There's a persistent myth about the SAT Essay: the idea that you can't prepare content because you don't see the prompt until the day of the test. This is a myth because, in order to be standardized, the test has to require the same complexity of argument in every SAT essay question: yes or no, this or that, what causes what.
And since all these arguments are very simple, almost every SAT essay argument can be boiled down to one of the 6 we list here. In addition to that, though, we also explain how to argue each one, and give you sample support for both sides of every argument. Read on for the inside scoop on this important aspect of the SAT.
SAT Essay prompts are unlike any other writing assignment. The questions are extremely general, asking things like "is the world changing for the better," but they only ever require a very simplistic thesis statement about a complex idea. There are, for example, many ways in which the world is and is not changing for the better. The most "accurate" answer would have to be "yes AND no," but that's the opposite of what you should say on the SAT.
Because on the SAT Essay, simplicity and clarity is the name of the game. You are expected to make a broad, definitive statement about what people 'should' do or whether something is possible. You don't have to believe it, you just have to present a few examples (between one and three) that can show why your statement is correct. In this way, the SAT Essay is easier than most students think.
All of the essay questions in this article are taken from real SATs or College Board prep materials. We've categorized them not by their content--for example, "success" or "personality"--but rather by their reasoning. This is because the logic of the question, not its content, is what determines the best argument on which to build your essay.
For each type of SAT essay question below, we give you 3 sample prompts similar to what you'll run into, and a breakdown of how to argue either side of any SAT essay question of that type. You'll get detailed SAT essay examples that guide you through how to construct an argument.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 1: Discuss what people should do
This type of SAT essay question lends itself to many different kinds of examples. Anything that involves people and their choices is fair game. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
- be valued according to their capabilities rather than their achievements?
- weight all opinions equally, or place more weight on informed opinions?
- always value new things, ideas, or values over older ones?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, people should always value new things, ideas, or values over older ones," or "no, people should not always value new things, ideas, or values over older ones."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). For example, if you argue "Yes, people should value new things" as your thesis, you can give evidence of a time when people valued new things and it turned out well, or of a time when people didn't value innovation and it turned out poorly.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-world or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes for ideas). To support the Yes thesis with evidence of when people valued new things with success, we could talk about Civil Rights in the United States, the Industrial Revolution, FDR's new deal, or any other example dealign with positive innovation. We could also discuss evidence where refusal to accept new things turned out poorly, like fear of vaccinations and Galileo being excommunicated for his (true) scientific beliefs.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 2: Discuss which of two things is better
These questions can be fodder for 12-scoring essays because they can be answered so simply: this thing is better than that thing. Then you just have to think of 1-3 examples in which that thing worked and/or in which the other thing didn't work. See the diagram below for more information on how this can be done.
Is it better...
- to take an idealistic approach or a practical approach?
- to do fulfilling or high-paying work?
- to use cooperation or competition to achieve success?
Step 1: Pick a side. "It is better to use cooperation to achieve success," or "it is better to use competition to achieve success."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Similar to Prompt Type 1 above, in this case you can use evidence that supports your thesis, or argues against the opposite thesis. For example, if you write that "Cooperation is better to achieve success," you can use evidence on a time when cooperation led to success, or when competition led to failure.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (blue boxes). Following our "cooperation is better" thesis, we can talk about when people cooperated to great success - like the Civil Rights movement, or Abraham Lincoln's cabinet during the Civil War. We could also discuss how competition is inferior through examples like the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, or the North Korea vs South Korea standoff.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 3: Support or refute counterintuitive statements
These can be the toughest SAT essay prompts--if you don't know how to tackle them. The easiest way to really knock this essay type out of the park is to say yes, it is possible, and then think of an example. The other side--no, it isn't possible--is harder to logically prove, but it can be done. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
Is it possible for….
- deception to have good results?
- working to reach an objective to be valuable even if the objective is not reached?
- any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, it is possible for any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial," or "no, it is not possible for any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Unlike the two prompt types above, this one is more simplistic - just find evidence that can support your thesis in a straightforward way. If you write "No, it's not possible for any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial," you just need to find evidence for when obstacles exist but don't lead to anything helpful.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). To support the No thesis, we could use the example of how gender discrimination against women and income inequality has caused far more harm than the good it has caused.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 4: Cause and effect
These can be logically complicated, depending on which side you choose. If you say x is the result of y, then you just have to think of 1-3 examples that illustrate it. If you choose the other side, though, then you have a harder logical task in front of you--your examples have to fit a much narrower definition to make sense. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
Is __ the result of __?
