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ACT Essay Topics

Teacher/Instructor Katie Aquino
Katie Aquino

Writing, Grammar, Literature, ACT Prep
Education: M.Ed.,Stanford University

Katie is an enthusiastic teacher who strives to make connections between literature and student’s every day lives.

We spend a lot of time talking about all of the essential components of a good ACT style essay. In this episode we're going to take a look at some sample essays that were written by actual students in response to an ACT style prompt. Furthermore they were graded by actual teachers and evaluated on the ACT Rubric, so just a reminder the Rubric is going to consider seven indicators for the ACT in their understanding of task, position, complexity, development, organization, sentences and word choice and grammar. So let's take a look at those essays and see how they measure up on the scale.
Let's take a look at example essay number one, go to the bonus materials and download it. It scored an 11 which means one teacher gave it a five and one teacher gave it the maximum possible points, which was a six. I'm going to read through the first paragraph with you but, it would be essential for you to have it printed out in front of you. Alright so it starts, 'The perennial problem facing schools in the country today is dropout rates. This stubborn blight has refused to go away despite of a variety of methods enacted by schools to get rid of it. In a certain school, two of these methods have been proposed-either offering free tutoring or offering a wider variety of classes. Although the idea of free tutoring sounds attractive, the solution lies in offering a wider variety of classes, which ultimately encourages students to stay in school.' This essay goes on to give ample support of details about why it's important to give a wider variety of classes and furthermore really hummers home a strong counter argument that shows why free tutoring just won't work. Let's take a look at how it measures up to some of the key indicators that we've discussed earlier. We're going to lump some of those indicators together just for easy sake because they really go hand in hand. So let's talk about how it did with 'task and position.' This essay did a really solid job of setting up the task, showing an understanding of it and then taking a strong position. Very clearly the essay states, 'The solution lies in offering a wider variety of classes, which ultimately encourages students to stay in school.' They're not straddling in the fence, they tell you what it is they're going to prove that they should go with 'the offering a wider variety of classes,' and gives the reason. The reason behind this is that 'it ultimately encourages students to stay in school.'
Alright let's take a look at 'Complexity and development.' So here is where the readers are really looking for you to show a global view that you've considered all different viewpoints and then supported it with specific examples. So we're going to take a look at three spots in this essay where this writer really does a great job. The first place the writer tops is, 'the biggest reason behind students dropping out of school is not inability but apathy...what my not brighten those paths is free tutoring. This method relies on the erroneous belief that bad grades lead to dropping out.' So the reason I pulled this put is a really great example is that this writer presents a really interesting premise, instead of just saying we usually have a wider variety of classes because it provides motivation, this writer kind of goes out on a limb and says 'well let me correct the prompt actually.' Instead of saying that 'the problems with schools is dropping out because of inability' which is what suggested I'm going to go out there and say it's actually apathy. So it suggests an interesting premise which really is great complexity there. Another great thing that this essay does is 'Although the idea of free tutoring sounds attractive, offering a wider variety of classes to attract students of every stripe is thus the preferred method.' So here we have that counter argument. So it introduces this idea 'although the idea of free tutoring sounds attractive,' but then it goes ahead and dismisses it like we said in the counter argument episode is the way to create that strong counter argument.
Finally the essay says 'The encouragement derived from an interesting class often spills into other classes as well...when a student is interested in a class, he's encouraged to work harder.' Here we have an example. Now I believe this example could be a little bit more specific by talking about a specific student or perhaps specific classes and maybe that's why one of the scorers gave it a five instead of a six. But it's a good backup, it's good support to show that offering a wider variety of classes will actually encourage students to stay in school, so very strong complexity, very strong development.
Organization wise essay number one is solid, it's logical, it introduces the counter argument and it really expands on the arguments that it's making. The one really nice thing about this is that essay number one is a great example of using natural transitions. And we talked about this in an earlier episode, but here is just a really solid example. If you look at the end of body paragraph number one it ends with the sentence, 'Furthermore, their grades improve in other classes as a result, brightening their paths to graduation.' And then it picks up body paragraph number two with the reference the same paths, says 'what may not brighten those paths is free tutoring.' So instead of going to those canned transitions like, 'on the other hand' or 'now I'm going to talk about' it just hits this idea this reference to these paths. So that's a really strong natural transition that really strengthens the organization of the essay.
Finally sentence structure and grammar, we're going to look at those together since they really have to do with the mechanics of the essay. The really solid thing that this essay does is offer lots of sentence variety. If you remember back to the bonus materials, there's a sentence variety chart that I gave you that I said you could use to kind of chart your sentence variety, what I've done in the bonus materials for this essay is chart the sentence variety of one of the body paragraphs. And you can see by looking at the different types and the different lengths of sentences that this really has a great flow, there's a lot of variety there. Additionally this essay uses an advance vocabulary but it's not only advanced, it's used appropriately. So here the example is, 'Free tutoring doesn't aim at the heart of the problems facing schools; a wider variety of classes does by livening interest in school up until graduation.' So we've just seen an advance sentence structure and an advance use of vocabulary very strong commendable language. These are all the reasons why this essay earned an 11 which is where you want to be, ideally scoring ten to 12 on the ACT writing.
