Considering they’re meant to measure the same thing, the SAT and ACT are surprisingly different tests (and exactly what they’re really measuring is up for debate). Although the results of the two tend to be pretty similar—meaning students who score high on one test will generally score high on the other (making the SAT–ACT score conversion possible)—the actual content and style aren’t so comparable.
But the writing sections of the two are pretty similar. The same concepts are on both tests. You’ll see a lot of grammar, punctuation, and style in the ACT English section, just as you will in the SAT Writing multiple choice sections. And the essays are both in the standard five-paragraph argument style. There are a few key differences, though.
The types of grammar questions
The SAT has three different types of multiple choice grammar questions: two types that give you single, isolated sentences to analyze, and one type that’s based on a full paragraph or two of text. The ACT, on the other hand, only has the latter type. You get a series of nice, long reading passages, easier than what you’d see in the reading comprehension, each with 15 parts of the text marked and 15 questions in the margins that refer to those marked sections.
You’ll have to deal with subject-verb agreement, parallelism, and all kinds of grammar-y whatnot in both tests, so studying that material will help you increase scores on both. But the difference in the structures of the questions makes for some different strategies. “Identifying sentence error” questions on the SAT, for example, should often be read twice. Ideally, you’ll only very rarely read ACT texts twice (usually just for questions that ask about paragraph structure).
In the SAT Writing section, only a few questions are of the “improving paragraphs” sort, and so there aren’t many that deal with the structure of a piece or what extra information should be included. The ACT, meanwhile, has scads of them, since it’s entirely in that longer text format.
Aside from multiple choice questions, there are always the essays to consider. The first notable difference is that you get five more minutes on the ACT. That might not seem like a lot on paper, but 25 minutes and 30 minutes can feel very different when you’re under the gun.
The other differences are a bit subtler. ACT prompts tend to be a bit more “real world” than SAT essay prompts. While the ACT might ask you whether the school district should begin stricter testing schedules, the SAT might ask you whether increased supervision leads to higher productivity. This makes the ACT essay a little bit easier to brainstorm sometimes, but not by much. You still have to draw from your experiences and knowledge outside of what’s given in the prompt, so whether the question is about something abstract or concrete doesn’t change too much. The downside to the ACT is that you might get a question on a specific topic, which looks scary and foreign—the possible repercussions of new law, say—while the SAT, by being so abstract, rarely causes that problem.
The essay is (technically) optional on the ACT, but it’s mandatory on the SAT, so that makes a pretty distinct difference in scoring. Your standard ACT score includes only your performance on the English section (that’s the grammar and writing multiple choice), keeping the essay separate, but if you want to calculate SAT scores, you have to factor the essay score into your overall writing score. So if you’re a master five-paragraph essay writer, capable of spinning golden examples from straw, and sitting on the vocabulary of a spelling bee champion, but you have trouble with some of the grammar tested in the multiple choice questions, you might find your SAT essay score providing a pleasant bump to your writing score. But that won’t help any for your ACT English score—you’ll only see the effect in a separate essay-plus-English score, which doesn’t contribute to your main score.
In the end, though, it’s the scoring that reflects the overall relationship between these two tests. While the setups may be pretty different, the foundations aren’t so much. No matter which test you’re looking at, you need to know grammar rules, good style, and basic essay structure. Those things count more than anything else.
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The SAT underwent some major revisions in 2016, and one of the biggest changes is that its previously required essay is now optional. This can be confusing for some students and parents. Should you take the essay? Will colleges require the essay or not? Will taking the essay make your application stronger?
Read on for answers to all these questions. This guide will explain what the SAT essay is, what the pros and cons of taking it are, and how you can make the best choice for you.
What Is the SAT Essay?
The SAT essay is one of the sections of the SAT. After being required since its inception, the College Board has now decided to make the essay optional. This is similar to the ACT, whose essay has always been optional.
During this section, students will be given 50 minutes to write an essay. The essay for the new SAT is very different than it was for the previous version of the SAT. You can read all about the changes to the SAT here, but, as a brief overview, the essay will give you a passage by an author who is taking a stance on an issue. Your job will be to analyze how the author built that argument.
If you choose to take the essay, it will be its own section of the SAT, and the score you get on the essay will be separate from your score on the rest of the exam. Your main SAT score will be out of 1600 while your essay will be graded across three different categories: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. For each area, your essay will be given a score from 2-8.
Below is a sample prompt from one of the official practice tests released by the College Board. Here you can read the entire prompt, including the passages you would need to analyze.
Do Colleges Require the SAT Essay Now That It's Optional?
So, the College Board has now made the essay an optional part of the SAT, but does that change how colleges view the essay (or if they even view it at all)? Kind of. Some schools that used the essays before no longer require them now that both the ACT and SAT have made the essays optional, but other schools continue to require the SAT essay.
Each school makes this decision individually, so there are no patterns to follow to try and guess who will require the essay and who won’t. Even top schools like the Ivy League are divided on whether to require the essay or not.
This can make things confusing if you’re applying to college soon and don’t know if you should take the SAT essay or not. The following sections of this guide will explain the benefits and drawbacks of taking the essay and walk you through different scenarios so you can make an informed decision.
The #1 Consideration: Do Any of the Schools You're Interested in Require the Essay?
The absolute most important factor, the factor that matters more than anything else in the rest of this guide, is if any of the schools you’re applying to or thinking of applying to require the SAT essay.
