There is nothing Casual about Causal-Analysis!
Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin. . .
Guidelines for Writing the Cause/Effect Essay
- Typed MLA formatted Cause/Effect essay, 4 Pages of text
- Plus typed MLA formatted Works Cited page
- Must include in-text citations that identifies when you use the sources in the Works Cited page, at least one per body paragraph
- 3 - 4 Sources (two database), no wikis or blogs
- Provide copies of the sources used in the paper: web pages and web sites; scanned pages from printed sources, copies of sources from databases, etc.
- Papers will not be accepted without these minimal requirements.
- Death Penalty
- Gun Control
- School Uniforms
- Gay Marriage
Why a Causal Analysis or Cause/Effect essay?
With the Causal Analysis essay, students are introduced to source-based writing. If 90% of the papers students will write in college are in third person, 98% of the papers will be source-based. With the causal analysis, students will be expected to identify three to four credible sources for their papers. They will read and assimilate the information, then incorporate it in their work as evidence and support.
While students will probably not write a cause/effect essay in their professional life, being able to recognize and incorporate cause/effect data is important. When studying accidents or plane crashes, investigators attempt to determine the sequence of events that led to the crash. What caused it? When deciding to spend all of that taxpayer money to build the train system in the valley, supporters first gathered data showing the current effects of all of the traffic on the city. Then they provided the probable effects of the train system on the valley based upon similar results from other cities. These are just a couple of ways that causal analysis is utilized in society, so it is important to be able to understand it.
Choosing a topic
Many students find the cause/effect essay hard to write. They struggle with a few aspects. First, they struggle to identify an appropriate topic. The topic needs to cover a true cause/effect relationship. Here are some examples:
- Effects of bullying
- Effects of air pollution on inner-city children
- Effects of divorce on children
- Causes of childhood diabetes
- Causes of bullying
- Three main causes of global warming
These topics identify clear cause/effect relationships. In other words, x most definitely causes y, or y is a direct result of x. These topics are focused enough to provide sufficient information to complete a three to four page essay with in-depth analysis of the topic and support from outside sources.
Students make a few mistakes when choosing a topic. One mistake students make is to pick a topic that is too broad; for example, students choose topics like the causes of WWI or the effects of the Great Depression. Books have been written about topics like this. These topics provide too much information to cover in a short paper. Instead of an in-depth analysis, the essay is shallow and rushed. Students need to avoid broad topics like these.
The second mistake students make is confusing causes and reasons. A cause has a direct effect. It explains how it occurred. For example, let's say that I put a glass of water in a freezer that is cold enough to freeze water, what will the outcome be? I get ice. There are laws of physics that operate in this world, and water must obey them. That is how the world works. However, a reason explains why it occurred. The focus of a reason is why something happens. Let's say that I don't study for a test the night before I take it, what will the outcome be? We don't know. This time the outcome is not automatic. While not studying is a bad idea, it does not mean I will fail the test. It is not an inevitable outcome. The reason I may fail the test is because I chose not to study, but I might be confident about this particular information and feel it is unnecessary to study. Thus, students need to pick topics where the relationship between the cause and effect can be clearly established.
Finally, the third mistake students make is confusing causation and correlation. Things can happen at the same time without there being a direct cause/effect relationship. Let's say that there is a five year study that covered an increase in inflation in the United States. At the same time, the study noted that sales in flat-screen televisions had increased. Does that mean that the increase in inflation caused an increase in TV sales? Probably not. There maybe a relationship between the two, but one does not directly cause the other.
Thus, choosing a topic that shows a clear causal relationship is extremely important.
