#LifeGains: The SAT vs. ACT Essay


Even though some students choose not to take the SAT or ACT essay portion, it may still help to have an understanding of what the essay section involves so that you can make a more informed decision.


Useful Resources


Firstly, here are some useful resources for those of you who would like some more information on the SAT and ACT.


  1. If you are not familiar with the difference between the two exams, see SAT vs ACT.
  2. If you would like more information on whether or not you should take the essay section of the exams at all, see Should I take the SAT/ACT Essay?



Overview of the Essay Sections


Both the SAT and ACT have optional essay sections. The biggest question we get is "how are the two different"? Here is an overview.

Time50 minutes40 minutes
Task Analysis of a passage and its author's strategies to build a persuasive argumentAnalysis of three perspectives presentation of your own perspective on the issue
ScoringThe essay is scored out of 4,4,4 (for Reading, Analysis and Writing respectively) by two examiners. The scores are then added together for a score out of 8,8,8. The scores for the three areas assessed are not added together.The essay is scored for four different areas out of 6 each (Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, as well as Language Use and Conventions) by two examiners. The two examiners' scores are added for each area, and then averaged for a score out of 12.

Details on the SAT Essay


For the SAT essay, the prompt given is usually a reading passage from either a persuasive text or a transcribed speech. The passages are usually just under 800 words. You have to read the entire passage and then analyze the way that the author uses various tools to build his/her argument. Your existing knowledge on the topic at hand is not tested, and thus, even if you do know something about the issue, you should not mention it in your essay. Topics that often appear in the passages include:


  1. Climate Change
  2. Wildlife Preservation
  3. Ecological Preservation
  4. Gender Equality
  5. Ethical Debates
  6. Racial Segregation


The task is always the same. Thus, it may be helpful to familiarize yourself with the question so that you can save some time during the exam. Keep in mind that the task is to analyze how the author builds an argument, and not to restate or summarize the argument. A good way to do this is to first identify the point the author is trying to make, then give an example from the text to explain how the point was communicated.


The essay is scored out of 8 points (out of 4 for each of two examiners) for Reading, Analysis and Writing. This means that a perfect score would be 8,8,8. For Reading, you are assessed on how well the examiners believe you understood the passage. For Analysis, you are graded on how well you identified the author's persuasive techniques and how well you explain how the techniques are being employed. Lastly, for Writing, your ability to use the English language to communicate your ideas is tested. This includes grammar, word choice, and organization.

Details on the ACT Essay


For the ACT essay, the prompt given is a paragraph or two on a modern issue, followed by three varying perspectives on the issue. You have to read the issue as well as three perspectives, give a summary of the issue at hand, and take a stance on the issue. You should form an opinion before beginning to write your essay to help with structuring your arguments. You may choose to argue for one of the perspectives given, choose to argue a combination of a few perspectives, or formulate your own perspective. This does mean that any understanding of historical trends or current events may help you to come up with examples for your essay. Topics that often appear in the passages include:


  1. The Rise of Technology
  2. Globalization
  3. Educational Issues
  4. Corporate Social Responsibility
  5. Government Power


The essay is scored out of 12 points (out 6 for each of the two examiners) for four areas of Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, Language Use and Conventions. The scores for each area are averaged to give an overall score out of 12. For the Ideas and Analysis section, you are assessed on how well you discuss your perspective as well as acknowledge the other perspectives presented. For Development and Support, your ability to develop an argument with sufficient reasoning, logic and examples is evaluated. For Organization, you are tested on your essay's sentence and paragraph organization. And last but not least, for Language Use and Conventions, you are graded on - you guessed it! - your ability to use the English language to communicate your ideas including grammar, word choice and organization.



Advice on Which One is for You


Now that you have a better understanding of the two essays, you may want to start thinking about how to play to your strengths. In a nutshell, if you are good at literary analysis but not the best at writing your own content, then you should opt for the SAT essay. If you are good at forming logical arguments, and have quite a broad understanding of current events and historical issues, then you may be better off choosing the ACT essay.


Of course, you also need to be aware of the other differences between the SAT and ACT exams in order to get a good picture of which one you should be taking for an edge.

If you are looking for help on either the SAT or ACT Essay, we have got you covered.

For SAT tutors, click here!

For ACT tutors, click here!


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