New SAT Essay Prompts
Below, we’ve compiled a list of OFFICIAL new SAT essay prompts that have been released by the College Board.
Redesigned SAT essay prompts ask students to read and analyze a provided passage that is about the same length as one of the SAT Reading test passages. To help you out, we’ve added links to those readings below the related prompts so that you can use these prompts to write practice essays.
New SAT Essay Template
All of the new SAT essay prompts are customized slightly to include a reference to the author and the author’s main idea, but here’s the basic template prompt that you will see on every SAT exam:
- As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] uses:
- evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
- reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
- stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.
[Passage appears here.]
Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience that [author’s claim]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features listed above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of [his/her] argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Your essay should not explain whether you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how the author builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience.
Whoa, that’s a long question. That’s why you should memorize it before you sit down for the SAT essay. This way you know in advance some of the categories you can use to support your opinions (the bulleted list in the top box) and that you are NOT supposed to write about your own opinions (the warning in the bottom box).
If you know the basic prompt in advance, then when you open your test booklet to the essay section, the only part you need to concentrate on is the [author’s claim] part. This part tells you the exact argument the author is trying to make . That’s right, the prompt will actually give you the main idea straight up! So check this first, so that you don’t misread the passage and think it’s something else entirely.
Scroll below for practice essay prompts and passages to practice with. Many of the links also include same student essays (bonus!) that I highly suggest you read so that you can see which essays get which scores.
Redesigned SAT Essay Prompt Examples
SAT Essay Prompt 1
Write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved. In your essay, analyze how Bogard uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Bogard’s claims, but rather explain how Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience.
Click here for the passage for this question.
SAT Prompt 2
Write an essay in which you explain how Dana Gioia builds an argument to persuade his audience that the decline of reading in America will have a negative effect on society. In your essay, analyze how Gioia uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Gioia’s claims, but rather explain how Gioia builds an argument to persuade his audience.
Click here for the passage for this question.
SAT Prompt 3
Write an essay in which you explain how Jimmy Carter builds an argument to persuade his audience that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should not be developed for industry. In your essay, analyze how Carter uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Carter’s claims, but rather explain how Carter builds an argument to persuade his audience.
Click here for the passage for this question.
SAT Prompt 4
Write an essay in which you explain how Martin Luther King Jr. builds an argument to persuade his audience that American involvement in the Vietnam War is unjust. In your essay, analyze how King uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Your essay should not explain whether you agree with King’s claims, but rather explain how King builds an argument to persuade his audience.
Click here for the passage for this question.
SAT Prompt 5
Write an essay in which you explain how Eliana Dockterman builds an argument to persuade her audience that there are benefits to early exposure to technology. In your essay, analyze how Dockterman uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of her argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Dockterman’s claims, but rather explain how Dockterman builds an argument to persuade her audience.
Click here for the passage for this question.
SAT Prompt 6
Write an essay in which you explain how Peter S. Goodman builds an argument to persuade his audience that news organizations should increase the amount of professional foreign news coverage provided to people in the United States. In your essay, analyze how Dockterman uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of her argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Goodman’s claims, but rather explain how Goodman builds an argument to persuade her audience.
Click here for the passage for this question.
SAT Essay Prompt List from the Old SAT (Pre-March 2016)
Below is a list of official SAT prompts from the College Board Website and Official SAT Study Guide for the “old SAT”.
We’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.
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?
- 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?
Remember: hen preparing for the SAT essay, be sure that you’re only using SAT essay prompts that relate to the redesigned SAT. The SAT essay has changed significantly, and old essay prompts won’t help prepare you for this new challenge. 🙂
About Kristin Fracchia
Kristin makes sure Magoosh's sites are full of awesome, free resources that can be found by students prepping for standardized tests. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agony and bliss of trail running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.
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SAT Essay scores for the new SAT are confusing to interpret, in part, because the College Board has intentionally given them little context. By combining College Board and student data, Compass has produced a way for students to judge essay performance, and we answer many of the common questions about the essay.
Why are there no percentiles for the essay on an SAT score report?
