SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

How To Attack SAT Essay Prompts and Raise Your Score

Posted by Laura Staffaroni | Sep 26, 2015 9:00:00 AM

SAT Writing

 

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The SAT essay is very different from any essay you’ll be asked to write in school. One key part of mastering the SAT Writing section is understanding how SAT essay prompts are structured. Join me as I (figuratively) dissect an SAT Writing essay prompt!

feature image credit: scalpel by aesop, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

Why Does The College Board Ask Prompts This Way?

SAT essay prompts are always worded and built in a very particular way. Here's an example of an essay prompt from an official SAT practice test:

The essay gives you an opportunity to show how effectively you can develop and express ideas. You should, therefore, take care to develop your point of view, present your ideas logically, and use language precisely.

Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

 

"Given the importance of human creativity, one would think it should have a high priority among our concerns. But if we look at the reality, we see a different picture. Basic scientific research is minimized in favor of immediate practical applications. The arts are increasingly seen as dispensable luxuries. Yet as competition heats up around the globe, exactly the opposite strategy is needed."

Adapted from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention

 

Assignment: Is creativity needed more than ever in the world today?

 

As you can see in the example above, each prompt consists of two main parts:

  • a short quotation or statement about an issue that the SAT wants you to write about in your essay, and
  • the assignment, which asks you a yes or no question about that issue that you must answer in your essay.

The CollegeBoard's goal is for the prompts to be as accessible to students as possible while still providing an opportunity for students to demonstrate their critical thinking skills. According to the CollegeBoard, the SAT essay prompt (which is never longer than 80 words) includes a "quotation or statement on an issue" that is designed to...

  • Be easy to form opinions on and respond to quickly (“[e]nable students to react and respond quickly in a variety of ways”)
  • Be answerable by students of varied reading levels, including students whose native language is not English
  • Not contain specific references to things students would need outside knowledge for (“figurative, technical, or specific literary references”)

 

SAT Writing Prompts: Patterns To Prepare For

Now that you have some basic knowledge about the SAT essay, it's time for a more detailed examination of the anatomy of an SAT essay prompt.

 

SAT Writing Prompt Excerpts, Dissected

I've copied the "excerpt" portion of the prompt from before as an example to keep in mind:

"Given the importance of human creativity, one would think it should have a high priority among our concerns. But if we look at the reality, we see a different picture. Basic scientific research is minimized in favor of immediate practical applications. The arts are increasingly seen as dispensable luxuries. Yet as competition heats up around the globe, exactly the opposite strategy is needed."

As I mentioned above, the first part of an SAT essay prompt is either a quotation or statement on the issue that you'll be discussing in your essay. In this prompt, the issue seems to be creativity and its importance in the world. The issues covered by the prompt excerpts won't ever get more specific than this - making the issues too specific would give some students an unfair advantage on the essay.

Because the excerpt often consists of a quotation from an academic or literary figure, you might find it difficult to digest. Don't end up spending 2-3 minutes of your limited essay writing time staring blankly at the prompt! You don’t necessarily need to read the prompt in order to write your essay. Technically, all you need to do in your essay is answer the assignment.

 

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introspection by Gisela Giardino, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.
Don't get distracted by the quotation!

 

If you’re stymied for ideas (that is, you can’t think of anything to write about), or aren’t exactly sure what the assignment is referring to, however, these excerpts can sometimes provide you with helpful suggestions. For example, think about the assignment of the prompt mentioned above:

Assignment: Is creativity needed more than ever in the world today?

Maybe you don't normally think about creativity too much, so you don't know what to write about. This is where the excerpt can come in handy.

"Given the importance of human creativity, one would think it should have a high priority among our concerns. But if we look at the reality, we see a different picture. Basic scientific research is minimized in favor of immediate practical applications. The arts are increasingly seen as dispensable luxuries. Yet as competition heats up around the globe, exactly the opposite strategy is needed."

If you want to argue yes, creativity is needed more than ever in the world today, you can use the suggestions that “the importance of human creativity…should have a priority” and “exactly the opposite strategy is needed” to spark ideas as to what examples you should use.

What if you think that creativity is not needed more than ever in the world today? You can still use parts of the quotation to give you ideas of what to argue, like the following excerpt:

“...if we look at the reality, we see a different picture. Basic scientific research is minimized in favor of immediate practical applications. The arts are increasingly seen as dispensable luxuries.”

Alternatively, you may have a strong opinion on the assignment, but not know how to frame your argument - is creativity needed more than ever...just in the world? In America? In your life? If this is where you're stuck, the last sentence of the excerpt (Yet as competition…needed) provides a critical context in which you can discuss the assignment - in this case, that of competition in a global market.

Again, you don’t HAVE to use the quotation or statement on the issue in this way, but if you’re at a loss, the excerpt can be helpful (which is why the SAT includes it, rather than only including an assignment for the SAT essay prompt).

 

SAT Writing Prompt Assignments, Dissected

The assignment is the most important part of the SAT essay prompt. It is pretty much always framed as a "yes" or "no" question, which means that the best way to answer the assignment is to take one side or the other. This might seem counterintuitive, especially since the most accurate answer to many of the SAT essay assignments is "Sorta."

