Act and the Persuasive Essay

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ACT and the Persuasive Essay
The Fast Food Essay
One of the best things about fast food is not just that it’s quick, it’s consistent. Walk into a McDonald’s in Tosserdorf, Germany, and a Big Mac is still a robust, comforting Big Mac, just like at home. What makes fast food so consistent? Restaurants like McDonald’s use the same ingredients and preparation methods at every location.
You can to apply the concept behind fast food to the process of writing the ACT essay. That way you’ll be able to write a top-notch ACT essay every time. To make it happen, you need to know three key things that all the fast food chains know:

  • Your Customers

  • Your Ingredients

  • How to Put the Ingredients Together







Know Your Customers
After you finish taking the ACT, two “raters” will score your essay. These raters are trained and certified specifically for grading the ACT essay. Each rater is instructed to give every essay a score on a scale of 1–6. The two grades are then added together to make up your entire essay sub score, which will range from 2–12. If the two raters come to wildly different scores for an essay, like a 2 and a 5, a third rater will be brought in. The essay-graders are your customers, and you want to give them an essay that tastes just like what they’re expecting. How are you supposed to know what they’re expecting? You can learn exactly what ACT essay-raters expect by looking at the actual ACT essay directions.
The ACT Essay Directions

Read the directions now and make sure you understand them:


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.

We’ve expanded upon these directions and created a list of Dos and Don’ts in order to make the rules of great ACT writing easy to grasp:



Write only on the given topic.

Write on a topic that relates vaguely to the one given.

Take a clear position on the topic.

Take a wishy-washy position or try to argue two sides.

Do respond to the counter-arguments and address other perspectives.

Only write about your position.

Write persuasively to convince the rater.

Write creatively or ornately just to show off.

Include reasons and examples that support your position.

Include examples not directly related to your position.

Write with correct grammar and spelling.

Forget to proof your work for spelling and grammar mistakes.

Write as clearly as possible.

Use too many fancy vocabulary words or overly long sentences.

Write specifically and concretely.

Be vague or use generalizations.

Write about five paragraphs.

Put more importance on length than on quality.

Write only on the given lined paper.

Make your handwriting too large (or you’ll sacrifice space).

Write as neatly as possible in print.

Write in cursive. Print is much easier to read.

The Rater’s Instructions
The raters must refer to a set-in-stone list of criteria when evaluating each essay and deciding what grade (1 through 6) it deserves. We thought you might appreciate having the scoring criteria spelled out and explained by the ACT right before your very eyes.
They address a student’s ability:

  • To take and articulate a perspective on an issue

  • To maintain a clear focus on the perspective throughout the essay

  • To explain a position by using supportive evidence and logical reasoning

  • To organize ideas logically

  • To communicate clearly in writing

And here’s how they separate the good from the bad:




Writers will show a clear understanding of the purpose of the essay by articulating their perspective and developing their ideas.

Writers will show complexity by evaluating the implications of the issues and recognize the counter-argument.

Most generalizations will be developed with specific examples to support the writer’s perspective.

A clear focus will be maintained throughout the paper.

The paper will show competent use of language.

Although there may be some errors, these will only occasionally distract the rater and will not interfere with the rater’s ability to understand the writer’s meaning.


Writers will not clearly articulate a perspective on the issue.

The writing will usually demonstrate some development of ideas, but the development may be very general or repetitious.

Most papers will maintain focus on the general topic identified in the prompt, but they may not maintain focus on the specific issue.

Except for the weakest papers, the essay will use a clear but simple organizational structure.

The language will be understandable for the most part, but errors will distract the rater and possibly interfere with understanding.

Now you know your customers, and you know what they want.

Know Your Ingredients
To write a tasty ACT essay, you’ve got to know the necessary ingredients. The different grades of 1–6 are based on the quality of your essay in four fundamental categories:

  1. Positioning: The strength and clarity of your stance on the given topic

  2. Examples: The relevance and development of the examples you use to support your argument

  3. Organization: The organization of each of your paragraphs and of your essay overall

  4. Command of Language: Sentence construction, grammar, and word choice

  1. Positioning

ACT essay topics will address issues that pertain to high school students. A typical ACT topic will give you a statement that addresses ideas like dress codes, block scheduling, justice, the definition of success, or the importance of learning from mistakes. Though this list may sound overwhelming at first, the broadness of the topics means that with a little thought you can come up with plenty of examples to support your position on the topic.

