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A big part of this fear, as with all fears, is simple fear of the unknown – and how much more “unknown” can you get than a random SAT essay prompt?
It’s tough to not know what the SAT essay is about. Indeed, it’s natural to be stressed out.
But, great news. The SAT essay is totally defeatable – yes, you can easily get a fantastic score on it. It’s also a lot more predictable, prompt-wise, than you might expect.
One of the first steps in any battle is to know your enemy. Let’s take a look at what the SAT essay is and what you will be expected to write about.
What is the SAT Essay?
I’ve answered this question in more depth in other articles such as What is the SAT Essay? Still, it wouldn’t hurt to quickly review – the SAT begins with a 25-minute timed essay on a “random” prompt.
You are expected to respond by taking a clear side and building a solid, convincing argument by using some concrete evidence with a strong structure – strong vocabulary and good handwriting don’t hurt, either.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, there are some special details – for example, you can make up your “facts” without fear of penalty.
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Also, you’re not graded exactly the same way as you are in high school – your priorities are going to be different.
Rather than being creative, brilliant, nuanced, and original, your odds will be far better if you’re predictable, standard, and straightforward. There’s just not enough time to get into “grey area” without confusing yourself and the reader.
It’s important to know exactly what the expectations are, so I recommend you take a few minutes and read What is the SAT Essay if you still have any lingering questions about what the SAT essay is going to be like.
Now, let’s move on to talking about what the essay will be about.
What are the themes of the SAT essay questions?
There is definitely a semi-predictable set of themes that the SAT essay prompts will address. Here are some of the most common:
- Individuals vs. Society
- Happiness and success
- Current events and technological progress
- Heros and role models
- Education and learning
- Ethics and morals
Obviously these are some very broad topics, yet there’s some intangible link between them all – something about being human, struggling with society, and trying to achieve success and happiness.
A few examples of real SAT essay prompts:
Here’s a small, representative sampling of some pretty “normal” SAT essay prompts:
- Should we pay more attention to people who are older and more experienced than we are?
- Can people ever be truly original?
- Are people more likely to be happy if they focus on goals other than their own happiness?
- Is the most important purpose of technology today different from what it was in the past?
- Should people always be loyal?
If you’re feeling intimidated right now, don’t be. You don’t have to be correct – you just have to take a side and support it with some concrete evidence. They know that you could argue either side.
You don’t have to change the world with your essay – you just have to demonstrate your ability to be convincing.
These prompts are great for practicing your convincing-ness, since either side is equally valid, and because they’re so broad that you can draw in almost any evidence you can think of to support your stance.
What do the essay prompts all have in common?
Ok, let’s look at a few things that I think the prompts have in common:
- All have a “positive” and a “negative” side (“yes” or “no”)
- None have a “right” or “wrong” answer
- Both sides are equally arguable/supportable
One more thing (it’s really hard to fit into a mini bullet-point): Almost all of the essay prompts deal with a key idea and a positive/negative result.
For example, the prompt “Should people always be loyal?” has the key idea of “loyalty,” and the positive/negative result comes from the “should people be loyal” or in other words, does being loyal generally lead to GOOD or to BAD results?
The prompt “Are people more likely to be happy if they focus on goals rather than their own happiness?” has the key idea of “focusing on goals,” and the positive/negative result comes from whether people become more or less happy from this.
Basically, most prompts can be analyzed like this – one key idea and its positive or negative results.
What can be different between the essay prompts?
Well, mainly the prompts themselves – although there are clear overarching themes, I can’t lie about the fact that there’s still a great variety of possible questions you might be asked on the day of the test.
Additionally, while about 90% of the prompts are related to timeless themes such as loyalty, success etc.. there are a few prompts that relate mostly to current events, technology, or more unusual issues.
For example, there was a legendary and much-hated essay prompt around 2011 that dealt with reality television.
I’m going to quote the entire thing here for laughs:
“Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled. How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes? Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?”
Truthfully, this prompt made a lot of people angry, and I don’t think the College Board will pull a stunt like this again any time soon.
In the future, expect mainly timeless themes with a smattering of tech and progress questions.
Where can I find a list of previous SAT essay prompts to form my own ideas of what the SAT essay is about?
Sometimes the best thing to do is just look at a huge list of essay prompts from previous SATs. That’s how I originally developed my ideas about the SAT essay – simple personal research.
If you’re more of a hands-on type, it’s a good idea to read through the prompt list your self and let your mind sort it out subconsciously.
One exercise I do with my students is to have them pretend that I am their best friend, but I haven’t had the time or money to take an SAT prep course, the test is tomorrow morning, and I’m freaking out about what the essay is going to be about.
Then my student reads through the whole list of prompts and has to come up with enough insights to share with their “best friend” that I feel like I have a good idea what the SAT essay question will be about.
I think this experiment is valuable because being told information is one thing; deducing it yourself is much more useful.
Anyway, you’re probably getting impatient to see the list – so here’s a link to another tutor’s website where he’s compiled a bunch of prompts and organized them by theme: View the SAT Essay Prompt List
Feel like it’s time to start studying?
If all this talk about the SAT essay has gotten you excited to ace the Writing section and shoot for a perfect 2400, take that energy right now and head to my online bookstore, where you can purchase and download my two textbooks on SAT Essay Examples and Essay Strategy.
There’s also my video course on SAT Vocabulary which is two hours of high-definition video and further assignments to help your verbal score.
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