No percentiles or norms are provided in student reports. Even colleges do not receive any summary statistics. Given Compass’ concerns about the inaccuracy of essay scoring and the notable failures of the ACT on that front, the de-emphasis of norms would seem to be a good thing. The problem is that 10% of colleges are sticking with the SAT Essay as an admission requirement. While those colleges will not receive score distribution reports from the College Board, it is not difficult for them to construct their own statistics — officially or unofficially — based on thousands of applicants. Colleges can determine a “good score,” but students cannot. This asymmetry of information is harmful to students, as they are left to speculate how well they have performed and how their scores will be interpreted. Through our analysis, Compass hopes to provide students and parents more context for evaluating SAT Essay scores.
How has scoring changed? Is it still part of a student’s Total Score?
On the old SAT, the essay was a required component of the Writing section and made up approximately one-third of a student’s 200-800 score. The essay score itself was simply the sum (2-12) of two readers’ 1-6 scores. Readers were expected to grade holistically and not to focus on individual components of the writing. The SAT essay came under a great deal of criticism for being too loosely structured. Factual accuracy was not required; it was not that difficult to make pre-fabricated material fit the prompt; many colleges found the 2-12 essay scores of little use; and the conflation of the essay and “Writing” was, in some cases, blocking the use of the SAT Writing score — which included grammar and usage — entirely.
With the 2016 overhaul of the SAT came an attempt to make the essay more academically defensible while also making it optional (as the ACT essay had long been). The essay score is not a part of the 400-1600 score. Instead, a student opting to take the SAT Essay receives 2-8 scores in three dimensions: reading, analysis, and writing. No equating or fancy lookup table is involved. The scores are simply the sum of two readers’ 1-4 ratings in each dimension. There is no official totaling or averaging of scores, although colleges may choose to do so.
Readers avoid extremes
What is almost universally true about grading of standardized test essays is that readers gravitate to the middle of the scale. The default instinct is to nudge a score above or below a perceived cutoff or midpoint rather than to evenly distribute scores. When the only options are 1, 2, 3, or 4, the consequence is predictable — readers give out a lot of 2s and 3s and very few 1s and 4s. In fact, our analysis shows that a80% of all reader scores are 2s or 3s. This, in turn, means that most of the dimension scores (the sum of the two readers) range from 4 to 6. Analysis scores are outliers. A third of readers give essays a 1 in Analysis. Below is the distribution of reader scores across all dimensions.
What is a good SAT Essay score?
By combining multiple data sources — including extensive College Board scoring information — Compass has estimated the mean and mode (most common) essay scores for students at various score levels. We also found that the reading and writing dimensions were similar, while analysis scores lagged by a point across all sub-groups. These figures should not be viewed as cutoffs for “good” scores. The loose correlation of essay score to Total Score and the high standard deviation of essay scores means that students at all levels see wide variation of scores. The average essay-taking student scores a 1,080 on the SAT and receives just under a 5/4/5.
We would advise students to use these results only as broad benchmarks. It would not be at all unusual to score a point below these means. Scores that are consistently 2 or more points below the means may be more of a concern.
College Board recently released essay results for the class of 2017, so score distributions are now available. From these, percentiles can also be calculated. We provide these figures with mixed feelings. On the one hand, percentile scores on such an imperfect measure can be highly misleading. On the other hand, we feel that students should understand the full workings of essay scores.
The role of luck
What is frustrating to many students on the SAT and ACT is that they can score 98th percentile in most areas and then get a “middling” score on the essay. This result is actually quite predictable. Whereas math and verbal scores are the result of dozens of objective questions, the essay is a single question graded subjectively. To replace statistical concepts with a colloquial one — far more “luck” is involved than on the multiple-choice sections. What text is used in the essay stimulus? How well will the student respond to the style and subject matter? Which of the hundreds of readers were assigned to grade the student’s essay? What other essays has the reader recently scored?
Even good writers run into the unpredictability involved and the fact that essay readers give so few high scores. A 5 means that the Readers A and B gave the essay a 2 and a 3, respectively. Which reader was “right?” If the essay had encountered two readers like Reader A, it would have received a 4. If the essay had been given two readers like Reader B, it would have received a 6. That swing makes a large difference if we judge scores exclusively by percentiles, but essay scores are simply too blurry to make such cut-and-dry distinctions. More than 80% of students receive one of three scores — 4, 5, or 6 on the reading and writing dimensions and 3, 4, or 5 on analysis.
What do colleges expect?
