SAT essay prompts from March 2015

SAT Essay prompts March 2015

This article is designed to help students prepare for their SATs. It outlines some practice questions and answers based on the latest official SAT essay prompts, which were released by the College Board in March 2015, as well as some advice for constructing an argument and planning and writing an essay. If you would like to see the official list of essay prompts, please visit the essay prompt section on the College Board website. Note that each new set of essay prompts replaces the former set. (Note: There appears to be a number of typos on the current page (as of 2015-04-14). For several of the prompts, the context paragraphs do not match the essay prompts given.)

As outlined below, each prompt involves a single issue or idea (which prompts you to think critically about it). For these three prompts, the issues are self-discipline, art and collaboration. For each issue, there is a question and some arguments for and against, as well as some things to consider before writing an essay about that specific issue. Remember, these questions and arguments are just examples and will differ in your actual exam.

Essay Prompt 1: Is Self-Discipline Valuable?

For: Yes. Self-discipline helps us control negative and potentially damaging behavior and emotions. It helps us to say no to things that might initially seem like a good idea, but might have negative consequences. People without self-discipline have fewer boundaries and are not fully aware of how their actions affect others.

Against: No. Self-discipline restricts creative freedom and makes social interaction more difficult. If someone spends too much time disciplining himself, he might suffer from a lack of spontaneity and low self-confidence. Self-discipline emphasizes organization and control, and might lead to anxiety or depression when situations cannot be controlled.

Considerations: Before starting your essay, you should consider the terms of the question. In this case, establish what self-discipline means and then consider whether it’s valuable according to your experience, studies, or observations. As with any essay, you will first need a strong argument. Your argument might be that self-discipline is an important quality that many people develop when working towards set goals. Although you’re arguing for self-discipline, you should aim to construct a balanced argument with points for and against. When making a point for self-discipline, you might say that self-discipline is good for people who need strict organization to achieve goals, such as athletes or actors. You can then make a point against self-discipline, perhaps saying that too much self-discipline for certain people might lead to addictive or selfish personality traits.

Essay Prompt 2: Can Art Change Your Life?

For: Yes. Art changes us every day by moving and inspiring us. Many people are inspired by a favorite book, film, or song that has changed their perspective on the world. Art allows us to explore ideas, emotions, and thoughts from a perspective different from our own.

Against: No. Art’s job is to entertain and distract us and simply cannot change the way we think and act. Art cannot stop climate change or end wars; neither can it change people’s religious or political beliefs.

Considerations: Again, first consider the terms of the question by thinking about what art is and how it might have changed your life or the lives of others. What about the Bible? Isn’t that a work of art that has changed people’s lives? What about American folk music from the 1960s or certain popular music today (hip hop, indie, electronic, metal, etc.)–do you think that has changed people’s lives? To answer these questions, remember to consider whose lives have been changed and in what ways. Also, what does “change” mean? Change is a very broad term and can be interpreted how you like, as long as you make a convincing argument by arguing for and against. Change might be positive or negative, it might be personal, or it could apply to an entire country.

Essay Prompt 3: Is Collaboration Useful?

For: Yes. Human society and individual relationships need collaboration to succeed. Most great discoveries in science and many advances in works of art and architecture have been created in collaboration. Society would not function without collaboration, and it would take individuals much more energy and time to achieve the same results.

Against: No. Collaboration often leads to conflict between groups and people, or results in compromise, where neither group get what they want. If individuals were to work on their own, the finished product would be more personal and closer to the original idea.

Considerations: What is collaboration and in what context are you going to write about it? You might consider “collaboration” in relation to politics, business, TV, or music, or you might think about important scientific discoveries or works of art that relied on the work of more than one person. You might also think about collaboration between areas of study. Do artists collaborate with scientists? Do musicians work with film directors? As with any essay, it’s important to give specific examples to support your arguments. Examples show the essay reader what evidence you have, making your argument more convincing. All of your examples should include names, titles of work, and dates to the extent that you’re able to remember them. A common but also effective kind of example is the quotation. When quoting, remember to make it clear who is speaking and how this relates to the point you are making. If you’re talking about scientific discoveries, for example, you might consider Isaac Newton’s famous quotation, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

SAT Essay planning and writing

Before starting any essay it’s important to plan what you’re going to say. When you’re planning your essay, you may wish to take up to three minutes to consider what your argument is and what the structure of your essay will be. At this point, it might be useful to try to summarize your argument into one simple sentence and to note down the main points for each section of your essay.

