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. (more…)

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.


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.

It doesn’t matter how high your score is if you can’t apply the skills in real life

It doesn’t matter how high your score is if you can’t apply the skills in real life

As I wrote about recently, I’ve seen a recent uptick in email. In addition to requests for my books, I also receive everything from straight up fan mail (always exciting), while others involve questions or comments.

Now, some of these missives are absolutely lovely. The writing is not only grammatically correct but also polite, clear, and fluid, and could easily have been produced by someone a decade or two older. I assume that even if these kids don’t get into fill-in-the-blank-Ivy, they’ll most likely be fine in life since anyone who has mastered the rules of written communication at 16 or 17 will almost certainly be able to find a job doing something or other. If these letters include a request, I usually try to answer them when I have a moment and am not so mentally burned out that I can’t manage to string five or six sentences together.

Alas, other emails are, to put it bluntly, sloppy and ungrammatical, some with a whiff of entitlement.

To be clear, I am not talking about typos, which everyone makes, nor am I referring to understandable errors made by people whose first language is not English. It takes some serious gumption to write in a foreign language, and far more gumption to even contemplate applying to college in a foreign country. In addition, I’m aware that certain rhetorical flourishes common in some languages can translate awkwardly into English. Those don’t concern me here.

For the record, I am also not looking to pick apart anyone’s writing in the course of a normal email exchange. Yes, I write grammar books, but there’s a time and a place for everything, and I know how and when to shelve it. If you have a question, by all means write to me — I’m not trying to scare anyone off.

That said, I’m also not letting people entirely off the hook here. If you know English well enough to be aiming for a high score on the SAT, and to apply to study in the United States at the university level, chances are that you know English well enough to follow its most basic rules. And if English is your first language, or if you’ve been going to an English-language school for years, you really have no excuse. The assumption on the reader’s part will be that you know perfectly well how to write correctly but simply couldn’t be bothered to do so. That is not an impression you want to make. In fact, it’s just plain rude.

This may sound obvious, but the point of writing is to communicate with other people when you are not physically present. Your writing is a stand-in for you, a delegate on your behalf, if you will. And in the absence of any other information, you will be judged by it — consciously or subconsciously — because it’s all that the reader has to go on.

Furthermore, different situations call for different types of communication, and what’s perfectly acceptable in one situation might not even be remotely appropriate in another.

When you are texting your friends or posting on Facebook, it’s perfectly fine to write things like “HAHAHA ROTFLMAO!!!”

When you are writing to your parents, you can say things like “hi, ill be home at 6, when r we eating”

However: Any time you communicate in writing with an adult you do not already have an established, familiar relationship with, you are expected to write  correctly. Admissions officers, college professors, and prospective employers all fall into that category. If you’re not sure, err on the side of caution. Trust me when I say that no one cares whether you got an 800 in Writing if you cannot actually express yourself in clear, coherent, grammatically standard English. Test scores only have meaning if they reflect what you actually know.

This does not mean you need to be stylistically brilliant, nor does it mean you need to pack your writing full of ten-dollar words and use convoluted sentences that are five lines long. It does, however, mean that you are expected to follow the conventions of standard written English (electronic) communication.

These include:

  • Capitalizing the first letter of every sentence, proper names, and the word “I.” Moreover, capitalization must be consistent — you can’t capitalize in some places and use lower case in others. It is almost impossible to overemphasize how sloppy that looks. (It also comes off as a little unstable.)
  • Ensuring that your writing does not contain any egregious grammatical errors — that means things like comma splices. Most people aren’t interested in picking apart your grammar, but they will notice if your mistakes are glaring.
  • Phrasing things politely and recognizing that people will not necessarily be able to accommodate you simply because you’re making a request.

And if you really want to make a good impression:

  • Separating ideas with a space between paragraphs. Large blocks of text can be extremely difficult to process mentally, especially on a screen. Creating clear visual divisions between thoughts makes your ideas easier to follow.

Perhaps I’m turning into an old curmudgeon, or perhaps capitalization is just a relic that can’t be seriously expected of 21st century students (who are presumably all going to become superstar coders who have no need to write anything), but I’m not quite willing to throw in that towel just yet.

In some ways, I feel bad for picking on people for this — some of the emails I receive are terribly, almost painfully sweet. When I jotted down the first handful of exercises that would eventually become The Ultimate Guide to SAT® Grammar, I had absolutely no idea that my books would help students in places like Egypt and Tunisia fulfill their dreams of studying in the United States. I’m staggered by their impact, and I’m truly sorry that there are limits to how I can distribute them. But on the other hand, it seems like a disservice not to point these things out, and not (only) for the sake of being a nitpicky grammarian.

I think that this problem seems particularly acute to me precisely because I’m not a teacher. Website aside, pretty much all of the people I exchange emails with are other adults (of varying degrees of education, I might add) who invariably follow the basic standard rules of written English — even in a casual, two sentence exchange. It’s therefore very striking — and irritating — to me to receive an email that does not contain a single capitalized letter. I’m also not subject to administrators or educational fads that subscribe to the belief that it’s normal or acceptable for high school juniors to write like fifth graders.

Given the obsession with “real world skills,” I find it frankly bizarre that schools are not actually impressing upon their students the importance of mastering this exceedingly fundamental real world skill. But as someone who’s basically made a career out of teaching very important (basic) things that no longer get taught in school, I feel responsible for bringing it to people’s attention.

The reality is that in college, in the professional world, the ability to express yourself well still counts enormously. Like it or not, poor writing will reflect poorly on you. You have no idea what sorts of opportunities you might miss out on simply because you made a questionable impression. You also have no idea whose hands your emails might end up in; the “Forward” button is a powerful tool. If you are the one-in-a-million exception who starts the next Facebook, you’ll get a pass. Otherwise, you probably won’t.

So in the immortal words of adults everywhere, I’m not just trying to be mean; I’m actually doing you a favor.

Someday, you’ll thank me for it.

(For further reference about what will be expected from you in college, see Note that this was written by a MATH professor.)