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Everything You Need to Know About SAT and ACT Essays

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Essay Writing

You’ve studied the math, grappled with grammar, and worked on your reading comprehension. But then there’s the essay, looming over all your test prep, so uncertain and subjective. So what do you need to know about the essay? And how much does it even matter?

We’re here to help.

What you should know about the SAT essay

  • 50 minutes to complete
  • Your mission: Read a nonfiction, persuasive passage and write an essay analyzing the strategies and techniques the author uses to build an argument. Think structural elements, reasoning, data, and emotional word choice.
  • How you’re scored: You will receive three scores, each on a scale of 2 to 8, in the areas of reading, writing, and analysis. The reading score encompasses how well you demonstrate understanding of the passage’s main ideas and details, and how well you incorporate textual evidence into your essay. The writing score looks as how well you create a thesis, develop your claims, and structure your argument, as well as your mastery of diction, syntax, and grammar. The analysis score considers how insightfully and thoroughly you analyze the passage. Check out the official scoring rubric here.
  • Best way to prep: Read, read, read. Make a practice of reading newspaper opinion pieces and persuasive essays; look for the argument and the strategies the writer uses. Make a list of persuasive strategies writers can use and make sure you understand how each works, so you have options to choose from on test day.
  • Optional

What you should know about the ACT essay

  • 40 minutes to complete
  • Your mission: Read a short passage outlining a complex issue and three perspectives on that issue. Then, write an essay in which your formulate your own perspective and incorporate a discussion of at least one of the presented perspectives.
  • How you’re scored: You will receive a score on a scale from 2 to 12 in each of four areas: ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and language use. These four scores will then be averaged and rounded up, giving you a final score between 2 and 12. The complete scoring guide is here.
  • Best way to prep: Because this essay format is fairly specific and unusual, it is a great idea to read the official, scored sample essays that are released by the ACT. Take note of the three perspectives in each question, and practice re-stating them as a way of demonstrating your understanding of each.
  • Optional

Do the essays matter?

That’s a great question, to which there is no universal right answer. Writing skills matter to just about every college admissions department. But there is ongoing debate about how well the SAT and ACT essay scores represent a student’s writing abilities. And lots of schools -- including big names like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell, and University of Chicago -- don’t require or even recommend submitting essay scores.

That said, plenty of colleges do require essay scores. But even there, the different between an 8 and a 10 on the ACT essay section is unlikely to be what makes or breaks your chances. So unless you are applying only to schools that eschew the essay, your best bet is to take the SAT or ACT with the essay, strive for a score that is roughly on par with your overall grades and test scores, and don’t worry too much about a point or two either way.

Need more help? Consider looking into a test prep tutor or educational consultant who can help you make sense of testing and applications.