Philosophers take years to write volumes on the topics of justice or success. On the ACT, you get 30 minutes. Given these time constraints, the key to writing a great ACT essay is taking a strong position on an extremely broad topic. A solid position requires you to employ two strategies:

  • Rephrase the Prompt

  • Choose Your Position

Here’s a sample prompt with the directions you will find on the test:

Many successful adults recall a time in their life when they were considered a failure at one pursuit or another. Some of these people feel strongly that their previous failures taught them valuable lessons and led to their later successes. Others maintain that they went on to achieve success for entirely different reasons. In your opinion, can failure lead to success? Or is failure simply its own experience?

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.

Rephrase the Prompt

Rephrase the prompt in your own words and make it more specific. If you rephrase the question:

“In your opinion, can failure lead to success?”

You might come up with a sentence like:

“Failure can lead to success by teaching important lessons that help us avoid repeating mistakes in the future.”

Putting the ACT essay question in your own words makes it easier for you to take a position confidently since you’ll be proving your own statement, rather than the more obscure version put forth by the ACT.
Choose Your Position

Agree or disagree. When you choose an argument for a paper in school, you often have to strain yourself to look for something original, something subtle. Not here. Not on the 30-minute, fast food essay. Once you’ve rephrased the topic, agree or disagree with it. It’s that simple. At this point, you may be thinking, “I could argue the ‘agree’ side pretty well, but I’m not sure that I totally believe in the agree side because . . .” Drop those thoughts. Remember, you’re not going to have a week to write this essay. You need to keep it simple. Agree or disagree, then come up with the examples that support your simple stand. And don’t take a position that straddles both sides of the issue. Remember, you should acknowledge the counter-argument and point of view; however, you should illustrate through examples why your position is the correct one.

2. Examples
To make an ACT essay really shine, you’ve got to include excellent examples. There are two things that make excellent ACT examples stand out from the crowd:

  • Specific Examples

  • Variety of Examples

Specific Examples

Strong examples discuss specific events, dates, or measurable changes over time. You must write about things that have happened in detail.

Let’s say you’re trying to come up with examples in support of the position that “Learning the lessons taught by failure is a sure route to success.” Perhaps you come up with the example of the American army during the Revolutionary War, which learned from its failures in the early years of the war how it needed to fight the British. Awesome! That’s a potentially great example. To make it actually great, though, you have to be able to say more than just, “The American army learned from its mistakes and then defeated the British Redcoats.” You need to be specific: Give dates, mention people, battles, and tactics. If you use the experience of the American Army in the Revolutionary War as an example, you might mention the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which officially granted the Americans independence and gave the United States all lands east of the Mississippi river.
Don’t be intimidated if you can’t instantly recall the dates of pivotal historical events. Any descriptive details that you can provide will strengthen your argument, whether they are personal examples or historical facts. Just make sure to choose examples that you know a lot about in order to be specific. Knowing that the Americans defeated the British is the start of a great example, but you need to show specifically how the American victory answers the question, “In your opinion, can failure lead to success?” What failures on the part of the British government and army led to the Americans’ success? (Morale issues, leadership differences, inadequate soldiers and supplies, the Battle of Yorktown, and so on.) The one-two punch of a solid example and details that use the example to prove your argument make the difference between a good ACT example and a great one.
Variety of Examples

The other crucial thing about ACT essay examples is how much ground they cover. Sure, you could come up with three examples from your personal life about how you learned from failure. But you’re much more likely to impress the raters and write a better essay if you use a broad range of examples from different areas: history, art, politics, literature, and science, as well as your own life. That means when you’re thinking up examples, you should consider as wide a variety as possible, as long as all of your examples work to prove your argument.

To answer the question, “In your opinion, can failure lead to success?” you might choose one example from history, literature, and business or current events. Here are three examples that you might choose from those three areas:

  • History: The Americans’ victory over the British in the Revolutionary War.

  • Literature: In spite of David Copperfield’s difficult childhood, he eventually found personal and professional happiness.

  • Business or Current Events: The JetBlue airline succeeding by learning from the mistakes of its competitors.

A broad array of examples like those will provide a more solid and defensible position than three examples drawn from just one or two areas.
3. Organization
No matter what topic you end up writing about, the organization of your essay should be the same. Whether you’re asked to answer, “Can failure lead to success?” or “Does progress always come at a cost?” the structure of your essay should be almost identical. The ACT is looking for those standard ingredients, and the structure we’re about to explain will make sure those ingredients stand out in your essay.

So what’s this magical essay structure? Well, it’s back to the trusty fast food analogy: A good ACT essay is a lot like a triple-decker burger.

No matter what the topic is, how you feel about it, or which examples you choose, you should always follow this five-paragraph structure on your ACT essay. The first and last paragraphs are your essay’s introduction and conclusion; each of the middle three paragraphs discusses an example that supports and illustrates your argument. That’s it.

Just as important as the organization of your entire essay is the organization within each of the five paragraphs. Let’s take a closer look at each paragraph next.
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