Writing the Causal Analysis/Cause Effect Essay
The cause/effect essay can be split into four basic sections: introduction, body, conclusion and Works Cited page. There are also three basic formats for writing a cause/effect:
- Single effect with multiple causes–air pollution is the effect, and students would identify several causes;
- Single cause with multiple effects–bullying is the cause, and students would establish several effects it has on children;
- Causal Chain–this is complicated, and I try to steer students away from this format. Causal chains show a series of causes and effects. For example. dust storms between Tucson and Phoenix can be deadly causing a chain reaction of accidents. The dust is the initial catalyst. It causes car A to stop. Car B crashes into Car A. Car C crashes into Car B., etc. Global Warming is a good example of a causal chain topic. Population increase is causing an increase in traffic and greenhouse gases. It is also causing an increase in deforestation for housing, roads and farming. Deforestation means less plants to take up the CO2 and release O2 into the environment. Each item causes an effect. That effect causes another effect. All of this contributes to global warming.
The introduction introduces the reader to the topic. We've all heard that first impressions are important. This is very true in writing as well. The goal is to engage the readers, hook them so they want to read on. One way is to write a narrative. Topics like bullying or divorce hit home. Beginning with a real case study highlights the issue for readers. This becomes an example that you can refer to throughout the paper. The final sentence in the introduction is usually the thesis statement.
Another way to introduce the topic is to ask a question or questions. What are the main causes of schizophrenia? Who is susceptible? The student would then begin a brief discussion defining schizophrenia and explaining its significance. Once again, the final sentence would be a thesis statement introducing the main points that will be covered in the paper.
The body of the essay is separated into paragraphs. Each paragraph covers a single cause or effect. For example, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, the two main causes of schizophrenia are genetic and environmental. Thus, if I was writing about the causes of schizophrenia, then I would have a body paragraph on genetic causes of schizophrenia and a body paragraph on the environmental causes. The global warming example would have separate paragraphs that explain each cause/effect relationship: population increases, increases in air pollution due to traffic exhaust and manufacturing, increases in food production and agriculture, deforestation, all causes for global warming and all intricately linked.
A body paragraph should include the following:
- Topic sentence that identifies the topic for the paragraph,
- Several sentences that describes the causal relationship,
- Evidence from outside sources that corroborates your claim that the causal relationship exists,
- MLA formatted in-text citations indicating which source listed on the Works Cited page has provided the evidence,
- Quotation marks placed around any information taken verbatim (word for word) from the source,
- Summary sentence(s) that draws conclusions from the evidence,
- Remember: information from outside sources should be placed in the middle of the paragraph and not at the beginning or the end of the paragraph;
- Be sure and use transitions or bridge sentences between paragraphs.
- Draw final conclusions from the key points and evidence provided in the paper;
- Tie in the introduction. If you began with a story, draw final conclusions from that story;
- If you began with a question(s), refer back to the question(s) and be sure to provide the answer(s).
Works Cited page
- A Works Cited page is a type of bibliography that is formatted according to the Modern Language Association's (MLA) guidelines;
- Citations are double spaced and placed in alphabetical order by the author's last name;
- If there is no author, then the title is used;
- The first line of each entry is placed on the left margin with subsequent lines of that entry indented a half inch.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License by Lynn McClelland.
What time is it? It's essay time! In this article, I'm going to get into the details of the newly transformed ACT Writing by discussing the ACT essay rubric and how the essay is graded based on that. You'll learn what each item on the rubric means for your essay writing and what you need to do to meet those requirements.
feature image credit: A study in human nature, being an interpretation with character analysis chart of Hoffman’s master painting “Christ in the temple”; (1920) by CircaSassy, used under CC BY 2.0/Resized from original.
ACT Essay Grading: The Basics
If you've chosen to take the ACT Plus Writing, you'll have 40 minutes to write an essay (after completing the English, Math, Reading, and Science sections of the ACT, of course). Your essay will be evaluated by two graders, who score your essay from 1-6 on each of 4 domains, leading to scores out of 12 for each domain. Your Writing score is calculated by averaging your four domain scores, leading to a total ACT Writing score from 2-12.
