SAT vs. ACT: The Essays

The essays on both the ACT and the SAT are optional -- you choose if you are going to write the essay when you register for the test (it costs more if you add the essay). Many colleges and universities REQUIRE the essay. It's worth the extra \$14 (SAT) or \$16.50 (ACT) to add the essay, just in case you want to apply to a school that requires it. 

But, which essay is easier?

The essays are quite different. 

There is one similarity: both SAT and ACT will grade down for poor mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax).  It's hard to get a top score with many errors in the essay.  Both SAT and ACT also look for standard organizational structures: they like essays with introductions and conclusions, theses and topic sentences, and transitions from topic to topic. They also reward elegant sentence structure and word choice, although essays that are more prosaic, but well argued, can achieve a top score. 

That's about where the similarities end. 

SAT for instance, gives students 50 minutes to read the passage and write a response.  ACT (with a much shorter prompt) gives 40 minutes.

The writing prompts are also quite different. 

The new SAT's (2016 and on) essay format is one of the biggest changes they made on the most recent rewrite. While the prior essay was a persuasive essay, that asked students to draw on examples form their own experiences, the new essay is a textual analysis.  Students read a passage -- often an excerpt from a speech or personal essay.  The passage is always a persuasive passage.  Students are then asked to write an essay showing how the author persuaded readers to agree with the thesis of the passage. Students are supposed to pull out strategies (which can be literary devices like imagery or extended metaphor, but can be much more general, such as personal anecdotes, statistics, citing authorities, strong language), that the author uses to persuade. The biggest mistake that students make on the SAT essay is they just summarize the passage.  SAT wants a detailed textual analysis. 

In one recent prompt, SAT provided text from a speech that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave explaining why he could not support the American involvement in the Vietnam War.  The SAT prompt asks the test takers to describe the strategies that MLK uses the speech to persuade the listeners that the Vietnam War was unjust.  A body paragraph of an essay in response to that prompt might look something like:

In his speech about the Vietnam War, MLK uses grim analogies to convey the hypocrisy of sending young African-American men to fight for freedoms abroad when many of them lack those same basic freedoms at home.  MLK writes about the "cruel irony" of watching "Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools." With this tragic juxtaposition, MLK highlights the injustice of asking African-American men to fight and die for a country that still maintains school segregation. Here, MLK draws on our notion of fairness, and pushes us to recognize the lack of fairness in a military intervention that asks African-American men to "die in extraordinary high proportions relative to the rest of the population"; he wants listeners to recognize -- in the images that they all see on TV --the  injustice of what we are asking of African-Amercian soldiers. MLK also calls out the irony of "[how we] watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago." Here again, MLK points out how blacks and whites, who live totally separated lives at home, are asked to work together in brutality in war. With these comparisons, he forces us to wonder why it's acceptable for blacks and whites to be together in this military endeavor but not in everyday life. And, he forces listeners to question how it is right to ask so much of people to whom our society gives so little -- what he calls "the cruel manipulation of the poor."

In the SAT essay, there are a number of critical components. The test taker must find strategies that the author of the passage uses to good effect, identify those strategies, find relevant examples of those strategies to quote or paraphrase, and then clearly elucidate how passage/writer uses that strategies and to what effect. In the case above, the writer highlights analogies and pulls several quotes in which MLK explicitly compares images of black and white soldiers fighting together against the reality of a segregated United States.  The writer pulls the quotes, analyzes the hypocrisy and irony that MLK is exposing and then demonstrates that MLK is pushing listeners to think about how deeply unfair -- even cruel -- the situation is.

The easy part of the SAT essay is that everything is provided to the student. The thesis of the essay, and the examples, are all there. But, it can be a hard essay to put together.  Students struggle to organize their thoughts, and to fully explicate what effect the quotes that they choose have. We almost always have to push students to write more, explicate more, go further. 

The ACT's essay also received a new format in 2015.  ACT presents a phenomenon, rule, or policy that has broad implications (and numerous strong points of view).  It explicates the phenomenon or policy in a paragraph.  It then provides three 2-3 sentence "perspectives" on the topic. ACT has some very specific criteria on which it grades.  It wants students to clearly define their argument (ACT will accept multiple arguments, but clearly rewards essays that take a clear stance and support it well), and incorporate and consider (although not necessarily explicitly) the three perspectives that are provided on the argument.

