Almost a decade ago, the creators of both the SAT and ACT introduced essays to their previously pristine multiple-choice exams. Each organization charted a different course, differing in what the essays are written on, how long students have to write, and, perhaps most importantly, whether students are even required to write the essay. Considering that the College Board is moving towards a longer optional essay, it’s fair to say the ACT model won that particular competition.
That said, one more aspect of the ACT essay infrastructure deserves recognition and further consideration from that other testing authority. While both organizations assign students 2-12 essay scores through a similar grading process, ACT provides additional context for performance in the form of stock essay comments. These essay comments, derived from the ACT scoring rubric, are selected by one of the two essay readers for inclusion on the student score report. Code numbers corresponding to the comments are also listed on the High School and College Reports.
I can’t imagine that admissions officers get much out of these comments that they cannot already glean quickly from the 2-12 essay score. Students who are finished with the ACT don’t benefit from these canned critiques either. However, any student working towards an optimal essay can learn a lot about writing great SAT and ACT essays just by reviewing these comments.
Make and Articulate Judgments
20. Your essay responded to the prompt by taking a position on the issue.
21. Your essay responded to the prompt by taking a clear position on the issue.
22. Your essay acknowledged counterarguments on the issue but did not discuss them.
23. Your essay showed recognition of the complexity of the issue by addressing counterarguments.
24. Your essay showed recognition of the complexity of the issue by partially evaluating its implications.
25. Your essay addressed the complexity of the issue by fully responding to counterarguments.
26. Your essay addressed the complexity of the issue by evaluating its implications.
TAKEAWAY: Above all else, take a clear position on the issue at hand and make sure your reader knows exactly what that position is. The most persuasive writing addresses the complexity of an issue rather than pretending that an argument is one-sided.
30. Your essay provided very little writing about your ideas. Try to write more about the topic.
31. The ideas in your essay needed to be more fully explained and supported with more details.
32. Your essay used some specific details, reasons, and examples, but it needed more of them.
33. Your essay adequately supported general statements with specific reasons, examples, and details.
34. General statements in your essay were well supported with specific reasons, examples, and details.
35. Your essay effectively supported general statements with specific reasons, examples, and details.
TAKEAWAY: The persuasive part of persuasive writing comes down to making claims supported by credible reasoning and evidence. Always include factual, social, and experiential evidence in your arguments, even if you have to make something up!
40. Your writing did not maintain a focus on the issue. Try to plan your essay before you write.
41. Your essay focused on the general topic rather than on the specific issue in the prompt.
42. Your essay maintained focus on the specific issue in the prompt.
TAKEAWAY: Whether you are writing off-the-cuff on a surprise topic or taking months to craft your perfect essay, you must maintain focus. Many students begin writing only to find that, by the time they’re halfway through their essays, they’ve completely changed their positions. Maintain focus by outlining before writing.
Organize and Present Ideas
50. Your essay lacked organization. Try to plan and arrange your ideas logically.
51. Your essay was not clearly organized. Try to plan and arrange your ideas logically.
52. Your essay showed basic organizational structure, but the ideas needed to be more clearly connected.
53. The organization of your essay was adequate, but the rigid structure seemed to limit discussion.
54. Your essay was well organized, making it easy to understand logical relationships among ideas.
55. The logical sequence of ideas in your essay fit its persuasive purpose well.
TAKEAWAY: Well-written essays boast exceptional organization with clear, effective introductions and conclusions. Always include clear transitions from point to point and paragraph to paragraph. Bonus tip: If your paragraphs can be reordered with no discernible impact on your message, you probably aren’t including effective transitions!
60. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors made your essay difficult to understand.
61. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors were distracting. Proofread your writing.
62. Using correct grammar and more varied sentence structures would improve your essay.
63. Using more varied sentence structures would make your essay clearer and more engaging.
64. Using more sentence variety and precise word choice would make your essay clearer and more engaging.
65. Some varied sentence structures and precise word choice added clarity and interest to your writing.
66. Your essay showed a good command of language by using varied sentences and precise word choice.
TAKEAWAY: Readers pay close attention to what you say, but also care about how you say it. Students can earn terrific scores by focusing on the previous points but cannot achieve an elusive 11 or 12 without remarkable eloquence. Vocabulary, sentence structure, and grammar all matter.
While ACT may have won the first essay skirmish, the war is far from over. Major changes in both tests loom on the horizon, with ACT set to abandon some of the most beloved aspects of its essay with an Enhanced Writing Test coming out as early as Fall 2015. But no matter the changes in format, these essays focus on the fundamentals of persuasive writing in ways that, if we observe carefully enough, can make us better persuasive writers in any context. Isn’t that what a good writing test should do?