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New SAT Essay Prompts: How Are They Changing?


The CollegeBoard has once again completely revamped the SAT — the changes debuted in March 2016 (tests can have debuts right? Right). We have an overview about all of the changes that have been made, but how do the changes apply to the SAT essay questions in particular? Read on to find out more about the new SAT Writing prompts.

feature image credit: RAFFAELLO SANZIO The Sistine Madonna (detail) 1513-14 by carulmare, used under CC BY 2.0/Resized and cropped from original.


UPDATE: SAT Essay No Longer Offered

In January 2021, the College Board announced that after June 2021, it would no longer offer the Essay portion of the SAT (except at schools who opt in during School Day Testing). It is now no longer possible to take the SAT Essay, unless your school is one of the small number who choose to offer it during SAT School Day Testing.

While most colleges had already made SAT Essay scores optional, this move by the College Board means no colleges now require the SAT Essay. It will also likely lead to additional college application changes such not looking at essay scores at all for the SAT or ACT, as well as potentially requiring additional writing samples for placement.

What does the end of the SAT Essay mean for your college applications? Check out our article on the College Board's SAT Essay decision for everything you need to know.


What’s Different About The New SAT Essay Prompts?

To start off with, let's compare an old SAT prompt with a new one. Here's an old SAT essay prompt:

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

"We don't really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we make a mistake, until something fails to go as we had hoped. When everything is working well, with no problems or failures, what incentives to we have to try something new? We are only motivated to learn when we experience difficulties."

Adapted from Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel

Assignment: Does true learning only occur when we experience difficulties? 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.


And here's an example of a new SAT essay prompt from the College Board:

As you read the passage below, consider how Dana Gioia uses

  • 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.

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. In your essay, analyze how Gioia uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (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 Gioia’s claims, but rather explain how Gioia builds an argument to persuade his audience.


At a quick glance, the most obvious difference between the two kinds of prompts is that the old prompt asked you about your opinion on a topic, using specific examples to support your reasoning, while the new prompt asks you to explain how author builds an argument, using specific elements from the text to support your reasoning. On the new SAT essay, your thesis does not require your stating an opinion on a topic, but instead involves identifying WHAT the author’s argument is and HOW she/he supports it.

What does this look like in action? Take a look at this sample thesis for an essay on the above prompt:

In this passage, Gioia argues that young Americans are less engaged with the arts (particularly literature) than in the past, which has a dire effect on multiple aspects of society. Gioia uses statistics and surveys, diction, and the organization of the article to support his conclusion that “As more Americans lose [the] capability [to engage with the arts and literature], our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded.”


The new prompt also requires students to read a passage and then analyze it, rather than coming up with their own opinion on a topic and having to support it with examples they come up with. This means that there will be no more discussing of World War II or Animal Farm on the essay (unless, of course, the author of the passage in the essay prompt discusses those things); instead, all students will draw their examples from the same primary source.

The other major change with the new SAT essay is the amount of time you have to write the essay: instead of a paltry 25 minutes to read the prompt, think of examples to support your argument, and write the essay, you now have 50 minutes to read and analyze the prompt and write your essay.


What’s Still The Same With The New SAT Essay Prompts?

Although you no longer will be able to prepare ahead of time for the essay by gathering examples from literature, history, or your own life to use as support for your thesis, in the new SAT essay you still need to use specific examples to support your logic and reasoning. Even though the evidence you'll be using to support your analysis of the author's argument will be coming directly from the text included in the essay question, you still need to be specific.

Take the sample SAT essay question from earlier:

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. In your essay, analyze how Gioia uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (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 Gioia’s claims, but rather explain how Gioia builds an argument to persuade his audience.

Let's say that one of your points is that Gioia uses statistics and survey data to support his argument for the importance of literature. In order to support your point, you will need to cite specific instances of where Gioia does this in the text. It wouldn't be enough to simply say "Gioia discusses surveys, which makes his point seem stronger" or "Gioia starts out by being general before getting more specific." You would need to go into more detail, like so:

Gioia's discussion of the findings of the 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts serves to provide context for his argument. By stating that "arts participation by Americans has declined for eight of the nine major forms that are measured" before going on to present the specific information about "the declining percentage of Americans, especially young adults, reading literature," Gioia draws the reader in from the general to the specific.

You'll also still have to write well and in an organized fashion. Using varied sentence structures and correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation is a must for a high essay score, as is making sure that your thesis is clear and your ideas are presented in an orderly way. Just as on the old SAT essay, keeping to one example or piece of supporting evidence per paragraph will make it easier for your essay's graders to follow your lines of reasoning.

Finally, in order to get a 2+ score (out of 4) in each of the three essay scoring categories (Reading, Analysis, and Writing), you should plan to write more than one page. You'll need at least that much space to write even a middle-scoring essay that articulates your central claim about how the author supports her argument, analyzes the text using specific examples, and shows your comprehension of the material.



Cartoon artist sketch by Evan, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped and resized from original.


Main Strategies for the New SAT Writing Prompts

I've taken advice from our guides on the old SAT essay and altered it to apply to the new essay.


Old strategy: Think up examples beforehand that you'll be able to use on the test. If you're having trouble coming up with any, we have a list of 6 examples that can be used for most current SAT essay prompts.

New strategy: Think up categories of examples beforehand and practice writing about them. Start out by considering the suggestions provided in the standard prompt (evidence, reasoning, and stylistic or persuasive elements), then come up with some ways that authors might build an argument on your own (like citing statistics or quoting experts). Read other persuasive passages and see if you can explain in words how the author is building his/her argument.


Old strategy: Make up examples out of thin air for any prompt. Because the SAT essay graders do not have time to fact check, they have to take any "facts" you present in your essay at face value (as long as they support your argument. For example, you could claim that the horses end up killing the pigs over accounting error at the end of Animal Farm, and as long as this supports your thesis, the graders cannot take off points.

New strategy: ABANDON MADE-UP EVIDENCE for the most part. You MUST use proof from the passage to back up your thesis. The only exception to this rule would be if, for example, you were able to make up a study showing that sentences that include the word “intellectual” are inherently more persuasive, and so the author's constant use of the word "intellectual" adds to the persuasive impact of the essay (or something like that).


Old strategy: Ignore the quote in the essay prompt and skip straight to the "assignment" part.

New strategy: Do not ignore! You MUST read the passage, and read it closely (so that you can thoroughly analyze the way the author builds his/her argument). Luckily, you now have twice as much time, so use it well.


Old strategy: Go into the SAT prepared to get the essay out of the way at the beginning.

New strategy: Now that the essay is at the end of the SAT, you'll need to make sure you save energy so that you're not completely delirious by the time you get to your essay. On the other hand, because the new SAT essay will be optional and scored separately from the rest of your SAT Reading/Writing score, you can opt not to take the essay on a particular test without it affecting your overall SAT score. Make sure to check with the colleges you plan on applying to for their policies on accepting the new SAT essay - you may not even need to take it!


What’s Next?

Want to dive deeper into the details of this change? Our complete guide to the new 2016 SAT contains an entire section on the new SAT essay.

Not sure whether or not you need to take the essay? Read up on which schools require or recommend the SAT essay here.

In need of some good examples of persuasive argumentative techniques? Then be sure to check out our article describing different types of examples to use in your SAT essay.


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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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