NOTE: From September 2015 to June 2016, ACT Writing scores were calculated by adding together your domain scores and scaling to a score of 1-36; the change to an averaged 2-12 ACT Writing score was announced June 28, 2016.
The Complete ACT Grading Rubric
Based on ACT, Inc’s stated grading criteria, I've gathered all the relevant essay-grading criteria into a chart. The information itself is available on the ACT's website, and there's more general information about each of the domains here. The columns in this rubric are titled as per the ACT’s own domain areas, with the addition of another category that I named ("Mastery Level").
ACT Essay Rubric - Scoring Guide
Ideas and Analysis
Development and Support
Blank, Off-Topic, Illegible, Not in English, or Void
demonstrate little or no skill in writing an argumentative essay.
The writer fails to generate an argument that responds intelligibly to the task. The writer’s intentions are difficult to discern. Attempts at analysis are unclear or irrelevant.
Ideas lack development, and claims lack support. Reasoning and illustration are unclear, incoherent, or largely absent.
The response does not exhibit an organizational structure. There is little grouping of ideas. When present, transitional devices fail to connect ideas.
The use of language fails to demonstrate skill in responding to the task. Word choice is imprecise and often difficult to comprehend. Sentence structures are often unclear. Stylistic and register choices are difficult to identify. Errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics are pervasive and often impede understanding.
demonstrate weak or inconsistent skill in writing an argumentative essay
The writer generates an argument that weakly responds to multiple perspectives on the given issue. The argument’s thesis, if evident, reflects little clarity in thought and purpose. Attempts at analysis are incomplete, largely irrelevant, or consist primarily of restatement of the issue and its perspectives.
Development of ideas and support for claims are weak, confused, or disjointed. Reasoning and illustration are inadequate, illogical, or circular, and fail to fully clarify the argument.
The response exhibits a rudimentary organizational structure. Grouping of ideas is inconsistent and often unclear. Transitions between and within paragraphs are misleading or poorly formed.
The use of language is inconsistent and often unclear. Word choice is rudimentary and frequently imprecise. Sentence structures are sometimes unclear. Stylistic and register choices, including voice and tone, are inconsistent and are not always appropriate for the rhetorical purpose. Distracting errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics are present, and they sometimes impede understanding.
demonstrate some developing skill in writing an argumentative essay
The writer generates an argument that responds to multiple perspectives on the given issue. The argument’s thesis reflects some clarity in thought and purpose. The argument establishes a limited or tangential context for analysis of the issue and its perspectives. Analysis is simplistic or somewhat unclear.
Development of ideas and support for claims are mostly relevant but are overly general or simplistic. Reasoning and illustration largely clarify the argument but may be somewhat repetitious or imprecise.
The response exhibits a basic organizational structure. The response largely coheres, with most ideas logically grouped. Transitions between and within paragraphs sometimes clarify the relationships among ideas.
The use of language is basic and only somewhat clear. Word choice is general and occasionally imprecise. Sentence structures are usually clear but show little variety. Stylistic and register choices, including voice and tone, are not always appropriate for the rhetorical purpose. Distracting errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics may be present, but they generally do not impede understanding.
demonstrate adequate skill in writing an argumentative essay
The writer generates an argument that engages with multiple perspectives on the given issue. The argument’s thesis reflects clarity in thought and purpose. The argument establishes and employs a relevant context for analysis of the issue and its perspectives. The analysis recognizes implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions.
Development of ideas and support for claims clarify meaning and purpose. Lines of clear reasoning and illustration adequately convey the significance of the argument. Qualifications and complications extend ideas and analysis.
The response exhibits a clear organizational strategy. The overall shape of the response reflects an emergent controlling idea or purpose. Ideas are logically grouped and sequenced. Transitions between and within paragraphs clarify the relationships among ideas.
