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ACT Writing Strategies

ACT Writing Strategies and Tactics: Meet the Culinary Challenge

Every cooking competition has some serious guidelines that must be followed before you even think about game strategy. For Iron Chef, all cooking must be done in Kitchen Stadium (test room, check), you as the Challenger chef have a fixed time to prepare the meal/essay (30 minute writing time, check), all dishes must incorporate the Secret Ingredient (prompt, we have your back on this one—think of Shmoop as your sous chef extraordinaire!), and there are judges that well…judge (ACT test graders, watch out!). Before you head into the kitchen, let's review the specifics of this challenge.

The ACT Essay Prompt

Ah, Chef, it is time to reveal the Secret Ingredient in this writing challenge: the prompt. The ACT essay prompt is supposed to be "high school specific." That’s test-speak for “the prompt will give you a debated topic that is typically geared toward, or concerned with, people your age.” You will have to pick a side and argue your point thoroughly and with plenty of supporting examples.

In the words of the ACT, here are the directions:

  • “This is a test of your writing skills. You will have thirty (30) minutes to write an essay in English. Before you begin planning and writing your essay, read the writing prompt carefully to understand exactly what you are being asked to do. Your essay will be evaluated on the evidence it provides of your ability to express judgments by taking a position on the issue in the writing prompt; to maintain a focus on the topic throughout the essay; to develop a position by using logical reasoning and by supporting your ideas; to organize ideas in a logical way; and to use language clearly and effectively according to the conventions of standard written English.
  • You may use the unlined pages in this test booklet to plan your essay. These pages will not be scored. You must write your essay in pencil on the lined pages in the answer folder. Your writing on those lined pages will be scored. You may not need all the lines pages, but to ensure you have enough room to finish, do NOT skip lines. You may write corrections or additions neatly between the lines of your essay, but do NOT write in the margins of the lined pages. Illegible essays cannot be scored, so you must write (or print) clearly.
  • If you finish before time is called, you may review your work. Lay your pencil down immediately when time is called.”

Up to the challenge? No need to fret, we will help you dice these instructions into important pieces that you will use to prepare your next mind-blowing meal.

Here's a sample prompt to taste:

  • Some public schools feel that uniforms should be required for all students. They argue that uniforms will have many benefits, including reducing conflicts between students from high-income families and students from lower-income families. Some people even think that requiring public school students to wear uniforms will reduce clique or gang problems in schools. Opponents say that clothes are an important way for students to express their individuality, and that requiring uniforms in public schools will keep students from expressing their personality and creativity.
  • In your essay, take a position on this question. You may write about either one of the two points of view given, or you may present a different point of view on this question. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.

ACT prompts will always give a couple of starter examples along with the central debate (like eradicating cliques versus allowing for individuality), but keep in mind that these are just meant to get you thinking about the debate. The examples you will present in your essay can use these general topics but should be much more specific.

The second paragraph of the prompt—the part that begins "In your essay, take a position on this question"—will be the same in every single ACT essay. Sweet! The first thing you should do is pick a side, any side. You can take one of the two positions mentioned in the prompt (school uniforms: yay!, or school uniforms: boo!). In rare instances, you can present a third option to the debate, but we will discuss this later.

You'll need to use specific examples and reasons to support your position. Maybe you think uniforms in public schools are a swell idea that will keep you from agonizing over your wardrobe every morning, so you argue that uniforms will prevent students from wasting precious time that could be used to study. Or that school uniforms are a great way to eliminate the jealousy and other bad feelings that might crop up if half the class can afford Manolo Blahnik and the other half can't.

On the other hand, if the idea of wearing the same clothes to school for four years makes you clutch in panic at your favorite sweatshirt/jeans/baseball hat, write about why, specifically, school uniforms would stifle your unique personality. It's not enough to say, "I think___," although that's a good start. Citing the First Amendment (freedom of speech and expression) might work well here. Articulate the "why" of your argument and be super specific when you do.

You support school uniforms because gang violence is a problem at your school and uniforms would prevent students from wearing their gang colors? Perfect.

You think school uniforms are an awful idea because the way you dress is an expression of who you are, and high school is hard enough without taking that away? Nice.

Write down examples. Write down as many as you can. Just make sure that they are relevant, intellectual, and strong. Check out Shmoop's College Writing Lab for tips on how to cook up juicy anecdotes and specific examples.

Okay, we've established that you have to first pick a side when answering an ACT writing prompt. Now, let's discuss what you are being tested on and what skillz you should show off because, let's face it, you have a lot to show off. Shake it.

Free excerpts from Shmoop's online ACT subject material:

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