The SAT Essay has changed drastically from what it looked like from March 2005-January 2016. On the plus side, you’ll now be asked to do the same task every time: read an argument meant to persuade a broad audience and discuss how well the author argues his or her point. On the minus side, you have to do reading and analysis in addition to writing a coherent and organized essay.
In this article, we’ve compiled a list of the 11 real SAT essay prompts that the CollegeBoard has released (either in The Official SAT Study Guide or separately online) for the new SAT. This is the most comprehensive set of new SAT essay prompts online today.
At the end of this article, we'll also guide you through how to get the most out of these prompts and link to our expert resources on acing the SAT essay. I’ll discuss how the SAT essay prompts are valuable not just because they give you a chance to write a practice essay, but because of what they reveal about the essay task itself.
SAT essay prompts have always kept to the same basic format. With the new essay, however, not only is the prompt format consistent from test to test, but what you’re actually asked to do (discuss how an author builds an argument) also remains the same across different test administrations.
The College Board’s predictability with SAT essay helps students focus on preparing for the actual analytical task, rather than having to think up stuff on their feet. Every time, before the passage, you’ll see the following:
- 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.
And after the passage, you’ll see this:
“Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [her/his] audience that [whatever the author is trying to argue for]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] 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 [the author]’s claims, but rather explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [her/his] audience.”
Now that you know the format, let’s look at the SAT essay prompts list.
11 Official SAT Essay Prompts
The College Board has released a limited number of prompts to help students prep for the essay. We've gathered them for you here, all in one place. We’ll be sure to update this article as more prompts are released for practice and/or as more tests are released.
SPOILER ALERT: Since these are the only essay prompts that have been released so far, you may want to be cautious about spoiling them for yourself, particularly if you are planning on taking practice tests under real conditions. This is why I’ve organized the prompts by the ones that are in the practice tests (so you can avoid them if need be), the one that is available online as a "sample prompt," and the ones that are in the Official SAT Study Guide (Redesigned SAT), all online for free.
Practice Test Prompts
These eight prompts are taken from the practice tests that the College Board has released.
Practice Test 1:
"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."
Practice Test 2:
"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."
Practice Test 3:
"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."
Practice Test 4:
"Write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved."
Practice Test 5:
"Write an essay in which you explain how Eric Klinenberg builds an argument to persuade his audience that Americans need to greatly reduce their reliance on air-conditioning."
Practice Test 6:
"Write an essay in which you explain how Christopher Hitchens builds an argument to persuade his audience that the original Parthenon sculptures should be returned to Greece."
Practice Test 7:
"Write an essay in which you explain how Zadie Smith builds an argument to persuade her audience that public libraries are important and should remain open"
Practice Test 8:
"Write an essay in which you explain how Bobby Braun builds an argument to persuade his audience that the US government must continue to invest in NASA."
Special note: The prompt for Practice Test 4 is replicated as the first sample essay on the College Board’s site for the new SAT. If you’ve written a sample essay for practice test 4 and want to see what essays of different score levels look like for that particular prompt, you can go here and look at eight real student essays.
within darkness by jason jenkins, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Resized from original.
Free Online Practice
This prompt comes from the CollegeBoard website for the new SAT.
“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.”
The Official SAT Study Guide (for March 2016 and beyond)
The Official SAT Study Guide (editions published in 2015 and later, available online for free) contains all eight of the previously mentioned practice tests at the end of the book. In the section about the new SAT essay, however, there are two additional sample essay prompts.
Sample Prompt 1:
“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.”
The College Board modified this article for the essay prompt passage in the book. The original passage (1528 words, vs the 733 it is on the SAT) to which this prompt refers can also be found online (for free) here.
Sample Prompt 2:
“Write an essay in which you explain how Adam B. Summers builds an argument to persuade his audience that plastic shopping bags should not be banned.”
There are still a couple of minor differences between the article as it appears in The Official SAT Study Guide as an essay prompt compared to its original form, but it’s far less changed than the previous prompt. The original passage to which this prompt refers (764 words, vs the 743 in The Official SAT Study Guide) can also be found online (for free) here.
hey thanks by Jonathan Youngblood, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped and resized from original.
How Do You Get the Most Out of These Prompts?