- Is a successful community the result of individuals sacrificing their personal goals?
- Is accomplishment the result of freedom to do things one's own way?
- Is learning the result of experiencing difficulties?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, learning is the result of experiencing difficulties," or "no, learning is not the result of experiencing difficulties."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). For example, if our thesis is "Yes, learning is the result of experiencing difficulties," we can either argue with evidence of a time when learning IS the result of difficulty, or when a lack of difficulty led to an absence of learning. Both types of evidence support your thesis.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). For our Yes thesis, we could talk about how the difficulty of unmanageable healthcare costs in the USA led to learning and the Affordable Care Act. We could also use the other type of evidence and talk about how Jay Gatsby's lack of difficulty in having immense wealth led to poor learning about what really makes him happy.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 5: Generalize about the state of the world
These kinds of SAT essay prompts are so open-ended that they lend themselves to all kinds of examples and interpretations. But for this same reason, they can be overwhelming and confusing. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
What is the modern world like?
- Is the world more in need of creativity now more than ever?
- Is the world actually harder to understand due to the abundance of information now available?
- Is the world changing in a positive way?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, the world is changing in a positive way," or "no, the world is not changing in a positive way."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Let's consider the Yes thesis. We can use evidence that problems in the past that are being solved today, or innovations today that didn't previously exist.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). To support our Yes thesis, we can find examples of problems that are better now - women's rights, slavery, and reduced violence. We can also discuss recent innovations that dramatically improve quality of life, like the Internet and widespread access to education.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 6: Generalize about people
Much like the "state of the world" questions, these can be supported by almost anything, but can also get away from you if you're not careful. See the diagram below for some ideas of how to manage these prompts.
What are people like?
- Do people underestimate the value of community due to our culture of individualism?
- Are people defined by their occupations?
- Do people learn from the past?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, people learn from the past," or "no, people do not learn from the past."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Let's consider the No thesis that people don't learn from the past - we would have to find an example of when someone repeated a mistake that they could have avoided from history.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). A great example to use for our No thesis is comparing Hitler and Germany to Napoleon. In 1812, Napoleon fought a war on multiple fronts, fighting the Spanish army and the Russian Empire simultaneously. This led to a drastic dilution of focus and led to his defeat. A century later in World War 2, Hitler fought on two fronts as well, facing the Allies in Europe and Russia at the same time. He too was defeated through this mistake.
What do I do now?
Now that you know the basic types of SAT essay prompts and the types of arguments they require, what can you do with this information?
A few different things: one is to practice with these questions, thinking of one or two examples to support at least one answer to each question. We've written a guide to 6 SAT essay examples you can use to answer nearly every prompt.
We show you how to construct an SAT essay, step by step. If you want to get a perfect SAT essay score, read this.
Another is to take a look at our comprehensive SAT essay prompts article, which gives you lots more questions to think about answering and supporting with the arguments above.
Finally, make sure you read our 15 SAT essay tips to know how to get an edge on the essay.
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Essays Changes and Basic Features
The new (or “redesigned”) SAT essay, debuting in March of 2016 as an optional section on the new SAT, looks radically different than the earlier version of the essay. Instead of coming up with your own argument, you’ll now be required to analyze someone else’s argument. This argument takes the form of a 650-750 word article, and you’ll be given a total of 50 minutes, instead of 25, to read and respond to it.
In short, the SAT asks you to describe how the article in question persuades the reader of its point. In particular, you’re asked to consider its use of evidence, reasoning and/or stylistic and persuasive elements.
Scoring has also changed. Instead of receiving a cumulative score of 2-12, you’ll now receive three cumulative scores of 2-8 in three separate categories (with 2 being the lowest score and 8 the highest). Two separate graders will read your work and each will rank it on a scale of 1-4 for each category. When they’re finished, their scores will be combined into your three cumulative scores. The three categories are writing (how well write, i.e. your grammar and style), reading (how well you understood the article) and analysis (how well you assessed the writer’s persuasive techniques). It’s possible to do very strongly in one category but very poorly in another, and there is no overall single score for the essay as a whole.
Even though each essay will feature a different passage, the essay question itself—show how the author persuades the reader of her argument—will never change. For this reason it’s completely possible to prepare for the essay in advance.
Should You Take The New (Redesigned) Essay?