For ACT, the perspectives, though very short, are critical. For instance, if ACT were to put forward a prompt on family leave, one perspective might say: "Family leave is a right. Humans have families and often need to care for them, which is impossible in a world in which one might lose a job for taking time off to care for a sick child or parent."  Another might say, "Ideally, companies do not have redundancy.  In a well-run company, each person serves a function. It will be economically devastating to companies to lose an employee, who performs a key function, for an extended period of time."  The last might say, "Family leave is a complicated issue that must be solved with government intervention. The government can require family leave and help to compensate companies when they provide it."  One of the body paragraphs in a response to the family leave prompt might look like: 

Although some may argue that paid family leave is an undue burden on companies, it is a burden that companies would adjust to if it were the norm. It's true that a company may struggle if a key employee is out of the workplace for an extended period of time. Someone must figure out what tasks that employee carries out, and then someone must fill in and actually perform those tasks - hopefully competently - without neglecting his or her own work tasks.  In today's work world, this can be a disaster.  Many employees' tasks are obscured.  Do you know what the person in the next cubicle does?  But, if companies knew that most employees would take family leave at some point, they would adjust: they would better document each employee's tasks; they would encourage collaboration so that employees understood how to execute their co-worker's tasks; they would have a plan for pooling an absent employee's work so that the burden did not fall disproportionately on any single employee. There are roles for the government and workplace culture to play here too, in easing the nation into a new family leave policy. But, starting now, companies could make structural changes that would immediately make the policy change smoother. 

In a paragraph like this, the writer would get credit for acknowledging the arguments in at least one "perspective" while forwarding his or her own unique stance on family leave (it's doable, but companies need to plan for it).  This writer also sets up a nice transition at the end of the paragraph, and one can imagine the next paragraph going in-depth on what the government might or might not do to facilitate family leave. The reader can see that the writer is clearly in favor of leave, but has a unique twist on how it might be implemented over time. 

Like SAT, ACT wants test takers to go beyond the essay and make their own arguments.  They just must be careful to incorporate the arguments that ACT presents as well. For students who are not used to, or comfortable with, textual analysis, the ACT task is a more straightforward one: choose a position on an issue and write about it. 

Overview: SAT vs. ACT

Both essays require a lot of detail and a lot of explication.  But you can see that the ACT essay is much more straightforward than the SAT essay, it's less literary and has more possibilities.  Then again, students writing the ACT essay must pull more from their own experiences.  Students who know more about the world, have more example as at their fingertips, will be better equipped to write this essay because examples are not provided for them in the form of quotes they can pull from a passage. 

The easy part of the SAT essay is that everything is there.  Students just need to be able to read and pick apart the passage. But, it's very easy to write a very good summary of the passage, feel very good about it, and get a very low score (we see a lot of these essays!).  And, even when students understand the task, almost no students naturally explicate as much as SAT wants them to.  They tend to think that their quotes "speak for themselves" and tend to write essays that are little more than lots of quotes organized by topic. These essays do not achieve high scores. Students must explain what each quote does and to what effect, a process that takes some practice. 

The easy part of the ACT essay is that most students have an opinion on the topics presented.  Students do struggle with the ACT essay in a variety of ways.  Some students write to both sides of the issue, which never turns out well.  ACT likes students to emphasize one side of the argument. Other students fail to "show the complexity" of the issue and really consider the perspectives, which also hurts their score.  An acknowledgment and, ideally, a discussion, of each "perspective" is required for a high score, and students can lose those threads while they are writing.

Which essay is best for a student is truly a matter of personal opinion.  Students who do a lot of textual analysis at school are thrilled with the SAT prompt.  Those who don't are often baffled by it. The ACT prompt is more similar to what many students do in middle school and high school, but the time constraint is a barrier for some. 

Read some essay prompts and try some out to see what you're better at!


For each test, you can click "see all" and download the essay prompt. 

For more in-depth look at some of the topics (where you can then read real sample essays and see how they scored) go to:

After each essay, they show a variety of real answers to the queestions.


Read the prompt and perspectives and then a sample essay that receives each of the scores (1-6) from worst to best.  

As you are testing out your essay writing skills for both tests, we recommend reading the prompt and trying to write your own essay first. Then read the sample essays and see how yours matches up! It's too easy to copy a good essay once you've read it. :)