3 Strategies for Writing Effective ACT and SAT Essays: Advice from an H3 Writing Teacher

by | Oct 20, 2017



For many, perhaps the most stressful part of the ACT or SAT is the dreaded essay portion. You’ve just spent three hours working through various sections of English, math, and reading (plus science on the ACT) multiple choice questions, and now you’re tasked with writing a compelling, thoughtful essay in just 40 to 50 minutes. Even though the essay is now technically optional on both tests, it’s still important to take it—and to do well on it—as many colleges require and consider the scores from this portion of the exams. To help you do your best on test day, here are three strategies to make the essay less daunting.


1. Know your task.

This is especially important if you’re studying for and taking both tests. The task for the ACT essay is very different from that of the SAT essay, and it’s vital to remember what you’re supposed to be accomplishing on both. The SAT essay is arguably more straightforward. You’re given an article, speech, or some other persuasive work to read. Then, you’re charged with analyzing how the rhetor (i.e. writer or speaker) builds his or her argument. This is essentially a rhetorical analysis. Consider the strategies he or she uses to persuade the audience—even better, identify who that audience is, as well as how and why these strategies might appeal to them.

The ACT essay assignment is different. Here, you’re not analyzing an argument, but rather building one of your own. You’re given three perspectives on a semi-controversial issue, and your task is to engage with them while advancing an argument on the topic. You may either choose one or two of the perspectives to defend (as long as they don’t contradict one another), or you can introduce a fourth perspective of your own, but keep in mind that will require more thought and time.

Note: Just as the tasks of both essays are different, your thesis statements will also look different. In either case, make sure to have a clear thesis statement that sets up your paper and then actually follow it. This is one of the most challenging aspects of writing, but it’s essential.


2. Have a plan, and execute it.

When teaching the essay, I always challenge my students to consider creating outlines or organizers. Not only is this extremely helpful on the SAT and ACT essays, but it’s also a wonderful skill to hone to prepare you for the longer, more complicated assignments you’ll be tackling in college. Every piece of writing has a purpose, including yours. Identify that purpose (i.e. step number one, above) and then work your ideas and arguments into an organizer. For some, a simple bullet point list that identifies the topic of each paragraph will do. Others like to make detailed outlines that reference which pieces of evidence and what quotes (if applicable) to use where. Others still may choose to do a bubble sketch or some other, more visual layout. Find what works best for you—ideally before test day—and practice working that into your writing process. Taking a few minutes to get your thoughts in order will keep you focused when you do go to write, and I suspect you’ll notice that your writing will get tighter and better.  


3. Avoid personal pronouns.

As with number two, this also holds true for both tests, and, indeed, for much of the writing you’ll be doing in college and beyond. Many students have a habit of introducing their arguments with statements like “I believe” or “I think.” Something I always point out to my students (it’s okay to say “I” in a blog post, don’t worry) is that if you’re writing something, it’s already clear you do in fact believe it. Therefore, inserting such language not only weakens your writing but is also unnecessary. From now on, try crossing out any such “I” statements in your practice essays and see how it affects the tone. Similarly, you’ll want to avoid “you” in order to maintain a formal, third-person point of view. The one exception to this rule is if you’re using a personal anecdote as evidence on the ACT. In this case, because you are relaying something that happened to you or someone you know, it’s perfectly acceptable (and makes sense) to use first person. Otherwise, err on the side of caution and avoid personal pronouns throughout.


Regardless of which test you’re taking, the key to doing well on the essay portion is to prepare. Write practice essays, review old prompts and sample essays, read and write regularly, and keep these three strategies in mind. Above all, stay confident. Whether or not you like writing or consider it a strength, you can always improve. Good luck!