The 2015 official practice ACT Writing Test presented the prescient topic of “Public Health and Individual Freedom.” Below are sample essays and score explanations to the full-length Writing test of the previously released ACT from the 2015-2018 “Preparing for the ACT Test” (Form 72CPRE) free study guide available here. For more general tips and strategies for the ACT writing test, click here.
The ACT Writing test explained below begins on page 53 of the guide. Please note that the 2017-2018 guide features the same practice test as the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 guides. Other answer explanations in this series of articles:
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ACT Writing Test Sample Essays and Explanations
Remember that you have only 40 minutes to familiarize yourself with the prompt, plan your essay, and write it out. It is recommended that you take no more than 10 minutes to plan your essay, so that you have the rest of the time to write and review it. The test booklet includes blank pages for you to use when planning your essay. These blank pages are not scored; only the lined pages on which you write your essay will be scored.
ACT 2020 Practice Test Sample Essay – Score 6/6
Well-Written Essay Sample
First, let’s look at a sample essay which would likely receive the highest possible score (a 6 in all categories, which results in a final ACT Writing score of 12). A top-scoring essay will align with the following ACT scoring rubric descriptions:
Freedom is generally considered to be a good thing: it is a founding principle of our country. But what happens when two individuals’ rights to freedom come into conflict? How do we decide whose claim is greater? These issues come into particular focus when considering the area of public health, and whether or not it is acceptable to impose restrictions on individual freedom for the good of society as a whole. Although the idea of limiting freedom sounds scary or even unjust, the reality is much less so, and is sometimes necessary for the greater good.
In fact, the successful way our society functions is already based on the limitations of certain freedoms. Here is an extreme example: we have decided that the freedom to kill another person is not one we can allow. Murder is, therefore, against the law. Most of us are happy with this state of affairs; we prefer to have the peace of mind that comes with knowing we are unlikely to be killed at random by someone “exercising their personal freedom.” Legal prohibitions against assault, theft, property damage, and so on follow in the same vein. Why should public health restrictions be any different?
Proponents of individual freedom would probably argue that there is a wide gulf between, say, smoking a cigarette in public and committing murder. They are not wholly wrong, since the person whose health they are most likely to damage in that scenario is their own. (We are more comfortable with allowing individuals to live in a self-harmful way, though not entirely: suicide is still highly stigmatized.) But the dangers of second-hand smoke are well-known. There is significant evidence that allowing smoking in public places increases the risk of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases among non-smoking bystanders. It may not be murder as we usually understand it, but it is still a violation of another’s right to life.
This principle is crucial to understanding when it is appropriate to limit freedom. We should have the undisputed right to actions which are beneficial to ourselves and others, and perhaps also to actions which harm no one but ourselves. But we cannot expect to be allowed to act in ways which harm others: they have the right to freely live unharmed. If we allow an individual to act in a way which damages public health, we have declared that their freedom is more important than everyone else’s. The freedom of one cannot outweigh the good of society as a whole; otherwise, both freedom and health will suffer.
No one wants to live in an “unfree” society. But most people would probably not want to live in a society in which there were no laws, either. Sometimes, individual freedoms have to be curtailed to ensure the rights and safety of society as a whole. Public health restrictions, like those which penalize those whose behavior (like smoking) has a negative impact on the rest of the world, may be seen as an infringement on individual rights. But the benefits they offer to a wider populace outweigh any such infringement, and make our world a safer, better place for all.
Sample Essay Score Explanation
Let’s look at how this essay aligns with the rubric descriptions for a score of 6 in each domain. Text in quotes comes from the rubric, italicized text comes from the student’s essay.
Ideas and Analysis:
“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 student’s thesis is clear and specific, and easily located as the last sentence of the introductory paragraph: Although the idea of limiting freedom sounds scary or even unjust, the reality is much less so, and is sometimes necessary for the greater good. Reading this, we know what the essay will be about and what position the student will argue for.
Look at the way the thesis sentence is structured. The use of the word Although signals that the student will be presenting an idea which they will then refute; this is exactly what happens. Within one sentence, we are reassured that the student has taken into account different readings of the evidence and decided that they do not hold up. It is this which gives their thesis “nuance and precision.”
“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.”
The student’s analysis is cleverly structured: they present a view of society which is easy to support and which can only lead to their desired conclusion. They know the hardest part of their argument to accept is that some personal freedoms should be curtailed for the good of society. Thus, they show that this objection is baseless by demonstrating that we already live in a such a society (In fact, the successful way…).
In the 3rd paragraph (Proponents of individual freedom…), the student directly addresses an obvious objection to their argument, but successfully draws a parallel between an unobjectionable stance (murder is wrong) and the controversial position they are taking (allowing people to endanger public health is also wrong).
Finally, the student crystallizes their argument (This principle is crucial…) by drawing back from a specific example to make a broader claim about the respective values of freedom and health.
Development and Support:
“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.”
We have remarked above on how the student develops their argument over time. Let us look at the way the student deals with possible objections to their argument. When introducing their first example, they describe it as extreme. Why? Because they know this criticism is the easiest to level at their argument. By pre-emptively acknowledging this, they have already weakened the objection.
But this is not all—in the subsequent paragraph, the student confronts the objection head on: Proponents of individual freedom would probably argue that there is a wide gulf between, say, smoking a cigarette in public and committing murder.
Not only do they address it, they also acknowledge the strength of the argument (They are not wholly wrong) before dismantling the claims on which it rests. By treating the counterargument seriously, the student strengthens the seriousness of their own position.
“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.”