Once you have your argument, you should think about your introduction. Put simply, your introduction sets out your main argument and says succinctly what you are going to say in the whole of your essay. In the middle section of your essay, each point you make to support your argument should include evidence in the form of examples (quotations are especially useful here). All essays should end with a conclusion, which recaps what you have said and reasserts your main argument, preferably with a slightly different take on your main points.


Essay prompts usually focus on one issue or idea, but that doesn’t mean you should respond to an essay question in a particular way. Usually, essay prompts focus on broad ideas, as you’ve seen above with questions about self-discipline, art and collaboration. The readers are looking for your own interpretation of the issue, according to what you have experienced and studied. Finally, remember to stick to your chosen argument throughout and to provide a balanced argument that you think best answers the question.

If you’ve found this article useful it would be great to get some feedback, even it’s just a “like” or a simple thank you. In my experience as a tutor and a writer, constructive criticism is especially welcome. Good luck to everyone preparing for their SATs.

The Redesigned SAT (2016): An Overview

Studying for the SAT
Summary: The SAT will change significantly in the spring of 2016. These changes will affect high school students of the class of 2017. Students should strongly consider taking the ACT in addition to the SAT and see which they perform better on. Some (but not all) important changes include: The types of questions will change. The essay section will be optional (but always check with colleges to see whether they require the essay). The new SAT will have a “no-calculator” section. The scoring will change from a maximum of 2400 to a maximum of 1600 (as it was before the 2005 changes). All students taking the new SAT should be familiar with the U.S. Declaration of Independence and other “founding documents.” See the Official College Board page for the 2016 SAT for more information.

If you’re planning to attend college in the United States in the fall of 2017 (or later), there’s a good chance that you’ve already heard that the SAT will undergo significant, even radical, changes in two years’ time.

TestMagic is keeping updated with all the changes, and we will keep all of you updated. Right now, there are not too many details available, but here’s an overview of what College Board has announced:

  • The graduating class of 2017 is affected. These students will have to take the 2016 SAT (unless they take the current SAT in the fall of their junior year or earlier).
  • A computer SAT will be available in certain places. This change is more significant than it may at first seem to be!
  • The PSAT given in October 2015 will reflect changes to the SAT
  • There will be three sections on the new SAT:
    • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW for short)
    • Math
    • Essay (“optional;” see more below)
  • The verbal sections will require analysis and will include a wider variety of material and types of writing.
  • The math will reflect real-world situations.
  • The new SAT will be approximately three hours long; the “optional” essay will be 50 minutes long. (Exact times have not yet been decided–research on optimal times is still being conducted.)
  • There will be a “no-calculator” math section on the 2016 SAT
  • No more deductions for incorrect answers! So on the new test, be sure to answer each question.
  • Essay will be “optional” in theory
  • Vocabulary will be a bit easier and less esoteric. Two words mentioned that could appear on a future 2016 SAT: empirical and synthesis. Examples of words that we conjecture would not appear on the new SAT: pusillanimouspulchritude, and fulsome.
  • Scoring goes back to 400-1600 (200-800 for each EBRW and Math), with a separate score for the essay (No official mention of whether the essay will still be scored on a 0-6 scale)
  • Each new SAT test will include questions about the “Founding Documents,” such as the American Declaration of Independence or discussions of these documents.
  • Free SAT test preparation will be offered through a collaboration between College Board and Khan Academy

College Board has announced that it wishes to make the new SAT more realistic and more aligned with what students learn in school and do away with the more “puzzle-like” sections of the test. Overall, the math should reflect real-world problems and situations that people encounter and the verbal sections will cover a wider range of topics and subjects and will now require more analysis than previous SATs did.

Studying for the SAT
Photo credit:

So, why the changes? In the world of testing, there has been a long controversy over standardized tests and whether they are fair. Over the decades, many of the best-known admissions tests (such as the GRE, the GMAT, and the TOEFL) have become more realistic in their content. For example, in years past, the TOEFL (a test of English proficiency) included dialogues recorded by actors. Now in their place, the test has recordings of real conversations that people have. The SAT itself discarded the analogies (DOG is to PUPPY as CAT is to ???) in 2005, but retained the “sentence completion” questions (Isaac was quite ——-; rarely did he call attention to himself.).

