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Tips for the ACT and SAT Essays

There is no one “correct” way to write an essay for the ACT or SAT. While essay graders all follow the same rubric, each will have a slightly different idea of what constitutes the perfect essay. Such is the nature of the test and of writing in general. That having been said, some rules hold true regardless of who is grading your essay. Here are a few general tips I’ve picked up from conversations with an actual SAT grader and my own experiences tutoring for the ACT and SAT essays.

The prompt is your friend:

ACT and SAT essay prompts are intentionally vague. They are designed to give you as much wiggle room as possible to draw on what you know while still staying on topic. Take advantage of this. Come at the prompt from the angle that provides the clearest thesis backed up by the strongest evidence you can marshal for the position you are taking. This can also be a godsend when you come across a subject that you know little or nothing about. Think of a prompt less as a limitation and more as a broad framework in which to make your argument.

Be specific:

Essay graders expect you to back up your thesis with specific, concrete examples. Avoid vague assertions and hypothetical situations. Let’s say a prompt asks you to argue for or against school uniforms. Have you read any studies or news articles on the topic? If so, what were the studies/articles and what conclusions did they draw? How about your own life experiences? Does your school have uniforms? If so, do you feel they have had a positive or negative effect on your school? What are those positive/negative effects? Do students think uniforms stifle individual expression or promote a sense of equality?

If your school does not have uniforms, how has this affected you and your friends? Do you appreciate being able to dress in a way that uniquely defines who you are, or has it created a caste system where the rich kids have access to the latest fashions and less economically advantaged students do not? How about dress codes? Are they uniformly enforced? Do they come down disproportionally hard on one group of students? If so, which group? These are the kinds of specific questions you need to ask yourself when assembling evidence to back up your thesis.

Avoid clichéd and overused examples:

Graders read a lot of essays. They can only afford to spend a short amount of time grading each one. The surest fire way to lose their interest is to trot out examples they have seen ad nauseam. Avoid well-worn examples like Hitler or Martin Luther King, Jr. unless they either relate directly to the topic you’re writing about or you know something unique about them that is not common knowledge.

Include a counter-example:

Also known as “conceding the point,” a counter-example is a finishing touch that can push your essay from merely good to extraordinary. Essentially, you are acknowledging that your argument is neither perfect nor all-inclusive. You may be thinking that this will automatically weaken your argument. On the contrary, including a counter-example can actually strengthen it. The idea here is to bring up a possible criticism in order to dismiss that same criticism. Providing a counter-example shows that you have anticipated a possible way your argument could be attacked and are capable of demonstrating why that attack is invalid or irrelevant to the point you are trying to make.