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Lucas Fink

The Format of the SAT Essay Prompt

The first section on your SAT is going to be the dreaded essay. So after all of your various pre-test prep (including standing in a bathroom stall with your arms in the air), the first thing you’re going to see on your SAT is exactly what we’re going over here.

Although memorizing the structure of the whole test may not be totally necessary, there’s a very immediate reason to look closely at the SAT essay instructions. Why? Well, there are two parts to the prompt, and you need to be clear on which one is more important. Otherwise, you’re bound to lose points.


The quotation

There will be a box in the middle of the page with your assignment, and in that box will be another box. In that inner box, you’ll have a quote, which is pretty often taken from some academic text. It might look something like this:

Old adages like “a man is known by the company he keeps” often fall on deaf ears, unfortunately. While the saying may be cliché, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it, as it holds a distinct wisdom: our social interactions reflect our inner selves quite accurately, and so we have to be careful who we build our personal relationships with.

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Now, there’s no question in this quote. It itself is not your prompt.

Not only that, but you don’t even need to reference the quote at all. It’s only there to give you some context to start your thought processes. You can agree with it or not, but discussing the details of it won’t get you any points on your SAT.

In fact, a lot of SAT takers fall into the trap of spending half their essay paraphrasing and explaining the quotation. But that’s not the assignment.


The essay question

After the quote, you have your prompt. This is what you need to answer in your essay, and it’s the only really important piece of information on the page (most of the instructions are no-brainers like to write your essay on the paper they give you and not to plagiarize). So after the quote, in the outer box, you’d get a prompt like this:

Is it fair to judge people’s characters by their social connections? 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 only sentence that will change in that prompt is the first one, the question. The rest of it is pretty basic, so you don’t have to worry about it.

But the point is that the question is your focus. You need to make sure you answer it, and answer it explicitly.


The takeaway

Don’t respond to the quote—just use it for ideas. Instead, circle the question, and remember to stay on that specific topic.


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.

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