Looking at college admissions websites and requirements can be overwhelming. Many colleges have slightly different standardized test and letter of recommendation requirements. Furthermore, some colleges require just one personal statement, while others require multiple essays and short answer responses. It can be a lot to keep track of!
So how do you go about preparing your college applications, when colleges seem like they all want slightly different application materials? And how do you make sure you are competitive everywhere you apply? We will explain how to make the most versatile college application.
By versatile we mean an application that will allow you to apply competitively to the broadest range of colleges.
This guide is suitable for students aiming for the most competitive colleges, but you can also tailor it to your needs if you’re applying to local state schools.
Maximize Your ACT/SAT Score – But Just Focus on One
The most efficient way, hour-for-hour, to improve your college admissions chances is to study for the ACT or SAT and get the highest score you can.
Your SAT/ACT score is a very important factor in admissions. Having a score above a school’s average range greatly improves your odds of admission, but if you are below their admitted student range, your odds go down. So it’s important to get the highest possible SAT/ACT score for you, as it will give you flexibility in terms of where you can apply.
As an example, here are the middle 50% SAT and ACT ranges for four popular colleges in the Boston area. Middle 50% means these are the ranges of scores in the middle of their accepted applicant pool. This means a score above the middle 50% range puts you in line with the top 25% of their applicants, and a score below it puts you in the bottom 25% and makes you a less likely admit.
SAT Critical Reading 700-800
SAT Math 700-800
SAT Writing 710-790
ACT Composite 32-35
ACT English 33-35
ACT Math 31-35
Via Harvard's 2015-2016 IPEDS data.
Harvard is one of the most competitive colleges in the country. As such, their SAT and ACT ranges can be intimidating. Notice that their middle 50% ranges for the SAT all end at 790 or 800, meaning that the top 25% of admits have perfect scores on those sections. To be competitive at Harvard, you need SAT section scores at least in the 700s, but the closer to 800 you are, the better chances you have.
SAT Critical Reading 620-720
SAT Writing 640-730
SAT Math 640-740
Via Boston College Factbook, 2016-17.
Boston College is also a competitive college in the Boston area. While BC isn't quite as competitive as Harvard, you need SAT section scores in the low to mid 700s to be a competitive applicant, while any scores 650 or lower would make your admission less likely.
SAT Critical Reading 580-680
SAT Math 620-730
SAT Writing 600-690
ACT Composite 27-31
Via Boston University's Common Data Set, 2015-2016.
Boston University is a large, top-50 university. SAT section scores in the 600s would put you in line with their middle 50% of admits, while anything lower than 600 would make you less competitive, and anything higher than 700 would make you quite competitive.
University of Massachuestts Boston
SAT Critical Reading 470-580
SAT Math 490-600
SAT Writing No Data
ACT Composite 21-26
Via University of Massachusetts Boston's Common Data Set, 2016-2017.
The University of Massachusetts Boston is a public research university. Section scores in the 600s or higher would make you quite competitive, while anything lower than a 500 would put you towards the bottom half of their admitted students.
As you can see, the higher your SAT or ACT score is, the more colleges you can apply to competitively. For example, if you had a 1400 on the current SAT, with 700 on each section, Harvard would be a reach, but you would be in line with the admitted students at Boston College and competitive at Boston University and U Mass Boston. But if you had a 1000/1600, with about 500 on each section, you would be in line with admits at U Mass Boston, but the other schools would all be reaches.
In short, it’s smart to maximize your ACT or SAT score to give yourself the most options when applying to college.
But just focus on studying for one test! The vast majority of colleges accept both tests equally, and they don’t favor students who have taken both. In fact, if you do worse on one test, that could hurt your chances.
Just pick one!
It’s also much more efficient to focus your time on studying for one test. If you split your time between the two, you’ll likely end up doing worse on both than you could have if you had just focused on one. (Wondering which one you should take? Read a detailed comparison of the ACT and SAT, and figure out which test you will do the best on.)
