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.
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.
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.
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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Laura has over a decade of teaching experience at leading universities and scored a perfect score on the SAT.