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ACT Writing Section

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.

Alright so you are probably here because you've signed up for the optional ACT writing test or maybe you're thinking about it. So in this episode what we are going to do is talk about the basic information that you need to know. We are going to talk about the fact that it's optional, then we are going to talk about the prompt, what you can expect to see, how much time you're going to have to work on these things and then how in the end your actual essay will be scored.
So we talked about the fact that the ACT writing test is optional. In fact at this point though, about 18 percent of colleges and universities require students to take the test for admissions. Another 21 percent recommend it. So in order to kind of figure out whether or not you really want to be taking this test, a good starting place is the ACT website. So if you go to and click 'The test' here on the opening screen and then take a look over here, click 'Writing test options' and you'll see here in the middle, 'Search writing test requirements by college'. So here's where you can go and you can click and enter the name of your college that you're applying to to see if you need to take it or if the college requires or recommends it. So for instance let's try University of Illinois, alright so when we type it in we click 'Find', you'll see it list all of the university of Illinois colleges. The flagship is that University of Illinois have a ban of champagne and you can see starting in 2008, they require all students applying for admissions to take the writing portion of the test. The two satellite campuses; one in Chicago and one in Springfield both recommend it. So you can kind of see, if you're a student that's applying to one of these three campuses, you probably should take the writing test. And in fact I think an essay is going to reveal more about you than bubbles that you fill in an ACT could any day. So it's always nice to have that added kind of [IB] to your personality that the essay is going to provide.
So the first thing that we are going to look at that you're probably going to want to know about going into the ACT writing test is the prompt. Four things about the prompt that we are going to talk about, the first is that the prompt relates directly to high school students. So you're going to get some sort of issue that you probably have dealt with. Some of the things that have come up in the past are: cell phones in schools, what cafeterias offer, should high school be extended longer than four years. So it's going to be something that you have some personal experience with. So that's the first thing. Don't get nervous about what you are going to see, you've already seen it before.
The next thing you need to know about the prompt is it's going to require a specific position to be taken by you. So it's going to give you this issue, this problem and it's going to say, decide this or decide that. So you've got to decide what you believe about it. For the ACT writing prompt, this is not a time for you to straddle the fence so you want to make sure you avoid ambiguous language, things like probably, maybe, sometimes. You've really got to definitively pick one side of this issue.
Alright the prompts also are going to provide you with two distinct perspectives on the issue. So if you get an issue and you don't really know much about it, make sure you read the prompt closely because it's going to give you some information. Even if you don't agree with the two perspectives provided, you're going to want to use those and reference them in your counter argument which we are going to talk about in another episode.
Another nice option of the ACT prompt is that it presents the option for you to develop your own viewpoint. This is really nice because if you don't agree with one of the two sides presented in the actual prompt, this gives you a chance to really voice your opinion and kind of get your personality out there. However what you want to be careful of is if you develop your own viewpoint, this is not a ticket for you to straddle the fence. Your viewpoint can't be sometimes I believe the first thing they said and then sometimes I believed the second thing they said. You've really got to come up with an individualized point of view for this. So we are going to talk in another episode a little bit more about how to attack this prompt but for now you know the basics of what to expect.
Alright the next thing you need to know about the ACT writing is that you're going to have a limited amount of time and this is probably the number one thing that students get nervous about. You only have 30 minutes from start to finish to get done with this essay. So what I've come up with is a little kind of recommended guide about how much time you want to spend on different parts of the writing process, because even though you only have 30 minutes, you don't want to just breeze through and just kind of throw out everything that's on your mind. We're going talk in the episode about the rubric, about what the things the graders are going to be looking for but what you want to make sure you do is go through these steps so that you get everything there.
So my suggestion is that as you go through the test, you spend about one or two minutes reading and dissecting the prompt. Go ahead then and spend three to five minutes brainstorming so that now that you know what they are asking you for, brainstorm your ideas, get them out there, spend 20 minutes, which is a good chunk, two thirds of the time writing the actual essay. And then I can't underscore how important it is to actually take three to five minutes at the end to proofread your essay. Try to read it out loud, something that you can quietly do to go through it, make sure you catch any of those small spelling or punctuation errors that you might have missed as you wrote.
So probably the number one question that students ask about the ACT writing portion is, how am I going to be scored? So right now we are going to go over a basic overview about how you're going to be scored. In another episode we'll get into a little bit more depth. So the first thing you need to know is that the scoring is holistic, which essentially means that the scorers that are looking at your essay or looking at it as a whole piece. So you're not going to get five points for good introduction and then ten more points for a solid thesis statement and lose three points for grammar. They are going to look at it all in one big piece and say; this essay gets a four or hopefully a six. So that brings us to the next point, it's holistic and you can score anywhere between a one and a six, alright. You're going to have two scores looking at your essay and they'll each give it a score. You may have a third if your two original scores differ by more than one point. So for instance if one score gives you a four, another gives a six, a third score will come in and intervene to kind of mediate that situation. So ultimately you can earn between a two and a 12 on the ACT.
A lot of students also wonder, "Well what's this going to look like when a college actually gets it." So let's take a look at an actual chart of what the colleges are going to see for your scores. Found this website for a local California school district that kind of walks us through. So if we take a look down here, this ACT score in norm is really the chart that colleges are going to see when your scores are reported to them. So what you're asking about your score, it's a little bit of a complicated situation. Because the writing test is optional not everybody is going to have the score included obviously. When you do take the writing test, this is what the colleges are going to see. The first thing you're going to see is your English score up here at the top and this is just the score that you got on the English section not taking into account the writing. So you've got that score independent of the writing. Then if you look down here where you see the star, you'll see an English/Writing score and what that is a composite score that combines the English score that you got and then the writing score which shows up down here and again tells you that the range is between a two and a 12. So this person got a ten which is really a solid score on that, the ten combined with the 24 that they got on the ACT English section, composites out to a 25 for the writing but you'll see it's listed differently since some colleges will consider it and some probably won't. The other nice thing about our scoring guide with that writing is that you're also going to also get some comment codes so this person got 24, 34 and 65 and that test score will come back with some comments that talks about why your essay got the score that it did and then if you go ahead and decide to take the test again, that's really nice feedback for you to do a revision to the essay or to be better prepared for the next essay that you right.
In this episode we talked about the bottom line basics you need to know about the writing portion of the ACT. We talked about the fact that it's optional and we talked about the fact that about 50 percent of colleges are either recommending or requiring it. We talked about the prompt, what you can expect to see and how you need to attack it. We talked about how much time you're going to have and then finally we talked about how you are going to be scored and then what colleges are going to see when they get your scoring report. In other episodes we are going to delve more deeply into these things so that you have a more solid idea about how to attack the ACT writing portion.