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Elise Gout

SAT Essay Theme: Challenges

Welcome to the newest post in our 10-part SAT Essay Theme Guide series! Today, we tackle SAT essay prompts that ask you to write about challenges. Let’s get started!

Getting up at 6:30 a.m., not constantly eating all of the Nutella in the pantry with a spoon, acne – we teenagers go through a lot in our daily lives…



So why is it, then, that when an SAT essay prompt is about challenges it’s still really hard to form an original argument? Well, for one, nothing about standardized testing is easy. And, for two, there’s often more to those prompts than meets the eye. Fear not, though! This guide just may be able to help.

Past Prompts:

Is it best for people to accept who they are and what they have, or should people always strive to better themselves?

Do you think that ease does not challenge us and that we need adversity to help us discover who we are?

Does every achievement bring with it new challenges?

Recommended Reading:

The Odyssey


I’m fully aware that any mention of Homer’s epics will send teenagers fleeing for the hills (or, if you are from SoCal, the beach). But don’t let its reputation scare you; Odysseus is actually a total badass. He fights a 10-year-long war, is captured by a Cyclops, faces Poseidon’s rage, gets lost for years, runs into a cannibal-infested island, and has his men turned to pigs – all during a journey to make it home. Safe to say, his persistence to overcome (and then over come again, and again…) leads to many a self-realization regarding inner strength and the power that rests in familial love.

The Book Thief


Yes, this is now also a movie. No, you should not be one of those people who just watches the movie and never bothers reading the book (it’s too much of a masterpiece for that, and you will face my deepest disappointment). Set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief follows young orphan Liesel with her foster parents Hans and Rosa. Though the family can barely get by, their situation becomes even more precarious when they secretly shelter a Jewish man out of moral principle. Hans learns that Liesel can’t read and so takes it upon himself to teach her the wonders of the written language. Thereafter, she not only must endure the consuming oppression of the era, but also confront the hardship that is shedding her own ignorance.

The Grapes of Wrath


You mean those books that we have to read in English class actually serve a purpose? Of course they do! Being applicable to SAT themes is just one of many perks they offer. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family, even after successfully trekking from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl, must push themselves day in and day out to find work and support one another. They frequently rise to overcome loss and exemplify the importance of taking nothing for granted.

How the Worst Moments in our Lives Make Us Who We Are

(TED Talk by Andrew Soloman)

In this 20-minute talk, writer Andrew Soloman recounts both his own hardships as an adolescent as well as those of the courageous people he has met, interviewed, and grown from. With humor and a powerful voice, he urges his audience to “forge meaning and build identity” from every shade of their past. Seriously worth watching.

Example Outline:


Do you think that ease does not challenge us and that we need adversity to help us discover who we are?


Despite provoking periods of inner turmoil, challenges in life allow us to understand the depths of our own strength and decide the kind of person that we want to be to those around us.

  • Within the Odyssey, Odysseus resists the ease and comfort that lies in giving up and instead devotes all of himself to returning home to his wife and son.
  • Although The Book Thief’s Lisesel Huberman risks her life to aid a Jewish man during the Holocaust, she comes to learn from him the value in fundamental kindness and morality.
  • Writer Andrew Soloman firmly believes, as detailed in his TED Talk “How the Worst Moments in Our Lives Make Us Who We Are,” that adversity is but an opportunity to forge meaning and build identity, often inspiring the generations proceeding our own.



The hardships that we have and continue to endure mold us into confident and resilient individuals, capable of changing the injustices of our surrounding world.

Example Essays:

The first two essays posted here pertain to the prompt: “Does every achievement bring with it new challenges?” Please note that while they both implement great examples, they can border on being too example-intensive, as in too much talking about the evidence and not enough analyzing its relevance.

Common Mistakes:

1. Inserting Yourself

It can be tempting to see this SAT theme and incorporate the things that you, personally, have overcome as a teenager. Keep in mind, though, that the people scoring your essays will not be doing so according to the greatness of your life story but, rather, your abilities to effectively establish a position.

2. Not Going Beyond the Prompt

It isn’t enough to simply agree or disagree with the question they ask; you need to explain why. For example, instead of stating, “people should always strive to better themselves,” turn it up a notch and expand that “people should alwafys strive to better themselves so that they do not grow indifferent to pertinent social issues or become stagnant in their respective professions, thus promoting things like economic inefficiency.”

The Takeaway:

There are a plethora of books, movies, and historical moments that you can meld to fit a prompt about challenges. However, to distinguish yourself and earn a higher score, be sure that the argument you are making is detailed and specific.


About Elise Gout

Elise writes articles for the Magoosh SAT blog to help teenagers during an exciting time in their lives. Despite residing in Southern California, where she attends San Dieguito Academy high school, she has no surfing abilities whatsoever; it’s actually rather sad. She is your typical senior high school girl who sword fights daily, and is pretty much convinced that bananas are a food sent from heaven. Elise will attend Columbia University next fall to study environmental science.

2 Responses to “SAT Essay Theme: Challenges”

  1. Kedrick Barack Mweemnba says:

    I think one should also read John Mason’s “Limitaion is Limitation”.

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