The use of language conveys the argument with clarity. Word choice is adequate and sometimes precise. Sentence structures are clear and demonstrate some variety. Stylistic and register choices, including voice and tone, are appropriate for the rhetorical purpose. While errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics are present, they rarely impede understanding.
demonstrate well-developed skill in writing an argumentative essay
The writer generates an argument that productively engages with multiple perspectives on the given issue. The argument’s thesis reflects precision in thought and purpose. The argument establishes and employs a thoughtful context for analysis of the issue and its perspectives. The analysis addresses implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions.
Development of ideas and support for claims deepen understanding. A mostly integrated line of purposeful reasoning and illustration capably conveys the significance of the argument. Qualifications and complications enrich ideas and analysis.
The response exhibits a productive organizational strategy. The response is mostly unified by a controlling idea or purpose, and a logical sequencing of ideas contributes to the effectiveness of the argument. Transitions between and within paragraphs consistently clarify the relationships among ideas.
The use of language works in service of the argument. Word choice is precise. Sentence structures are clear and varied often. Stylistic and register choices, including voice and tone, are purposeful and productive. While minor errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics may be present, they do not impede understanding.
demonstrate effective skill in writing an argumentative essay
The writer generates 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.
Development 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.
The response 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.
The use of language 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.
ACT Writing Rubric: Item-by-Item Breakdown
Whew. That rubric might be a little overwhelming - there's so much information to process! Below, I’ve broken down the essay rubric by domain, with examples of what a 3- and a 6-scoring essay might look like.
Ideas and Analysis
The Ideas and Analysis domain is the rubric area most intimately linked with the basic ACT essay task itself. Here's what the ACT website has to say about this domain:
Scores in this domain reflect the ability to generate productive ideas and engage critically with multiple perspectives on the given issue. Competent writers understand the issue they are invited to address, the purpose for writing, and the audience. They generate ideas that are relevant to the situation.
Based on this description, I've extracted the four key things you need to do in your essay to score well in the Ideas and Analysis domain.
- Choose a perspective on this issue and state it clearly.
- Evaluate how true (or untrue) each (of the three given) perspectives is
- Analyze each perspective.
- Compare the remaining two perspectives to the perspective you have chosen.
There's no cool acronym, sorry. I guess a case could be made for "ACCE," but I wanted to list the points in the order of importance, so "CEAC" it is.
Fortunately, the ACT Writing Test provides you with the three perspectives to analyze and choose from, which will save you some of the hassle of "generating productive ideas." In addition, "analyzing each perspective" does not mean that you need to argue from each of the points of view. Instead, you need to choose one perspective to argue as your own and explain how your point of view relates to the perspectives provided by evaluating how correct each perspective is and analyzing the implications of each perspective.
Note: While it is technically allowable for you to come up with a fourth perspective as your own and to then discuss that point of view in relation to each of the three given perspectives, we do NOT recommend it. 40 minutes is already a pretty short time to discuss three different points of view in a thorough and coherent manner - discussing four is nigh-on impossible.
To get deeper into what things fall in the Ideas and Analysis domain, I'll use a sample ACT Writing prompt and the three perspectives provided:
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.
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.
First, in order to "state...your own perspective on the issue," you need to figure out what your point of view, or perspective, on this issue is going to be. For the sake of argument, let's say that you agree the most with the second perspective. A essay that scores a 3 in this domain might simply restate this perspective:
I agree that 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.
In contrast, an essay scoring a 6 in this domain would likely have a more complex point of view (with what the rubric calls "nuance and precision in thought and purpose"):
Machines will never be able to replace humans entirely, as creativity is not something that can be mechanized. Because machines can perform delicate and repetitive tasks with precision, however, they are able to take over for humans with regards to low-skill, repetitive jobs and high-skill, extremely precise jobs. This then frees up humans to do what we do best - think, create, and move the world forward.