In the coming weeks, we will address the changes to the SAT thoroughly and will keep all of our students and their parents updated on the changes so that they are ideally prepared to apply to college.

In the meantime, please leave a comment or a question!

Don’t call them “dramas”

Pointing up
Summary: Don’t call them dramas. Call them television programs.

Quick tip: If you’re writing about serialized Chinese television programs, don’t call them “dramas” in your essays. Instead, refer to them as Chinese television dramas (or Korean if they’re Korean, Mexican if they’re Mexican, etc.).

Why? Well, “drama” is a broad term that refers to many different types of performances, so “dramas” by itself is too vague. And whoever reads and scores your SAT essay may very likely not know what you mean if you simply write “dramas.”

Note: There is a large Chinese population in San Francisco, and many young “ABCs” (American-born Chinese) refer to these nighttime “soap operas” as dramas. Other people may refer to similar programs from their cultures with different terms. For example, some Spanish speakers may refer to them as “novelas.” If you’re using a word or term that many people have not heard, it’s always a good idea to explain that term in your writing so that the reader will not be confused.

For example, the following writing might be confusing for some readers:

*For example, in a drama I was watching, there was a poor but pretty girl who fell in love with a handsome and rich boy.

This would be better:

For example, in a Chinese television program I watched, there was a poor but pretty girl who fell in love with a handsome, rich boy.

One related point–avoid using television programs as examples. Literary works tend to get higher scores. But if you can’t think of anything else, a writing about a television program is better than not writing anything.

SAT essay prompts from October 2012

Creativity doesn't come easy
Writer’s block? Happens to the best of us. Image credit:

College Board has recently released the SAT essay prompts from the October 2012 administration of the SAT. If you would like to see the full text of the essay prompts, including the “context paragraph,” the assignment question, and the instructions, visit the official College Board page with the prompts. Please note that College Board generally replaces the content of that page with the most recent essay prompts, so in a few weeks the content of that page will contain the essay prompts from the November SAT test. So here’s the gist of those topics for posterity:

  • SAT Essay Prompt #1: A question about caring about people from one’s own country vs. caring about people from other countries.
  • SAT Essay Prompt #2: Do high achievements help all or only the achiever? (This is the prompt that TestMagic students wrote on.)
  • SAT Essay Prompt #3: The value of past vs. that of the present.
  • SAT Essay Prompt #4: The value of creativity.
Discussion of the SAT Essay prompts: Ingroup vs. outgroup

This question is a classic example of the type of question whose response will differ depending on how the question is posed. For example, compare two different ways of asking a similar question:

  • “Are people from your own country more important than people from other countries?”
  • “Should people help people in their own countries before they help people from other countries?”

Depending on how the question is asked, people will probably give different responses. For the SAT, it is important not to get caught in this trap and realize that any reasonable response is acceptable. (To the credit of College Board, the SAT essay prompts are written to reduce the chance that test-takers are led to respond in a certain way.)

There are many ways that a writer could address this essay topic. The writer could easily argue that all people are equal, and those who are in the greatest need should receive help, no matter what country they are from. A good example could be any number of international charities, such as Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, and CARE, that allocate funds according to need, not location. However, the writer could also easily argue that the people in one’s own country should take priority over those from other countries, the argument being that people from one’s own country represent a kind of home, and people have greater responsibility to their “family members” than they do to those outside of their own “family”. Some examples to use could be such natural disasters as earthquakes (the Sichuan, China earthquake of 2008) and floods (e.g., Hurricane Katrina), world hunger, lack of medicine and health care, and the like.

Discussion of the SAT Essay prompts: The effect of high achievers

Again, depending on how this is worded, writers could be pointed in different directions. If test-takers are asked about highly successful people, they might write that almost all success is good. If, however, the prompt mentions “high achievers” (as it did), writers might see some of the negative aspects of people who are extremely successful. As always, writers have multiple (if not countless) ways to interpret the prompt and could write about humanitarians, Nobel laureates, successful businesspeople, politicians, and the like. To score high, should try to dig deep into the topic and discuss whether success is always fair. For example, is it generally true that the best people tend to get ahead? Or do more aggressive  less ethical people tend to have the highest achievements? Writers could also discuss whether the ends justify the means–for example, if someone is very successful at the expense of ethics, is his success still deserving of respect? Possible examples: Bill Gates (a ruthless businessman who donates a huge portion of his wealth charity) and Lance Armstrong (American bicyclist who allegedly used drugs to improve his performance).

