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Should I Take the Writing Portion?

Should I take the Writing portion of the ACT?

In short, the answer is yes. The idea of adding another 40 minutes to an already lengthy test isn’t ideal, but we have a few reasons why you should always take the Writing portion of the ACT.

Let’s go over what the Writing portion covers. The Writing prompt provides you with some options, or perspectives on a question. The task is to analyze the perspectives and provide your own point of view based on the three presented to you. The prompts are geared more towards broader social issues, such as taxing or not taxing unhealthy foods, or the usage of intelligent machines replacing a human’s job or not.

Writing Portion

The Writing portion is 40 minutes long, giving you time to read, analyze, and incorporate the perspectives into your essay plan. This portion is based out of 12 points that is not rolled into your overall composite score.

Now that we understand what the Writing portion entails and what is expected, next we will give you a few reasons why it’s important to always take the Writing portion.

Reason #1

Many colleges and universities require this section of the ACT. This section is optional, but a student can’t go back and only take the Writing portion of the test, they would have to retake the entire test and include this portion as well. So, an extra 40 minutes tacked on to the end of the test is much more appealing than retaking the entire test! Take a look at your college list and see if they require this section or not.

Reason #2

Every essay is unique. Everyone has a different point of view and a different take on the essay. Voice your opinion! Keep in mind, you will still need to develop a position, include appropriate examples, organize points, and manage your time carefully. Make sure to indent your paragraphs, keep your writing neat, and minimize your spelling and grammatical errors.

Reason #3

It’s just another essay. Don’t work yourself up too much about it. Think through a strategy to prepare for test day. You’ll want to incorporate some specific perspectives and analyze the quality of the argument. When you are prepared and ready, you will most likely feel more confident and that will reflect in your essay.

If you simply don’t feel prepared and ready to take this section of the ACT, we can help. Our Standard and Advanced Courses as well as Private Tutoring cover the Writing Portion of the test. Our tutors are invested in each student and want you to get the score you need for the school you want.

Making A Great Persuasive Essay

Nerves abound as the teacher walks through the room.  Every student waiting anxiously, stirring in their seats as names are called out one by one. Finally, your name is called; stiffening as your paper lands on your desk, you gasp. One glance at all the red ink and your heart sinks; the essay you spent all night writing barely resembles the original copy. You think to yourself, “But I tried so hard. What did I do wrong?”

This story can be echoed by students across the country. Whether you are answering an ACT or AP test prompt, or submitting a college scholarship essay, persuasive writing is not about trying hard but understanding how to craft an effective argument. There are several common mistakes that are easy to fix.

  1. Planning the Essay

Too often students are given a prompt, brainstorm a few ideas, then begin writing. To really plan an essay you need to figure out more than just your thesis statement. A good plan should include how you are going to defend your thesis, what arguments others might pose and how to counter them, and what evidence you will use to support these claims. With a good plan the essay can almost write itself. All you need to do is link the arguments together.

  1. Supporting a Claim

What is the difference between a claim and evidence? While most people can articulate the difference, these often become muddled in essay writing. A claim is a statement that presents a perspective and a belief on a certain subject. Evidence is a factual statement that provides support for a claim. For example, If I stated that M&Ms are the best candy, few people would accept it. However, if I provide concrete evidence I can give weight to this claim. But evidence can have varying strengths. Good evidence can look like this: “Fox News reported that M&Ms sold the most units and were the highest revenue generating chocolate candy in America for 2017.” This evidence has a strong source, provides a metric for comparison, and covers a large sample size. By leaving any of these out the evidence loses credibility and effectiveness. Let’s see what bad evidence would look like: “Mr. Johnson’s fourth grade class voted M&M’s as their favorite candy”. This extreme has very little credibility, a tiny sample size, and provided no metric for comparison. Just remember, whenever you make a claim it needs good evidence to support it.

  1. Understanding Perspectives

Trying to make an essay stand out can be hard. But one surefire way to catch a grader’s eye is to show understanding of what drives different perspectives. By arguing against the emotions or motivations of counterpoints you can move past just responding to a prompt and start providing real insight. Anyone can rewrite a prompt in their own words, but few are able to dissect that prompt and move past just regurgitating the same old lines.