Next, you need to evaluate how true/untrue each perspective is. Since you've already decided you agree with Perspective Two, you presumably think that perspective is true, which will save some work. A 3-scoring essay in this domain would likely be absolute, stating that Perspective Two is completely correct, while the other two perspectives are absolutely incorrect. By contrast, a 6-scoring essay in this domain would, again, show a more nuanced understanding:
In the future, machines might lead us to lose our humanity; alternatively, machines might lead us to unimaginable pinnacles of achievement. I would argue, however, projecting possible futures does not make them true, and that the evidence we have at present supports the perspective that machines are, above all else, efficient and effective completing repetitive and precise tasks.
To analyze the perspectives, you need to consider each aspect of each perspective. In the case of Perspective Two, this means you must discuss that machines are good at two types of jobs, that they’re better than humans at both types of jobs, and that their efficiency creates a better world. The analysis in a 3-scoring essay is usually "simplistic or somewhat unclear."
In contrast, the analysis of a 6-scoring essay "examines implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions."
Finally, you must compare the other two perspectives to your perspective throughout your essay, including in your intitial argument. Here's what a 3-scoring essay's argument would look like:
I agree that 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. Machines do not cause us to lose our humanity or challenge our long-standing ideas about what humans are or can be.
And here, in contrast, is what a 6-scoring essay's argument (that includes multiple perspectives) would look like:
Machines will never be able to replace humans entirely, as creativity is not something that can be mechanized, which means that our humanity is safe. Because machines can perform delicate and repetitive tasks with precision, however, they are able to take over for humans with regards to low-skill, repetitive jobs and high-skill, extremely precise jobs. Rather than forcing us to challenge our ideas about what humans are or could be, machines simply allow us to BE, without distractions. This then frees up humans to do what we do best - think, create, and move the world forward.
Again, to summarize what you need to do to score well in the Ideas and Analysis domain:
- Choose a perspective that you can support
- Evaluate how true/correct each perspective is
- Analyze the implications of each perspective
- Compare the other two perspectives to your own (with analysis and evaluation folded in).
To score well on the ACT essay overall, however, it's not enough to just state your opinions about each part of the perspective; you need to actually back up your claims with evidence to develop your own point of view. This leads straight into the next domain: Development and Support.
Development and Support
Another important component of your essay is that you explain your thinking. While it's obviously important to clearly state what your ideas are in the first place, the ACT essay requires you to demonstrate evidence-based reasoning. As per the description on ACT.org [bolding mine]:
Scores in this domain reflect the ability to discuss ideas, offer rationale, and bolster an argument. Competent writers explain and explore their ideas, discuss implications, and illustrate through examples. They help the reader understand their thinking about the issue.The bolded part is the aspect of the ACT Writing rubric that’s most changed from the old ACT essay. You must not only use logical reasoning, but also employ detailed examples to support and explain your ideas. Let’s say you’re discussing machine intelligence and are arguing 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.”
In your essay, you might start out by copying the perspective directly into your essay as your point of view, which is fine for the Ideas and Analysis domain. To score well in the Development and Support domain and develop your point of view with logical reasoning and detailed examples, however, you’re going to have to come up with reasons for why you agree with this perspective and examples that support your thinking.
Here's an example from an essay that would score a 3 in this domain:
Machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases, they work better than humans. For example, machines are better at printing things quickly and clearly than people are. Prior to the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg people had to write everything by hand. The printing press made it faster and easier to get things printed because things didn't have to be written by hand all the time. In the world today we have even better machines like laser printers that print things quickly.
Essays scoring a 3 in this domain tend to have relatively simple development and tend to be overly general, with imprecise or repetitive reasoning or illustration. Contrast this with an example from an essay that would score a 6:
Machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases, they work better than humans. Take, for instance, the example of printing. As a composer, I need to be able to create many copies of my sheet music to give to my musicians. If I were to copy out each part by hand, it would take days, and would most likely contain inaccuracies. On the other hand, my printer (a machine) is able to print out multiple copies of parts with extreme precision. If it turns out I made an error when I was entering in the sheet music onto the computer (another machine), I can easily correct this error and print out more copies quickly.
