The SAT Essay has changed drastically from what it looked like from March 2005-January 2016. On the plus side, you’ll now be asked to do the same task every time: read an argument meant to persuade a broad audience and discuss how well the author argues his or her point. On the minus side, you have to do reading and analysis in addition to writing a coherent and organized essay.
In this article, we’ve compiled a list of the 11 real SAT essay prompts that the CollegeBoard has released (either in The Official SAT Study Guide or separately online) for the new SAT. This is the most comprehensive set of new SAT essay prompts online today.
At the end of this article, we'll also guide you through how to get the most out of these prompts and link to our expert resources on acing the SAT essay. I’ll discuss how the SAT essay prompts are valuable not just because they give you a chance to write a practice essay, but because of what they reveal about the essay task itself.
SAT essay prompts have always kept to the same basic format. With the new essay, however, not only is the prompt format consistent from test to test, but what you’re actually asked to do (discuss how an author builds an argument) also remains the same across different test administrations.
The College Board’s predictability with SAT essay helps students focus on preparing for the actual analytical task, rather than having to think up stuff on their feet. Every time, before the passage, you’ll see the following:
- evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
- reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
- stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.
And after the passage, you’ll see this:
“Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [her/his] audience that [whatever the author is trying to argue for]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Your essay should not explain whether you agree with [the author]’s claims, but rather explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [her/his] audience.”
Now that you know the format, let’s look at the SAT essay prompts list.
11 Official SAT Essay Prompts
The College Board has released a limited number of prompts to help students prep for the essay. We've gathered them for you here, all in one place. We’ll be sure to update this article as more prompts are released for practice and/or as more tests are released.
SPOILER ALERT: Since these are the only essay prompts that have been released so far, you may want to be cautious about spoiling them for yourself, particularly if you are planning on taking practice tests under real conditions. This is why I’ve organized the prompts by the ones that are in the practice tests (so you can avoid them if need be), the one that is available online as a "sample prompt," and the ones that are in the Official SAT Study Guide (Redesigned SAT), all online for free.
Practice Test Prompts
These eight prompts are taken from the practice tests that the College Board has released.
Practice Test 1:
"Write an essay in which you explain how Jimmy Carter builds an argument to persuade his audience that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should not be developed for industry."
Practice Test 2:
"Write an essay in which you explain how Martin Luther King Jr. builds an argument to persuade his audience that American involvement in the Vietnam War is unjust."
Practice Test 3:
"Write an essay in which you explain how Eliana Dockterman builds an argument to persuade her audience that there are benefits to early exposure to technology."
Practice Test 4:
"Write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved."
Practice Test 5:
"Write an essay in which you explain how Eric Klinenberg builds an argument to persuade his audience that Americans need to greatly reduce their reliance on air-conditioning."
Practice Test 6:
"Write an essay in which you explain how Christopher Hitchens builds an argument to persuade his audience that the original Parthenon sculptures should be returned to Greece."
Practice Test 7:
"Write an essay in which you explain how Zadie Smith builds an argument to persuade her audience that public libraries are important and should remain open"
Practice Test 8:
"Write an essay in which you explain how Bobby Braun builds an argument to persuade his audience that the US government must continue to invest in NASA."
Special note: The prompt for Practice Test 4 is replicated as the first sample essay on the College Board’s site for the new SAT. If you’ve written a sample essay for practice test 4 and want to see what essays of different score levels look like for that particular prompt, you can go here and look at eight real student essays.
within darkness by jason jenkins, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Resized from original.
Free Online Practice
This prompt comes from the CollegeBoard website for the new SAT.
“Write an essay in which you explain how Dana Gioia builds an argument to persuade his audience that the decline of reading in America will have a negative effect on society.”
The Official SAT Study Guide (for March 2016 and beyond)
The Official SAT Study Guide (editions published in 2015 and later, available online for free) contains all eight of the previously mentioned practice tests at the end of the book. In the section about the new SAT essay, however, there are two additional sample essay prompts.
Sample Prompt 1:
“Write an essay in which you explain how Peter S. Goodman builds an argument to persuade his audience that news organizations should increase the amount of professional foreign news coverage provided to people in the United States.”
The College Board modified this article for the essay prompt passage in the book. The original passage (1528 words, vs the 733 it is on the SAT) to which this prompt refers can also be found online (for free) here.
Sample Prompt 2:
“Write an essay in which you explain how Adam B. Summers builds an argument to persuade his audience that plastic shopping bags should not be banned.”
There are still a couple of minor differences between the article as it appears in The Official SAT Study Guide as an essay prompt compared to its original form, but it’s far less changed than the previous prompt. The original passage to which this prompt refers (764 words, vs the 743 in The Official SAT Study Guide) can also be found online (for free) here.
hey thanks by Jonathan Youngblood, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped and resized from original.
