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Prepping for the SAT or ACT is not usually a student’s idea of a good time, but when it comes to the essay section there is plenty to celebrate. Both SAT and ACT essays are optional, which means you can register to take the SAT or ACT and opt out of writing the essay. But what’s the catch?

Since both essays are optional, you might be wondering if writing the essay could improve your chances of admissions. The answer for most students is no. Very few schools, including the more competitive ivy league schools, are currently requiring the optional SAT or ACT essay for admissions decisions so, in general, this is usually the section that students do not need to focus on. To check the specific schools on a student’s list, you can go to admissions policies on each colleges website or you can use the search feature on College Board’s website here: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/register/college-essay-policies . Always follow up with the specific school to confirm the most up-to-date policy.

Schools that don’t require the writing section will not factor submitted writing scores into the admissions decision. If a college “recommends” the essay, this means they want to see writing scores and it’s important to complete this last section. Currently, only two colleges in Virginia “recommend” the SAT essay, Virginia Union University and Randolph Macon College.

The SAT and ACT essays are administered at the end of each test. The 50-minute timed SAT essay instructs writers to read and analyze a 650-750-word text, then explain how the author builds his or her argument to persuade the reader into agreeing with his or her perspective. The writer must identify evidence and reasoning for the author’s argument as well as persuasive elements. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate analytical skills and reasoning through a writing piece. While the response will always be analytical in nature, the text itself differs from one test date to another.

The 40-minute timed ACT essay differs from the SAT essay in that the writer responds to a prompt that requests an opinion. There is not a text or text analysis; it is similar to a persuasive writing assignment. Scoring is based on how well the writer states his or her opinion, organizes thoughts, communicates ideas effectively, and develops strong reasoning and examples. The writing prompt differs from one test date to another.

If you opt to write the essay, should the essay section influence which test you take as the SAT and ACT essays are designed and scored differently? Possibly, but unlikely. The essay score does not affect the overall 1600 point SAT score or 36 point ACT score. Since most schools do not require the essay score, you should choose the test that best showcases your strengths on reading, writing, math, and science (if taking the ACT).

If your SAT and ACT scores are fairly equal and you are applying to a school that requires the essay, then you can factor in which essay best shows off your strengths as a writer. Since the SAT essay encompasses a reading component in addition to writing, this may be a factor in your choice of tests. If you excel in logic thinking and analysis, the SAT essay could showcase your strengths. Sample SAT writing prompts can be found here. If you prefer writing on a topic of your choice, organizing and structuring your thoughts in a more creative way, then ACT is the way to go. Sample ACT essay prompts can be found here.

Don’t let the SAT or ACT essay intimidate you. Know what to expect, practice, practice, practice, and walk into the testing center on testing day with confidence.