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.

 

 

How to write the new ACT essay, pt. 2: introducing and discussing supporting viewpoints

After providing an overview of the new ACT essay and some possible approaches to it in my previous post, I want to now discuss one particular – and very important – skill involved in writing it: incorporating other perspectives into your own argument for support.

If you’ve ever written a research paper, you probably have some experience integrating the ideas of people you agree with into your writing. (And if you haven’t, you’ll get an introduction to doing so in this post.) That said, I find that most high schools do not explicitly teach students to weave supporting quotations, ideas, etc. fluidly into their writing. The quotes are there, but they’re often integrated awkwardly into the larger argument.

Very often, students assume that they do not really need to spend time introducing or explaining their quotes because they seem so self-explanatory. They’re there to support the argument, and if the argument is clear, then the point of the quotation is obvious…right? Well, not always.

The problem is that analytical writing requires much more explanation than might seem necessary. Generally speaking, people write about topics with which they are familiar. Because they know a lot of about their topics, they are often unaware of the gaps in other people’s understanding. As a result, it simply does not occur to them how explicit they need to be, and they end up inadvertently leaving out information that is necessary to understanding their thought process.

When you explain an idea – any idea – in writing, you must take your reader by the hand, so to speak, and lead them through each step of your thinking process so that they do not get lost. Introducing other people’s words or ideas in such a way that makes clear the relationship between your argument and theirs is a key part of that process. Otherwise, it’s as if you’ve skipped ahead a few steps, leaving the reader to stop and try put together the pieces. If there’s one thing you don’t want to do to your reader, it’s make your ideas hard to follow. That goes for school, the ACT, and any other writing you might do for the next sixty or seventy years.

Once again, we’re going to work with 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: Technology should be seen as a force for good because it creates new possibilities for people as well as a more prosperous society.

Consider this this sample paragraph:

Perspective 3 states that, “Intelligent machines challenge our longstanding idea of what humans are and can be.” I agree with this idea. In 2014, a terrible tragedy occurred during the Boston Marathon. Two bombs went off near the finish line, and three people were killed. Dozens of people were also injured, and many even lost limbs. However, with new advances in technology, many of the victims were able to benefit from high-tech prosthetics, which allowed them to return to normal lives and even play sports. This “pushes humans and machines toward new possibilities” (Perspective 3).

There’s nothing terribly wrong with this paragraph. It’s grammatically correct, clear and focused, and uses one of the outside perspectives for support.

That said, it also features short, declarative statements, and relatively little stylistic variation. There’s also only one transition (“however”), and Perspective 3 is simply dropped into the paragraph without much introduction. The final quotation is never discussed or analyzed; the reader is left to connect it to the information that precedes it. Basically, this is quintessential high school writing.

Assuming that the rest of the essay integrated the remaining perspectives, it would probably score somewhere in the mid-high 20s. It’s solid but doesn’t flow particularly well, and the example could include more specific details.

One simple way to boost the level of your writing is to use one of the following “formulas” for introducing an outside source:

-According to perspective 1…
-As perspective 1 states/points out/emphasizes
-Perspective 1 suggests/implies that…

You can also rephrase the quotation, giving it your own particular emphasis. So instead of writing something like this:

Perspective 3 states that, “Intelligent machines challenge our longstanding idea of what humans are and can be.” I agree with this idea.

You can write something like this:

As perspective 3 indicates, intelligent machines do indeed challenge conventional ideas of what it means to be human.

The essential information is the same, but the second version is smoother and more sophisticated.

For more options, see:

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/930/10/
https://www.gallaudet.edu/tip/english-center/writing/quoting-and-praphrases.html
https://student.unsw.edu.au/introducing-quotations-and-paraphrases

 

A few well-placed transitions also go a long way toward making your writing flow. What follows is a “template” for constructing a paragraph in which you cite an outside perspective for support.

1) Topic sentence: introduce the main argument of the paragraph

In recent years, machines have undoubtedly transformed our lives for the better in ways both large and small.

2) Expand on your argument: 2-3 sentences

Only a few decades ago, staying in touch with family and friends required a complex dance of phone cards, long-distance plans, and missed connections; today, in contrast, we can Skype and text with people half a world as away, conversing with them as clearly and quickly as if they were in the next room. On a more serious note, recent developments in prosthetics have allowed soldiers injured in battle or people injured in accidents to resume normal lives.