As a final note, make sure to take the ACT Plus Writing and the SAT with Essay if you want the most versatile application. Not all colleges require the writing sections of the ACT and SAT, but if you want to have the most versatile college application, having the writing version under your belt is important, since some colleges only accept the SAT or the ACT with the optional writing section.
Take Two SAT Subject Tests
In addition to taking either the SAT or ACT, you can help put together a flexible college application by taking two SAT subject tests. Why?
Some colleges (especially selective ones) require or recommend SAT Subject Tests as part of applications. For example, Princeton recommends two SAT Subject Tests. Harvard does not officially require them, but highly recommends them unless you have extenuating circumstances: “While we normally require two SAT Subject Tests, you may apply without them if the cost of the tests represents a financial hardship or if you prefer to have your application considered without them.”
Some colleges don’t require SAT Subject Tests, but say they will still consider them as part of applications, like the University of Michigan. And even colleges that don’t use SAT Subject Tests for admissions often use SAT Subject scores to place students in first-year classes, especially in language, math, and science.
In short, taking two SAT Subject Tests will allow you to apply to schools that require them, but also give you an additional credential anywhere you apply. It will give you more flexibility and the chance to start in more advanced classes your freshman year.
Also, make sure you take the two SAT Subject Tests in different subjects. For example, don’t take Math I and Math II. If you’re interested in engineering programs, try to take one Subject Test in math and one in science. For any other programs, take the two you can do best on. For more on SAT subject tests and which ones to take, read this guide.
There is no magic set of extracurricular activities or sports that will make your college application the most impressive. But keep the following rule in mind as you pursue extracurricular activities and put together your college applications: depth over breadth.
It’s more impressive to be deeply involved with two activities and have leadership roles in both than to be in eight clubs or sports but just participate without getting too involved.
You should add to the trophy case, not just the club roster.
So if you’re reading this as a junior or younger, try to get involved in a few clubs, sports, and extracurricular activities you’re passionate about, and go for leadership positions. Also aim to get recognition or awards at the highest level you can – whether that’s regional, state, or national.
Don’t join anything and everything just to be able to say you were in 10 clubs. Focus on a few activities you are passionate about and can make a difference doing.
If you’re a senior putting together your college applications, list everything you’ve been involved in, starting with the most important and working your way down. Make sure to highlight any leadership positions, awards, or other accomplishments. And again, emphasize depth over breadth. Don’t feel pressured to fill out every available “activities” space. Again, depth matters more than breadth.
Make sure for every activity you add, you have something valuable to say about it – an award you won, a leadership position you held, or the effect it had on your academic or personal development. As Stanford says on their admissions website, “We want to see the impact you have had on that club, in your school, or in the larger community, and we want to learn of the impact that experience has had on you.”
Letters of Recommendation
Some colleges don’t have very specific guidelines for letters of recommendation (sometimes called teacher evaluations), and some don’t require them at all. As an example, the University of Washington really doesn’t want any letters.
However, it’s pretty typical for colleges to require two letters of recommendation. This is especially true at selective colleges. For example, Stanford requires two teacher evaluations.
Some colleges have stricter guidelines, and say they want the letters to come from teachers who teach different subjects. MIT says the letters have to come from one math/science teacher and one humanities teacher.
So to maximize your application reach, get two letters from teachers in different subjects – a math teacher and an English teacher, for example. Obviously don’t send the letters to colleges that don’t want them, but if you have those letters ready to go, it will allow you to apply to nearly any college.
Also, to make your application most competitive, remember to follow basic letter of recommendation guidelines: choose teachers who taught you recently, ideally junior year, and can speak specifically to your academic strengths. Don’t choose a teacher who won’t have specific, positive things to say about you.
“Halle was a good student and always did her homework” won’t cut it. Find a teacher who can say something closer to “Halle’s essays were consistently insightful. Her work was of a higher quality than not just this year’s students, but of many students I have taught over my career.”
Should I Get A Third Letter?
It’s rare for a college to require more than two teacher recommendations. However, some allow for a third letter, which can come from a person who knows you well, like a coach, boss, youth group leader, or instructor from a summer course.
For example, the University of Chicago and Brown both accept additional letters if they add extra detail to your application.
