Writing Tutor: The ACT vs The SAT Part Two - The Essay

Posted by Helena Fitzgerald on 6/29/14 8:58 AM


The ACT and the SAT essays: Not apples and oranges, but not quite the same either...

This is the second part in an ongoing series about the choice between the SAT and ACT standardized tests. As we’ve discussed previously, now that these two tests are equally popular, and equally weighted and accepted by colleges, the choice as to which one a student should take is an important part of the college application process.

The two test are not as radically different as they’ve been portrayed to be, and share more similarities than differences. With each, careful and rigorous one-on-one preparation with a dedicated tutor is far more important than which of the tests a student chooses. Ultimately, most students will do well on either test if they are well-prepared for it, and will not do well on either test if they are not.

However, there are some key differences between the tests, and being familiar with them may help guide students and parents in making their selection. Most recently, we discussed the differences between the Math sections on the SAT and ACT.

In this post, I’ll outline the differences between the essay section of the SAT and the essay section of the ACT, and discuss how preparation for each of these essays varies from my perspective as both an ACT tutor and SAT tutor. 

The essay sections on each of the tests are of comparable length -- the SAT is 25 minutes, while the ACT is 30 minutes. A key difference regarding time management, however, is the essay section’s placement in regards to the rest of the test. While the SAT always starts with the essay section, on the ACT, a student can only take the essay section (which is optional, although highly recommended) after they’ve completed the other four sections. This means that preparation and planning are even more crucial for the ACT, as students will likely be fatigued from the rest of the test, and need to draw on pre-existing resources.

The SAT questions are far more vague and open-ended than the ACT questions, although both require a strong and definitive argument. SAT questions are generally about an idea, while ACT questions are about an issue.

For comparison, here is a standard sample SAT question:

“Some people like to live by the old expression, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” This expression reflects the widely shared belief that one should always try to be polite and to have consideration for another person’s feelings. While such an approach may make it easier to get along with people, no real relationship can truly thrive unless it is built on a solid foundation of truth.

Assignment: Is it more important to avoid hurting people’s feelings or to tell the truth? 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.”

And here is a standard sample ACT question: 

“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.”

The ACT question is, obviously, much narrower. In both cases, the best approach is to structure a standard five-paragraph essay, making sure the student has a strong outline, thesis, and support for that thesis before getting started. In each case, students should decide on their thesis, and two or three points (each a separate paragraph) that will support it, before writing. In the case of the SAT, ideally one of these examples will be from history or current political events, one will be from a work of literature, and one will be from the student’s personal experience. One benefit of the SAT is that the open-ended nature of the questions means that the student can plan out a list of possible topics, memorize and practice working with topics from that list, and have those ready to go prior to the actual test.

In the case of the ACT, it’s more difficult to do this kind of planning because the question is so specific. Therefore, planning out and practicing the structure of the essay becomes even more crucial. The ideal ACT essay will use both anecdotal and big-picture evidence to support its argument. There should be one or at most two points taken from personal experience, but the whole essay shouldn’t be anecdotal, although it can be hard to resist writing it in that way. Also crucial is that the student pick one side of the topic and make a strong stand in their thesis.

In each case, the length of the essay is important, as shorter essays can lose students points and longer essays, if well-written, invariably score higher. Being able to write a fairly long five-paragraph essay in either 25 or 30 minutes is a skill that comes from practice and preparation. Developing this skill is one of the reasons tutoring is key for the essay section on either test.

In terms of choice between the tests, the biggest difference is that students who do best with facts and hard data may prefer the ACT essay, while students more interested in abstract philosophical ideas may prefer the SAT essay. However, the difference between the two is in the end minimal, and the graders are looking for much the same things. 

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Tags: ACT, SAT