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Three Things to Avoid on ACT Writing and the SAT Essay

Amy C.

In this lesson, we’re going to cover three common errors that I have seen students consistently make on the ACT Writing and SAT Essay sections. These are mistakes that originate from either writing on the fly or a mistaken belief about what the essay graders “want” to see.


Long Lead-Ins

I’ve lost track of how many ACT and SAT essays I’ve reviewed that are filled with sentences that begin with lengthy subordinate clauses and end with short main clauses. These sorts of long “lead ins” are effective when used sparingly. However, an essay filled with them is exhausting to read and can look like the writer is stalling until he or she figures out what he or she wants to say. Avoid long lead-ins like the following:


Admitting to ourselves that neither side has all of the answers, we must work together to create a solution.


Instead, start with the subject and verb:


We must admit that neither side has all of the answers and work together toward a solution.


Fancy Word Choice

ACT Writing or the SAT Essay is not the time to show off your advanced vocabulary. Neither exam rewards points for using a “fancy” word when a plainer synonym will do. The ACT Writing rubric expects a high-scoring essay to employ “skillful and precise” word choice while its SAT counterpart calls for a “consistent use of precise word choice.”


Don’t use words you have just learned in an attempt to appear smarter and more sophisticated. Doing so only increases your chances of using a word incorrectly. Use the words you are most comfortable with, and use those words well.


Unconventional Essay Structures

There is no advantage to deviating from the standard five paragraph essay structure on either the ACT or SAT essay. Stick with the essay templates we’ve provided in previous lessons, and don’t try anything that will require a substantial rewrite if you find that it is not working.


Lead with your strongest points, don’t build toward them. Resist the urge to devote a paragraph to comparing and contrasting points that you have already made. If you want to include a counter-argument, plan out a paragraph that argues against a single, specific example. A well-executed “boring” essay will earn you a higher score than an unconventional but flawed one will.



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