ACT vs SAT Essay Differences

Despite being optional, the ACT and SAT Essay sections are still important tests to take because the skills they stress are important in both academic and professional life. Students who do decide to take them will have advantages over those who skip them, in the long term.

Let’s take a look at the differences between the ACT vs SAT Essay and why it’s still good to do it even if you don’t want to try.

Be sure to take a second to check out our SAT prep and ACT prep options, both of which provide helpful strategies on how to tackle each test’s essay.

act vs sat essay


ACT vs SAT Essay Time Limit Differences

Let’s first look at the time allowances both tests provide you and how to manage it.

The ACT Essay section allows test takers 40 minutes for completion; the SAT Essay needs to be wrapped up in 50 minutes. There’s an immediate difference of 10 minutes that you need to notice.

Ten minutes may not sound like much, but remember that both tests are rigorously timed and require you to do all of the necessary work within each section’s limits.

That work includes:

  1. Reading the provided prompt
  2. Looking for evidence
  3. Brainstorming ideas
  4. Outlining your response
  5. Writing the final essay

On top of those steps, you’ll have to consider the demands of the prompts themselves, which are quite different on both tests (we’ll get to that in a minute). If you’re a person that in general needs more time when writing to ponder, then the SAT offers a slight advantage. However, don’t use time alone as the deciding factor here. Let’s move onto the prompts themselves now.

194128_10 Free SAT Prep Tips To Improve SAT Scores_9_030618

ACT vs SAT Essay Prompt Differences

The ACT and SAT Essay prompts are noticeably different in nature and really force your brain to work in different ways, within a limited time frame.

Going to the ACT first, here is what the official ACT website says about the prompt you will face:

The test consists of one writing prompt that will describe a complex issue and present three different perspectives on that issue…You are asked to read the prompt and write an essay in which you develop your own perspective on the issue. Your essay should analyze the relationship between your perspective and one or more other perspectives. You may adopt a perspective from the prompt, partially or fully, or you may generate your own.

In short, the ACT demands that you not only have the analytical ability but also are comfortable with formulating your own argument.

The essay requires you to work on two separate levels: 1) Being able to logically understand the three different perspectives, 2) Being able to formulate your own distinct perspective. Remember again that you need to do all of that and then write it out in only 40 minutes.

When working on this essay, here are 5 tips that can help you while working fast:

  • Analyze and incorporate each given perspective into either your introduction or body somewhere
  • Make sure to clearly state and develop your own perspective
  • Make sure to support your perspective through both logic and examples
  • Make sure your essay is logically structured and organized
  • Double check your writing for grammar and spelling errors

The SAT Essay, in contrast, is designed to be as similar to a typical college assignment as possible. The reason is that it can let prospective universities know how prepared you are to handle normal assignments and writing work.

On the essay itself, you are provided a prompt that is a long reading passage from an author that presents a particular argument. You are then asked to explain how the author builds that argument, in order to persuade his or her reader to accept it. As part of your explanation of the author’s methodology, you are tasked with citing evidence from the text itself to back up the argument you present.

Think of the SAT’s essay as simply giving a long explanation of how and why the author’s argument works. In no way are you asked or expected to provide your own viewpoint of the argument. The SAT essay is not interested in your opinion at all, but rather seeing that you can clearly identify the author’s opinion and dissect how it is proven in the provided passage.

Both essays require the ability to both recognize and employ logic, however, the usage of that logic moves in opposite directions.

194128_10 Free SAT Prep Tips To Improve SAT Scores_5_030618

ACT vs SAT Essay Complexity

Each essay provides significant challenges regarding mental complexity that have to be addressed within a short time frame.

On paper, the SAT essay would appear to demand more, since you are essentially acting as a detective on another’s person’s work. The constant digging and citations that you need to provide to prove your understanding can be taxing.

However, you are provided with a lengthy passage that should provide plenty of material to prove your understanding of the central argument. More importantly, you have an extra ten minutes available than you would on the SAT to write everything out.

The ACT essay, in contrast, has relatively fewer instructions to follow. The major difference here though is that you are required to formulate and defend your own opinion, in addition to recognizing the other provided perspectives.

That shift means that not only must your ability to recognize and cite evidence be sound, but also the ability to logically formulate your own argument and defend it. While the SAT is especially heavy on critical analysis, the ACT splits the differences between analysis and logic.

sat to iq

How Prep Expert Helps

At Prep Expert, we help students everyday prepare for the challenges both of these different essay formats present on test day.

We are often asked, “why should I prepare for the essay?” It is true that for many schools today, the essay portion on each test is optional. Here, at Prep Expert, though, we make sure that every student can handle each one. Why? Because both essays test skills that every student will need in college, regardless of where they go to school.

The ability to express one’s own logically constructed argument or analyze someone else’s through writing is a skill that most college courses require. If your writing is not up to par before getting into your dream school, then trying to develop it on the fly in school will be difficult.

More importantly, a strong essay score provides further evidence to admission officials that you are capable of handling the standard coursework. Preparing you for not only the test itself but what you do after getting into college is important to us. Despite the challenges that these essays create, we have strategies in place that will help you overcome them in time on test day.

For more test strategy, college admissions, and scholarship application tips sign up for our FREE class happening right now!


Join Prep Expert Founder and Perfect SAT Scorer Shaan Patel for this exclusive event!