As a college student, I majored in journalism. That means I have a lot of experience in all types of writing. In order to major in a communications-related field, students must take a rigorous schedule of English courses, which means a whole lot of essay writing.
I quickly adapted a method of essay writing, which I believe simplifies and streamlines the process.
What’s the trick? Instead of sitting down and writing an essay, from start to finish, as many students do, it’s much easy (and way less time consuming) to do all of your research beforehand, placing each item into a basic outline.
From there, the outline contains all of the information you need to create your essay and, the essay essentially writes itself.
The only work left will be filler writing to explain your thought processes.
Here’s how you can format your essay outline (Note: the example below has three paragraphs, but additional paragraphs can be added as necessary.):
I. Introduction paragraph:
a. What you’d like to discuss within your introduction paragraph
b. Quotes or references, if any
II. Thesis statement: What’s the main point of your essay? Decide what you want to convey in your essay and put it into words. Your entire essay will revolve around this point, so make sure you’re clear and concise in your phrasing. (This is usually placed near the end of your introduction paragraph.)
III. First paragraph topic that supports your thesis
a. List supporting quotes/references: Find quotes from reputable sources that support what you’ve stated within your thesis and that relate to your first paragraph topic.
IV. Second paragraph topic that supports your thesis
a. List supporting quotes/references: Find quotes from reputable sources that support what you’ve stated within your thesis and that relate to your second paragraph topic.
V. Third paragraph topic that supports your thesis
a. List supporting quotes/references: Find quotes from reputable sources that support what you’ve stated within your thesis and that relate to your third paragraph topic.
VI. Conclusion paragraph: Note what you’d like to say within your conclusion paragraph. Your conclusion paragraph should detail how you are going to unite the topics from your aforementioned topics and weave them together into one solid point. Students commonly mistake a conclusion paragraph as a summary paragraph when, in fact, it’s really an opportunity to drive home your argument. Your conclusion should round out your essay and unite your paragraphs together, solidifying your thesis.
a. Additional quotes or references, if any
VII. List all citations: As you find each quote or reference to include within your essay, make sure to cite each reference, so you won’t have to scramble at the end to go back to your sources to see where you found each quotation. List each citation on your outline so it’s already finished before you even complete your essay. That way, it’s one less thing to worry about.
By following this outline format, the work of your essay is already clearly mapped out ahead of time. You already know what you want to say and how you’re going to say it and you have all of the support to back up each theory.
This method takes the stress out of essay writing because it eliminates guesswork; struggling for the right idea or argument and helps you ensure your thesis is strong. If you’re not able to easily fill out the outline, your thesis isn’t strong or clear enough and your essay topic will likely not be a winner as a result.
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PRACTICE Makes Perfect
Have you ever read a book about snowboarding, then tried to snowboard down the toughest hill you could find? I did, and I fell flat on my face before flipping up into the air and twirling horizontal, only stopped by slamming into a tree. This taught me something important: reading does not make you an expert!
Reading, I realized, only makes my head smarter, but it does not actually give me a skill. This is true when it comes to preparing for the ACT Essay. You can “study” all the fact there are to know about this writing test, but the only chance you have of doing well is to actually practice writing your own essays.
Yes, this does mean writing essays in your spare time. But before you completely cringe and log off your computer, remember that old, true phrase: Practice makes perfect.
You might be a good writer, you might be a good student, you might be really smart, and you might be pretty well-versed on the ACT Essay’s requirements. But none of that makes you an expert. You can find lots of students who claim all of the above, and still complain, “I got a 4 on the Writing! This is crazy!” (Just check the forums online – there are tons of these statements). The truth is that writing a good essay in just 30 minutes is a unique skill that takes time to acquire.
So since practice makes perfect, then it is really, really important that you take time to practice this exact skill over and over again until you know you’ve got it! I genuinely feel bad for students who the first time they write a 30-minute essay is when they’re actually taking the ACT Writing test.
So How Do I Practice?
Here are four tips I give you on preparing for the ACT Writing portion.
1. Practice completing the Prompt Analysis: First of all, remember that this essay is an essay that tests your thinking. To have good ideas, you have to have practice thinking in a more complex, sophisticated way than the millions of other students. Take a look at the sample prompts on this website and give yourself about 20 minutes to fill out the prompt analysis document for each prompt. This will train your brain to think in more complex ways.
2. Practice creating thesis statements and outlines: For English essays I’d usually stare at my screen for a minimum of 2 hours before coming up with a thesis. What a waste of time! For the ACT Essay, you want to very quickly come up with what you want to say. Again, take a look at the sample prompts on this website and give yourself about 5 minutes to jot down the following:
• A thesis
• The topics for your body paragraphs
• Examples you can give in each body paragraph
3. Actually write the essay in 30 minutes: Grab a stopwatch, grab a prompt you haven’t seen before, and go! Write the whole essay – intro, thesis, body, conclusion – in just 30 minutes. See how far you get and how well you do. And try to reflect on your performance. What was hard for you? What areas of your essay are in need of the biggest improvement? You’ll never know until you actually do this task! I recommend doing one of these a day. It’s only 30 minutes. (Maybe make it fun and compete against a friend to write the better essay in 30 minutes…)
4. Get feedback from trusted sources: Okay, so you actually need to write the essay first, but once you do, have a trusted parent, teacher, or other adult tell you what they think about your essay. Outside feedback is invaluable! Check out some of your local libraries as well: many of them offer free feedback on essays online, including on these practice ACT essays.
So put yourself in the stressful predicament of having to write a 30-minute essay for the first time during the actual ACT Essay itself. Practiceahead of time, and you will be guaranteed that you’ll do your best on the test!