Now that you have all the prompts released by the College Board, it’s important to know the best way to use them. Make sure you have a good balance between quality and quantity, and don’t burn through all 11 of the real prompts in a row – take the time to learn from your experiences writing the practice essays.
Step By Step Guide on How to Practice Using the Article
1. Understandhow the SAT essay is graded.
2. Watch as we write a high-scoring SAT essay, step by step.
3. Pre-plan a set of features you’ll look for in the SAT essay readings and practice writing about them fluidly. This doesn't just mean identifying a technique, like asking a rhetorical question, but explaining why it is persuasive and what effect it has on the reader in the context of a particular topic. We have more information on this step in our article about 6 SAT persuasive devices you can use.
4. Choose a prompt at random from above, or choose a topic that you think is going to be hard for you to detach from (because you’ll want to write about the topic, rather than the argument) set timer to 50 minutes and write the essay. No extra time allowed!
5. Grade the essay, using the essay rubric to give yourself a score out of 8 in the reading, analysis, and writing sections (article coming soon!).
6. Repeat steps 4 and 5. Choose the prompts you think will be the hardest for you so that you can so that you’re prepared for the worst when the test day comes
7. If you run out of official prompts to practice with, use the official prompts as models to find examples of other articles you could write about. How? Start by looking for op-ed articles in online news publications like The New York Times, The Atlantic, LA Times, and so on. For instance, the passage about the plastic bag ban in California (sample essay prompt 2, above) has a counterpoint here - you could try analyzing and writing about that article as well.
Any additional articles you use for practice on the SAT essay must match the following criteria:
- ideally 650-750 words, although it’ll be difficult to find an op-ed piece that’s naturally that short. Try to aim for nothing longer than 2000 words, though, or the scope of the article is likely to be too wide for what you’ll encounter on the SAT.
- always argumentative/persuasive. The author (or authors) is trying to get readers to agree with a claim or idea being put forward.
- always intended for a wide audience. All the information you need to deconstruct the persuasiveness of the argument is in the passage. This means that articles with a lot of technical jargon that's not explained in the article are not realistic passage to practice with.
We’ve written a ton of helpful resources on the SAT essay. Make sure you check them out!
15 SAT Essay Tips.
How to Write an SAT Essay, Step by Step.
How to Get a 12 on the SAT Essay.
SAT Essay Rubric, Analyzed and Explained.
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AUSTIN, Texas -- The venerable SAT college admissions test will look very different in spring 2016. And, according to the new test's architect, there will be "no more mysteries."
The essay will be optional, and will be based on a source document included in the test. The top test score will be 1,600 -- as it was before 2005, when the writing section and essay were added. The test's two mandatory sections, "evidence-based reading and writing," and math, and will take up to three hours to complete. The essay will take up to 50 minutes, and will be scored separately.
Some math questions will prohibit calculator use. Students will no longer lose points for wrong answers. The test will be available both in print and digitally. The price hasn't been announced.
David Coleman, who in 2012 became president of the nonprofit company College Board that owns the SAT, will present the broad outline of the test redesign in a speech in Austin on Wednesday, part of the SXSWedu conference. The changes are meant to mitigate the unfair test-prep culture the SAT has engendered, to foster more meaningful learning in school, and to make the testing process more open, Coleman said in the prepared text of his speech. More details will be released in mid-April.
"We plan to make an exam that is clearer and more open than any in our history," Coleman said in the speech. "We need to get rid of the sense of mystery and dismantle the advantages that people perceive in using costly test preparation.'"
The new test will be so un-mysterious that Coleman is already giving away one question -- the essay: "As you read the passage in front of you, consider how the author uses evidence such as facts or examples, reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence, and stylistic or persuasive elements to add power to the ideas expressed. Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience." Only the source material will vary.
Coleman condemned the old SAT and its competitor, the ACT, calling them out of touch, and sometimes inadvertent culprits in creating educational inequity.
"It is time to admit that the SAT and ACT have become disconnected from the work of our high schools," he said. "Too many feel that the prevalence of test prep and expensive coaching reinforces privilege rather than merit.
"It is time for the College Board to say in a clear voice that the culture and practice of costly test preparation … drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country," Coleman said. "It may not be our fault but it is our problem."
The goal, according to Coleman, is getting students to engage more deeply in day-to-day schooling. "What this country needs is not more tests, but more opportunities," he said. "It is time for the College Board to move from measuring to acting."
