There’s a real art behind creating SAT essay prompts, and nobody does it better than the College Board—after all, they’re the ones who wrote the prompt you’ll see on the day of your test. And that prompt you get could affect your SAT essay scores.
So what’s listed below is just the important stuff, the questions. No need to sort through dozens of quotes or repeat the instructions again and again.
SAT Essay Prompt List
Below is a list of just about every essay prompt that the College Board has released in the last 5 years. There are other places you’ll find more questions, but they don’t always name their sources: these are all 100% official, either from collegeboard.com or from the College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide.
I’ve divided them up by sub-topic to give a better sense of the types of questions they ask in general.
Success and Goals
- When some people win, must others lose, or are there situations in which everyone wins?
- Can success be disastrous?
- Is moderation an obstacle to achievement and success?
- Do people succeed by emphasizing their differences from other people?
- Is solitude—spending time alone—necessary for people to achieve their most important goals?
- Is real success achieved only by people who accomplish goals and solve problems on their own?
- Do people have to pay attention to mistakes in order to make progress?
- Are optimistic, confident people more likely than others to make changes in their lives?
- Do idealists contribute more to the world than realists do?
- Are people likely to succeed by repeating actions that worked for them in the past?
- Are people more likely to achieve their goals by being flexible or by refusing to compromise?
- Is it better to aim for small accomplishments instead of great achievements?
- Are people likely to be dissatisfied rather than content once they have achieved their goals?
Happiness and Work Ethic
- If people worked less, would they be more creative and active during their free time?
- Do rules and limitations contribute to a person’s happiness?
- Does society put too much emphasis on working hard?
- Do people need discipline to achieve freedom?
- Do people benefit more from having many choices or few choices?
Heroes & Role Models
- Do we benefit from learning about the flaws of people we admire and respect?
- Should heroes be defined as people who say what they think when we ourselves lack the courage to say it?
- Should leaders of a country or group be judged by different standards?
- Should ordinary people be considered heroes, or should the term “hero” be reserved for extraordinary people?
- Is it wrong to use the word “courage” to describe behaviors that are ordinary or self-interested?
- Do we need other people in order to understand ourselves?
- Is talking the most effective and satisfying way of communicating with others?
- Do people tend to get along better with people who are very different from them or with those who are like them?
- Are people better off if they do not listen to criticism?
- Is it wise to be suspicious of the motives or honesty of other people, even those who appear to be trustworthy?
- Is it wrong or harmful to motivate people to learn or achieve something by offering them rewards?
- Should people respect and tolerate everyone’s opinions, or should people take a stand against opinions they consider to be wrong?
- Does familiarity prevent people from developing or maintaining respect for others?
- Is it better for people to agree with others, even if doing so means being insincere?
The Changing World
- Do changes that make our lives easier not necessarily make them better?
- Is the world changing for the better?
- Does improvement or progress usually involve a significant drawback or problem of some kind?
- Does progress reduce the number of problems in the world, or does solving old problems just lead to new ones?
- Is conscience a more powerful motivator than money, fame, or power?
- Is deception ever justified?
- Should individuals take responsibility for issues and problems that do not affect them directly?
- Is it often difficult for people to determine what is the right thing to do?
- Are the consequences of people’s actions more important than the motives behind the actions?
- Does every individual have an obligation to think seriously about important matters, even when doing so may be difficult?
- 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?
- Can common sense be trusted and accepted, or should it be questioned?
- Can knowledge be a burden rather than a benefit?
- Is there always another explanation or another point of view?
Groups and society
- Should the government be responsible for making sure that people lead healthy lives?
- Should people take more responsibility for solving problems that affect their communities or the nation in general?
- Does accepting the values of a group allow people to avoid taking responsibility for their own thoughts and actions?
- Do groups that encourage nonconformity and disagreement function better than those that discourage it?
- Is it always harmful for an individual to think and live as other people do?
- Can a small group of concerned individuals have a significant impact on the world?
- Do people put too much trust in the guidance of experts and authorities?
- Does tradition prevent people from doing things in new or more sensible ways?
- Are people too willing to agree with those in charge?
- Do small decisions often have major consequences?
- Are people overly influenced by unrealistic claims and misleading images?
- Is it best to forget about past mistakes as soon as possible?
- Are people too serious?
- Is it a disadvantage to pay attention to details?
Prompt Vs. Quote
The format of SAT essay prompts can be a bit tricky, so make sure you’re well aware of this ahead of time. For one thing, there’s a long, distracting quote in the middle of the page that’s actually not the main topic of the essay. The only thing you really need to see is the question. That’s just below the quote, at the start of a short paragraph explaining the type of essay you’ll write. The lines immediately following the question are always the same: 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.
The Take-Away: How to Use this List
You can’t just memorize these specific questions and have essays ready for them; none of these will show up on your test. SAT essay prompts are different for every edition of the test.
What you should do is think of examples that are usable for each of these topics. The best example subjects are ones that are usable through several different types of essay question—influential leaders who made moral decisions and struggled with success, for example (Lincoln is probably the most popular one, there). Or how about heroes of yours who worked hard to achieve their current situation, and faced challenges on the way (Grampa, maybe)? Or what technological advancements that have brought up new moral challenges that society has reacted to in varying ways (like cloning)?
The most adaptable examples are the best, so try to adapt a few to these prompts and find the best examples you can. That way, you won’t have to spend ages trying to conjure up concrete piece on the day of your actual SAT.