Note: This prompt shares some similarities with another common prompt, the one that asks whether public figures and other role models have a greater responsibility to comport themselves morally and ethically.

Discussion of the SAT Essay prompts: Past vs. present

The SAT has asked many times in the past about the importance of the past and of history, so test-takers should be at least a bit familiar with the question of whether it’s important to learn from the past. Be careful not to interpret this particular prompt solely to mean history in the sense of  History with a capital H. This prompt, especially the way it was worded in October (“why waste time dwelling on what has already happened”) could refer to any past event, even something as mundane as burning your morning toast.

We’ve all heard George Santayana’s quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, which could work well in this essay if you choose to argue that the past is important to learn about or learn from. And if you choose to discuss history, Mark Twain’s lesser known quote “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” might fit in somewhere as well.

Obviously it is important to study history and learn from the past. So why does this prompt appear? Well, it’s also sometimes important to forget the past. More specifically, it’s important to let go of past grievances and avoid the myopic navel-gazing that can result from fixating on past successes or wrongs committed by others against you or your nation. And as the prompt hints at, yes, the past is not changeable (at least according to the currently-accepted laws of physics).

So, if I were writing on this prompt, I would say that the past is valuable when we can learn from mistakes, but at other times, we should move on, leave the past behind, and not dwell on that which we cannot change. For this particular prompt, I would personally want to write about the U.S.’s current position in world politics and write that many Americans have become complacent about our past successes, but we need to see that the world is changing very quickly and need to adopt more modern policies.

Discussion of the SAT Essay prompts: Creativity

Ah, the “creativity” prompt. Who would ever argue that creativity is not important? Well, it’s conceivable that in some situations or professions, creativity is not important, believe it or not. Soldiers, for example, are trained to follow orders blindly, to walk straight into enemy fire simply because they were told to do so. Some workers are also expected not to think creatively, but rather to strictly adhere to procedures. And many unethical leaders know that it’s easiest to control people when they lack the ability to think independently.

This prompt, however, seems to define creativity rather narrowly (“Political leaders are not usually considered to be very creative”), suggesting that creativity should be interpreted as breaking with tradition. This interpretation is entirely possible, but again, it would still be difficult (but not impossible) to argue that no one needs to be creative.

What would I write about? I like writing, reading, and most things artistic, so I would wholeheartedly recommend creativity for all people, from the youngest to the oldest, no matter their profession or situation in life. I would further argue that even in professions in which creativity is not generally considered necessary or desirable, it is can still be important sometimes. There are myriad examples of what to write about, but off the top of my head, I’d suggest perhaps writing that leaders today need creative solutions to complex, modern problems (did that sound like an ad? Phew.).

In conclusion…

If this article was helpful, please let me know by commenting, “liking”, etc. We teachers write articles like this to help people, for that once-a-year thank-you from students, and from feedback. (All people love compliments. It’s true.) Even a simple question would be welcome. :)

What it looks like vs. *how it looks like

Summary: It’s correct to use the question word what with the preposition like, but incorrect to use  the question word how with the preposition like. So what it looks like is correct, but *how it looks like is incorrect. In grammatical terms, we need to use the noun what after the preposition like, not the adverb how.

First, take a look at this sentence and the question that follows. Think about whether the constructions are “grammatical” in Standard American English (SAE).

*I’ve heard of John Lennon, but I’ve never seen a picture of him. How does he look like?

If you thought there was something ungrammatical in the writing above, give yourself a pat on the back because you’re right. Here is how the above could be corrected:

I’ve heard of John Lennon, but I’ve never seen a picture of him. How does he look?

This is also correct:

I’ve heard of John Lennon, but I’ve never seen a picture of him. What does he look like?

But why? What’s wrong with the original question? Let’s take a closer look. And don’t worry. We’re going to do this the easy way, so if you run away from grammar terms like conjunctive adverb, you should be okay. Of course, if you have any questions, please post below, and I’ll do my best to help.

The easy explanation

I wrote out five different explanations of why this is wrong, and in the end, I think the easiest way to explain why “how does he look like” is wrong is to use the “move the words around” method, which actually works surprisingly well for a lot of grammar explanations. First, it’s important to wrap your head around the concept that many utterances (i.e., things you say or write) in English can be worded differently and still have more or less the same meaning (although different emphases will likely result). For example, I can ask “What were you writing with?” or “With what were you writing?”, and the two questions mean pretty much the same thing, although of course, the latter sounds more formal than the former. Let’s do the same thing with our above examples.

