ACT Writing Section vs. SAT Essay Section: Similarities and Differences | Winward Academy


ACT Writing vs. SAT Essay

Both the ACT and SAT offer an optional writing assessment at the end of each exam.

However, the prompts and goal of the ACT Writing and the SAT Essay sections are quite different.


ACT Writing SAT Essay
Length 40 minutes 50 minutes
Prompt A student is presented with a short paragraph about a relevant social issue and three perspectives on the topic. The student is instructed to consider these perspectives in relation to his or her own view and then write a persuasive essay. The topic will typically be something relevant to an adolescent – like the pros and cons of optimism versus pessimism. A student is presented with an author’s persuasive essay (i.e., a source document) and is tasked with critiquing how effective that author was in persuading the audience of his or her view. The student is expected to reference the author’s source document to critique its reasoning, evidence, and effectiveness. The source document will typically address an issue like the environment, politics, art, or science.
Scoring The ACT Writing score is provided as one score (from 2-12) based on an average of two readers’ scoring on four domains: ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and use of language. The SAT Essay score is reported as three separate scores as the sum of two readers’ assessment in three domains: reading, analysis, and writing.
When are students successful Students who like to take a position on a topic and support it with three paragraphs (one for each main reason) tend to prefer the ACT Writing style Students who feel comfortable analyzing the style of a source document tend to prefer the SAT Essay.


What’s the take home message?

While the ACT Writing and SAT Essay sections are considered optional, most competitive schools will require that applicants take one. Students should check the policies of the schools to which they’re planning to apply. Our advice: students should err on the side of taking these sections, just to keep their options open. With minimal practice, scores can improve drastically. Plus, students will find that learning to write a cogent, well-reasoned essay will help them throughout their college years.


For specific tips on the ACT sections, you can also see Expert Tips for ACT English, Expert Tips for ACT Math, and Expert Tips for ACT Reading, and Expert Tips for ACT ScienceHappy studying!

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Jennifer Winward, Ph.D.

Dr. Jennifer Winward is a renowned college instructor, a distinguished 20-year veteran of high school tutoring, and the founder and lead instructor of Winward Academy. She earned her Ph.D. specializing in adolescent brain development and adolescent learning. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude with highest distinction honors. Dr. Winward has been widely recognized for her academic success, published research, and philanthropic efforts with awards from the President of the United States, the California State Assembly, Rotary International, the Marin County School Administrator Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Science Foundation.

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