08 September 2015

How to write the new ACT essay, part 1: overview

For those of you unacquainted with it, the pre-September 2015 version of the ACT essay asked students to weigh in on a straightforward, usually high-school/teenager related question, e.g. “Should students have to maintain a C average in order to get their driver’s license,” or “Should schools establish a dress code?” Although the ACT was always pretty clear about the fact that a counterargument was necessary for a top score, it was traditionally possible to write the essay without taking one into account.

Now that’s no longer the case.

If you take the ACT with writing now, you will be given a prompt presenting a topic, then asked to consider three different viewpoints. You can write a straightforward agree/disagree thesis in response to one of the viewpoint (the simplest way to go) or fashion an original thesis based on one or more of the viewpoints (more potential for complication).

Regardless of which one you choose, you must take each of the views into account at some point in your essay.

(Click here for a sample prompt, or see below, and here for sample essays).

In comparison to the old ACT essay, the new one certainly looks more complicated: rather than one single question, there are now three separate perspectives to contend with. There’s a lot of information to absorb, analyze, and write about in a very short period. 

In fact, the new ACT essay is essentially a synthesis essay, much like the one on the AP English Comp exam; the various viewpoints are simply presented in condensed form because of the 40-minute time limit.

If you’re a senior retaking the ACT and took the AP Comp test (or the AP French/Spanish/Italian language test) last year, you have a leg up because you have some experience integrating multiple arguments into your writing. If you’re a junior writing this type of essay for the first time, however, it can seem a little overwhelming. 

Having tutored three out of those four exams, I’ve learned to explain some things upfront.

The most important one is that the primary focus of a synthesis essay should still be your argument. The requirement that you consider multiple perspectives does not alter that fact. Rather, your job is to talk about those various perspectives in relation to your own point of view. You can, therefore, think of the ACT essay as a standard, thesis-driven essay, just one in which you happen to discuss ideas other than your own. Your thoughts stay front and center. 

Instead of viewing the various perspectives as something to make your task more complicated, think of it the opposite way: those perspectives are giving you material to work with so that you don’t have to come up with all the ideas on your own. They’re actually making your job easier.

To simplify things, you should initially take the various perspectives into account only as aids for determining your own point of view. Once you’ve come up with a clear thesis, you can then go back and work the different perspectives into your outline. To keep things simple again, focus on discussing one perspective (agree/disagree) in each paragraph; if you start to bring in too many ideas at once, you’ll most likely get lost. 

I also cannot stress how important it is to spend a few minutes outlining. Don’t worry about getting behind — this is time well spent. For most people, the biggest difficulty in writing this type of essay is keeping the thread of their own argument and not getting so sidetracked by discussions of other people’s ideas that it becomes difficult to tell what they actually think. When you’re learning to write about other people’s ideas, this is the rhetorical equivalent of a tightrope walk. If you know where your argument is going from the beginning (and even have topic sentences that continually pull it back into focus, should it start to drift off in the course of a paragraph), you’re far more likely to stay on track. 

If, on the other hand, you just start to write, there’s a pretty good chance your writing will either become repetitive or start to wander eventually, making it difficult for your readers to figure out just what you’re actually arguing. 

Let’s look at an example of an outline based on the sample prompt released by the ACT.

(Abridged) prompt: Automation is generally regarded as a sign of progress, but what is lost when we replace humans with machines? Given the accelerating variety and presence of intelligent machines, it is worth examining the implications and meanings of their presence in our lives.

Perspective 1: What we lose with the replacement of people with machines is some part of our humanity. Even our mundane encounters no longer require from us respect, courtesy, 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 are better than humans. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone.

Perspective 3: Intelligent machines challenge our longstanding idea of what humans are and can be. This is good because it pushes humans and machines toward new possibilities.

Thesis: While machines have enormous power to make our lives easier and more efficient, we must be careful not to become so dependent on them that we compromise our humanity.

Outline

I. Intro: increasing reliance on machines, 20-21st c.

II. Support: machines make life easier 

-Ppl injured, increase mobility, lead normal lives

-Perspective 3

III. Against : too dependent = bad b/c texting, ignore ppl/physically present

– personal ex.

-Perspective 1

IV. Against: too dependent = bad b/c human oversight important f/work

-Work example: manufacturing high-tech parts

-Perspective 2

V. Conclusion: dangers of over reliance on machines, where are we going? 

 

Notice a few things about this outline:

1) The organization of the essay matches the organization of the thesis (advantages, then disadvantages). This is not the only possible organization — you could just as easily discuss the disadvantages in the first two body paragraphs, then the advantages in the third — but it does save you some time in terms of trying to decide to arrange things. 

2) Each paragraph focuses on one idea and integrates one outside perspective, preventing you from trying to tackle too many ideas at once and making it difficult for the reader to follow your argument. 

3) Words are abbreviated in order to save time. The goal is to be just specific enough to keep yourself focused.

 

Next, see Part 2 of this series, which covers how to discuss supporting ideas and weave quotations smoothly into your arguments.

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