But we’ll need to shorten things a bit. Let’s just get rid of the opening sentence and focus on the question, i.e., the “what does he look like?” part. Now, let’s rearrange the words a bit, do some other magic, and write two equivalent clauses. Let’s start with the two correct examples:

“What does he look like?” can be rearranged thus: “He looks like… what?”

Similarly, “How does he look” can be reordered like this: “He looks… how?”

Finally, and this is the important one, following the same procedure, “*How does he look like?” would be reordered like this: “*He looks… like how?” Does that sound wrong to your ears? I hope so, because it sure does mine! When was the last time you heard someone say “like how”? We hear “like me”, “like you”, “like a movie”, etc., but not “like how”. Right?

For the same reasons, these are also wrong and need to be rewritten:

  • Not good: *How does eggplant taste like? Better: What does eggplant taste like?
  • Not good: *How does goose down feel like? Better: What does goose down feel like?
  • Not good: *How does lavender smell like? Better: What does lavender smell like?
  • Not good: *How does a foghorn sound like? Better: What does a foghorn sound like?

If you noticed that I used verbs for our senses, you get bonus points.

Curious about the grammar behind all of this? Read on.

But why? Give me the grammar!

Let’s take a look at the grammar. First, we need to understand that the word “like” is a preposition. Second, we need to know this very important grammar rule:

preposition + noun

Prepositions are words such as in, of, with, like, etc. After a preposition, we should have a noun. This noun is called the object of the preposition. For example, if we say “on the table”, “on” is the preposition, and “table” is the object of the preposition “on”. (For more information, see the TestMagic page on prepositions.)

Now hold onto your hats, as this is going to get a bit technical. (Hopefully it’ll all come together in a bit.) We have established that “like” is a preposition and it needs an object (which is a noun). That object is the word “what”. Why? Because “what” is a noun; “how” is not a noun (it’s an adverb). So, if we have “like” in this question, we can’t also have “how” in it; these two words don’t get along, and they can’t be in the same sentence or question together (in this construction, of course). We need to get rid of one or the other. So, we can say “what does he look like” and “how does he look”, but we can’t say “*how does he look like”. Simply put, we need preposition + noun, not preposition + adverb.

Need more detail? Here you go: When we ask a question and expect the answer to be a noun, we use the “question word” (also known as an “interrogative“, “interrogative word“, or “WH question word“) “what” (for things) or “who” or “whom” (for people) at the beginning of the question. For example, if we want to know what you ate for lunch (a thing), we could ask “What did you eat?” Similarly, if we want to know whom you saw, we could ask “Whom did you see?” (Don’t worry right now about the difference between “who” and “whom”; that’s a whole different subject!) And to wrap this up, since we’re using these words in questions and because they’re used to ask for nouns as answers, they’re called interrogative (“interrogative” basically means “asking”) pronouns (words that substitute, replace, or refer to nouns). In other words, they are question words that function as nouns. In other words, you use a noun in the question to get a noun as the answer.

In contrast, when we ask somebody “how” (followed by a clause), we want to know the way something happened, the qualities of something, etc. In other words, we’re looking for an answer that’s an adverb or an adjective. And yes, “how” is an interrogative adverb, if you were wondering.

So that’s it! Let me know if you’d like some clarifications or further explanations.

Can I skim a reading passage and still get a high score?

Summary: Reading a reading comprehension passage too quickly will most likely lower your test score because you could easily miss vital information in the reading text.

When people first begin their SAT preparation, they often ask me for any tricks or tips to help them do better on the reading comprehension section. People tend to ask similar questions, for example, whether you should read the questions first and then read the passage, or whether you can skip the reading passage, jump directly to the questions, read the questions, and then look for the answers in the passage. (Note: Neither method is effective.) Many people also think that it is possible to read the passage quickly and then answer the questions. (Note again: Also ineffective.)

Unfortunately, most tricks, at least for the critical reading section of the SAT, don’t work well at all. There actually are a handful of “tricks” or strategies that work surprisingly well for other sections of the SAT, but not so much for the reading section. Why? The SAT reading comprehension section is simply too difficult for such tricks; the passages are relatively sophisticated and require genuine critical thinking skills to understand. In fact, if it were possible to raise your score quickly using relatively simple strategies like this, the SAT creators would rightly be open to the valid criticism that their test does not accurately access a student’s ability to read and understand a complex text. The College Board would then react and change the SAT to make it harder to game the system.

