ACT and SAT Essay Tests: Understanding the Prompt

Did you know the SAT and ACT essay tests are not just writing tests?

They are thinking tests, designed to evaluate how quickly you can organize your thoughts and get a first draft down on paper.  While you need to follow the rules of written English,  the real challenge comes in using your time wisely and expressing your thoughts clearly.

According to the College Board, which administers the SAT, this 25-minute test measures students’ ability to develop a point of view on an issue presented in an excerpt; support this point of view using reasoning and examples from reading, studies, experience, or observations; and follow the conventions of standard written English.

The ACT essay test lasts 30 minutes and evaluates similar skills, but the questions are slightly different. ACT writing prompts ask students to describe an issue relevant to high school students and write about their perspective on that issue.

There is no right or wrong response to an ACT or SAT essay prompt. Your job is to take a position and support it.

SAT Sample Prompt
Idealistic people, people who pursue great ideas in hopes of changing the world, often have ambitious plans that are difficult or even impossible to carry out. These people can claim few solid accomplishments. In contrast, practical people concentrate on workable ideas and goals, even though these may not meet an idealist’s high standards. Their approach is likely to be more valuable than the approach of idealistic people.

Is an idealistic approach less valuable than a practical approach? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

ACT Sample Prompt
Educators debate extending high school to five years because of increasing demands on students from employers and colleges to participate in extracurricular activities and community service in addition to having high grades. Some educators support extending high school to five years because they think students need more time to achieve all that is expected of them. Other educators do not support extending high school to five years because they think students would lose interest in school and attendance would drop in the fifth year. In your opinion, should high school be extended to five years?

In your essay, take a position on this question. You may write about either one of the two points of view given, or you may present a different point of view on this question. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.

Similarities and Differences
The SAT prompt asks students to think about a “big idea,” in this case the value of an idealistic versus a practical approach to problem-solving. The ACT prompt asks about something more “real” to students, namely the value of a fifth year of high school.

By now, you should be able to see that both questions are similar.  The ACT and SAT writing tests both assess your ability to think by taking a position on an issue and supporting your views within a specified time.

Next week … How to organize your essay and your time.

Wow Writing Workshop teaches students how to write college essays and helps students prepare for ACT and SAT writing tests.