As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
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The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
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Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
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Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
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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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