How do the SAT Essay and ACT Essay Compare?

sat essay act essay differences

A tale of two essays – both alike in dignity, and optional to test and university. But if you choose to take the optional ACT or SAT Essay section, keep in mind that the differences between these essays mean you will need to prepare differently for each one. 

Should You Take the Essay Section?

Before you decide to take either essay section, check with the colleges you’re interested in to see if they require it – many do not, and you may not need to take it after all! If you are unsure of the colleges you’re going to apply to, we recommend taking the Essay section so you don’t have to return another day to do it. 

We wrote in detail about both essays elsewhere on the blog. Find those posts below:

How to Write the SAT Essay
How to Write the ACT Essay

How are the SAT Essay and ACT The Same?

Both essays:

  • Are read by two graders
  • Fall at the end of the test
  • Are optional 

How are the SAT Essay and ACT Essay Different?

The SAT Essay section and the ACT Essay section both fall at the end of the test and require you to quickly craft a coherent essay. But they have a few key differences and if you’re taking both essay sections, you’ll need to know how to tackle each essay separately.

Differences Between the Essays


SAT EssayACT Essay
Timing50 minutes40 minutes
ScoreThree scores of 2 – 8One score of 2 – 12
MAIN TASK
of the student 
Given a passage, describe how the author constructs the argument and
whether the literary
devices used are
successful
Given a passage and 3
perspectives on the
passage, write a
persuasive essay
convincing the reader that one perspective is
correct.

SAT vs ACT Essay: Timing Differences

The ACT Essay is 10 minutes shorter than the SAT Essay. 

SAT vs ACT Essay: Scoring Differences

Both essays are read by two graders, but they are graded differently:

The SAT gives you three scores: one for Reading, one for Analysis, and one for Writing. These scores are not averaged. You can read more about how the SAT Essay is scored here!

The ACT will give you one score that is the sum of the two scores your graders gave you. For example, if one grader gave your essay a 5 and the other gave your essay a 4, you would score a 9 on the essay. Read more about how the ACT essay is scored here!

Key Difference: The Prompt

Take note of this main difference:

The SAT asks you to explain how an author builds an argument using rhetorical devices.

The ACT asks you to craft an argument that persuades the reader. 

The SAT wants to hear how the author crafts an argument, and the ACT wants you to form an argument of your own!

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How to Study for the Essay Section

This part is easy: just practice! For both the ACT and the SAT essay, once you understand what the expectations are and what the graders are looking for, you just need to write a couple of practice essays to get a feel for the timing and style of this section.

If you want more guidance as you prepare for this section, we recommend you enroll in either our ACT or SAT course. Both courses cover how to structure your essay, what a good essay looks like, and maybe more importantly, what a bad essay looks like (and how ensure your essay is not a bad one)! You can enroll for free here.

Hopefully, this helps you decide which essay section to take. Happy practicing!

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