Now let's take a look at sample essay number two. Go ahead and go to the bonus materials and print it out. Again I'm going to start with reading the first paragraph but it really will be important for you to have a hard copy on front of you to follow along. Alright, this one starts with 'A major problem that many high schools face is students failing to graduate, or dropping out before they have the chance. High schools across the nation have attempted countless different programs and techniques to try to combat student's failure, some proving more successful than others. In my opinion, offering a wider variety of class options would do a better job of promoting success than merely offering free tutoring because 'interest' promotes a desire to learn and stay in school, something that not merely getting help can do.' So this one starts out very similar to essay number one but if you noticed this one only scored a seven. So it's still in the top half but a far cry from the 11 that the first essay scored. Here we've got again a very strong position and understanding of the task. This writer says 'offering a wider variety of class options would do a better job of promoting student success and merely offering free tutoring because the interest promotes the desire to learn and stay in school.' So we've got a position, we've got reason, further more we've got the introduction of a counter argument. But you can already infer even if you haven't read the essay from this that this writer must not do a good job of incorporating and powering up on that counter argument otherwise they would have scored much higher on the essay. So solid 'task and position' let's see where it falls a little bit short.
'Complexity and development' alright this writer says, 'My high school really helps many students by offering peer tutors because learning from peers is more appealing than being re-taught by adults....'tutoring helps many who may be too frustrated that they cannot understand their classes and want to drop out.' Now the first thing I notice when I read this is the wording is a little bit confusing here and I'm not really sure what this is supposing because, honestly it's making tutoring sound like a really good thing. The position statement told me that this essay was going to be arguing for a wider variety of classes. So this may be an attempted counter argument, but where it falls short is it doesn't completely dismiss the counter claim, it leaves the reader wondering but what is this person proving. So that's the first place that falls short in complexity and development. The essay also says, 'Offering many courses ensures that students will still learn, yet have some fun and become less stressed.' Now this is in the second body paragraph and this is the first time that the writer has introduced this idea of 'having fun and becoming less stressed' and it's really unclear where that links into the position that 'a wider variety of classes is better for learning.' So it seems kind of unfocused when we're talking about development and keeping it focused and supportive.
Finally in organization this essay is organized simply but effectively it's kind of predictable but that's why it scores a seven and not very up high on the scale which is at the 11. This essay says 'In addition to more classes, having parents and teachers who care about students' success, offering extra-curricular programs to increase an active connection with the school, having assemblies and events to promote school spirit and many other factors are all important in promoting success.' Now these are really great ideas and definitely on topic, but one might expect to see these ideas introduced in the introduction and then followed up on in the essay. However if you know where this paragraph comes from is the conclusion and that's one of the big no, no's for that basic organization. You don't introduce new ideas in the conclusion because all it does is serve to confuse the reader. These aren't anything that you've mentioned and none of your support relates to it. So this is why this essay's score is a little bit lower in organization.
'Sentence structure and grammar.' Alright this essay says, 'Something that not merely getting help can do.' This is one of the lines that really stuck out to me in fact it's part of the position statement which is one of those sentences that readers are really focused in on, when you are given your thesis or your position, they want it to be clear. And this wording is really kind of confusing, I'm not sure what things are referring to, what the something is and it's just a little bit awkward. So again we've got kind of this awkward use of language which keeps this essay down in that mid range rather than shooting it up to the higher range that shows a command of the language.
Alright the couple of pitfalls that this essay run into that we already have talked about and you want to make sure you avoid. This essay makes 'hasty generalizations' the line, 'only students with a desire to improve will benefit from such a program.' That's a big jump. So that's saying basically if I give tutoring to everybody if they don't whole heartedly want to be there they're going to flat out fail. And I think that's a really big leap in flaw and logic. It also gets a little bit wordy, 'The most important, though, is a student's desire to learn and to succeed;' it just goes on and on about that. And finally we talked about this 'basic organization' not only do we have kind of candid transitions like 'in addition' to and 'furthermore' but we talked about the introduction of new ideas in the conclusion which really throws the reader for a whip. So coming back to wrap it all up the seven indicators that the readers are going to be looking for is your 'understanding of the task,' the 'position' you take, the 'complexity' with which you discuss the issue, the 'development' or support you provide, how you organized your thoughts and then the way you deliver it with your 'sentence and word choice' and your 'grammar.'
In this episode we've taken a look at two essays, both were solid they scored in the top half but clearly we see why essay one scored an 11 while essay two scored a seven. So now that you guys have the tools and the information you need to attack the ACT writing section, I know you're going to do great.