Don't add a letter just to stuff your admissions file.
If you have someone like this in your life who you know will have very good things to say to you and will provide information that your teachers cannot, ask them to write you a third letter.
For example, if you took a summer college course and the professor can speak to how well you handled the material, they could write a great recommendation. Or if you have a boss who can talk about your busy schedule and work ethic the way a teacher can’t, that provides important extra information to your application.
Don’t get an extra letter just to have one. Make sure the extra letter is adding additional material to your application.
For colleges that allow a third letter of recommendation, getting one can help your chances by giving colleges another chance to get to know you.
Don’t Blow Off Senior Year
A common theme on college admissions websites is that colleges want students who have challenged themselves in high school with rigorous schedules. This is especially true if you are going for top-tier schools. And senior year is no exception! For example, Yale says “senior year is not the time to take a light course load.”
By the time you reach senior year, you can’t go back in time and change your first three years of high school. However, you can make sure your senior year schedule is challenging. Colleges will be looking at your senior year schedule, and it won’t look good if you’re slacking off.
For example, if you take a full schedule with three AP classes junior year, and then have a senior schedule with free periods and no AP classes, that might raise questions, especially at selective colleges you might be applying to.
Of course, don’t do the opposite and overload yourself – especially since you need time senior year for college apps! – but make sure your senior year schedule doesn’t raise any red flags.
And if you’re reading this as a younger high school student, make sure to take the most challenging schedule available to you at your high school. Challenge yourself with AP or IB classes if they are available. (Read more here about choosing between AP and IB and how many AP classes you should take.)
Choose Your Essay Topic Carefully
One thing you’ll notice as you begin looking at different colleges’ applications is that many have extra questions or Common Application supplements that give you the chance to share lots of info about yourself – what you want to study, why you want to go to that particular college, or even things like your favorite movies and books.
For example, the University of Chicago is famous for having unique, quirky additional essay questions, like “What’s so odd about odd numbers?” or “Were pH an expression of personality, what would your pH be and why?”
Columbia University asks you to share your favorite required reading and books you read for pleasure in the past year, as well as publications you read and entertainment (like movies, concerts, exhibits) that you enjoyed the most in the past year.
To read any college’s supplement, you can search for “[Name of College/University] Supplement” or “[Name of College/University] Essay Questions.” If you’re using the Common Application or Universal College Application, you can look up colleges you’re interested in to see their supplements.
However, sometimes colleges don’t have a supplement or additional questions, meaning the one part of your application you can let them get to know you is with your personal statement.
In other words, your main essay is very important, since in some cases it will be your only chance to show your personality. If there is something you want every college to know about – from an important personal experience to an intellectual passion of yours – that experience should be in your main essay.
Even if your main topic perfectly fits a prompt for one college’s supplement, you should use it for your main essay instead. This way, even if a college doesn’t have a supplement, you will get to present the information most important to you.
If colleges do have supplemental questions, you can use them to dive deeper into your essay topic or, even better, share other experiences or passions.
What’s a Good Essay Topic?
There are as many potential personal essay topics as there are students applying. Every student has different experiences and passions that could make a great essay. The key is to write about something that is meaningful and specific to you.
Remember that a complete stranger will be reading your application. You want them to come away from your essay feeling like they know you, and what you can bring to their college.
For example, if you went through an incredibly challenging personal experience – a family member’s illness, an instance of discrimination, an unexpected setback – that could be great material for you essay, especially if it has affected your future goals and interests.
Or if you are passionate about a certain topic or subject – from 18th century French history to making your own mobile phone apps – that could also be a great essay topic, as it will show your intellectual depth and give colleges an idea of what you might contribute to them.
The key is to write about something that will help tell your story, and help show what you will be pursue in college.
Don’t choose a topic just because you think it’s something colleges will like. For example, if you went on a service trip your junior year but it didn’t resonate with you or affect your future goals, don’t try and make up a story about how meaningful the trip was to you. It will be more effective to write about something you are actually passionate about.