The writer uses a five-paragraph essay format, but the paragraphs flow organically. The student has chosen an effective, if somewhat risky organizational strategy: instead of starting with a strong statement of support for their claim and subsequently providing evidence, they do the reverse. They slowly accumulate evidence, leading the reader step-by-step to the defense of their argument in the 4th paragraph.
“Transitions between and within paragraphs strengthen the relationships among ideas.”
Each paragraph logically follows from the one which precedes it. The 2nd paragraph begins with In fact, indicating that its function is to directly respond to the claim which ended the previous paragraph.
The 3rd paragraph also implicitly functions as a direct response to preceding material, while the 4th paragraph directly references it (This principle, which refers to an idea established a sentence prior). The skillful use of transitions allows the student to easily move from paragraph to paragraph.
“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.”
There are no significant language or grammar problems. A wide range of vocabulary (stigmatized, crucial, curtailed) is deployed to strong rhetorical effect. The student avoids direct repetition when possible. Throughout, the student uses appropriate academic language and a formal tone.
Sentence length varies; a wide variety of punctuation is used correctly. Note the successful use of rhetorical questions (But what happens when two individuals’ rights to freedom come into conflict? How do we decide whose claim is greater?). All of this indicates a strong command of written English.
ACT 2020 Practice Test Sample Essay – Score 3/6
Mediocre Essay Sample
Now, let’s look at a sample essay which would likely receive middling scores (a 3 in all categories, which results in a final ACT Writing score of 6). A mid-scoring essay will align with the following ACT scoring rubric descriptions:
The most important thing is freedom. Without freedom, we are like people who live under a dictatorship, and no one wants to live like that. Anything that makes us less free is a bad thing, even if the people making us less free tell us it’s for our own good. This is why we cannot allow governments to tell us how to live our lives and be healthy.
We have the right to live however we want and that includes our health. If we want to smoke or drink or eat badly, we should be allowed to do that. It’s not the government’s business what we do since we are only effecting ourselves. If they tell us how to eat or behave, it’s a slippery slope until they tell us how to think and feel.
Maybe some people think it’s okay for the government to tell us how to be healthy. They think if they want to tax soda or cigarettes or alcohol it’s because the government cares about us. But that’s not really true. They don’t really care about us, they just want to make money. If it was actually about caring they wouldn’t tax it, they would just not allow it. But they don’t because it’s only about money.
Another thing they tell us is that we should have regulations to help other people, but that doesn’t really make sense. No one is forcing anyone else to smoke or breathe car exhaust! That would also be a violation of freedom. People can choose freely how to behave and each person is responsible for their own health. If I want to smoke, it’s my health that will be most affected, and that’s my right.
In conclusion, it seems really clear that freedom is the most important right and that anything which makes us less free is a bad thing. If the government tries to interfere with our behavior that’s just authoritative. We should be allowed to do what we want, even if it’s bad for us. Our freedom should extend to having the right to our own health, even if it’s bad health.
Sample Essay Score Explanation
Let’s look at how this essay aligns with the rubric descriptions for a score of 3 in each domain. Text in quotes comes from the rubric, italicized text comes from the student’s essay.
Ideas and Analysis:
“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 student’s thesis is clear: we cannot allow governments to tell us how to live our lives and be healthy. The subsequent analysis does indeed all relate back to this central idea. However, it lacks much in the way of subtlety, and fails to adequately acknowledge other viewpoints.
“The argument establishes a limited or tangential context for analysis of the issue and its perspectives. Analysis is simplistic or somewhat unclear.”
The student’s analysis tends towards the repetitive or “simplistic.” Frequently, they assert that the government should not involve itself in the health of its citizens, and promotes the right of individuals to ruin their own health. But they dismiss, rather than engage with, other points of view, suggesting that altruistic motives are better explained by financial concerns (They don’t really care about us, they just want to make money).
In short, although they clearly express a point of view, it is largely unsupported by evidence. The student’s opinions are stated as facts, and they do not present a convincing analysis to back up those opinions.
Development and Support:
“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 student attempts to respond to counterarguments but does so by asserting facts which are unsupported or fail to account for conflicting evidence. For instance, at the end of the 2nd paragraph, the student claims If they tell us how to eat or behave, it’s a slippery slope until they tell us how to think and feel. This argument is unsupported by any provided evidence; it is based entirely on an assumed progression of government control. Thus, it reads as fear-mongering rather than a coherent position.
Similarly, in the 4th paragraph, the student suggests that regulating public health for the good of the many is an invalid idea by stressing individual freedom. No one is forcing anyone else to smoke or breathe car exhaust, the student writes.
While this is true, it somewhat misses the point—that passive inhalation is the danger health regulations are designed to present. The student thus pursues a “straw man” argument, to little effect.
“The response exhibits a basic organizational structure. The response largely coheres, with most ideas logically grouped.”
The student has organized their essay using a traditional five-paragraph structure, which brings some general order to their ideas. Each paragraph does seem to work as collection of “logically grouped” ideas, but the paragraphs obviously relate; they seem to exist in isolation.
“Transitions between and within paragraphs sometimes clarify the relationships among ideas.”
The organization within paragraphs is generally logical, but not always clear. For instance, in the 3rd paragraph, the student introduces a line of argument (They don’t really care about us, they just want to make money) without much preparation. The lack of a transition makes this shift seem abrupt, and weaker as a result.
“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.”
The author displays a limited vocabulary; they overuse vague words like really and thing. The student’s extensive use of contractions (it’s, that’s, doesn’t, don’t) strikes an inappropriately informal note.
In general, language lacks precision (the use of they instead of a specific subject, for instance). Some spelling or language errors are present, and in some cases change the intended meaning (authoritative instead of authoritarian, effecting instead of affecting).