ACT vs SAT – A Tale of Two Essays

One of the questions we get asked a lot as teachers and tutors is “What’s the deal with the essay, anyway?” Interestingly, this question is asked by both SAT students and ACT students. Let me break it down for ya, fellas…



First the ACT and SAT prompts are very different. The ACT presents topics that students can easily relate to and have some familiarity with. The ACT topics are often about school or education. The SAT, on the other hand, presents prompts that are a bit more esoteric, obscure and arcane (see what I did there? ). Here are samples of each:

An ACT Prompt

Educators debate extending high school to five years because of increasing demands on students from employers and colleges to participate in extracurricular activities and community service in addition to having high grades. Some educators support extending high school to five years because they think students need more time to achieve all that is expected of them. Other educators do not support extending high school to five years because they think students would lose interest in school and attendance would drop in the fifth year. In your opinion, should high school be extended to five years?

In your essay, take a position on this question. You may write about either one of the two points of view given, or you may present a different point of view on this question. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.


An SAT Prompt

Being unwilling to change is often seen as a limitation. For example, a common accusation people often make in arguments is that the other person refuses to even consider taking new positions on issues. But being consistent is not always a bad thing. In fact, firmly supporting a position or point of view shows that one is stable and constant and does not change one’s position whenever circumstances change. This consistency is far more important than a willingness to adjust one’s thinking.

Assignment: Is it more important to remain consistent than to change one’s mind when circumstances change? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.




The essay section is the first section of the test. It is required, and you have 25 minutes to read the prompt, craft your argument, and write your essay. Essays are graded by two readers who each assign it a 0 – 6, or a total of 0 – 12. The score of the essay is then combined with raw score from the Writing multiple choice sections of the test to arrive at a 200 – 800 score. Thus the essay can be up to 180 points of your writing score, and is it’s important to do well.

Here are some tips that will make your essay easy to write and above average:

1. Pick a point of view.

The essay prompt can always be approached by different viewpoints. The essay graders are looking for how well you write an argument, and that means making sure you chose a side and make your choice clear to the reader. Avoid writing things like “on the other hand.” or “I think it’s both.” Even if you don’t believe what you are writing, pick a side! That’s what you were asked to do.

2. Use specific examples.

The less successful essays we see say things like “Scientists did experiments and took measurements.” Avoid these types of generalizations, and instead pick specifics, “Unlike his fellow scientists, Galileo believed the Earth revolved around the sun. He was eventually jailed for his beliefs.” Also avoid using the quote in the prompt itself as an example.

If you look at enough SAT essays you’ll see that the prompts are very similar and thus you can prepare examples that will work pretty broadly regardless of the question. You should prepare evidence ready to use before you go into the test. Historical events like World War II or books you read in English class like The Great Gatsby have a lot of rich content that can be mined for examples and applied to a variety of prompts.

3. Stretch your vocab muscles!

You’ve been studying, so you know some robust words that can demonstrate your sophisticated writing style. “Some people think that technology is making us lazy” is much less engaging than “Many contend that technology is has spawned a highly dependent generation.” Note that we didn’t use simply big words but instead used apt and interesting words

4. You can use “I.”

Unlike school essays and college research papers, it’s completely acceptable for you to use the first person in your SAT essay, since this is an essay asking you for your opinion. “I believe that privacy is no longer valued,” is a great declarative thesis statement that opens an essay in response to the prompt “Do you agree that privacy is no longer as valued as it once was?”


While the ACT essay is technically optional,

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some colleges require or recommend this section so it’s important that you check with the schools you to which you are considering applying before deciding whether you’ll take the ACT with essay or without.

The ACT essay section is 30 minutes long and takes place after you’ve finished the other four sections of multiple choice questions. Similar to the SAT, the ACT essay is graded by two readers who assign it a score between 0 -6, with a total of 0 – 12. Your score is combined with the English multiple choice section, with the essay portion counting for 1/3 of the total score. Unlike the SAT prompt which asks for argumentation and analysis, the ACT prompt is geared more toward speculation and opinion. It’s important to write a thoughtful piece, but overall the essay is more informal in tone than the SAT essay.

In addition to being more comfortable for students, the ACT prompt is also more flexible in that it allows you take either one of the two sides presented or to present a completely different perspective. In short, anything goes…


1. Write an introduction with your thesis statement.

Make sure to have a definite opinion on the subject. As with all good essays you have to make your position clearly. Having a solid thesis will help you do this. It doesn’t need to be Shakespearean but it should catch your reader’s attention.

2. Have two example paragraphs that support your statement.

Planning on two example paragraphs helps you craft an effective outline that will make it easier to manage under timed pressure. These can be drawn from personal experience, personal observation, articles you’ve read, or anywhere really.

3. Give a counter-point.

As your third paragraph, you should include a “counter-paragraph,” which acknowledges what holes may exist in your argument and addresses them. Something like “While in most circumstances being consistent is beneficial there are cases where one must stray from ones norm and blaze a new trail.”

4. Use what they give you.

You can use the information provided in the prompt in your essay. If you need more information or want to provide greater context or juxtaposition than feel free to quote or restate the info given in the prompt. There is no rule against it and it might provide you the inspiration to make your essay really sing.

Finally, remember that not all schools require the ACT with Writing. Check out the policies of the schools to determine if you need to write the essay or not. If you are unsure what the ACT essay policy is for a school, you can search here.

Some schools that require you to write the ACT essay include:

  • Columbia
  • Howard University
  • Cornell, Vassar
  • Carnegie Mellon
  • Northwestern
  • Penn State
  • Claremont McKenna
  • Stanford
  • UC Berkeley
  • American University

Regardless of which test you take, it’s important to have a plan to tackle the essay before you go into the test. By preparing ahead of time, you will be able to start writing right away without wasting your limited time trying to think of something to say.


  • Daphne Coleman

    Well, the real value of an essay for me is to test the student’s knowledge about the topic given. Moreover, this will also let the teachers assess the student in their writing and comprehension skills.

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