All these things can bring strength and life to your essay writing that might be missing in your peer’s. This is not about changing your style of writing, merely approaching your essay differently. Focus on writing clearly with sound arguments and you will see a lot less red ink marring your essays.

ACT & New SAT Compared

Section breakdown of the ACT and SAT (including breaks):

ACT

Revised SAT

English – 75 questions, 45 minutes

Reading – 52 questions, 65 minutes

Math – 60 questions, 60 minutes

Break – 10 minutes

Break – 10 minutes

Writing and Language – 44 questions, 35 minutes

Reading – 40 questions, 35 minutes

Math (no calculator) – 20 questions, 25 minutes

Science – 40 questions, 35 minutes

Break – 5 minutes

Break – 10 minutes (with writing)

Math (calculator) – 38 questions, 55 minutes

Writing – 40 minutes (optional)

 

Break – 2 minutes, can’t leave room (with writing)

Test is finished

Writing – 50 minutes (optional)

Total time (without writing): 3 hours, 5 minutes

Total time (ACT + writing): 3 hours, 55 minutes

Total time (without writing): 3 hours, 15 minutes

Total time (SAT + writing): 4 hours, 7 minutes

Many of the changes to the SAT bring it closer to the ACT: the longer sections, the switch to an optional essay, the content of the math test (pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, and trig), the graph questions sprinkled throughout the test (resembling ACT Science questions), the elimination of short essay passages in the reading, the removal of archaic, obscure vocabulary questions, and the transition to four answer choices instead of five.

But while the tests look more alike than they have in the past, there are also differences between the revised SAT and the ACT. In the Reading section of the SAT, students can expect five passages instead of four. There are also questions that evaluate a student’s ability to interpret the emotions of characters within a passage, which is something that is largely absent from the ACT. There are also new, evidence-based questions that require students to answer questions that give support for previous questions they’ve answered. If they miss the first question, it will be difficult to get the second one correct.

On the Writing and Language test, the question types are almost identical to those found on the ACT English section, but on the SAT, students will have 36% more time to answer those questions. On the surface, that extra time seems advantageous. Timing on the ACT English section is not, however, usually a problem for students. With so much extra time on the SAT, they might find themselves second guessing and changing correct answers in the remaining time.

The SAT math test now focuses less on geometry and more on algebra – another point of differentiation between the two exams. The questions are generally more difficult, but students have more time to solve them. There’s also an emphasis placed on solving systems of equations. The no calculator section of the test could pose a new challenge for students who typically rely on them heavily. Student produced response questions (often referred to as “grid-in” questions by students), where students must supply their own answer to instead of choose from provided multiple choice options, are still present on the SAT and not on the ACT.

Overall, students can expect trickier wording on the SAT. The longer sections will make it difficult for some students to concentrate. The advantage of timing, however, likely still rests with the SAT: students have more time per question in each section of the exam than they do on the ACT. Some students, however, may find this more hurtful than helpful. There’s still a stronger emphasis on vocabulary than there is on the ACT, but the words being testing are not as difficult. At the end of the day, which test is “better” or “easier” is extremely subjective; different students will prefer and perform better on different things. That’s why it’s important, as always, for students to take both an ACT and a SAT practice test to see where their strengths lie.

 

The ‘Perfect’ College Essay

You’ve probably heard or read about Delaware high school senior Brittany Stinson’s much-lauded Costco-themed college admissions essay. Stinson was admitted to Yale, Columbia, Penn, Dartmouth, Cornell, and Stanford, among other schools. That impressive list of acceptances and her unique and clever essay have combined to form some tantalizing headlines:

This Essay Got a High School Senior into 5 Ivy League Schools and Stanford

Essay about Love for Costco Wins Student Admission to Five Ivies

An Essay about Costco Hot Dogs Got This Girl into 5 Ivy League Schools

Poetic Costco College Admissions Essay Gets Student into Stanford, Yale, Columbia and Cornell

With little mention of Stinson’s other qualifications, at first glance it seems the essay was her golden ticket. The magical essay that gets you into any school you choose? It’s a tempting vision. It’s also unrealistic.

