To Write or Not to Write: Taking the Essay Portion of the SAT® or ACT® Test

When you’re gearing up to take the SAT®test or the ACT® test, you’ll be faced with the dilemma of whether to sit for the essay portion of the test.

On both tests, the essay is optional at registration, but it may be smart to take it.

Read on to find out whether or not you should take the writing portion of the SAT or ACT tests.

Is the essay required?

Far fewer colleges require the essay nowadays. Fewer than 20 colleges throughout the nation require the ACT or SAT essay, and many colleges are changing their policies.

Before deciding whether or not to write the essay on the SAT or ACT test, you’ll want to follow these steps:


Do thorough research to find out if the colleges to which you want to apply require the essay portion of college admissions tests or if there is a foreseen benefit to taking the essay.


Don’t be caught by surprise: the two writing tests aren’t alike. The SAT and ACT essays require different styles of writing. Practice beforehand to be fairly sure you can hit your target score and check out sample essays and writing prompts.


If you’re not sure where you’re applying yet, anticipate applying to a college that either requires—or recommends—the essay. Meaning, go ahead and write it. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Can the writing portion of the SAT or ACT test hurt your score?

For both the ACT and the SAT test, the essay portion of the exam is scored separately and does not affect your composite or overall score. The composite scores consist of only the results from the multiple-choice sections of the tests. The essay portion evaluates your writing skills, but does not impact your overall test score.

How is the ACT essay scored?

According to ACT, essays are evaluated by two trained graders who will score your test based on a total of five scores, each score ranging from 2-12: a subject-level writing score and four domain scores. Each grader will score your essay from 1-6 in each of the areas, and the final score will be a combination of both graders’ scores.

For example, if one grader gives you a 5 on your subject-level writing score and the other gives you a 4, your combined score for that area would be 9.

The Four ACT Essay Domain Scores:

  • Ideas and Analysis
  • Development and Support
  • Organization
  • Language Use and Conventions

View sample ACT essays and prompts here.

How is the SAT essay scored?

According to College Board, your essay will be evaluated by two different graders. Each grader will score your essay in three categories: reading, analysis, and writing. The scores from each grader are then combined into three final scores, each ranging from 2-8 points. There is no composite SATⓇ essay score or percentile.

View the complete SAT essay scoring guide here.

What Are the Benefits of Taking the SAT or ACT Test With the Essay?

A Good Score Could Make Your Application Slightly More Attractive

For colleges that recommend the essay, a high score on the SAT or ACT essay could give you a slight advantage over competition who didn’t take the essay section. If you’re applying to highly competitive colleges, we recommend taking the essay for this reason.

If you’ve received good essay scores, sending your essay scores along even if they are not required can boost your overall application.

Sending a great essay score to a college that hasn’t required it won’t hurt you and it might even help you. It’s unlikely to cinch your acceptance all by itself, but it can add some polish onto an already shiny application.

A strong essay score demonstrates that you have skills in the following areas:

  • Logic and Analysis
  • English Grammar

International students might want to show their proficiency in English while applicants to a liberal arts college might want to demonstrate analytical skills.

You Can Apply to Schools That Require the Essay

If you’re even remotely interested in a school that requires the essay portion of the SAT and ACT tests, we recommend taking it. As you narrow down your college search, you may want to apply to schools that weren’t on your original list. By planning ahead and taking the essay, you’ll still be able to apply to colleges that require it.

You Could Earn More Scholarships

Doing less than an hour’s worth of composition could earn you thousands of dollars.

It sounds like an internet scam, but it definitely isn’t. Writing the essay on college entrance exams—even if the colleges themselves don’t require it for applications—could make you a more attractive candidate to scholarship organizations.

Independent scholarships often want to see test scores complete with essay.

Highly competitive programs and scholarships may require the essay even if general admission doesn’t. In other words, if you’re applying to an honors program or want to get a Dean’s scholarship, for example, you would do well to write the essay.

Just in case.

It All Comes Down to Where You Want to Apply

Think strategically before you decide not to write the essay.

And be sure you won’t add another college to your list. Deciding later to apply to Purdue, for example, and then seeing that they recommend the essay could put you at a slight disadvantage.

If any colleges or programs want to see an essay, if you aren’t sure whether your scholarship avenues will show an interest, or if you want to show off exceptional verbal skills—then sign up to do a little bit of writing.

Mostly, it boils down to the colleges where you want to apply. If none of them are interested in the SAT or ACT essay, you probably don’t need to stress over it, but there is no disadvantage in writing one.

Interested in our prep courses for the SAT or ACT Tests?

We offer in-person test prep courses to prepare you for the SAT or ACT tests. Contact a Dallas-Fort Worth campus near you to schedule your free consultation and tour.


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