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SAT Essay Prompts: What They Look Like and How to Approach Them

Posted in Test Prep on September 22, 2010 by

First on the list of Cailey Hall’s recent post, Top 10 SAT Essay Do’s and Don’ts: Take the time to read the essay prompt and make sure you understand what it’s asking. Knewton recommends that you devote a full minute of your total 25 to reading and thinking carefully about the prompt before deciding on an answer to the question.

A minute might not seem like a long time, but if you’re familiar in advance with the types of prompts you’ll see on the test, it should be all you need.

Every SAT essay prompt begins with a short paragraph, 50-80 words long, that touches on an issue of broad relevance to the studies and experiences of a typical high school student. About half of the prompts will be adapted excerpts from books. For example:

Information is now so cheap and abundant that it floods over us from calendar pages, tea bags, bottle caps, and mass e-mail messages from well-meaning friends. We are in a way like residents of Borges’s Library of Babelan infinite library whose books contain every possible string of letters and, therefore, somewhere an explanation of why the library exists and how to use it. But Borges’s librarians suspect that they will never find that book amid the miles of nonsense.

Adapted from Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

…and half will be passages written especially for the test by the College Board. For example:

Of all the millions of children in the United States today who play and show an interest in athletics only a few thousand of them will ever become professional athletes and of that number only a handful will become truly successful at the top level of their respective sports. The same goes for virtually any pursuit. Rather than succumbing to long odds one would be better off setting more realistic goals.

The issues presented in the passages above, how technology affects access to information, and how the unlikelihood of achieving a goal should affects its pursuit, will be familiar to most test takers and not just because of their studies. It’s hard to be alive and not sometimes feel bombarded by information or frustrated by a seemingly unachievable goal. Other favorite topics for SAT essays include courage, honesty, independent thought, and facing adversity emotionally charged words for many high schoolers.

If after reading a passage, you don’t have a perfect grasp of the issue it presents, the question that follows will lay it out clearly. For the two sample passages above, the assignment might read:

(1) Is it true that the more information people have access to, the less knowledge they can obtain from it?

(2) Is an unrealistic goal worth pursuing?

As with all SAT essay assignments, the questions above can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” You may notice that the authors of the two sample passages seem to be leaning one way or another; Jonathan Haidt would probably answer “yes” to the first question and the author of the unrealistic goals passage would probably answer “no” to the second question. Or maybe, in response to such broad questions, both authors would answer “it depends on the context.” However, since you, the test taker, only have 25 minutes to write an entire four- or five-paragraph essay, save the nuanced “depends-on-the-context” responses for your school assignments. On the SAT, pick a side and stick to it. And remember: you don’t have to agree with the passage.

Practice the first step of writing an SAT essay with the five examples below:

  1. Traditionally, the term “originality”Â has been applied to those who are the first to see or discover something new. But one of the most original things you can do is to see as new what is old and long familiar, to re-imagine something that has been overlooked by everybody. The discoverer who can only see new things is too common of a creature, lacking spirit and addicted to accidents.

    Adapted from a philosopher’s Mixed Opinions and Maxims

    Is “originality” better defined as discovering new things or discovering something new in the old?

  2. The more we are aware that we are lost and confused, the more eager we are to be guided and told; so authority is built up in the name of the State, in the name of religion, in the name of a Master or party leader. Authority is the great limiter of personal freedom, because it places an intermediary between you and reality.

    Adapted from J. Krishnamurti, Commentaries on Living

    Does obeying authority always limit personal freedom?

  3. Thoughts are like friends for most of us: close, constant, intimate as breathing. Why not, then, choose good ones instead of bad? If we torment ourselves, sooner or later we torment others; family, friends, neighbors, other nations. It is inner war, that inner conflict of all the judgmental, nagging, angry voices in our heads that eventually explodes in outer war, as we take our anger out on others.

    Adapted from Dale Carlson, Who Said What?

    Are external conflicts caused by negative thinking?

  4. The term “beautiful” is used by surgeons to describe operations which their patients describe as horrific, by physicists to describe methods of measurement which leave romantic people cold, by lawyers to describe cases which ruin all parties involved, and by lovers to describe the objects of their love, however unattractive they may appear to the unaffected spectator.

    Adapted from George Bernard Shaw

    Can something be considered beautiful by everyone?

  5. As awful as it may seem when young people around the world are asked what freedom means most of them say the freedom to buy what you want, when you want it, and to use it how you want. Although we don’t usually admit it, this was at the heart of our American Revolution. Recall the Boston Tea Party. We did not like to be told what to buy and how much to pay for it.From James B. Twitchell, 20 Ads That Shook The World

    Does freedom mean the freedom to be a consumer?

For even more practice, check out the four essay prompts from the most recent batch of SATs (June ’10).