Unlike the old SAT essay, the new version is optional. Some colleges will require the essay, some will recommend it, and others will neither require nor recommend it. In the Ivy League, for instance, the essay is currently required by Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth, whereas Columbia, Penn, Brown and Cornell are not requiring it. You can find an official list of each college’s policy here.
Because a number of colleges do require or recommend you submit essay scores, I recommend anyone sitting for the SAT also sit for the essay. Even if you’re not currently planning on applying to a college that asks for the essay, you might later decide to apply to a school that does. College lists change frequently and you never know where you might want ultimately apply. The last thing you want is to have to retake the entire exam, or, worse yet, not be able to apply to a particular college, just because you took the exam without the essay.
How To Write A High Scoring Essay
Before you begin writing your essay, you’ll want to make sure you read the passage carefully. It’s important to read actively, always keeping in mind the author’s main point and how the various parts of her argument relate to that point.
Before you start reading, look at the question that follows the passage. This question tells you the main point of the passage, so you don’t have to figure it out on your own. For example, one official question reads “write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved.” This means that the main point or argument of the passage is that natural darkness should be preserved.
After you’ve ascertained the main point from the question, keep it in mind as you read the passage. Ask yourself how the author uses evidence, reasoning and/or stylistic and persuasive elements to convince the reader of this main point, as well as how the various parts of her argument relate to the main point. Everything should lead back to the main point in some way.
As you read, annotate or note whenever you come across a device the author uses to persuade you of her argument. If you don’t understand something, go back and reread it. You have ample time to make sure you understand the passage, and it’s important you do so in order to get the highest “reading” category score possible. Confusing moments are often easier to make sense of after you’ve read the entire passage and understand the full context.
Once you’ve read the passage and identified key persuasive devices, it’s time to make a brief outline for your essay. A powerful way to structure your essay is to have an opening paragraph that states the thesis, followed by two or three paragraphs, each devoted to arguing one part of the thesis, followed by a conclusion that restates the thesis (although in slightly different language than in the opening paragraph).
The thesis should make a central claim that the entire essay then sets out to prove. You might argue, for example, that “the author uses statistical evidence, ironic language and emotional appeals to persuade the reader that natural darkness should be preserved.” The next paragraph would then provide concrete examples of how the author uses statistical evidence to persuade the reader, the following paragraph would discuss examples of ironic language, and the next paragraph would discuss specific examples of emotional appeals. The concluding paragraph would wrap things up by restating the thesis. Here’s an example of what your outline might look like:
P1: Thesis – author uses statistical evidence, ironic language and emotional appeals to persuade reader natural darkness should be preserved
P2: Statistical evidence examples
P3: Ironic language examples
P4: Emotional appeals examples
P5: Conclusion (restate thesis)
After you’ve completed this brief outline, you’re ready to write. Keep an eye on the clock and make sure to leave a couple minutes at the end so that you can review what you’ve written. This will give you a chance to correct any grammatical, spelling or stylistic mistakes before you hand in the essay.
Key Pointers and Mistakes To Avoid
When you’re coming up with your thesis, make sure to focus on what the author does to persuade the reader, rather than on what the author fails to do. Even if there are some shortcomings in the author’s argument, your task is to analyze what devices are used in order to persuade the reader, not what shortcomings might exist in the argument.
Similarly, make sure that your thesis explains what persuasive devices the author uses rather than whether her argument is right or wrong. Even if you personally agree or disagree with the argument, it’s important to stay neutral. Think of yourself as an impartial outside observer, confined to commenting on how the author constructs her argument, not on the merits of the argument itself.
When you write about your examples of persuasive elements, always make sure to tie those examples back to your central argument about persuasion. It’s easy to get so caught up in the details that you forget to state what those details are actually doing—attempting to persuade the reader of something—but it’s important to make this connection clear.
When you choose your examples, look for those examples that are most important to persuading the reader of the author’s argument. Avoid marginal and insignificant details that don’t play a big role in persuading the reader of the main point.
While the SAT asks you to consider the author’s use of “evidence, reasoning, and stylistic and persuasive devices,” you’re not required to discuss all three. In fact, it’s better to go into more detail on just two than to try to address all three and use less detail in the process.
As you discuss specific persuasive elements, try to elaborate on how and why they work to persuade the reader of the main point. It’s not enough to simply mention a detail from the essay in one sentence. Try instead to really flesh out why a specific detail works persuasively—devote a number of sentences to explaining the different ways it functions. The highest scoring essays always go into great detail about a few select moments in the passage, rather than trying to briefly mention every persuasive moment in passing.
