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Do I Need the Essay?

If your student is registering to take the SAT or ACT, you’ve probably noticed that they have the option to take the test with the essay or “with writing.” The idea of staying an extra hour or so to write an essay after several hours of standardized testing is generally not very appealing, but the fact that it is an option makes most families wonder if they would be making a mistake by not taking the essay. 

The first thing you should know is that the essay is truly optional and does not affect your student’s composite score. This goes for both tests. If your child aces the ACT or the SAT without having taken the essay, he or she has still aced the test!

Having said that, we almost always recommend taking the essay. Very few schools require students to send in essay scores, but there are some that do. Unless your child is one hundred percent sure of their college list and absolutely certain that none of their prospective schools require the essay, they should take it. The SAT or ACT essay portion cannot be taken separately, so if they take the test without it and later decide to apply to a school that requires it, their only option is to take the entire test again. It is best to take the test with the essay the first time, just in case! To find out which schools require the essay, be sure that you or your student go directly to the school’s website for their current requirements for testing.

The ACT Essay. The nature of the essay is different depending on which test you take. On the ACT, students are given a brief paragraph on a topic, followed by three different perspectives. The directions are always the same: 

ACT Essay Task

Write a unified, coherent essay in which you evaluate multiple perspectives on the issue of [insert topic]. In your essay, be sure to:

  • analyze and evaluate the perspectives given
  • state and develop your own perspective on the issue
  • explain the relationship between your perspective and those given

Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of the others, in partial agreement, or wholly different. Whatever the case, support your ideas with logical reasoning and detailed, persuasive examples.

The writing portion of the exam is 40 minutes long. Students are expected to write a full-length essay that discusses multiple perspectives but ultimately sides with one. The essay is scored on four areas: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use. Ideas and Analysis measures students’ ability to understand the given issue, analyze the multiple perspectives on the issue, and come up with relevant ideas of their own. Development and Support explores how well students can explain their ideas and back them up with examples. Organization assesses the structure and coherence of the essay, and Language Use and Convention tests students’ command of grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and mechanics. Essays are graded by two readers, who grade each area on a scale of 1-6. The two scores for each section are added together, and then all four scores are averaged together into an overall essay score ranging from 2-12. The ACT website provides examples of essays with various scores alongside their scoring breakdowns.

The SAT Essay. Unlike the ACT essay, which asks students to support a perspective of their own choosing, the SAT Essay asks students to analyze how another author has constructed an argument. The test will provide a passage that is between 650 and 750 words long, usually of historical or social significance, and ask students to discuss the evidence, reasoning, and rhetorical mechanisms that the author uses to make their point. Students will have 50 minutes to read the passage and write their essay. The directions for the essay are always the same:

The SAT Essay Task

As you read the passage below, consider how the author uses:

  • Evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • Reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • Stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.


Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds an argument to persuade his or her audience that [insert topic]. In your essay, analyze how the author uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his or her argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage. Your essay should not explain whether you agree with the author’s claims, but rather explain how the author builds an argument to persuade the audience.

The essay is awarded a score of 1-4 in the areas of reading, writing, and analysis by two separate readers. The two readers’ scores are added together into three reading, writing, and analysis scores that range from 2-8. There is no composite score for the SAT essay, so the three domain scores are the essay score. Successful essays should cite specific examples from the passage, demonstrate a strong command of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, and be well organized into a cohesive, five-paragraph essay with a recognizable thesis. Students who wish to prepare for the SAT Essay should look up examples of essay prompts and essays and familiarize themselves with common rhetorical devices.

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