The NEW ACT Writing Test Starting in September!

Hi all!  
If you're reading this then you probably just got the same nasty surprise as I did earlier this month.  The ACT is changing the writing prompt starting in September, and students need to shift gears, A.S.A.P.! 
What changed?
Let's start with timing. Students now get 40 minutes for the Writing Test.  They'll need the extra ten minutes, because the prompt, writing task, and planning stages have all been expanded. 
remember the old prompt?  Sure, you've been teaching it up until a few hours, days, or maybe weeks ago.  It included 4-5 sentences on a subject having to do with education and schooling, subjects at the forefront of high school students' minds.  The first sentence introduced a problem faced by students or schools.  The second and third sentences introduced two sides of an argument, pro- and con-, and an argument supporting each side.  Finally, the prompt ended with a question about what action to take, framing a basis for the student's thesis.  Using the prompt, students were asked to take a stand on the subject, and support their arguments with evidence.  Keen students could also use the opportunity to compare arguments, and derive nifty insights!
The new writing section frames the essay with a much more thorough prompt.  It begins with the prompt itself, which introduces a subject.  Unlike the old style, the subjects can come from a wide variety of sources, not just educational issues.  For example, one of the new example prompts found at, shown below, is titled 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.
The section starts with a sentence introducing the subject of the essay.  This is followed by three examples from daily life. The introductory paragraph ends with a question about balancing good and bad issues arising from the main subject, and a final sentence inviting the student to, in this case, "examine the implications."
The introductory paragraph is followed by three"perspectives" on the subject matter:
Perspective 1: 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 2: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 3: 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.
The prompt page ends with instructions to the student:
Essay Task
Write a unified, coherent essay in which you evaluate multiple perspectives on the increasing presence of intelligent machines. 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.
This new prompt has good and bad points for the student trying to score well.  The bad news is that while the old essay prompt was formulaic, and students could train to write in a particular fashion, the new prompt forces the student to analytically discuss an open-ended subject, introducing logical and organized arguments supporting their viewpoint while addressing all three perspectives-  and to keep it organized, coherent and stylistic to boot!  On the flip side, all the necessary perspectives and examples are given to the student!  Three perspectives to choose from, each one already laid out with an example or two!  All the student has to do is get these ideas on the paper, compare and contrast them, and if they are keen to get a high score, intelligently discuss a novel idea or two not mentioned in the prompt!  In essence, the subjects are harder, and unique perspectives are necessary for high scores, but the arguments and examples are already present before the student begins to write.
To help students organize their work on the essay, test makers have provided a new "Planning Your Essay" section after the prompt.  They've provided an entire blank page for students to hash out ideas and outline their essay.  This section isn't included at scoring, but it beats the old style, where students had to scribble outlines and ideas in the margins.  
Finally, the scoring has changed.  The old style score of 1-6 provided by two graders for a total of 2-12 still exists, but this score is now translated into its own score of 5-36, and is averaged with the four multiple choice sections. (Don't ask me how.  I could answer, but you're better off reading the ACT organization's "Preparing for the ACT" publication, which describes the scoring in detail. It takes a whole page, and a table of its very own! It's available at The old score was used to augment the English Test score, so a bad essay could be evened out by a stellar English score, or vice versa.  Now the Writing Test is averaged directly into the cumulative score. Additionally, this is a great change for Super Scoring!  The Writing Test can now be treated like its own section, meaning that it can be Super Scored separately. This enhances students' ability to make up for a bad English or Writing score on another test. 
So how do students maximize their scores on the updated ACT Writing Test?  Just like the old days, use the prompt.  Let me repeat:  USE THE PROMPT!  The first 50% of the score will be based on whether a student has actually followed directions, discussing each perspective in comparison with each other as well as their own viewpoint, and doing so in an organized and well thought out manner.  The next 25% is going to depend on style.  Is the intro intriguing, is the conclusion a thoughtful wrap up, are transition words and sentences used, and did the student use a variety of word choices and sentence structures?  Finally, those last 2 or 3 points out of 12 will rely on whether the student said anything unique and insightful, and did they do it in a fashion that makes sense?  The key word there is INSIGHT.  Did they have it?  Did it make sense?  Here comes a good score!
I hope this little rant of mine helps.  I know that I've been teaching this stuff for several years, and while the changes for the SAT are on everyone's minds, this major change in the ACT seems to be flying under the radar.  Yet, even though this may require some fancy last minute footwork on behalf of students, tutors, and parents alike, the fact is that the changes are mostly in the student's favor: more time, more information provided to draw upon, room to outline ideas, and scoring separate from the English Test section.  
For more information on the new Writing Test (especially the detailed scoring stuff I skipped over), I recommend highly Laura Registrato's article The New Enhanced ACT Writing Test (2015): Complete Guide, at the Prepscholar website:  For those looking for resources, there currently exist only 2 (yeah, just two) example writing prompts from the ACT test makers.  The first is Intellignet Machines, discussed above, which can be found along with example essays and scores at   The other is contained in the yearly ACT publication Preparing for the ACT Test (2015-2016), which includes the prompt titled Public Health and Individual Freedom.  It can be found at
May the force be with you!   -Dr. Will


William A.

College Chemistry & Molecular Biology with a Ph.D. Biochemist

3000+ hours
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