Once you've chosen a topic, ask yourself the following questions to make sure it's a strong choice:
- Will any other student applying to college this year have an essay like mine? (If you can see several students writing a very similar essay, you should choose a topic more specific to you)
- If I gave this essay to a complete stranger, would they get a clear sense of my personality just by reading it?
- Am I writing about something I care about, or did I choose this topic becuase I thought it would look good?
If your essay is specific to you, reveals your personality, and allows you to write about something you actually care about, chances are, it's going to be a great essay.
Bottom Line: How to Put Together a Winning College App
There is a lot that goes into a successful college application, and your chances of admission will vary by the schools you apply to and your set of strengths and weaknesses.
But chances of admission aside, these are the steps you can take to put together a college application that will allow you to apply to the broadest range of colleges, from the most selective to your local state schools.
- Take either the ACT Plus Writing or the SAT, and do as well as you can.
- Take two SAT Subject Tests.
- Go for depth over breadth with your extracurriculars.
- Get two letters of recommendation from teachers in different subjects. Consider getting a third letter if it will add more information to your application.
- Take a challenging senior year schedule.
- Choose a personal essay topic that is specific and meaningful to you.
Speaking of maximizing your ACT and SAT score, get tips from our full-scorer on getting a perfect score on the SAT or on the ACT. Even if you’re not aiming for perfect, these principles can help you raise your score to whatever your target is.
Also consider our PrepScholar program to get prepared for the SAT or the ACT.
Get specific advice on acing the ACT and SAT essays.
Learn to raise a low SAT/ACT math score with these tips.
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Whether you've never thought about ACT Writing strategies or have worked hard on the ACT essay, you can benefit from knowing more: about the essay itself, and what really matters when the graders are reading your essay. In this article, we offer a number of ACT Writing tips as well as a foolproof template for putting them into practice.
ACT Essay Tips
The ACT essay is a very short assignment - you only get 40 minutes to write a full-fledged essay - and it can pass in a flash if you don't have a method for attacking it. It requires a very specific approach that's unlike the essays you've been writing for English class.
The goal of this strategy is to cram in as many as possible of the desired components in the 40 minutes you've got. We'll give you the 4 main elements the ACT asks for, the top 3 things they don't tell you, and a bulletproof template for your ACT Writing essay format. Here we go!
What ACT, Inc. Does Tell You: 4 Elements to Remember
ACT, Inc. explains the main components of the successful ACT Essay in its scoring criteria. Here they are, condensed and explained:
1) Ideas & Analysis: A 12-scoring essay includes "an argument that critically engages with multiple perspectives on the given issue. The argument’s thesis reflects nuance and precision in thought and purpose. The argument establishes and employs an insightful context for analysis of the issue and its perspectives. The analysis examines implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions."
In other words, answer the question that's in the prompt, make it very, very clear what YOUR perspective is and analyze how your perspective relates to at least one of the three given perspectives. This domain is the hardest to master; it's tough to do everything you need to do well at all, much less in 40 minutes. The main point is that you want to show that you understand as many sides of the issue as possible. You do this by discussing those sides of the issue, why people might have those opinions, and whether those opinions are logical or not.
It's fine to copy the exact words from the prompt into your thesis statement—in fact, this guarantees that the graders will see that your thesis is there and on topic. You must, however, make it obvious which side you are arguing for. If you can, it's great to put the argument in terms of a larger debate—we'll discuss that later.
2) Development & Support: In a 12-scoring essay, "[d]evelopment of ideas and support for claims deepen insight and broaden context. An integrated line of skillful reasoning and illustration effectively conveys the significance of the argument. Qualifications and complications enrich and bolster ideas and analysis."
This is another area that can be hard for students to grasp. The bottom line is that you need to fully explain every point you make. If you don't have time to explain it in 2-4 sentences, leave it out (unless it's the only way you can get in a comparison of your perspective with one of the three perspectives). You can do this by explaining your thinking and reasoning or using specific examples to illustrate your points.
3) Organization: A 12-scoring essay "exhibits a skillful organizational strategy. The response is unified by a controlling idea or purpose, and a logical progression of ideas increases the effectiveness of the writer’s argument. Transitions between and within paragraphs strengthen the relationships among ideas."
