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Lucas Fink

SAT Essay: Writing Your Essay “Based on a True Story”

Take a look at the last sentence of the prompt on every SAT essay section.

Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

You can see in that sentence the four basic types of SAT essay examples: literary, historical, personal, and general. The first two types of examples are what a lot of students try for, but they can be difficult to conjure and stressful. But the others are just as viable of options, and you shouldn’t try to specifically avoid them.


An SAT essay that doesn’t mention books or history can get a perfect score.

Spent most of history class drawing stick figure parties? Used Sparknotes for each and every book in English this year? It doesn’t mean you’re going to bomb the essay (even if you bomb the class). The SAT tells you that you can use your own experiences. In order to get a high essay score, you only have to be sure that those examples are clear, relevant, and well written.

So why not twist that to your advantage? It can be hard to think of a perfect example for your argument, and anecdotes about your personal life are much more malleable than the stories you can draw from history or literature. Those anecdotes, then, can be really useful, especially if you learn a little lesson from Hollywood along the way.


Use only the facts that make your story relevant and interesting… then throw away the rest

When you’re watching a movie and you see the words “based on a true story,” you can be pretty sure that it’s got just about zilch in common with whatever “true story” it’s referring to. Part of why that happens is the simple truth that real life is rarely as dramatic as Hollywood wants it to be.

Similarly, your personal experiences are rarely going to be perfect examples of your thesis. But you, like a director, have the freedom to warp the facts in your favor.

Say you get a prompt that asks, “Is it necessary to study mistakes in order to learn from them?” You might think of a mistake you made, such as having spent all that time illustrating those stick figure shindigs when your teacher was telling you about historical mistakes that would have been perfect for this essay. And that’s a great starting point.

For one, it’s already specific. We have a who, where, what, when, why and how. Being concrete like that really helps to keep your writing and thoughts clear. But there may be plenty of details we really don’t need, like the exact goings-on in those doodles, your friends comments on them, or whatever else. Specific doesn’t mean ramblingly detailed… that’s something we want to avoid. So throw that stuff away and make the example plainly support your argument.


SAT essay graders don’t know or care if it’s true, only that it answers the question.

Make sure your story is clearly relevant. We’re starting with the fact that you didn’t pay enough attention in class, and you were drawing instead. So what? Let’s add in what we need for it to be relevant: You failed a test even though you had studied for hours the night before. After that, you took a long look at what went wrong, realized you had been distracted in class, and started trying to take notes instead of doodling. And your next test was a vast improvement, which proves your point. Add in a few sentences analyzing the relevance of the story (giving it a moral), and you’ve got yourself a fantastic example, even if almost none of it was true.

Starting from a truth will help keep you grounded. Don’t just draw your examples from thin air, if you can avoid it. But feel free to stretch that truth a bit to answer the question. Nobody will know the difference, and it can make a weak illustration of a point into a much stronger one.


A disclaimer

Don’t just forget entirely about history and literature; there are thousands of wonderfully adaptable stories there. And relying only on your imagination can be dangerous, because even the best storytellers get writer’s block. Make sure you come to your SAT prepared with at least a few books or historical events in mind that you know a little bit about and might be able to use. It’s worth it.


About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

4 Responses to “SAT Essay: Writing Your Essay “Based on a True Story””

  1. Porhour says:

    I’ll just keep my question short. When the ETS says “taken from your reading”, does that men’s any stories I have read will work, or it has to be literature ( for example a novel by Shakespeare) ?

    • Lucas Fink Lucas says:

      Good question! Anything you’ve read is acceptable. Good thing you don’t have to delve into Shakespeare, right? (Although there’s an incredible wealth of great stories in Shakespeare if you can get past the style of English. Ideally, you’ll have a couple of books and historical events that you know really well to draw examples from before you take the test and start writing. In order to make that work smoothly, it’s a good idea to pick stories that you want to know well.

  2. devyne lopez says:

    Really gave me an understanding.

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