3) Introduce the outside perspective: 1 sentence

In fact, as perspective 1 suggests, so-called “intelligent” machines have created possibilities that would have been unthinkable in the mid-20th century. (Note how this sentence summarizes the perspective without parroting it word-for-word).

4) Tie the perspective back to your argument with a specific example: 4-6 sentences

For example, consider the impact of new technologies on the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. One of the largest-scale tragedies in recent memory, the 2014 attack left three people dead and more than 100 wounded – some requiring multiple amputations. In the past, people who suffered these types of injuries would likely have been consigned to wheelchairs or been forced to make do with heavy, unwieldy prosthetics. Now, however, “smart” prosthetics are both lighter and able to mimic the movements of natural limbs, responding instantly to the wearer’s muscles and allowing them carry out a full range of daily activities. In fact, one of the marathon victims (specific example) whose leg was badly mangled actually elected to have it amputated rather than live in constant pain. Her rationale: a high-tech prosthetic would allow her to return to a normal life much more quickly.

5) Tie it back to the outside perspective: 1-2 sentences  

Far from creating the science fiction nightmare suggested by movies such as Terminator and Jurassic Park, the integration of machines into human bodies has permitted people who would otherwise be seriously disabled to live normal lives. In the best possible way, these machines have indeed altered traditional ideas of what human beings can be.

 

In Part 3: how to discuss ideas you disagree with.

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.

The ACT essay is changing

Although the ACT announced the changes to the essay last spring, I keep encountering people (including tutors) who aren’t aware of the shift. If the College Board has gone all out promoting the changes to the SAT, the ACT has been a lot more reticent about publicizing the upcoming changes. If you’re (re)taking the ACT with writing this fall, however, this is something you need to be aware of.

The ACT has always been upfront about the fact that it is necessary to include a counterargument to obtain a top score, but now that requirement is being pushed further. Instead of considering two perspectives, test-takers will now be asked to engage with three perspectives.

Click here for information about the new prompt, and here for sample essays at each score level.

You can’t write 12 essay in 25 minutes if you can’t write a 12 essay period

A while back, I happened to be chatting with PWN the SAT (aka Mike McClenathan), and inevitably, the topic turned to the infamous SAT essay and how (I think) that the time factor has a tendency to get blown out of proportion.

Mike made the exceedingly astute comment that since most test-prep advice gets doled out by adults, it occasionally has a tendency to focus on the things that *adults* find difficult about the SAT. And let’s face it: if you haven’t sat in an English class since sometime around 1983 and are no longer required to churn out in-class essays about The Great Gatsby on a regular basis, popping out a coherent, specific piece of writing on, say, the nature of heroism, in a mere 25 minutes might seem like a pretty big challenge. That’s just not a lot of time, and consequently the rush/panic factors loom large.

Here are some things, however, that are not typically problematic for most college-educated adults who attempt to write an essay in 25 minutes:

-Using clear, coherent standard written English

-Using correct grammar, punctuation, and syntax

-Formulating a clear thesis statement

-Staying on topic

-Using examples that clearly support the thesis

-Making clear the relationship between the examples and the thesis

-Providing specific details when discussing examples

-Separating ideas into paragraphs

-Using tenses correctly and consistently

-Varying sentence structure

-Using logical transitions to connect ideas

-Throwing in a couple of correctly used “big” words

If you can take all of that for granted, of course the biggest challenge is the time limit! But that’s really an awful lot to take for granted.

All of these things — I repeat, ALL of these things — have serious potential to cause problems for most teenage writers. And they do. Often the problem isn’t just one or two of the above factors but five or six. Unfortunately, having real trouble with even just one or two of them is enough to prevent someone from ever attaining a 12 without going back and shoring up the fundamentals. A kid who just cannot maintain focus on a thesis throughout an essay will have an exceedingly difficult time scoring above an 9, no matter how good their ideas are.

Likewise, a kid who truly does not yet understand how to make examples specific by providing concrete detail and offers vague and repetitive assertions instead is also unlikely to ever score above an 8, maybe even a 7. It doesn’t matter how many timed essays they write; the score just won’t go above a certain level.