When discussing examples, avoid making broad claims that you can’t back up, such as “by discussing tragedy, the author moves the reader.” Instead, get into specifics: “when the author discusses tragedy, she chooses specific examples aimed at resonating with her audience. Since her audience is American, for example, she discusses the American tragedy of September 11th.”
You should also mention how key details and ideas interrelate to one another and the author’s main argument. Showing how everything “fits together” in the passage is critical for earning the highest score possible according to the SAT’s scoring rubric.
In citing specific examples, avoid lengthy direct quotations from the text. You should mainly reserve direct quotes for when you want to draw attention to the specific language or structure of the writing the author is using. Otherwise, it’s usually best to paraphrase what the author is saying. This is not only good writing practice, but it also demonstrates to the grader that you have understood the passage, which is critical to earning a high “reading” category score.
In order to earn a high “reading” score, it’s also important that you write a substantial amount. Essays earning the highest reading scores are usually among the longest, and this is because the more you write about the text, the clearer it is that you understand the text as a whole. Plan on using the full 50 minutes to write as much as possible when you’re not reading the passage or planning and reviewing your essay.
Common Persuasive Elements
There are an unlimited number of persuasive elements that an author can use to make a point, and each passage will feature different ones. That said, here are some common persuasive elements that you might see on any given passage:
Applying a general rule to a specific case
Deducing a general rule from specific cases
Using logic to rule a possibility in or out
Stylistic or Persuasive Elements
The author tries to sound like the reader
Irony or sarcasm
Grammar and Style Tips
Because your essay will receive a “writing” score, it’s important to use good grammar and style. Since you should already be studying grammar for the Writing and Language section of the redesigned SAT, try to apply the same rules you’re learning to your own writing on the essay.
To pick up as many “writing” points as possible, make sure that your writing flows smoothly from one idea to the next. Use strong and clear transitions at the start of each new paragraph. You might begin a new paragraph, for example, by saying “Similar to her use of historical evidence, the author employs statistical evidence to argue that the economy is strong.” You should also connect separate clauses with words and phrases that show the specific nature of their relationship, such as “thus,” “therefore,” “nevertheless,” “for example” and “in contrast.”
It’s also important to vary the structure of your sentences. Instead of writing “John is hungry. John is tired. John is not having a good day,” write “John is feeling hungry and tired. As you might guess, he is not having a good day.” Avoid starting consecutive sentences and paragraphs with the same word. One trick to help mix up sentence structure is to throw in an occasional rhetorical question, such as “How would the early Monicaros have felt if they too lacked freedom?”
Whenever possible, forgo passive sentences for active ones. Instead of writing “The apple was eaten by the boy,” for instance, write “The boy ate the apple.” What you’re essentially doing is replacing any “to be” verb forms (“was”) with a verb that represents the action actually taking place in the sentence (eating, or “ate”).
The SAT also expects you to write formally. This means avoiding contractions like “it’s” or “that’s” in favor of “it is” or “that is,” as well as avoiding the first person (I, we, me, etc.). You should also avoid clichés or any expressions that sound too colloquial. Try to emulate the type of formal writing you find in many academic essays and school textbooks. This also means aiming to use advanced vocabulary when appropriate. Just make sure you’re using any advanced word correctly—when in doubt, leave it out.
Practice Makes Perfect
Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of what to do on the essay, it’s essential to practice. You’ll ideally want to write a couple of practice essays before you sit for the real thing.
It’s best to practice with official College Board essay prompts, since prompts written by test prep companies might not always represent what you’ll see on test day as accurately. Fortunately, College Board has already released a number of prompts. You can find two prompts, including scored sample responses with College Board commentary, here. There are also another four included with the four released practice tests here, as well as an additional two in the new Official SAT Study Guide.
If you’ve exhausted these eight practice prompts, you can also practice with old AP English Language and Composition free response questions, available here. The second question in each free response asks you to compete essentially the same task as the SAT essay question.
Make sure to adhere to the 50 minute time limit when practicing!
The new (or “redesigned”) SAT features a very different type of essay question than the prior SAT did. Although this essay is optional, it’s a good idea to take it so as not to close the door on any colleges you might be eventually wish to apply to. You can make sure you’re prepared on test day by combining the advice in this article with writing multiple, timed practice essays. Because the assignment and scoring criteria never change, preparing should leave you with no surprises and a high set of scores.
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