The above example of the importance of machines to composers uses "an integrated line of skillful reasoning and illustration" to support my claim ("Machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases, they work better than humans"). In order to develop this example further (and incorporate the “This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone” facet of the perspective), I would need to expand my example to explain why it’s so important that multiple copies of precisely replicated documents be available, and how this affects the world.
World Map - Abstract Acrylic by Nicolas Raymond, used under CC BY 2.0/Resized from original.
Essay organization has always been integral to doing well on the ACT essay, so it makes sense that the ACT Writing rubric has an entire domain devoted to this. The organization of your essay refers not just to the order in which you present your ideas in the essay, but also to the order in which you present your ideas in each paragraph. Here's the formal description from the ACT website:
Scores in this domain reflect the ability to organize ideas with clarity and purpose. Organizational choices are integral to effective writing. Competent writers arrange their essay in a way that clearly shows the relationship between ideas, and they guide the reader through their discussion.
Making sure your essay is logically organized relates back to the “development” part of the previous domain. As the above description states, you can't just throw examples and information into your essay willy-nilly, without any regard for the order; part of constructing and developing a convincing argument is making sure it flows logically. A lot of this organization should happen while you are in the planning phase, before you even begin to write your essay.
Let's go back to the machine intelligence essay example again. I've decided to argue for Perspective Two, which is:
“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.”
An essay that scores a 3 in this domain would show a "basic organizational structure," which is to say that each perspective would be discussed in its own paragraph, "with most ideas logically grouped." A possible organization for a 3-scoring essay:
Paragraph 1: Introduction (with your stated point of view)
Paragraph 2: Intelligent machines don’t really challenge ideas about humanity (analyze perspective 1)
Paragraph 3: On the other hand, intelligent machines can help us (analyze perspective 2)
Paragraph 4: Machines are not making the world worse (analyze perspective 3)
Paragraph 5: Conclusion
An essay that scores a 6 in this domain, on the other hand, has a lot more to accomplish. The "controlling idea or purpose" behind the essay should be clearly expressed in every paragraph, and ideas should be ordered in a logical fashion so that there is a clear progression from the beginning to the end. Here's a possible organization for a 6-scoring essay:
Paragraph 1: Introduction (with your stated point of view)
Paragraph 2: Machines help us because [evidence] (discussion of perspective 2)
Paragraph 3: Some argue that machines are hurting us, but here’s my contrary evidence (comparison of perspective 1 and perspective 2)
Paragraph 4: While I do believe that machines are advantageous, this advantage lies in what they can do for us, not what they reveal about us (comparison of perspective 3 and perspective 2)
Paragraph 5: Conclusion
In this example, the unifying idea is that machines are helpful (and it’s mentioned in each paragraph) and the progression of ideas makes more sense. This is certainly not the only way to organize an essay on this particular topic, or even using this particular perspective. Your essay does, however, have to be organized, rather than consist of a bunch of ideas thrown together.
Here are my Top 5 ACT Writing Organization Rules to follow:
- Be sure to include an introduction (with your thesis stating your point of view), paragraphs in which you make your case, and a conclusion that sums up your argument
- When planning your essay, make sure to present your ideas in an order that makes sense (and follows a logical progression that will be easy for the grader to follow).
- Make sure that you unify your essay with one main idea. Do not switch arguments partway through your essay.
- Don't write everything in one huge paragraph. If you're worried you're going to run out of space to write, you can try using a paragraph symbol, ¶, at the beginning of each paragraph as a last resort (if you can't write smaller).
- Use transitions between paragraphs (usually the last line of the previous paragraph and the first line of the paragraph) to "strengthen relationships among ideas" (source). This means going above and beyond "First of all...Second...Lastly" at the beginning of each paragraph. Instead, use the transitions between paragraphs as an opportunity to describe how that paragraph relates to your main argument.
