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7 Strategies for Success on the New ACT Essay

By August 31, 2015July 10th, 2024ACT, College Counseling


As the Director of Curriculum at Compass, I have specific advice that I would offer to students preparing to take the new ACT Essay:

#1 Breathe

Seriously. Just breathe. You can do this.

#2 Take 10 Minutes to Pre-Write

The ACT has added 10 minutes to the Writing Test. Given the complexity of this new assignment, the extended time suggests that the test writers believe you should be spending those 10 minutes pre-writing. When most students face a ticking clock, they begin writing their essays immediately. This results in what is often referred to as “throat-clearing” introductions that basically restate the prompt, sometimes in different words, but often in nearly identical phrasing. Set yourself up to wow your reader with your introduction by taking the full ten minutes to pre-write.

#3 Create a System of Analysis

If you ask most people what it means to analyze, they’ll tell you it means to break a thing into its parts. But how do you actually do that?

Try asking the following four questions when you read each perspective:

  • Who might hold this perspective?
  • Why would they hold it?
  • What if we all held this perspective?
  • What is one weakness or strength of this perspective?

Suddenly, the vague idea of “analysis” is concretized into a system of questions that you can apply to each perspective: Who? Why? What if…? Strength or weakness? 

#4 Write Down Notes

As you ask these questions about each perspective, you need to jot down your thoughts. This serves two purposes: it frees up your short-term memory (which is crucial toward the end of a 4-hour test) and it streamlines outlining. When you make notes for these questions, they will serve as the outline of your body paragraphs.

#5 Use the Word “I”

Did your high school English teacher tell you to never use “I” in your essay? He or she was probably trying to wean your class from using phrases like “I think” and “I believe,” which many believe weaken writing.

College writing classes are increasingly embracing students’ usage of “I,” and in an assignment like this one, where you’re asked to describe the relationships between perspectives, clarity is often achieved through “I.” It would be nearly impossible to use your personal experience to support your ideas if you couldn’t use “I.”

#6 Sell Your Examples with Details

Though the essay has shifted away from pro-versus-con argumentation, it should still be persuasive. Specific details not only show the value of your position but also make your essay more interesting to read. Try to support every statement you make with a concrete example from your studies or life.

Let’s use the artificial intelligence (AI) prompt cited in our complementary post about the New ACT Essay. One of the three perspectives on the proliferation of technology argues that technological advances minimize authentic human interaction. If you agree with this perspective, a general statement like “technology robs us of our humanity” is less potent than a real-life anecdote. The high-scoring student might include a story about attempting to have lunch with friends while being interrupted by chirping cell phones and text messages.

#7 “Power Pose”

If you haven’t yet watched Professor Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power posing, do it now. I’ll wait.

Finished? Excellent! Her mantra—“Fake it ‘til you ARE it”—is absolutely applicable to the ACT Essay Test. Pretending to be a person who knows about the topic can help if your heart starts pounding when you read a writing assignment on a topic you don’t know much about. You’ll find that as you analyze, you will start to develop an opinion on the topic.

Sometimes, the strongest rhetorical position you can take is to admit ignorance. This can be hard because the classroom has trained you to provide clear answers. Paradoxically, acknowledging the limits of your own experience can give your writing credibility. So by all means, write with authority when you analyze the given perspectives, but when it comes to your own position, it’s okay to say, “there may not be a solution” or even, “maybe we can’t bridge these divides.” If these issues were easily solvable, we wouldn’t still be talking about them. The ACT knows that, and if you recognize it in your writing, you’ll be adding the complexity that readers reward.


The ACT has changed not only the assignment but also the scoring of the essay. Whereas the old essay was scored holistically on a 1–6 scale, the new essay is scored in four separate domains: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use. It can be helpful to think of the first two areas as addressing content and the second two areas as addressing form. Two readers will each score each domain on a scale of 1–6; each domain score will be the sum of those two readers’ scores.

For a look at the new scoring rubric, visit the ACT’s website.

The Writing Test is not included in the composite score. The ACT will take the sum of the four domain scores and calculate a scaled Writing Test score in the traditional 1–36 range.

The ACT will present students with three sets of scores: the domain scores, a scaled Writing Test score, and an English Language Arts score (the average of the English, Reading, and Writing Test scores).

More Information

For further information about the new ACT Essay, how the new assignment differs from its predecessor, and ACT’s rationale behind the change, check out our recent blog post.

As always, our team of directors is ready to answer any of your questions regarding college admission testing and preparation. We are also happy to sign up students for full-length proctored practice tests with the updated ACT Essay. There is no better method of preparation than taking full-length practice tests – click here to find out why.

Ash Kramer

With a career in test prep and higher education that began in the late 90s, Ash has held a variety of educational roles from tutor and writing instructor to administrator. She serves as the Chief Product Officer at Compass, where she is lucky to lead a brilliant team creating the very best digital learning materials.


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