How Do You Get the Most Out of These Prompts?
Now that you have all the prompts released by the College Board, it’s important to know the best way to use them. Make sure you have a good balance between quality and quantity, and don’t burn through all 11 of the real prompts in a row – take the time to learn from your experiences writing the practice essays.
Step By Step Guide on How to Practice Using the Article
1. Understandhow the SAT essay is graded.
2. Watch as we write a high-scoring SAT essay, step by step.
3. Pre-plan a set of features you’ll look for in the SAT essay readings and practice writing about them fluidly. This doesn't just mean identifying a technique, like asking a rhetorical question, but explaining why it is persuasive and what effect it has on the reader in the context of a particular topic. We have more information on this step in our article about 6 SAT persuasive devices you can use.
4. Choose a prompt at random from above, or choose a topic that you think is going to be hard for you to detach from (because you’ll want to write about the topic, rather than the argument) set timer to 50 minutes and write the essay. No extra time allowed!
5. Grade the essay, using the essay rubric to give yourself a score out of 8 in the reading, analysis, and writing sections (article coming soon!).
6. Repeat steps 4 and 5. Choose the prompts you think will be the hardest for you so that you can so that you’re prepared for the worst when the test day comes
7. If you run out of official prompts to practice with, use the official prompts as models to find examples of other articles you could write about. How? Start by looking for op-ed articles in online news publications like The New York Times, The Atlantic, LA Times, and so on. For instance, the passage about the plastic bag ban in California (sample essay prompt 2, above) has a counterpoint here - you could try analyzing and writing about that article as well.
Any additional articles you use for practice on the SAT essay must match the following criteria:
- ideally 650-750 words, although it’ll be difficult to find an op-ed piece that’s naturally that short. Try to aim for nothing longer than 2000 words, though, or the scope of the article is likely to be too wide for what you’ll encounter on the SAT.
- always argumentative/persuasive. The author (or authors) is trying to get readers to agree with a claim or idea being put forward.
- always intended for a wide audience. All the information you need to deconstruct the persuasiveness of the argument is in the passage. This means that articles with a lot of technical jargon that's not explained in the article are not realistic passage to practice with.
We’ve written a ton of helpful resources on the SAT essay. Make sure you check them out!
15 SAT Essay Tips.
How to Write an SAT Essay, Step by Step.
How to Get a 12 on the SAT Essay.
SAT Essay Rubric, Analyzed and Explained.
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After finishing nearly three hours of tough multiple-choice tests, you might be tempted to skip writing the optional ACT Essay. But, don’t do this–most competitive colleges and universities will want to see an Essay score. Plus, we’ve got some tips to make writing the Essay a breeze.
You’ll get a great Essay score if you do some preparation before you start writing, make sure to use proper grammar and impressive vocabulary, and proofread your work before you submit it, among other things.
More tips and details below! And, for even more expert advice, consider taking an ACT prep course with Prep Expert.
Be Sure To Fill Three To Four Pages Of Your Exam Booklet
Make sure you write enough to fill up three to four pages of your exam booklet–Essays less than three pages will lose points, and those with four pages score the highest.
Because the graders don’t have very much time to score your Essay—two to three minutes per Essay at most—they rely on relatively superficial criteria to assign you a score. One of these criteria is length. Unable to read entire Essays in full, graders assume that students who wrote longer Essays had more to say, and wrote better arguments, and that those who wrote shorter Essays weren’t able to develop their points.
If you have particularly small handwriting, you’ll want to write bigger than you normally do, so that you don’t have to come up with a lot of extra content to fill these pages in. And, you should make sure you always write clearly, even if you have to speed along in order to write four pages. If graders can’t read your writing (a big pet peeve!), they will dock you points.
Memorize The Prompt Ahead Of Time
The prompt will always be the same for every Essay, so if you know it beforehand, you can skip reading it, and save yourself more time to write.
Not needing to read the prompt will save you a minute or two you can then devote to outlining or writing your Essay. Additionally, if you know the prompt’s requirements by heart, you’ll be less likely to forget any of the required components of the Essay.
Outline Your Essay Before You Start Writing
Prepare a basic outline before you start writing, so that you don’t develop writer’s block midway through the Essay, or forget to include any necessary information.
Your outline should include the Essay’s five paragraphs–an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The introduction should include your thesis, and each body paragraph should include a point in support of your thesis, along with three specific examples. The examples can come from anywhere, including personal anecdotes, those of your friends and family, statistics, things you’ve read in the newspaper or seen on TV, et cetera.
The conclusion need only be a couple sentences, wherein you restate your thesis.
Have all these basic components outlined before you start writing. There’s nothing worse than getting halfway through your essay and developing writer’s block, not knowing what to write next–and wasting precious minutes trying to get back on track.
