ACT Write: The First Words on Essay Writing (page 4)
The writing portion of the ACT is optional, meaning that you have the choice of spending an extra 30 minutes at the testing center. (How lucky for you!) Although it's optional, many colleges and universities require this section of the ACT, so taking this part of the test is in your best interest. After all, taking the Writing Test and assuming your college is going to require it is better than not having a score to submit. In other words, take the darn test. You have nothing to lose if your university doesn't want it and everything to lose if it does.
If you're already an excellent writer, which many of you probably are, this chapter gives you the added confidence you need to understand the ACT essay. If you're not the greatest writer, as many students aren't, don't despair. We're here to help. This chapter points out common pitfalls you need to avoid while writing your essay and explains the scoring system the ACT people use to grade your work. It then shows you how other people have tackled the ACT essay to make writing your own essay a little easier. We include sample essays with low scores for you to laugh at (don't worry, we don't include the writers' names) and essays with high scores for you to learn from. Generally, the test gives you a point-counterpoint topic and asks you to write about one side or the other.
Rattling Your Writing With Some Loose Screws
Relax. You've been writing since the first grade, you have something to say, and this test is your way to prove it. All you need is a quick refresher on the basics of essay writing, which, lucky for you, we cover in the following sections. Avoid the pitfalls we describe here, and you'll be well on your way to a winning essay.
Although you may be scared to death of putting your ideas on paper with your name clearly indicated at the top of the page (who likes to be judged, anyway?), stop worrying. Your name is only on the first page, and the ACT scoring folks don't know what you look like.
Writing Before you Think
If you have no destination, you're bound to get lost. The most important part of your essay is having a strong structure and a clear idea of where you're going. If you put your pen to the paper without knowing what the heck you're going to say, you can bet your bottom dollar that the ACT folks won't know what you're saying either.
Make a quick plan before you start writing, and you'll avoid an essay that wanders aimlessly.
Panicking about Time
Writer's block — when you simply can't think of anything to put down — often occurs in stressful situations and is frequently the result of a time crunch. You have 30 full minutes to complete the writing portion of the ACT. That's plenty of time to read the question, organize your thoughts, write your essay, and do a quick edit.
To get the most out of your 30 minutes, we suggest you break them down like this:
- 2 minutes to read the question
- 3 minutes to write your thesis and hook
- 5 minutes to organize your thoughts
- 17 minutes to write the bulk of your essay
- 3 minutes to edit and proofread
Notice that we don't include any time for panicking. Panicking takes 30 minutes just to get over, and, by then, your time's up!
Using Words you Don't Know
Nobody can be Shakespeare, especially in 30 minutes — not even Bill himself. When writing your essay for the ACT, you don't have the thesaurus button on your word processor in front of you — which actually may be a good thing. One of the worst mistakes you can make is using words that you think sound good but aren't absolutely sure how to use. Instead of trying to use words that you don't know, impress the ACT readers with your thoughts and your ability to communicate clearly. Using words you don't know or understand completely may give the ACT graders a laugh, but you won't be laughing when you see your score.
Being Overly Critical of Yourself
Nobody writes the perfect essay in 30 minutes. Nobody! The graders know that, and you need to, too. Trying to be obsessively perfect does you more harm than good. If you spend too much time critiquing yourself, the ACT graders won't have anything to critique. And the good thing is that you don't have to be perfect to get a high score. You can get a good score in 30 minutes if you follow the suggestions and format in this book. Simply watch your time, stay organized, and express yourself clearly (and in your own words).
Writing Like you Speak
Everyone knows that speaking is much easier than writing. However, this test is neither the time nor the place to impress the test makers with your street vocabulary. Whatever you do, don't drop it like it's hot, don't think you're too cool for school, don't think you're kinda-like the, like, greatest, or like "ohmygod" this is so cool, or else it's your bad. In other words, you're not texting, you're not talking to your best friends, and you're not trying to communicate on the playground. You're writing for a bunch of old fogies who have no idea what the latest slang means. Stick to words that your grandparents understand.
Not Taking a Solid Stand
Our definition of wimp is being indecisive. If you don't take a solid position with your writing, the graders are going to knock you down. You may read a question and think you can justify it in a few different ways, but nobody ever plays for two opposing teams. Don't be scared of picking a side even though you don't believe it. The ACT graders won't know that you don't actually believe what you've written. They only care that you sound confident and that you can support yourself.
Choose your thesis based on the number (and quality) of ideas you have to back it up, and your solid thesis and back-up punches will give you a winning score.
Pouring on Too Much Controversy
The weekend before the ACT, you may be picketing your local politician, participating in a hunger strike for the dying kids in Africa, or living in the trees to save the forests from corporate logging. However, the ACT essay is not a forum for political activism. Remember, the people who score your essay come from all walks of life. You don't want to become too controversial and risk angering the reader so much that it affects your score. Remember that real people read your essay from their points of view and that your score may reflect their counterviews. Steer clear of controversy.
Repeating Yourself Over and Over Again
One of the biggest mistakes that you can make on the ACT Writing Test is saying the same thing again and again in different words. Don't try to lengthen your essay by repeating your self. The test graders get it the first time. If you find yourself repeating sentences for lack of things to say, then you didn't spend enough time planning the essay.
The way to avoid too much repetition is by organizing your thoughts and coming up with specific and different examples to prove your thesis before you start writing.
Failing to Edit your Essay
One of the most embarrassing things that can happen to you on a perfect first date is having toilet paper stuck to your shoe and having your date tell you about it! Date over. To counteract potential faux pas like this one, make sure that you double-check your shoes before leaving the bathroom — a skill that you can also apply to finishing your ACT essay. (At last, a real-world skill you can finally use.)
Leave yourself time to proofread and check your essay for any obvious sentence structure errors, spelling mistakes, lack of clarity, missing or wrong punctuation, repetition, and illegible handwriting. By doing so, you eliminate any embarrassing toilet paper that's stuck to your writing before your date — or should we say your test grader — notices.
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