Is creativity needed more than ever in the world today?

Can people ever be truly original?

Do things that do not kill us only make us stronger?

Okay, that last example is paraphrased from a song, but you get the point. The CollegeBoard cares about how you "develop and express ideas," not that you are writing the most accurate analysis of a topic ever (after all, you only have 25 minutes for the whole essay). If you don't clearly answer the question in the prompt, it will be difficult for you to get above a 2 or 3 (out of 6) on the essay.

So what are the different kinds of SAT essay assignments?

 

The 6 Categories of SAT Essay Assignments

1. Which thing is better?

These prompts ask you to argue which of two things is more important.

“Is the process or the outcome of a project more important?”

 

2. What should people do?

These questions are more specific subsets of the “which is better” assignments; instead of asking about what's better in general, these questions ask "which is better for people to do?"

“Should people be guided by their feelings when making major choices?”

 

3. Is it possible that [an unlikely thing] is true?

These types of assignments ask you to support or refute counterintuitive statements.

“Can average people be better role models than famous people?”

 

4. Is [something] the result of [something else]?

These cause and effect prompts ask you if one thing causes another to happen, or if something is the result of something else.

“Is self-knowledge the result of being forced into action?”

 

5. What's the state of the world?

These types of prompts often are very open ended, which means that you have to be very specific with your examples and answers. On the other hand, because the prompts are so open, you can use a wide variety of examples as support.

“Is the world actually harder to understand due to the abundance of information now available?”

 

6. What are people like?

This final type of SAT essay prompt asks about human nature, or about people. It differs from type 2 because rather than asking about what people should DO, it asks about how people ARE.

“Are people better at making observations, discoveries, and decisions if they remain neutral and impartial?”

 

Take a look back at the "assignment" part of the prompt I discussed earlier:

Is creativity needed more than ever in the world today? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

Out of all the categories of SAT prompts, this prompt fits best into the "What's the state of the world" category.

 

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Globe by Steve Cadman, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

 

How Can I Use This Information In My Essay?

We've broken down an SAT essay prompt into its component parts and examined both the excerpt and the assignment. Now it's time to turn that information into actions you can take when preparing for the SAT essay.

 

1. Prepare specific examples ahead of time.

As we have said before in other articles about the SAT essay, the number one thing many students (including myself, back the day) don’t realize they need for the SAT essay is specificity in the examples they use to support their essay arguments. To get some idea of what a good example looks like, take a look through our list of six essay examples that can be used to answer every prompt.

Yes, prompts will differ from test to test, and some examples may not work with some prompts (if you can manage to figure out a way to argue that Animal Farm proves that creativity is needed more than ever in the world today, I will be very surprised). By preparing multiple examples ahead of time, however, you increase the chances that you'll be able to answer the essay with a specific example. Learn more about examples that you can use for each of the 6 types of essay prompts here.

 

2. Prepare transitions and other phrases ahead of time (using YOUR OWN words)

Another area that students often have issues with on test day is transitions between ideas. Phrases like "in addition" and "as well" can help to connect similar ideas, while words like "while" and "however" can smooth transitions between opposing ideas. Practice using transitions in your own writing by writing out sentences that link similar (or opposing) ideas. For example:

Another example of the way old technologies have been reborn in this modern era is the success of podcasts such as the Thrilling Adventure Hour and Welcome to Night Vale, which play with the tropes of old time radio.

Early on in school, I found that creativity was rewarded; as I grew older, however, it became clear that the key to success in academics was to stick to the beaten path.

 

3. Create your OWN essay skeleton template

It's good to prepare ahead of time with an essay template. Use these templates to keep yourself organized and to practice presenting ideas one at a time. An important caveat: you must use your own words on the SAT essay (even if the general structure of your essay came from somewhere else). If you use other people's essay skeletons word for word, you may get flagged for plagiarism and have your entire test score canceled. 

 

4. Practice with actual SAT essay prompts

The best way to get better at writing SAT essays is to practice writing SAT essays. This means practicing both adhering to the 25-minute time limit and writing in response to SAT essay prompts. Fortunately for you, we've gathered a complete list of SAT essay prompts that you can use to aid in your test prep.

Practicing essay writing is especially helpful if you are worried about running out of time on the actual SAT, because the more essays you write, the better you’ll get at completing the assignment well in the time allotted.

 

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What’s Next?

Start by adding these 15 SAT essay tips to your test prep arsenal, then get even deeper into the world of SAT Writing with our expert explanations of how to get a 12 on the SAT essay and step-by-step instructions for writing a top-scoring essay.

Did you devour all of our SAT Writing resources already? Are you hungry for more advice? Consult our guide to the best prep books for SAT Writing.

Do you even need to worry about the SAT essay? What if your SAT Writing score doesn’t matter for getting into college? Find out what colleges require SAT Writing scores.

 

Want to get serious about improving your SAT score? We have the leading online SAT prep program that will raise your score by 240+ points, guaranteed.

Exclusive to our program, we have an expert SAT instructor grade each of your SAT essays and give you customized feedback on how to improve your score. This can mean an instant jump of 80 points on the Writing section alone.

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Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.



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