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Test Prep 101: SAT vs. ACT Essays

By Peter, IvyWise Master Tutor

When preparing for the SAT or ACT it’s important to understand all the nuances of each exam, including the sections, content, question types, and more. Even though the essay is optional on both exams, many colleges still require an SAT or ACT essay or writing score in order to be considered for admission. Before preparing for the SAT or ACT essay, make sure you know what to expect on each.

The SAT and ACT Essays each present new and unique challenges, each the product of a recent redesign that has vastly changed both the look of each writing test as well as the rubric with which a student’s essay is graded. We’ll first look at the basics of the ACT essay, how it is graded, and how best to strategize before moving our discussion to the SAT essay.

The ACT Essay
The ACT writing test is a 40-minute essay that not only measures writing skills, but also reading and pre-writing skills, which include brainstorming ideas and outlining an essay structure. The essay prompt describes an issue and provides three different perspectives on the issue. Students are tasked with three distinct objectives for the essay: to ‘evaluate and analyze the three given perspectives’; to ‘state and develop’ their own perspective; and to ‘explain the relationship’ between their perspectives and those given. Their score will not be affected by what perspective they take on the issue.

Consider the following prompt featured on the ACT website:

Act Prompt 2

 

There is a fair amount of reading to be done here even before the student can begin to write. The prompt makes clear that it is not interested in the student’s personal opinion, but rather in the student’s ability to generate an argument that accurately targets the crux of the main conflict or problem posed in the prompt, establishes the student’s own perspective, and puts this perspective in conversation with the given three perspectives.

Again, whether or not a student ‘agrees’ with one, two, or all three of the perspectives will not affect student score. The grading rubric is designed to award the highest points to an essay that demonstrates an accurate grasp of the prompt, each of the three perspectives, and presents a lucid and reasonable response with concrete support examples.

It’s crucial that students be familiar with the exact grading rubric of the ACT essay, as this will allow them to make the best use of their 40 minutes on the essay section.

The basic mental checklist for every student should include the following five questions:

  • 1. Did I analyze and incorporate each perspective into either the introduction or body paragraphs?
  • 2. Did I state and develop my own perspective on the issue?
  • 3. Did I explain and support my perspective with logical reasoning and detailed examples?
  • 4. Is my essay clearly and logically organized?
  • 5. Does my writing contain errors in grammar or usage?

Answering these five questions with a satisfactory yes will yield the best score results.

Additional information that is helpful to know ahead of time is that students’ writing score is, of course, not factored into the overall ACT composite score out of 36. Each essay is scored on a scale of 2-12; two graders give each essay a score between 1-6 and the scores are combined.

Here is another crucial point for students to remember: an image of students’ essays will be available to high schools and colleges that have been sent ACT scores from a given test date.

The SAT Essay
No other SAT section has been transformed to the extent the SAT Essay has in the recent redesign. The new SAT Essay is a lengthy and uniquely challenging section.

The new SAT Essay section presents an extended piece of nonfiction prose, often times an article excerpted from the likes of Time Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, or a Condé Nast publication, ranging between 650-800 words, then asks the student to write a five-paragraph essay that identifies, explains, and evaluates the stylistic, rhetorical, and logical elements of the text that contribute to its meaning – all in the span of 50 minutes.

All the prompts stick to the following template: “Write an essay in which you explain how [the author’s name] builds an argument to persuade his/her audience…your essay should not explain whether or not you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade his/her audience.”

The SAT prompt does not ask for the student’s opinion on the passage, it tests for how well the student understands the passage’s argument and how the author makes the argument. For this reason, the student will receive three separate scores for the SAT Essay: a reading, analysis, and writing score.

This is a tough essay assignment under any circumstances, much less one that the student must complete in 50 minutes as the last section of the SAT. However, the College Board makes the case that its essay assignment is not only more representative of the reading and writing skills that students learn in school, but also more predictive of the sort of reading, analysis, and writing work that students will go on to do at the college level.

The following chart outlines the major differences between the ACT and SAT essay:

Essay ACT SAT
Nature of prompt Develop a unique point of view on a topic while incorporating three different, brief viewpoints on the topic given as part of the prompt. Evaluate a long passage by a published author, identify the author’s argument, and show how the author makes his or her argument.
Time allowed 40 50
Support that is used Reasoning and examples taken from students’ personal experience in and outside of school Rhetorical, stylistic, and logical reasoning from the passage itself
Average number of words in prompt 250-300 650-800
Scores Holistic essay score between 2-12 points Three separate scores, each between 2-8 points, for Reading, Analysis, and Writing.

 

The most important point of difference between the SAT and ACT essay prompt is that the SAT essay tests for whether a student understands how an argument works, whereas the ACT essay prompt asks for the student to make an argument. It’s important that students understand this crucial difference, especially those choosing between the SAT and ACT tests. Each prompt presents its own particular challenges and difficulties, and it’s important that the student know what is expected of their writing to achieve the best score possible.

While the essay on both the ACT and SAT is now optional, many colleges still require a writing score as part of the college application. Preparing for the ACT or SAT essay can be daunting, however, with proper tutoring and guidance, students can achieve strong writing scores that will only help enhance their college applications.

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