The best way to get this information is to Google “[school name] SAT essay requirement,” look directly on each school’s admission webpage, or check out our list of the schools that require the SAT essay.
Find this information for every school you plan on applying to, even schools you’re not sure you want to apply to, but are considering. If even one school you’re interested in requires the SAT essay, then you should take it, regardless of any other factors. There is no way to take just the SAT essay by itself, so if you take the SAT without the essay and then, later on, realize you need an essay score for a school you’re applying to, you will have to retake the entire test.
So, if a school you’re interested in requires the SAT essay, your choice is clear: take the essay when you take the SAT. However, what if the schools you’re interested in don’t require the essay? If that’s the case, you have some other factors to consider. Read on!
Benefits of Taking the SAT Essay
If none of the schools you’re thinking of applying to require the SAT essay, why would you want to take it? The two main reasons are explained below.
#1: You're Covered for All Schools
Taking the SAT essay means that, no matter which schools you end up applying to, you will absolutely have all their SAT requirements met. If you decide to apply to a new school that requires the SAT essay, that won’t be a problem because you’ll already have taken it.
If you already are absolutely certain about which schools you’re applying to and none of them require the essay, then this may not be a big deal to you. However, if you have a tentative list of schools, and you’ve been adding a school or removing a school from that list occasionally, you may want to be better safe than sorry and take the SAT essay, just in case.
Taking the SAT essay means you have all your bases covered, no matter which schools you end up applying to.
#2: A Good Score May Boost Your Application Slightly
While it’s highly unlikely that your SAT essay will be the deciding factor of your college application, there are some cases where it can give you a small leg up on the competition. This is the case if a school recommends, but doesn’t require the essay, and that school is particularly competitive.
Having a strong SAT essay score to submit may strengthen your application a bit, especially if you are trying to show strong English/writing skills.
Drawbacks to Taking the SAT Essay
There are also costs to taking the SAT essay; here are three of the most common:
#1: It's Another Section to Study For
If you choose to take the essay, that means you have an entire extra SAT section to study and prepare for. If you already feel like you have a ton of SAT prep to do or have doubts about staying motivated, adding on more work can make you feel stressed and end up hurting your scores in the other SAT sections.
#2: It Makes the Exam Longer
Taking the essay will, obviously, increase the total time you spend taking the SAT. You’re given 50 minutes to write the essay, and, including time needed for students not taking the essay to leave and things to get settled, that will add about an hour to the test, increasing your total SAT test time from about three hours to four hours.
If you struggle with keeping focused or staying on your A game during long exams (and, let’s be honest, it’s not hard to lose concentration after several hours of answering SAT questions), adding an additional hour of test time can reduce your test-taking endurance and make you feel tired and distracted during the essay, likely making it hard for you to get your best score.
#3: The Essay Costs Extra
Taking the SAT with the essay will also cost you a bit more money. Taking the SAT without the essay costs $46, but if you choose to take the essay, it costs $14 extra, raising the total cost of the SAT to $60.
However, if you're eligible for an SAT fee waiver, the waiver also applies to this section of the exam, so you still won't have to pay anything if you choose to take the essay.
Taking the essay likely means the cost of taking the SAT will be slightly higher for you.
Should You Take the SAT Essay? Five Scenarios to Help You Decide
Now you know what the SAT essay is and the pros and cons of taking it. So, what should you decide? Five scenarios are listed below; find the one that applies to your situation and follow the advice in order to make the best decision for you.
Scenario 1: You're planning on applying to at least one school that requires the essay
As mentioned above, if even one school you’re thinking about applying to requires the SAT essay, you should take it in order to avoid retaking the entire SAT again at a later date because you need an essay score.
Scenario 2: None of the schools you're applying to look at essay scores
If none of the schools you’re thinking about applying to even look at SAT essay scores, then you shouldn’t take it. Even if you get a perfect score, if the schools don’t consider essay scores, then taking it will have no benefits for you.
Scenario 3: The schools you're applying to don't require the SAT essay and aren't highly competitive
In this case, you don’t need to take the SAT essay, unless you’re trying to make up for weak writing skills in other parts of your application.
Scenario 4: The schools you're applying to recommend the SAT essay and are more competitive
For this scenario, you should take the SAT essay in order to give your application an extra boost, unless you really think you’d perform poorly or preparing for and taking the essay would cause your scores in other sections to decline.
Scenario 5: You aren't sure where you're going to apply yet
If you’re not sure which schools you want to apply to, then you should take the SAT essay, just to be safe. This way you’re covered no matter where you end up applying to college.
If the thought of figuring out which colleges to apply to has you as confused as this blue panda, your safest option is to take the SAT essay.
Because of the College Board’s recent decision to make the SAT essay optional, students are now faced with the decision of whether they should take it or not. The best way to decide is to learn the essay policy for each of the colleges you're interested in applying to. Some schools will still require the essay, some won’t even look at an applicant’s essay scores, and other schools don’t require the essay but will look at your score if you do take it.
Use these school policies to help decide whether you should take the essay. Remember, if you end up needing to submit an essay score, you will have to retake the entire SAT, so make sure you have accurate and up-to-date information for each school you are thinking of applying to.
Have you decided to take the essay and want to know how to start studying? We have a step-by-step guide that explains how to write a great SAT essay.
Want more examples of sample prompts? Here are all of the real SAT essay prompts that have been released by the College Board.
Are you aiming for a perfect SAT essay score? Check out our guide on how to get a perfect 8/8/8 on the SAT essay.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now: