ACT Essay Etiquette—5 Tips & Tricks

Essay etiquette has its own list of dos and don’ts, especially on the ACT. With these 5 basic rules, you can craft a better essay in less time (immensely useful for standardized tests).

(Unfamiliar with the ACT essay section? Check out our previous post: ACT & SAT Essay Sections: What should you know?) Note: SAT discontinued their essay section.

5 Basic Essay Tips

1. Do Use a Strong Thesis Statement.

Nothing sets up a standardized essay better than a clear, identifiable thesis statement. It should make your intention for the essay and any opinions (if the essay is persuasive) readily apparent to your reader. Within the thesis (which can be more than one sentence), you can also outline the major points and evidence you’ll be covering as a guide for the reader’s expectations.

Example: Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice not only as a romance but as a shrewd commentary on the economic obstacles of her time. She demonstrates this strife through Charlotte’s practical but mercenary nature, the way the Gardeners are looked down upon in society, and Mrs. Bennet’s anxieties about the Longbourn entail.

2. Don’t Try to Sound Too Academic.

Of course, it’s a fantastic goal to have a professional, academic tone; the problem lies in overdoing it. Don’t make long, winding, overly complicated sentences with multiple dependent clauses when one or two simpler sentences would have a stronger impact. Furthermore, pick the right word for the situation, not just the fanciest one. No one needs to stay “peripatetic” or “abecedarian” in a simple essay, when they could just say “wandering” or “alphabetical.” Sometimes a difficult word is the right choice, but ask yourself why you’re adding it.

3. Conversely, Don’t Use Slang.

Words like “totally,” “cool,” and other phrases used in daily speech might be familiar and comfortable to use, but they don’t belong in the essay portion of a standardized test. Save those for more personal, artistic writings like narratives, personal essays, and fiction. That is where slang and other casual vocabulary can add flavor to a character and really shine.

4. Don’t Be Too General/Vague.

It’s easy to get caught up in the wording of a prompt and mimic it or to be afraid to branch out, but merely echoing the prompt isn’t giving the reader any new information. We can’t just write “Roads bring animals into unforeseen contact with humans” and leave it at that. We have to give examples and explain the consequences or benefits of such contact.

5. Do Use Examples (especially specific ones).

The ACT requires a bit of imagination. The prompts will often give you a topic and possible points of view one could have about the topic. However, if I am writing an ACT response about roads and animals, the prompt won’t give me examples to use or text to mine for details. Instead, I’ll have to draw reasonable examples from my own life and experience of the world. 

Example: When considering roads and wildlife, most people think of conservation, migration patterns, and, less pleasantly, roadkill. Few people have experienced roads and wildlife the way I have: an angry moose staring down your school bus and refusing to move.


These are just a few Dos and Don’ts to take into account as you do ACT test prep. Keeping them in mind will form a strong foundation for your writing. Try these out next time you practice for the ACT.

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