The final domain on the ACT Writing rubric is Language Use. This the item that includes grammar, punctuation, and general sentence structure issues. Here's what the ACT website has to say about Language Use:
Scores in this domain reflect the ability to use written language to convey arguments with clarity. Competent writers make use of the conventions of grammar, syntax, word usage, and mechanics. They are also aware of their audience and adjust the style and tone of their writing to communicate effectively.
I tend to think of this as the “be a good writer” category, since many of the standards covered in the above description are ones that good writers will automatically meet in their writing. On the other hand, this is probably the area non-native English speakers will struggle the most, as you must have a fairly solid grasp of English to score above a 2 on this domain. The good news is that by reading this article, you're already one step closer to improving your "Language Use" on ACT Writing.
There are three main parts of this domain:
- Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics
- Sentence Structure
- Vocabulary and Word Choice
I've listed them (and will cover them) from lowest to highest level. If you're struggling with multiple areas, I highly recommend starting out with the lowest-level issue, as the components tend to build on each other. For instance, if you're struggling with grammar and usage, you need to focus on fixing that before you start to think about precision of vocabulary/word choice.
Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics
At the most basic level, you need to be able to "effectively communicate your ideas in standard written English" (ACT.org). First and foremost, this means that your grammar and punctuation need to be correct. On ACT Writing, it's all right to make a few minor errors if the meaning is clear, even on essays that score a 6 in the Language Use domain; however, the more errors you make, the more your score will drop.
Here's an example from an essay that scored a 3 in Language Use:
Machines are good at doing there jobs quickly and precisely. Also because machines aren't human or self-aware they don't get bored so they can do the same thing over & over again without getting worse.
While the meaning of the sentences is clear, there are several errors: the first sentence uses "there" instead of "their," the second sentence is a run-on sentence, and the second sentence also uses the abbreviation "&" in place of "and." Now take a look at an example from a 6-scoring essay:
Machines excel at performing their jobs both quickly and precisely. In addition, since machines are not self-aware they are unable to get "bored." This means that they can perform the same task over and over without a decrease in quality.
This example solves the abbreviation and "there/their" issue. The second sentence is missing a comma (after "self-aware"), but the worse of the run-on sentence issue is absent.
Our Complete Guide to ACT Grammar might be helpful if you just need a general refresh on grammar rules. In addition, we have several articles that focus in on specific grammar rules, as they are tested on ACT English; while the specific ways in which ACT English tests you on these rules isn't something you'll need to know, the explanations of the grammar rules themselves are quite helpful.
Once you've gotten down basic grammar, usage, and mechanics, you can turn your attention to sentence structure. Here's an example of what a 3-scoring essay in Language Use (based on sentence structure alone) might look like:
Machines are more efficient than humans at many tasks. Machines are not causing us to lose our humanity. Instead, machines help us to be human by making things more efficient so that we can, for example, feed the needy with technological advances.
The sentence structures in the above example are not particulary varied (two sentences in a row start with "Machines are"), and the last sentence has a very complicated/convoluted structure, which makes it hard to understand. For comparison, here's a 6-scoring essay:
Machines are more efficient than humans at many tasks, but that does not mean that machines are causing us to lose our humanity. In fact, machines may even assist us in maintaining our humanity by providing more effective and efficient ways to feed the needy.
For whatever reason, I find that when I’m under time pressure, my sentences maintain variety in their structures but up getting really awkward and strange. A real life example: once I described a method of counteracting dementia as “supporting persons of the elderly persuasion” during a hastily written psychology paper. I’ve found the best ways to counteract this are as follows:
1. Look over what you’ve written and change any weird wordings that you notice.
2. If you're just writing a practice essay, get a friend/teacher/relative who is good at writing (in English) to look over what you’ve written and point out issues (this is how my own awkward wording was caught before I handed in the paper). This point obviously does not apply when you're actually taking the ACT, but it very helpful to ask for someone else to take a look over any practice essays you write to point out issues you may not notice yourself.
