How to Prepare for the ACT Essay

When approaching the ACT, it is important to consider the Essay section’s structure. This portion of the ACT asks students to consider multiple points of view. Thus, it is important to enter the ACT Essay section knowing what will be asked of you, in order to save time and jump directly into the task at hand. When preparing for the ACT Essay, be sure to understand the rubric, use concrete details as evidence, and understand the strengths and weaknesses of your position.

First, let's talk about the prompt itself. Here is a sample prompt on the topic of intelligent machines. Read on to learn how to prepare for this particular ACT Essay: 

1. Turn to the context for ACT Essay evidence ideas

The first paragraph in an ACT Essay prompt can be extremely helpful for orienting the test-taker, but it does not contain the actual assignment. Rather, this critical context helps the reader become grounded in the debate taking place, as it contains details that students can use as evidence or springboards into new ideas. For example, a student struggling to picture automation could be reminded of car assembly lines or self-checkout aisles. The context may also help students generate new ideas related to these points.

2. Devote a paragraph of your ACT essay to each perspective, and then analyze it

Students must address multiple perspectives on the ACT Essay, and it is wise to devote a paragraph to each one you choose to discuss. Note that perspectives will typically include several distinct parts. “What we lose with the replacement of people by machines is some part of our own humanity,” is a broad statement. “Even our mundane daily encounters no longer require from us basic courtesy, respect, and tolerance for other people,” is more specific. You can agree that machines cost us our humanity, but you might not feel that our daily encounters lack courtesy. You could also agree with both parts, or neither. If you are having trouble finding much to say about one part of a perspective, see if the other part might resonate more.

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3. Understand the ACT Essay rubric, and use concrete details as evidence

The actual instructions for the ACT Essay are fairly open-ended—they ask you to “Write a unified, coherent essay about the increasing presence of intelligent machines.” However, the bullet points below the instructions in this assignment correspond more clearly to the scoring rubric. You are graded on whether or not you do the following:

  • state your perspective, as well as address other perspectives

  • provide evidence and reasoning to support your examples

  • organize and express your essay in clear English.

Your essay will not be graded on whether the reader agrees or disagrees with your perspective. Rather, your ability to take a position and to back it up with evidence is the focus here.

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4. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of your position on the ACT Essay

Think about how extreme your point is. If you claim that “all intelligent machines are bad,” this is quite extreme. It is also a hard position to defend because it is easy for most people to think of at least one machine that enhances the quality of their life. If a student claims that automation does lessen our humanity, is that universal? Are there situations where machines can add to our humanity and enhance our lives? No matter how strong your perspective, surely there are exceptions. Recognizing the limitations of your argument does not weaken said argument; instead, it makes your argument more realistic and defensible.

5. Avoid personal anecdotes in your ACT Essay

Try to avoid personal anecdotes if at all possible. Instead, use personal experiences as a departure point to something more concrete. For instance, instead of talking about how sometimes store computers go down, thus serving as an inconvenience to yourself, you might reference the computer outages faced by Starbucks in mid-May. 

Students who would like more information on how to succeed on the ACT Essay should take the time to look over the sample essays and score explanations here after brainstorming and writing their own essay.  

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