Why Students are Struggling with the New ACT Essay (and How Not to Be One of Them)

Why Students are Struggling with the New ACT Essay (and How Not to Be One of Them)

When I first heard about the new ACT essay prompts last year, I was worried. As a former high school English teacher, I immediately knew students would struggle with the new format. 

It turns out I was right. A recent article in the Washington Post, “ACT essay scores are inexplicably low, causing uproar amongst college-bound students,” reveals the surprise and anguish of typically many high-achieving students who seem to have no idea why their scores on the new ACT essay (launched in September 2015) are so much lower than their multiple choice scores. 

There are a few factors at play here. For one, I think that students are shocked at now seeing their essay scores on the same 1 to 36 scale as their other section scores. 

On the previous essay, students received a score from 2 to 12, and many students didn’t take their scores too seriously. “8 out of 12, 9 out of 12. Whatever, that’s good enough,” was a common sentiment. But ACT test-takers tend to have stronger opinions about the scores they want on a 36 scale. Now that the essay and multiple choice scores are on the same scale; it’s easier to draw comparisons.  However, it turns out that if you are unhappy with your ACT Writing score, you may actually not have done as “bad” as you thought. For example, a 26 on the ACT Writing test puts you in the 93rd percentile of test-takers, whereas a 26 composite score on the multiple choice sections puts you in the 83rd percentile. A 22 on the essay puts you in the 80th percentile, but a 22 composite score puts you in the 63rd percentile. So consider the percentiles over the score. 

So there’s that. 

But now let’s talk about the actual essay prompt and why I think it’s so challenging, particularly for students who haven’t been taught how to write it. 

The new ACT essay prompt asks students to do a lot, three things in fact, in a 40-minute time period. The old ACT essay asked students to do basically one thing: state an argument and support it. Most students can handle this. They’ve been taught how to write a thesis statement that states an argument and then how to write body paragraphs that develop supporting reasons for this argument. 

But the new ACT essay prompt is darn confusing. Students are given three different perspectives on a debatable issue. Then, they are asked to do three things:

  • analyze and evaluate the perspectives given
  • state and develop your own perspective on the issue
  • explain the relationship between your perspective and those given

How do you structure an essay like this???

Here’s where I think students are getting into trouble: they are getting caught up in the first bullet point and fail to effectively answer the second, which is actually the most important as far as the ACT essay graders are concerned. 

The thing is, the ACT doesn’t want you to write an explanatory essay (or what your English teachers probably call an expository essay), they want you to write a persuasive one. But the prompt appears to be asking students to do BOTH: “explain” (the first bullet point) and “persuade” (the second bullet point). Personally, I think this is poor essay prompt planning on the ACT’s part, but it is what it is. 

When students get caught up in the first bullet point, they end up with thesis statements that are wishy-washy and don’t state an argument, such as “Some people argue that censorship is necessary in some cases, but others say it violates basic human rights” or “Censorship is an important issue that we should all be concerned about.”

See what’s happening here? Students are trying to summarize the three different perspectives into one statement, an admirable attempt, but according to the ACT graders, they don’t have an argument. 

So here’s my biggest piece of advice for success on the new ACT essay prompt: focus on the second bullet point. Craft a thesis statement that states your perspective on the issue. Then focus on analyzing the three perspectives in your (likely three) body paragraphs as they pertain to your argument. So if your argument disagrees with one of the perspectives, then analyze it in this light; if it agrees with it, then develop it in this sense. This also automatically checks off the third bullet point: to explain the relationship between your argument and the provided perspectives. Win!

So remember, even though the new ACT essay prompt may look different, it’s still similar to the old essay prompt in one important respect: the graders cares most about your ability to make an argument, so make doing this your priority and the rest will follow. 


About Kristin Fracchia
As Magoosh's resident ACT Expert, Kristin creates awesomely fun ACT lessons and practice materials for students. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agonizing bliss of marathon running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.