In a Business Insider article titled “Ex-Ivy League admissions officers dissect an essay that got a girl into 5 Ivies and Stanford,” the author notes that the ex-admissions officers in question “prefaced their remarks by clarifying that an admissions essay on its own cannot achieve an acceptance into an elite school, and that stellar academics and other extracurriculars must accompany an essay.” [emphasis added] That clarification, however, doesn’t stand out next to the plethora of headlines claiming the essay’s singular power in winning acceptances.

The mythic power of the Ideal Essay is compelling and terrifying at once. It entices applicants with possibilities and frightens them with the dark specter of the fate of students whose less-than-Nobel-winning essays ruined everything, forever.

William K. Poirot writes about this phenomenon in his introduction to 100 Successful College Application Essays:

“I know of college studies in which 3 percent of the essays helped the applicant, 2 percent hurt the applicant, and the other 95%, while perfectly respectable, had no effect whatever on the admissions decision. Yet I have seen even good writers crippled by the pressure they put on themselves to write a great essay, one that will get them admitted…. Don’t set out to write the perfect essay, the one with a huge impact, the one that will blow the doors to the college open to you. It just doesn’t happen very often. It is largely a fantasy….”

Writing can be powerful, and the shimmering vision of the Ideal Essay is understandably appealing. An essay on its own won’t get you admitted to your top choice school. The purpose of an essay is to provide some personality to illustrate otherwise lifeless lists of accomplishments – grades, scores, awards, service hours. Stinson did a lot of things right in her essay. She used strong verbs and clear descriptions. She began with a compelling first sentence. She links her story about Costco to the story she’s telling about herself and the kind of person she is. These are all important elements.

But even her essay isn’t perfect. No one’s is. (One of those ex-admissions officers said of Stinson’s essay, “I don’t think this is one of the best essays I’ve seen… [T]here was an opportunity missed here to tell us much more about herself…I can only assume that the rest of her application is truly stellar….”) The evaluation of the essay is subjective, so what seems outstanding to one admissions officer may seem less stellar to another. That’s all the more reason to tailor the essay to the person it should reflect – you.

Stinson shared one piece of advice that is a good takeaway for anyone thinking about college essays. “Before I even started writing an essay, I read a quote from an admissions officer that said if your essay is on the ground and there is no name on it and one of your friends picks it up, they should know that you wrote it.” Does that mean you’ll get into Stanford? No, but it does help ensure that your essay will do its job, which is to give the admissions reps a peek at the person behind the application.

Interested in developing your ‘perfect’ College Essay? Find out more about the GSP College Essay Writing Course HERE and learn how you can more effectively tell your story!

ACT Essay Score Issues

Have you noticed a discrepancy between your ACT multiple-choice scores and your Writing score? You’re not alone. Since the new essay debuted in September, students have been frustrated and alarmed by low essay scores. The concordance between the old and new essay scores equates an old 8/12 with a new 23/36, but an old 9/12 with a 30/36 – a huge gap. Many students who are scoring in the 30s on their multiple choice sections are seeing essay scores in the low to mid 20s, and they are understandably concerned.

The Washington Post spoke to the parents of a student who took the ACT in September. He received “a 19 on the writing section and 30s on the rest of the test.” When the student requested a rescore of his essay, the score increased – to a 31. Based on the new essay scoring, that jump – from a 19 to a 31 – represents a change from the 63rd percentile to the 98th.

Wait, you’re thinking, a 19 is the 63rd percentile? Yes, on the Writing, it is. For comparison, a 19 on English is the 45th percentile. On the Science section, a 19 is in the 40th.

Top Tier Admissions wrote of the new ACT essay scoring, “Imagine a teacher giving a test where a 70% was the highest score out of a thousand students, but then deciding not to curve the test. That is what is happening right now on this new writing section.”

Criticism of the new ACT essay has been widespread, so if you’re feeling concern or even shock about your essay score, know that you’re not alone. Resist the temptation to compare your 1-36 essay scores with the 1-36 scores in the other sections: look at the percentiles, instead. If you’re considering retaking the ACT just to boost your essay, check in with your admissions reps at your top-choice colleges first. More colleges, including Tufts, Penn, Brown, and Swarthmore, are opting not to require the essay portion of the exam at all.

