For this one, you would be offering your thoughts on “the implications and meaning of [the presence of intelligent machines] in our lives.” As part of your position, you should also answer the question “Automation is generally seen as a sign of progress, but what is lost when we replace humans with machines”? Take a minute to write down your thoughts in the area for planning on the page opposite the prompt. Make sure you are clear in your position and not wishy-washy. In your opening paragraph, use the language of the text to guide how you state your position: for this one, remember that you are giving your thoughts on the implications of automation and what may be lost when humans are replaced by machines.

After the introductory paragraph, you will be presented with three perspectives on the issue you just read about.

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When you read the perspectives, remember that you don’t need to agree (or disagree) with any of them. You do, however, have to address them and evaluate them. Keep in mind, though, that your evaluations of the perspectives should fit within the broader framework of your position on the topic. For example, if you agree somewhat with the claim “What we lose by the replacement of people by machines is some part of our own humanity,” incorporate that view into your over-arching argument. Or say that you disagree with the notion “This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone”: don’t analyze only that perspective but explain how your disagreement fits within the framework of your assertion.  

As you plan and write your essay, remember this critical truth: Your analysis of the perspectives should support your position on the issue, rather than the perspectives dictating your view. Yes, the people who score your essay will evaluate your critique of the three perspectives, but what they are most interested in is how you present and support your position on the issue. 

Make time for planning at the front end and allow time for review on the back end

Although you will be given 40 minutes to complete the ACT Writing Test, you certainly don’t want to spend that entire time writing. Resist the instinct to start writing immediately after reading the prompt and make time for planning. Take about five minutes to make a short outline, even if it’s just bullet points about what each paragraph is about. Make sure you know what your viewpoint on the issue is and to what extent you agree or disagree with the three perspectives. 

On the back end of the test, give yourself time to review your work. About five minutes should be enough to go through your essay and correct any grammar and punctuation errors. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, though. While you will be assessed on your mastery of language use and conventions, those who grade the essays recognize that 40 minutes is not sufficient time to generate a polished product. They will treat your essay as a first draft, so a few minor errors won’t hurt your score.

Know what writing strategies to follow and which “traps” to avoid

As part of your ACT tutoring process, you will learn just what the scorers will be looking for in an essay, as well as what may hurt your score. When learning ACT writing tips, it’s important to know what to do and what not to do.

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Keep the introduction brief

You have been given an issue, three perspectives, and some instructions: in other words, things the people who evaluate your essay will be aware of. When they start reading your essay, they want to learn about your position and why you hold it—not read some summary of the provided material. You can jump into your thesis statement in the first sentence if you want. 

Don’t write a thesis that fails to flow from the given text

This is a common writing mistake on more than just the ACT Writing Test. When reading about an issue, you may feel the urge to charge right into the writing without properly centering your thoughts. Fight that urge, remembering that the text will present a specific angle on the issue that you should respond to. For our sample essay, don’t respond to other areas that touch on automation, but focus on the idea of how the presence of intelligent machines affects the nature of humanity. 

Use the language of the text for clarity

By periodically using the exact words of the text, you can anchor your thoughts and not veer off topic. When analyzing the perspectives, make sure you are referencing what each one says. In our example, you may refer to the claim that replacing people with machines will cause us to “lose a part of our own humanity.” That sets you up to agree or disagree depending on your position stated in your thesis.

Don’t refer to the perspectives by their numbers

Let’s remember once again the primary purpose of the essay: explain and support your view on the issue. You are using the claims in the three perspectives to guide your own assertion, so take from them what you need to accomplish that goal. Referring to “Perspective One, Two or Three” is lazy writing. Instead, state the core elements of each perspective and incorporate them into your argument, explaining how you feel the evidence supports or doesn’t support each one. 

Be specific in your supporting points

One of the biggest downfalls in persuasive writing is speaking in generalities when presenting supporting evidence. Even though the issue paragraph is in such general terms, you need to be specific. For example, instead of saying that “automation is generally seen as a sign of progress,” provide examples backing that claim. How has automation indicated progress in the past? When has increased automation not been beneficial? Don’t assume that your audience agrees with you: explain why you have chosen your particular position.

Don’t make the conclusion a rehash of what you just wrote

A good conclusion is not supposed to be a paraphrase of everything you previously wrote. Instead, it is an opportunity to connect the dots between your points and thesis in a way that assures the reader what your position really is. Avoid quoting yourself or restating your thesis. Yes, you should be touching on what you just wrote, but do so in a manner that clarifies how your supporting points justify the specific position you’ve taken on that issue. 

To reach your score goal, take advantage of the guidance of an experienced writing tutor

An expert writing tutor gives you the best chance of achieving your target score, not only by teaching you how to plan and construct essays, but also by helping you review and evaluate what you’ve written. While you may notice some of your mistakes, a tutor can better identify which strategies may have been more effective and what adjustments you can make for the next essay. You can find prompts from previous tests and ACT essay test examples online, so there will be plenty of opportunities to write and review your work as part of your ACT tutoring.

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While a writing tutor may be your most valuable asset in prepping for the ACT Writing Test, the help you’ve received from your ACT tutor will also be beneficial. Critical to the formulation of a thesis is a clear understanding of the text itself, and that calls for proficiency in reading. An ACT Reading tutor will help your hone your comprehension skills so you can both recognize the scope of the given issue and understand the essay directions. For the writing itself, you can lean on instruction provided by your ACT English tutor to ensure that your writing is concise, your thesis well-supported, and your grammar correct.

Writing is one of those skills that pertains to more occupations than you might think, so you should expect to do lots of it in college. Some careers are especially heavy on writing, such as law, scientific research, and journalism. When admissions officers see that you hope to enter such a field of study, they will want to know whether you are ready to do so. That means determining whether your writing ability meets their standards. A strong showing on the ACT Writing test will show your prowess and prove you’re ready for what lies ahead. 

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