In short, you need to give each idea 1-2 paragraphs. If a logical organization for your points occurs to you (for example, if Point 1 depends on Point 2, you'd put Point 2 first), use it. If not, just list your points, allotting a paragraph for each one. A transition that reflects your logic just means tying one point to another somehow, and this is ideal. The ACT essay scoring system won't penalize you too heavily for a "First, Second, Third" type of organization, so if you just say "My first reason…," "Secondly…," that's better than no transitions. The intro and conclusion should make the same general points, and if you have a larger context mentioned in the intro, mention it again in the conclusion. Simple as that.
4) Language Use: A 12-scoring essay uses language in a way that "enhances the argument. Word choice is skillful and precise. Sentence structures are consistently varied and clear. Stylistic and register choices, including voice and tone, are strategic and effective. While a few minor errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics may be present, they do not impede understanding."
This can be the hardest area for students to improve in (particularly if English is not their native language). "Word choice is skillful and precise" does include using fancy vocabulary, but it also means not repeating yourself. Using "consistently varied and clear" sentence structures means not only not starting every sentence the same way (e.g. "Machines are helpful to humans. Machines can also cause problems. Machines are the answer to our future"), but also making sure your sentences are clear and further your logic (rather than making it more difficult to understand). It's better to be clear than to be fancy.
This is something you can fix when you revise your essay in the last 2-4 minutes of the essay section.
What ACT, Inc. Doesn't Tell You: 3 Secrets
Even though the ACT essay has some clear published guidelines, there are a few secrets that most students don't know and that can give you a major advantage on the test.
These are facts that ACT, Inc. doesn't want to be too well-known because it helps us develop ACT Writing strategies that may give us an edge over people who haven't prepared.
1) You Don't Need to Know the Facts
You can make up whatever information you need to support your point. Really. As with the tip above, if you know the real facts, that's great (since the grader will probably know them too), but it's not required.
This might sound crazy. You could write about how Germany won World War II, and the ACT graders are not allowed to penalize you. Why is this?
ACT, Inc. doesn't have the resources to do fact-checking on every single essay. With over a million students taking the test every year, graders only have a few minutes to put a score of 1-6 to each of the 4 essay scoring domains. They can't check whether Martin Luther King was born in 1929 or 1925.
Thus, ACT essay scoring uses a simpler rule--all statements are taken as truth. The important point is that the evidence needs to support your thesis.
(Of course, ACT, Inc. doesn't want people to know about this - that would make the ACT essay sound silly.)
If you're short on examples to prove a point, make up something realistic-sounding (you can even pretend a newspaper or politician said something they didn't), and slap it in there. It's much better than trying to write a vague paragraph without concrete evidence.
2) You Should Write More Than a Page
This is one of the most important ACT Writing tips. There is a strong relationship between essay length and score - the longer your essay, the better your score. In a short essay, it's difficult for you to develop your points well enough to earn a decent score.
Really, you should write a page and a half if at all possible. Although ACT, Inc. never explicitly mentions that length matters in ACT essay scoring, it does. And if you can write more than a page and a half without repeating yourself or digressing from your point, you'll be in really good shape.
3) Your First Paragraph and Conclusion Matter More Than the Middle
The introduction and conclusion are the "bookends" of the essay: they hold it together and are guaranteed to be read more closely than the rest of the essay.
ACT graders have to read a lot of essays very quickly, and they give most of them a 3 or a 4 in each domain. The fastest way for them to score an essay is to find the thesis (to make sure that it's there, that it answers the prompt, and that the rest of the essay supports it) and then skim the first and last paragraphs.
Here's why: if a student's introduction and conclusion paragraphs are well-written and logical, it's likely the rest of the essay will be too. By reading these parts, the grader can usually tell with confidence what the score will be. They'll scan the middle to make sure it makes sense, but they probably won't read every word as closely.
On the other hand, if you don't have time to write an introduction or conclusion, you will be heavily penalized. It'll be hard to score above an 8 without an introduction and conclusion, particularly if you don't make your thesis, or point of view, clear in the first paragraph. This might be the most important ACT essay tip we can give you.
