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SAT Essay Prompts

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. For help writing about each individual theme, take a look at our 10 post series on SAT Essay Themes.

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?

Relationships

  • 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?

Morality

  • 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?

Challenges

  • 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?

Knowledge

  • 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?

Other

  • 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.

 

About the Author

Lucas is an SAT and TOEFL expert at Magoosh and has been teaching standardized test preparation since 2008, including the SAT, ACT and TOEFL. He lived in Prague for two years yet speaks better Japanese than he does Czech. Follow him on Google+!

7 Responses to SAT Essay Prompts

  1. Rolf December 14, 2013 at 7:32 am #

    Sorry man, but saying that the quote that is included in ALL SAT prompts is useless and distracting and so basically don’t pay any attention to it, is going to mislead a lot of students. The quote is an entry into the prompt that can orient the student toward the issue, and at the very least know the way in which College Board is trying to channel the students’.thinking One can judge, for example, the manner in which the vast majority of the students are going to write (in the positive or affirmative, etc.) and plan their strategy accordingly. Also, the quote can help a creative student think of a novel angle for their response, riffing off the view presented in the quote.
    I think the raw question-prompt can be very useful for doing certain activities like speed essays or brainstorming and outlining, but ultimately when a student is practicing for her SATs, she should be writing to prompts that include a quote.

    • Lucas
      Lucas January 8, 2014 at 8:45 pm #

      Thanks for the input, Rolf! I’d agree that the quote can be useful, definitely. But it doesn’t hold nearly the important that it seems to by its size on the page, and one of the most common problems students have is spending too much time trying to work the quote into their essays or responding to it directly without branching out into their own experiences. It’s a great jumping off point, but only that, and it’s dangerous. I recommend focusing on the prompt because that generally won’t hurt you; paying too much attention to the quote, on the other hand, can and does. (By the way, it really doesn’t matter which side the essay writer chooses. A well written essay can be on either side, so I don’t recommend trying to decide which side to take based on a prediction from reading the prompt.) I realize there will always be some difference of opinion on this, though, so thank you again for the feedback!

    • Karen February 24, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

      I am with Lucas on this one. Because the SAT is looking for original, insightful and (critically) thoughtful writing, the quote can really lead kids astray. It often narrows the focus of possibilities. I stop short of telling the kids to NOT read it as some teachers do, but as soon as they write to the prompt, my students stop thinking. They may even include the examples in the prompt, or quote the prompt.

      I guess my point is this. If you are a student that has no idea and wants to get a surviving score, write to the prompt. It could get you a decent score.

      However the bright student who might get a 10, 11, or 12 is not going to be writing to the prompt. They are going to write their own fresh and creative ideas. And inspire their teacher to go on…. And with that,I will get back to my class of kids getting ready for the SAT Essay.

      • Lucas
        Lucas February 24, 2014 at 7:44 pm #

        Thanks for your thoughts, Karen. I’m glad that you agree about the quote—your experience seems to be pretty well in line with mine. That said, I did tone down the wording in the above post just a bit, so it no longer says the quote is completely “unnecessary” as it did before. In setting the focus on the question, I may have been a little too dismissive of the quote. As you said, some students might benefit from it (although that’s pretty rare, from my experience).

        Have fun with that class!

  2. Tenzin September 25, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    I love it.

  3. satfan101 August 3, 2013 at 4:48 pm #

    Hello Lucas, thanks for the great posts about the SAT Essay

    I had the weirdest Essay topic this June SAT. It was something like “Should we know the sources of informations before we use it”?
    what are 3 examples that could help in this one?
    I know the main categories of Essay topic but this one does not belong to any of them!
    Also Can You make a COMPREHENSIVE list of all the OFFICIAL PROMPTS up till now in categories? this will be of great help cause I think this list isn’t updated does not contain the weird prompts that the SAT might throw at you

    • Lucas
      Lucas October 2, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

      Sorry about the delay on this! It looks like your comment got lost for a while there–that’s my mistake! It sounds to me like the prompt was asking whether we should gather information about the source of information before taking action. It’s definitely a bit tricky, but it’s not so different from what the SAT usually asks. It would fit pretty well in the “knowledge” grouping above. Here are a few examples that come to mind for me, based on the thesis that it’s important to know your source before taking action (but remember this depends completely on the person!):

      In the medical field, it’s absolutely crucial that doctors know whether the information they’re given comes from a reliable source before they act. A surgeon cannot simply trust word of mouth.
      Before going to war with Iraq, George W. Bush trusted information from advisors without confirming the source of those facts. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but the U.S. started a long war at the expense of many lives.
      Gossip nearly ended my friendship with my cousin May. She’d heard that I had insulted her poetry, and refused to speak to me for weeks. But the rumor was false–I’d never even read her poetry, nevermind insulted it.

      That last one is made up, just to remind you that you can do that if you need to :-)

      As for a comprehensive list, this is it! These are all of the prompts that the College Board had released to the public up until the article was posted here. Since then, there has been one more set, I think, which you can find here

      There won’t be anything too different from what’s in this blog post. The SAT doesn’t change very often. Because it’s standardized, it actually can’t, or else they wouldn’t be able to compare the scores across different versions of the same test!


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