Considering they’re meant to measure the same thing, the SAT and ACT are surprisingly different tests (and exactly what they’re really measuring is up for debate). Although the results of the two tend to be pretty similar—meaning students who score high on one test will generally score high on the other (making the SAT–ACT score conversion possible)—the actual content and style aren’t so comparable.
But the writing sections of the two are pretty similar. The same concepts are on both tests. You’ll see a lot of grammar, punctuation, and style in the ACT English section, just as you will in the SAT Writing multiple choice sections. And the essays are both in the standard five-paragraph argument style. There are a few key differences, though.
The types of grammar questions
The SAT has three different types of multiple choice grammar questions: two types that give you single, isolated sentences to analyze, and one type that’s based on a full paragraph or two of text. The ACT, on the other hand, only has the latter type. You get a series of nice, long reading passages, easier than what you’d see in the reading comprehension, each with 15 parts of the text marked and 15 questions in the margins that refer to those marked sections.
You’ll have to deal with subject-verb agreement, parallelism, and all kinds of grammar-y whatnot in both tests, so studying that material will help you increase scores on both. But the difference in the structures of the questions makes for some different strategies. “Identifying sentence error” questions on the SAT, for example, should often be read twice. Ideally, you’ll only very rarely read ACT texts twice (usually just for questions that ask about paragraph structure).
In the SAT Writing section, only a few questions are of the “improving paragraphs” sort, and so there aren’t many that deal with the structure of a piece or what extra information should be included. The ACT, meanwhile, has scads of them, since it’s entirely in that longer text format.
Aside from multiple choice questions, there are always the essays to consider. The first notable difference is that you get five more minutes on the ACT. That might not seem like a lot on paper, but 25 minutes and 30 minutes can feel very different when you’re under the gun.
The other differences are a bit subtler. ACT prompts tend to be a bit more “real world” than SAT essay prompts. While the ACT might ask you whether the school district should begin stricter testing schedules, the SAT might ask you whether increased supervision leads to higher productivity. This makes the ACT essay a little bit easier to brainstorm sometimes, but not by much. You still have to draw from your experiences and knowledge outside of what’s given in the prompt, so whether the question is about something abstract or concrete doesn’t change too much. The downside to the ACT is that you might get a question on a specific topic, which looks scary and foreign—the possible repercussions of new law, say—while the SAT, by being so abstract, rarely causes that problem.
The essay is (technically) optional on the ACT, but it’s mandatory on the SAT, so that makes a pretty distinct difference in scoring. Your standard ACT score includes only your performance on the English section (that’s the grammar and writing multiple choice), keeping the essay separate, but if you want to calculate SAT scores, you have to factor the essay score into your overall writing score. So if you’re a master five-paragraph essay writer, capable of spinning golden examples from straw, and sitting on the vocabulary of a spelling bee champion, but you have trouble with some of the grammar tested in the multiple choice questions, you might find your SAT essay score providing a pleasant bump to your writing score. But that won’t help any for your ACT English score—you’ll only see the effect in a separate essay-plus-English score, which doesn’t contribute to your main score.
In the end, though, it’s the scoring that reflects the overall relationship between these two tests. While the setups may be pretty different, the foundations aren’t so much. No matter which test you’re looking at, you need to know grammar rules, good style, and basic essay structure. Those things count more than anything else.
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The SAT Essay and ACT Writing continue to pose a conundrum for students. While College Board and ACT have made these components optional, some colleges continue to require them. Fewer than 10% of selective colleges require the SAT Essay or ACT Writing, yet almost two-thirds of students take the essay exams each year. As colleges grow more consistent in their policies, it may become easier for students to make appropriate plans. High profile schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Stanford, and the University of California system have affirmed their commitment to the SAT Essay and the recently revamped ACT Writing. Meanwhile, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Cornell, Northwestern, and Boston College have dropped the essay requirement.
The following table of 360 popular colleges provides a wide range of institutions and policies. In general, we find that less competitive colleges are less likely to require either essay.
Despite the decline in colleges requiring an SAT or ACT essay, Compass is still recommending that students make the essay a part of their testing plans. Skipping the essay can leave a student scrambling to fit in an additional test date should his or her college plans change. Some colleges requiring the essay will not superscore test dates without the essay. The University of California system alone drives the decision for many of Compass’ students. Just as important, it’s uncommon for an ACT or SAT essay to be a significant negative factor on an application. With a minimum amount of practice, most students can reach the 25th – 75th percentile score ranges of even the most elite colleges in the country. In other words, there is more upside than downside when looking at an extended test day.]
*School has a Test Optional or Test Flexible policy but may still have requirements for students choosing to submit SAT or ACT scores.
** University of Miami uses SAT essay or ACT writing for English Composition placement, but not for admission evaluation, for new undergraduate applicants.
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ACT Writing scores have gone through multiple changes. To try to clear things up, Compass has published ACT Writing Scores Explained. A similar analysis for the SAT is also available.
The Compass 360 provides New SAT and ACT scores for some of the most competitive colleges in the country.
Score choice and superscoring policies can be found for the Compass 360.
Subject Test requirements continue to evolve, so Compass keeps an up-to-date list.