A strong ACT writing strategy includes preparing enough time to write and revise your introduction and conclusion paragraphs, as we explain below.
Key Strategy: How to Write A Successful ACT Essay in 40 Minutes
Because you only have 40 minutes to write the ACT essay, you need to have a game plan before you start the test. Here's a step by step guide on how to write an effective ACT essay.
Overcoming the Biggest Obstacle: Planning Your Argument Methodically
One of the things that students often find hardest about the essay is quickly thinking of support for the thesis. But it can be done in a simple, methodical way, which we explain below. Let's start with a sample prompt.
Many of the goods and services we depend on daily are now supplied by intelligent, automated machines rather than human beings. Robots build cars and other goods on assembly lines, where once there were human workers. Many of our phone conversations are now conducted not with people but with sophisticated technologies. We can now buy goods at a variety of stores without the help of a human cashier. Automation is generally seen as a sign of progress, but what is lost when we replace humans with machines? Given the accelerating variety and prevalence of intelligent machines, it is worth examining the implications and meaning of their presence in our lives.
Read and carefully consider these perspectives. Each suggests a particular way of thinking about the increasing presence of intelligent machines.
Perspective One: What we lose with the replacement of people by machines is some part of our own humanity. Even our mundane daily encounters no longer require from us basic courtesy, respect, and tolerance for other people.
Perspective Two: Machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs, and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases they work better than humans. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone.
Perspective Three: Intelligent machines challenge our long-standing ideas about what humans are or can be. This is good because it pushes both humans and machines toward new, unimagined possibilities.
Write a unified, coherent essay about the increasing presence of intelligent machines. In your essay, be sure to:
- clearly state your own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective
- develop and support your ideas with reasoning and examples
- organize your ideas clearly and logically
- communicate your ideas effectively in standard written English
Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of the others, in partial agreement, or wholly different.
Wall-e & Eve (Perler) by Morgan, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.
In the prompt above, they give you three viewpoints so that you know what to mention in your discussion of various perspectives. But you'll need to elaborate on these as well. Let's look at the viewpoints this prompt gives us.
- Conservative: "Intelligent machines lead to problems, which is bad."
- Utilitarian: "Intelligent machines allow us to be more efficient, which is good."
- Progressive: "Intelligent machines lead to progress, which is good."
Supporting each viewpoint is a slew of possible reasons, and these are what you want to lay out clearly in your essay. You can, of course, choose any side of the argument, but one is usually easier to argue than the other (because it is opposite the other two perspectives).
For this prompt, it's easier to argue against intelligent machines than to argue for their efficiency or progress, so we'll look at potential support for the "conservative" argument, which is that "Intelligent machines lead to problems."
To argue against any change, we can point out its assumptions and how they are false, or its consequences and how they are bad:
- it assumes that machines lead to progress [assumption made by perspective 3]
- it assumes that machines allow us to be more efficient [assumption made by perspective 2]
- it assumes that the benefits machines give to us outweigh the negatives
- it could lead to progress in some areas, but also to new problems caused by that progress
- it could let us be more efficient in some ways, but end up creating more
- it would hurt us more than it would help because people would end up becoming less courteous and respectful to and tolerant of other people [perspective 1]
This method works for any argument. If you find yourself supporting the proposal in the prompt, say (to use a real ACT example) that a right to avoid health risks is a more important freedom than the right to do whatever you want, then you just need to think of ways it would be positive. That can be much simpler. But you can still use the assumptions-and-consequences method above for the paragraph in which you address at least one other perspective.
The Golden Essay Template
This is a tried and true structure for earning a great score on the ACT essay. Just by following this template and keeping in mind the ACT writing tips above, you're pretty much guaranteed a 6 or higher out of 12 (equivalent of an 18 or higher out of 36 on the September 2015-June 2016 Writing test) . Do a decent job and you'll easily get an 8 or higher. Here are a few real ACT prompts to keep in mind as we go through the steps:
- Intelligent machines: they're not good, they're good and practical, or they're good and lead to progress.