I’m not trying to deny that time is an important factor, just to suggest that it isn’t the factor par excellence that it often gets made out to be. A clear, well-argued essay whose author runs out of time to stick on a conclusion still does have the potential to receive a 10+ score. Conversely, a finished essay with intro, conclusion, and body paragraphs may score several points lower if it exhibits serious technical errors. As with many things on the SAT, there’s no quick fix if the basic skills aren’t already in place.

One of the things I try to look at in conjunction with my students’ SAT essays is a school essay that they haven’t written under timed conditions. It’s the only way to tell what their actual level of writing is. If there’s a significant gap, then yes, timing (or just not knowing what to write) may be the problem. But if I see the same technical errors — sentence fragments, tense switching, lack of a clear thesis, unsupported statements — that’s a pretty big red flag that we have to take a couple of steps back and talk about how to write an essay period.

The importance of transitions

In many ways, I think that the Verbal portion of the SAT is fundamentally about transitions. Or at least the Critical Reading and Essay portions of it. Let me explain what I mean by this: the SAT is essentially designed to test your ability to perceive relationships between ideas and arguments.

Do two piece of information discuss the same idea or different ideas? Does one idea build on or support the previous one, or does it contradict it and move the argument in a new direction? Does it emphasize a point? Refute a point? Explain a point?

Transitions are the signposts, so to speak, that make clear (or elucidate) these relationships. Without words such as “and,” “for example,” and “however,” it becomes much more difficult to tease out just what two words (or sentences or paragraphs or passages) have to do with one another. Transitions are thus where Critical Reading and Writing meet — just aspaying attention to transitions can help you follow an author’s argument in a reading passage, so can including transitions in your own writing help your reader follow your argument.

Remember: your reader should have to exert as little effort as possible to follow your argument. The harder your reader has to work, the lower your score is likely to be. You need to make the relationships among your ideas explicit, whether you’re talking about your championship soccer team from last season or War and Peace.

Here’s an experiment: below are two version of the same passage. I’ve rewritten the first version in order to remove all the transitions. Read it and try to get the gist.

No Transitions

The Panama Canal illustrates the principle that the economist Albert O. Hirschman has called the Hiding Hand. People begin many enterprises. They don’t realize how difficult they are. They respond with ingenuity that lets them overcome the unexpected. The Apollo program’s engineers and astronauts did this. The testimony in [the documentary] Panama Canal shows the power of the heroic image of technology in the early twentieth century. It was felt by the exploited laborers, who shared the nineteenth century’s stoic approach to industrial risk. Three percent of white American workers died. Nearly 14 percent of West Indians died. There were improvements in sanitation. It was “a harsh nightmare,” the grandson of one of those workers declares. He recalls the pride of his grandfather in participating in one of the world’s great wonders. Many returnees were inspired by their achievement to join movements for greater economic and political equality in the 1920s and 1930s, the roots of the decolonization movement.

You probably got the basic point, but you also probably noticed that that there were places where sentences sat side by side with no obvious logical connection to one another (“There were improvements in sanitation. It was “a harsh nightmare,” the grandson of one of those workers declares.”)

While I’ve exaggerated here for effect, I do often see students omit transitions between their thoughts in their essays — particularly between paragraphs — thereby forcing the reader to scramble to re-situate him/herself in the argument. It’s subtler, but there’s always a moment of, “Wait, what is this person actually trying to say here?” Don’t make your reader go through the equivalent of what you just read.

Now try it with transitions:

The Panama Canal illustrates the principle that the economist Albert O. Hirschman has called the Hiding Hand. People begin many enterprises becausethey don’t realize how difficult they actually are, yet respond with ingenuity that lets them overcome the unexpected, as the Apollo program’s engineers and astronauts were later to do. The testimony in [the documentary] Panama Canal also shows the power of the heroic image of technology in the early twentieth century. It was felt even by the exploited laborers, who still shared the nineteenth century’s stoic approach to industrial risk. Three percent of white American workers and nearly 14 percent of West Indians died. Despiteimprovements in sanitation, it was “a harsh nightmare,” the grandson of one of those workers declares, but he also recalls the pride of his grandfather in participating in one of the world’s great wonders. In fact, many returnees were inspired by their achievement to join movements for greater economic and political equality in the 1920s and 1930s, the roots of the decolonization movement.

A lot easier to understand, right?