Vocabulary and Word Choice
The icing on the "Language Use" domain cake is skilled use of vocabulary and correct word choice. Part of this means using more complicated vocabulary in your essay. Once more, look at this this example from a 3-scoring essay (spelling corrected):
Machines are good at doing their jobs quickly and precisely.
Compare that to this sentence from a 6-scoring essay:
Machines excel at performing their jobs both quickly and precisely.
The 6-scoring essay uses "excel" and "performing" in place of "are good at" and "doing." This is an example of using language that is both more skillful ("excel" is more advanced than "are good at") and more precise ("performing" is a more precise word than "doing"). It's important to make sure that, when you do use more advanced words, you use them correctly. Consider the below sentence:
“Machines are often instrumental in ramifying safety features.”
The sentence uses a couple of advanced vocabulary words, but since "ramifying" is used incorrectly, the language use in this sentence is neither skillful nor precise. Above all, your word choice and vocabulary should make your ideas clearer, not make them harder to understand.
untitled is also an adjective by Procsilas Moscas, used under CC BY 2.0/Resized and cropped from original.
How Do I Use the ACT Writing Grading Rubric?
Okay, we've taken a look at the ACTual ACT Writing grading rubric and gone over each domain in detail. To finish up, I'll go over a couple of ways the scoring rubric can be useful to you in your ACT essay prep.
Use the ACT Writing Rubric To...Shape Your Essays
Now that you know what the ACT is looking for in an essay, you can use that to guide what you write about in your essays...and how develop and organize what you say! Because I’m an Old™ (not actually trademarked), and because I'm from the East Coast, I didn’t really know much about the ACT prior to starting my job at PrepScholar. People didn’t really take it in my high school in my day, so when I looked at the grading rubric for the first time, I was shocked to see how different the ACT essay was (as compared to the more familiar SAT essay).
Basically, by reading this article, you’re already doing better than high school me.
Vale_Youth_Art_Project_100 by Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington, used under CC BY 2.0/Resized from original.
An artist’s impression of L. Staffaroni (at age 16) (look, junior year was/is hard for everyone).
Use the ACT Writing Rubric To...Grade Your Practice Essays
The ACT can’t really give you an answer key to the essay the way it can give you an answer key to the other sections (Reading, Math, etc). There are some examples of essays at each score point on the ACT website, but these examples assume that students will be at an equal level in each of domains, which will not necessarily be true for you. Even if a sample essay is provided as part of a practice test answer key, it will probably use different context, have a different logical progression, or maybe even argue a different viewpoint.
The ACT Writing rubric is the next best thing to an essay answer key. Use it as a filter through which to view your essay. Naturally, you don't have the time to become an expert at applying the rubric criteria to your essay to make sure you're in line with the ACT's grading principles and standards. That is not your job. Your job is to write the best essay that you can. If you're not confident in your ability to spot grammar, usage, and mechanics issues, I highly recommend asking a friend, teacher, or family member who is really good at (English) writing to take a look over your practice essays and point out the mistakes.
If you really want custom feedback on your practice essays from experienced essay graders, may I also suggest the PrepScholar test prep platform? As I manage all essay grading, I happen to know a bit about the essay part of this platform, which provides you with both an essay grade and custom feedback. Go here to learn more!
Desirous of some more sweet sweet ACT essay articles? Why not start with our comprehensive guide to the ACT Writing test and how to write an ACT essay, step-by-step? (Trick question: obviously you should do this.)
Round out your dive into the details of the ACT Writing test with tips and strategies to raise your essay score, information about the best ACT Writing template, and advice on how to get a perfect score on the ACT essay.
Want actual feedback on your essay? Then consider signing up for our PrepScholar test prep platform. Included in the platform are 5 practice tests, with 5 practice essays that are graded by experts here at PrepScholar.
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