The College Board will make other adjustments with the test redesign. Every student who takes the SAT and is below a certain income threshold will receive four waivers for college application fees. The College Board is working with The Atlantic magazine to create a contest that showcases students' best SAT essays. And in a move that will likely draw resistance from the test-preparation industry, the College Board is partnering with the online, YouTube-based study guide Khan Academy to create free test-preparation tools for students. The videos will have exclusive access to practice problems from actual SAT tests.
The new exam reflects the sensibilities of Common Core State Standards, the guidelines for what students should be learning in each grade that Coleman helped design, as well as those of other states that have made their standards more rigorous. Currently, 46 states have adopted the Common Core, and teachers are already implementing the standards. Some educators have said they think the revamped SAT may encourage Common Core states to continue rolling out the guidelines, despite growing political opposition in some places.
"What I sense here -- all of us who have been in these conversations assume the same thing -- David Coleman is bringing the Common Core to the SAT," said Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University professor who leads the school's Center on Education and the Workforce. Carnevale was not formally briefed on the SAT changes. But as a former vice president of Educational Testing Services, he was involved with conversations around the revamped test.
Coleman has repeatedly said the Common Core aims to have students learn focused material based on the idea that standards should be "fewer, clearer, higher." Like the Common Core, the SAT reading section will include non-literary texts, including non-fiction, social studies, science, and historical articles. Students will be asked to analyze data "in real-world contexts, including identifying and correcting inconsistencies between the two," according to a College Board memo.
The test also will include at least one American founding document, or a document on "Great Global Conversation they inspire." Students will be required to cite evidence from source texts to support answers. Vocabulary words will move away from obscure, so-called SAT words to words like "synthesis" and "empirical" likely to be used in college and whose meanings shift with context.
One Common Core goal was to have students "read like a detective," basing inferences on evidence instead of personal feelings. The new SAT's source-based essay is supposed to help colleges judge students' analytical abilities, since a document will enable scorers to fact-check the basis of assertions, instead of merely grading writing and coherence.
And in math, Common Core aims to have students focus on numerical fluency and mastering fewer concepts, but fundamental ones. The new SAT's math section will focus on three areas: "Problem Solving and Data Analysis," the "Heart of Algebra" and "Passport to Advanced Math."
"It is really about being quantitatively literate," Coleman said, comparing elemental algebra skills to a "trunk of a tree or the handle of a fork."
Carol Jago, who leads the College Board's English Academic Advisory Committee, and the University of California, Los Angeles California Reading and Literature Project, said the new test's Common Core similarities have less to do with the new state standards than with broader educational shifts.
"Both the Common Core and this redesign are a result of this zeitgeist -- the statistics on students who are arriving in college who aren't ready for credit-bearing work," Jago said. "This movement to bring more rigor, more authenticity, bring a reading-writing task, comes from the same fire."
A few states, including Texas, are not implementing the Common Core. But the revamped SAT nevertheless will be relevant, according to Donald Kamentz, who directs college initiatives at YES Prep Public Schools, a charter school chain, and who sat on the national SAT committee.
"We were assured that this assessment is aligned to … even our state math" and English standards, he said. "It is a broader sense of the skills needed for college readiness and career readiness."
The new test will come with a warning that a standardized test is but one measure of a student's academic prowess -- a warning that Stephen Handel, the University of California associate vice president in charge of undergraduate admissions, stressed. "What we need is what we've always needed: Indicators that are reliable and valid which give us the sense of a student's potential," said Handel, who was briefed on the redesign. "Without seeing the test itself, it's hard to say [whether the new test will be more predictive of student success in college," he added. "In theory, it's a great idea."
Others disagreed. Gary Gruber, a physicist who publishes SAT preparation books, said he worried the changes would "dumb down" the test.
"They're taking out difficult vocabulary words," Gruber said. "You have a word like magnanimous, but there's a strategy -- associate it with another word like magnify. That's something you don't want to lose."
Carnevale said he expects the new test to become a better measure of economically driven educational inequity.
"The better the test gets, the more carefully it'll reflect the underlying distribution of income and power in America, and that's a problem," Carnevale said.
Coleman "is a key player in the American personnel system in a world where his test is the one thing that can go wrong for a middle-class family trying to ensure that their children are middle class," Carnevale continued. "People are very invested in this test, so he has to be very careful."