10 September 2015

How to write the new ACT essay, pt. 3: writing a counterargument

For this final part of the “writing the new ACT essay series,” we’re going to look at what is probably the most challenging aspect of writing the essay: the counterargument.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a counterargument is simply a perspective that refutes your main argument. Simply put, if you’re arguing that technology does more good than harm, the counterargument is that technology does more harm than good.

Before we look at an example, there are a couple of things I’d like to point out: first, I cannot stress how important transitions are in writing effective counterarguments. Without them, your reader will have no way of following your train of thought and will find it very difficult – if not impossible – to distinguish between which ideas you agree with and which ideas you disagree with.

Another key element of good counterarguments is the concession – that is, the acknowledgement that some aspects of the opposing argument are valid. This is the most unfamiliar aspect of counterarguments for many students – isn’t the whole point of a counterargument to “disprove” the opposing argument?

Ultimately, yes, the goal is to show why your argument wins out. That said, the point of a concession is to demonstrate that you’ve thought about an issue carefully, in a nuanced way rather than in straightforward black/white, good/bad terms. When presented clearly, this type of consideration actually strengthens your argument.

You can use this general template to create a counterargument:

According to Perspective x,  _______________________. On one hand,

-it is true that _______________________.

-this claim has some merit because _______________________.

-the claim that _______________________ does have some validity.

On the other hand,

-this perspective fails to consider that _______________________.

-this claim overlooks the fact that _______________________.


Let’s see how this would play out in a sample paragraph that uses a personal example (yes, those are still fine). It doesn’t use the template exactly, but it’s pretty close.

Again, we’re going to use the sample prompt released by the ACT. For the purpose of this exercise, we’re only going to look at one of the perspectives; trying to work with more than that would be too confusing. In fact, you should generally avoid integrating more than one outside perspective per paragraph, unless you are a stellar writer who is already comfortable with this type of back-and-forth.

(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.

Thesis: Technology should be seen as a force for good because it creates new possibilities for people as well as a more prosperous society.


1) Topic sentence: introduce your argument (1 sentence)

Over the past few decades, new forms of technology have created ways for people communicate with one another more quickly and easily than ever before.

2) Elaborate on your argument, and provide a specific example (2-3 sentences)

From Skype to iphones apps to Facebook, technology erases borders, allowing us to talk to people halfway around the world as if they were in the next room. I have personally benefitted enormously from these technologies: my family immigrated to the United States from China when I was 6 years old, and over the past decade, gathering around the computer to chat with my grandparents and my aunt in Beijing has become a weekly ritual. Although I am sorry that we no longer live next door to them, as we did when I was little, I am nevertheless grateful to be able to see their faces and keep them updated on the details of my daily life – something that would be impossible without “smart” machines.

3) Introduce outside perspective: 1-2 sentences

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about the effects of new technologies, however. Perspective 1 offers a typical complaint, namely that the replacement of people with machines “causes us to lose some part of our humanity.”

4) Acknowledge that the perspective isn’t entirely wrong, and explain why (2-3 sentences)

On one hand, this complaint does have some merit. Walking down the street or sitting on the subway, I am often struck by the sheer number of people staring glassy-eyed into their phones. Sometimes they are so busy texting that they nearly bump into others, demonstrating a clear lack of courtesy and tolerance (notice how this statement weaves the viewpoint naturally into the writer’s argument).

5) Transition back to your argument and reaffirm it (3-4 sentences)

On the other hand, though, the benefits of technology far outweigh an occasional unpleasant sidewalk encounter – at least from my perspeective. Rather than isolate me from the world (notice how this statement indirectly refutes the counterargument), “smart” technology has served primarily to facilitate my relationships with others, not to replace them.



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