It’s unlikely that many colleges will release a breakdown of essay scores for admitted students — especially since so few are requiring it. What we know from experience with the ACT, though, is that even at the most competitive schools in the country, the 25th-75th percentile scores of admitted students were 8-10 on the ACT’s old 2-12 score range. We expect that things will play out similarly for the SAT and that most students admitted to highly selective colleges will have domain scores in the 5-7 range (possibly closer to 4-6 for analysis). It’s even less likely for students to average a high score across all three areas than it is to obtain single high mark. We estimate that only a fraction of a percent of students will average an 8 — for example [8/8/8, 7/8/8, 8/7/8, or 8,8,7].
Update as of October 2017. The University of California system has published the 25th-75th percentile ranges for enrolled students. It has chosen to work with total scores. The highest ranges — including those at UCLA and Berkeley — are 17-20. Those scores are inline with our estimates above.
How will colleges use the domain scores?
Colleges have been given no guidance by College Board on how to use essay scores for admission. Will they sum the scores? Will they average them? Will they value certain areas over others? Chances are that if you are worrying too much about those questions, then you are likely losing sight of the bigger picture. We know of no cases where admission committees will make formulaic use of essay scores. The scores are a very small, very error-prone part of a student’s testing portfolio.
How low is too low?
Are 3s and 4s, then, low enough that an otherwise high-scoring student should retest? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. In general, it is a mistake to retest solely to improve an essay score unless a student is confident that the SAT Total Score can be maintained or improved. A student with a 1340 PSAT and 1280 SAT may feel that it is worthwhile to bring up low essay scores because she has previously shown that she can do better on the Evidence-based Reading and Writing and Math, as well. A student with a 1400 PSAT and 1540 SAT should think long and hard before committing to a retest. Admission results from the class of 2017 may give us some added insight into the use of SAT Essay scores.
Will colleges continue to require the SAT Essay?
For the class of 2017, Compass has prepared a list of the SAT Essay and ACT Writing policies for 360 of the top colleges. Several of the largest and most prestigious public university systems — California, Michigan, and Texas, for example, still require the essay, and a number of highly competitive private colleges do the same — for example, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.
The number of excellent colleges not requiring the SAT Essay, though, is long and getting longer. Compass expects even more colleges to drop the essay requirement for the classes of 2018 and 2019. Policies are typically finalized in late spring or during the summer.
Should I skip the essay entirely?
A common question regarding SAT scores is whether the whole mess can be avoided by skipping the essay. After all, if only about 10% of colleges are requiring the section, is it really that important? Despite serious misgivings about the test and the ways scores are interpreted, Compass still recommends that most students take the essay unless they are certain that they will not be applying to any of the colleges requiring or recommending it. Nationally, about 70% of students choose to take the essay on at least one SAT administration. When looking at higher scoring segments, that quickly rises to 85-90%. Almost all Compass students take the SAT Essay at least once to insure that they do not miss out on educational opportunities.
Should I prepare for the SAT Essay?
Most Compass students decide to do some preparation for the essay, because taking any part of a test “cold” can be an unpleasant experience, and students want to avoid feeling like a retake is necessary. In addition to practicing exercises and tests, most students can perform well enough on the SAT Essay after 1-2 hours of tutoring. Students taking a Compass practice SAT will also receive a scored essay. Students interested in essay writing tips for the SAT can refer to Compass blog posts on the difference between the ACT and SAT tasks and the use of first person on the essays.
Will I be able to see my essay?
Yes. ACT makes it difficult to obtain a copy of your Writing essay, but College Board includes it as part of your online report.
Will colleges have access to my essay? Even if they don’t require it?
Yes, colleges are provided with student essays. We know of very few circumstances where SAT Essay reading is regularly conducted. Colleges that do not require the SAT Essay fall into the “consider” and “do not consider” camps. Schools do not always list this policy on their website or in their application materials, so it is hard to have a comprehensive list. We recommend contacting colleges for more information. In general, the essay will have little to no impact at colleges that do not require or recommend it.
Is the SAT Essay a reason to take the ACT instead?
Almost all colleges that require the SAT Essay require Writing for ACT-takers. The essays are very different on the two tests, but neither can be said to be universally “easier” or “harder.” Compass recommends that the primary sections of the tests determine your planning. Compass’ content experts have also written a piece on how to attack the ACT essay.
Key links in this post:
ACT and SAT essay requirements
ACT Writing scores explained
Comparing ACT and SAT essay tasks
The use of first person in ACT and SAT essays
Understanding the “audience and purpose” of the ACT essay
Compass proctored practice testing for the ACT, SAT, and Subject Tests