Even if your college does require it, it may not be worth retaking the whole exam if you’re pleased with the rest of your scores. Talking with your admissions representative may help you determine how important that score is – or isn’t.

Changes to the ACT

ACT recently unveiled plans for a 2015 update to their test. Students taking the ACT next year will need to prepare for a more complex essay, as well as some minor alterations to the Reading and Mathematics tests. Relative to the SAT’s extensive changes, the changes to the ACT will be subtle.

Writing:

    • For students taking the optional ACT Writing portion, the writing prompt may become more complex, requiring students to “evaluate multiple perspectives on a complex issue and generate their own analysis based on reasoning, knowledge, and experience.” Although the prompt may appear to be more challenging, the additional direction in the prompt and hypothetical perspectives provided will allow the student to actively analyze stated ideas, instead of initializing the entire topic.  In addition, the student will be provided with an additional ten minutes to write the essay – for a total of 40 minutes.
    • The scoring of the Writing test will be also updated and will include subscores in four areas: ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and language use.

Reading:

    • The Reading test will introduce a new passage type. Students will be asked to compare information from paired passages (dual passages), similar to a subset of questions on the SAT. The ACT began rolling out these paired passages during the 2014-2015 school year, but each test will have this dual passage from this point forward.

Mathematics:

    • The Mathematics section will see a very slight increase of emphasis on statistics and probability in the Math test. The change will be minor enough that most students probably won’t notice the difference.

Science:

    • The Science section will have the same number of questions (40), but they will be broken down into 6 themed passages rather than 7.  We perceive this as giving each student a leg up, as now there are only six varied science related topics that must be addressed, rather than seven topics that students may only have limited previous knowledge of beforehand.

The main focus of the upcoming ACT update seems to be on state assessments, rather than on college applications. This is evidenced by the ACT’s new supplemental scores: STEM and Language Arts scores, and Career Readiness and Text Complexity indicators. There will also be new question categories aligned to Common Core standards. Most of these new scores are designed to provide more detailed insight into students’ progress.

The ACT’s traditional 1-36 composite score will not change; these new scores will be provided in addition to the current provided scores. Other changes affecting ACT state assessments include the addition of more optional tests (math, reading, and science) and increased availability of digital tests.

These changes to the ACT are planned to take effect in fall 2015 and in 2016.

Fun Facts about Zach Buckner

1. I played football in high school and college. If you ever have the chance to play collegiate sports, I suggest you do. It was the best decision I made going into college. And if you’re worried about the workload, just think that I played football, was in a fraternity, and did biomedical engineering. If I can do it, anyone can. Besides, you’d just spend that free time playing Mario Kart in the dorms anyway.

2. I was the Prom King in high school and no, I’m not ashamed to brag about that seven years later. Okay, maybe a little.

3. I recently ran with the bulls in Spain. I do not suggest doing it. But it was amazing.

4. I’ve recently taken up trapeze and will soon be leaving GSP to pursue a career in it. Only half of that is true.

5. Despite being a football-playing jock, I am also a card-carrying nerd. Feel free to ask me about video games and fantasy novels.

6. My first job was working with my father to install and repair HVAC systems (furnaces and air conditioners). I suggest everyone has a manual labor job at least once in their life. It builds work ethic and makes office jobs seem a lot cushier.

7. My dream job would be to write comic books, but make the salary of a banker.

8. I really dig Wes Anderson. He’s the modern Shakespeare, in my opinion. Who else can deal with so many moving parts in terms of plot?

9. Joss Whedon, that’s who. Only, Joss’s mastery lies in containing and forcing interaction between larger than life characters. What Wes is to plot, Joss is to characters. What I’m saying is that I really dig Joss Whedon as well.

10. I love writing, though I don’t do it nearly enough. If we’re working together and you’d like me to look at something you’ve been writing, feel free to send it my way. I won’t just be another person telling you how good your writing is, I’ll actually give you some good feedback and notes.

Zach Buckner is a former Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.