Don’t Be Afraid To Make Up Your Examples
Don’t worry–the exam graders won’t care if you make up examples for your body paragraphs, so long as they’re realistic.
For every point you make about the perspectives supplied for the Essay, you’ll need to come up with a few specific examples. If you’re stretching to come up with examples from real life, don’t be afraid to make something up. The Essay is not a test of the veracity of your information, and you don’t need to offer citations.
If you make up a study or a newspaper article in support of your claim, that’s fine, so long as it’s relatively realistic. The Essay graders just want to see that you’re able to build an argument, not test your ability to come up with real-life examples without the benefit of research.
Be Sure To Use Elevated Vocabulary Wherever Possible
Using two to three elevated vocabulary words per paragraph will get you a higher Essay score.
Your English teachers have probably (rightly) admonished you for using elevated vocabulary words unnecessarily. Typically, elevated vocabulary should be used only when it is the best way to express your thoughts. Otherwise, it’s better to use simpler words, which more people will understand.
However, because the graders only have a few minutes to look at your Essay, one of the criteria they’ll use to score it is your use of elevated vocabulary. So, show off as much as you can, and use at least three to four elevated vocabulary words per paragraph–any less, and there’s a chance the graders won’t see the words.
Don’t Bother Criticizing The Perspectives
You don’t have to criticize any of the perspectives to get a top score—just discuss each of their merits, and then identify the perspective you agree with most.
On the Essay, you’ll be required to discuss three different perspectives on an issue, as well as give your own perspective. Some students feel compelled to critique the other perspectives, pointing out flaws in their reasoning. However, the perspectives are always well thought-out, so critiquing them can be difficult and time-consuming.
And, the good news is, the graders don’t expect you to criticize the other perspectives. Just point out why you think your perspective is the best. For the others, it’s fine to just provide a few of examples of their merits, without endorsing their views wholesale.
You’re also allowed to come up with your own, fourth, perspective. However, I urge against doing this. Writing an entirely new perspective takes up a lot of time and brainpower, and still, leaves you with the work of elaborating upon the other three perspectives.
So, even if one of the three perspectives doesn’t accurately capture your view on the issue, choose the one that you agree with most, and defend that as your view. This isn’t a test of your beliefs—this is a test of your ability to write an argument, and you should make your job as easy as possible, so that you don’t create lots of extra work for yourself and run out of time.
Write Five Full Paragraphs
To get a top score, your essay needs to have five paragraphs—an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
If you’re working against the clock, and are running out of time to write a conclusion, then skimp on your third paragraph, so that you have time to write a few sentences wrapping up the essay. Because the graders only have a few minutes to score your essay, they won’t be reading it in full. Instead, they’ll be looking to see that you’ve met certain benchmarks, one of which is writing five full paragraphs.
You’ll get a higher score with a conclusion than you would with an excellent third paragraph and no conclusion. Ideally, if you’ve outlined ahead of time and kept your writing on track, you won’t have to make this choice.
Use Transition Words Between Ideas And Paragraphs
Include the proper conjunctions between each idea and paragraph.
Know your conjunctions—words and phrases that describe the relationships between words—and use them throughout your Essay. Your Essay needs to have seamless transitions between ideas and paragraphs. At no point should you move abruptly from one idea to another without including an appropriate transition.
Effective transitions are one of the basic elements the graders will look for as they score your Essay.
Don’t Re-Write Large Chunks Of The Perspectives
Copying a lot of text from the perspectives makes it look like you didn’t have anything of your own to say. So, don’t.
There’s a good chance that, at some point in the writing of your Essay, you’ll need to quote the prompt or one of the perspectives you’re discussing. This is fine. Just keep the quotation as short as possible, and be sure to include quotation marks and a line citation.
Try to limit your quotations to no more than once per body paragraph, and no more than two lines per paragraph, maximum. Otherwise, whenever you can, restate or summarize ideas, rather than quote them verbatim.
Proofread Your Work Before You Submit It
Check your Essay for errors in spelling and grammar—if your Essay has too many, you’ll lose points.
The Essay graders won’t just be analyzing your argument. They’ll also be grading the quality of your writing, which includes your spelling and grammar. You’re likely to have made a few mistakes throughout the course of writing the essay, so, ideally, you should go back at the end to check for, and correct, mistakes.
Mistakes to look out for include incorrect spelling, grammar errors, and punctuation goofs. Even just a couple could cost you a point off your writing score.
If you do spot errors, there’s no need to erase them or to scribble them out. The best way to correct yourself is to write a clean, simple line through the mistake, and then include the correction above with a carrot (^), or write the correction next to your mistake. Trying to erase or scribble makes your exam booklet look sloppy, which could cost you points.
For even more expert advice on the ACT Essay, consider taking an ACT prep course with Prep Expert.