- Public health and individual freedom: freedom is more important than physical health, society should strive for the greatest good for the most people, or the right to avoid health risks is more important than individual freedom.
Time: 8-10 minutes
- Decide on your thesis, choosing one of the three sides. You can try to form your own, fourth perspective, but since you have to compare your perspective with at least one of the perspectives given you might as well argue for one of them and save some time for writing.
- Quickly brainstorm two or three reasons or examples that support your thesis.
- Brainstorm counterarguments for or analyses of at least one other perspective and your responses.
- Organize your essay. Make sure you order your points in a way that makes sense.
- Check your time. Try to have 30 minutes left at this point so you have enough time to write. If you don't, just keep in mind that you might have to cut out one of your supporting points.
Time: 25-28 minutes1. Paragraph 1: Introduction & Thesis
A) Write your introduction. If you can think of an interesting first sentence that brings your thesis into a larger discussion (say, of how intelligent machines have changed the way people interact with each other), start with that.
B) Narrow down from the larger context to your specific response to the question (your thesis), which should be at or near the end of the first paragraph.
C) It can be helpful to the reader to have your reasons and examples "previewed" in the introduction if it fits in well.
2. Paragraph 2: Transitions & Opposing Perspective.
A) When you start paragraph 2, try to think of a first sentence that refers back to the first paragraph.
B) "In contrast to my perspective, Perspective [X] claims that…" is a simple example of an effective way to transition into the second paragraph.
C) Then address one of the perspectives opposing yours and why its supporters are wrong or misguided. In the example about intelligent machines above (where we've chosen to argue Perspective 1), you could argue against perspective 2 OR 3 in this paragraph.
3. Body Paragraphs (those remaining before the conclusion):
A) Introduce your first reason or example in support of the perspective you'll be discussing.
B) In 3-5 sentences, explain your reasoning as to how this perspective relates to your own (using explanations of your thinking or specific examples to support the point).
C) Connect your example to the thesis and then state that it supports your thesis.
D) Check your time. Try to have 7 minutes left by this point.
AA) (Optional) Relate your two or three examples back to your thesis. Add one or two sentences if you want.
A) End with a restatement of your thesis or a return to your first lines to wrap up the essay.
Time: 2-4 minutes
Hopefully, you still have 2-4 minutes to read over your essay. In this time, you can do several things.
A) You can, of course, correct mistakes.
B) You can replace dull words with fancier words.
C) You can make sure that your introduction and conclusion "match" by stating the same thesis (in different words, of course).
Notice the two bolded time-checking steps. It's very easy to get caught in the planning stage and run out of time on your actual essay, which is easy to avoid if you practice checking your time.
If you have to make a choice between explaining a perspective or writing a conclusion paragraph, always choose the explanation. You can get by with a short sentence for a conclusion, and you can make a strong essay with a clear thesis in your introduction, but if you leave out the analysis of the relationship between your perspective and one of the ACT's perspectives in your essay, you'll lose a lot of points.
Now you practice. Print out the template above, consult our ACT Essay Prompts Article (or think of any controversial issue in the world today), and get to work. You may find that many issues can be argued using the same reasoning or examples.
For instance, the argument that the benefits of the changes happening in the world don't necessarily outweigh the problems they create can apply to many of the new ACT prompts. You can research concrete information to support this kind of useful argument, like a newspaper article about how the Industrial Revolution led to increased environmental destruction.
Downtown by .shyam., used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.
More like Industrial Re-POLL-ution, am I right?
Remember: the more you practice, the easier it gets, as you learn how to reuse information to suit different purposes and your brain becomes used to thinking in this way.
Read more about the new ACT Writing Test and how to score a perfect score on your ACT essay.
Want more in-depth guides? Check out my step-by-step guide to writing top-scoring ACT essay as well as a complete breakdown of the new ACT Writing Scoring Rubric.
Hungry for more practice ACT Writing prompts? Look no further than our article containing links to all the freely available official ACT Writing prompts that have been released so far, as well as bonus prompts I constructed.
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