That the critical reading section of the SAT is a genuine challenge makes perfect sense. Think about it – we have all read some texts that are fairly simple to comprehend and answer questions about. For example, many of the reading tests that we take in elementary school, middle school, and sometimes even in high school, are fairly straightforward. Such reading passages will ask questions like, “What time is Jackie planning to take the train?” Or, “To prepare tabbouleh, it is necessary to soak the bulgur wheat in water first. True or false?”

The SAT test does not ask questions like this. The SAT asks questions more related to a deeper understanding of relatively complex ideas. For example, the SAT may ask how the opinions of two people mentioned in the passage compare. Or the SAT might ask about an assumption that is necessary to arrive at a certain conclusion. Such questions are not nearly as easy to answer as questions that ask for basic bits of information.

Furthermore, if you skim (and by skim, I mean reading quickly without understanding most of the information) a passage, you could very easily miss important information. For example, it is very easy to overlook a negation word (such as no, not, doesn’t, and can’t), especially if that word is not very close to the word, phrase, clause, or idea that it is negating. And obviously, if a reader misses a word that negates the meaning of the sentence, she will completely misunderstand the intended meaning of the passage. To continue with the example of negations words: note that not all negation words are easy to spot; we are trained to look for the ones that start with n (such as no and not), but many other words can serve to negate a meaning, for example yet: I have yet to see the movie means I have not seen the movie.

To understand this point a bit better, let’s compare various ways to say that I have not seen a movie:

  • I didn’t see the movie.
  • I haven’t seen the movie.
  • I have yet to see the movie.
  • I couldn’t in all honesty say that I have yet seen the movie.
  • I can deny seeing the movie.
  • It would be inaccurate to say that I have already seen the movie.
  • If Joanna denied that I have yet to see the movie, then I’d be inclined to dismiss any claim that she is reluctant to obfuscate the truth. (Note: No one talks like this. If “they” do, then “they” should be taken out back and given a one-hour grammar lesson.)

All of these express more or less the same information, but the earlier sentences are easier for the “reading part” of your brain to parse; if you read the passage without taking a moment to follow the logic, you will be more likely to miss the information contained in the more complex ways to express the information.

Finally, direct, in-class experience with literally tens of thousands of students has shown me time and again that students will miss more questions when they skim reading passages or otherwise do not concentrate fully than when they apply their full attention to the critical reading section. In fact, there are several questions in the Official SAT Study Guide that are hard to answer if you do not read every single word carefully in the reading passage. If there is enough interest from our readership, I will be happy to schedule an article for the future to discuss a few actual questions found in the Official SAT Study Guide to explain them in detail.

I hope this information has been helpful. Feel free to leave comments, ask questions, and the like.

Which practice SAT tests should I take?

Summary: Official SAT tests are the only practice SAT tests you should be taking.

Yes, it’s really that simple.

As I settle in to type out this article, I tell myself that I will keep this short because, well, the information is simple: Official SAT tests are the best. And not just the SAT test, just about every single test I’ve taught. (Possible exception: Some of the tests for younger ages, such as elementary school and middle school, have question types that are much easier to replicate, so practice tests can be of relatively high quality.)

The analogies

No, not the old SAT analogies. I mean analogous situations. Here goes: Does the food from Panda Express (a restaurant chain that serves cheap Chinese food) taste like home-cooked Chinese food? (I still don’t understand this, but a lot of our students at TestMagic say they like Panda Express.) Are the karaoke versions of popular songs as good as the originals? Are the Glee versions as good as the originals? (Hmm… Maybe not a good example. I’m sure some of you will say they are much, much better.) Would a clone of dear, departed Fido be a sufficient substitute for Fido? Does diet soda taste like sugared soda? Are taekwondo and jiujitsu the same? Is a $39 ePad as good as a genuine Apple iPad? You get the point. It’s the same with the SAT—imitation practice tests are just not the same.

Is your (insert publisher name here) practice test score accurate?

Short answer: probably not. In my two decades of teaching, I’ve seen enormous deviations from students’ practice test scores on non-official practice tests and official, “test-day” scores.  I remember a very diligent student happily scoring over 700 (out of 800) on a practice GMAT test on a CD-ROM, but scoring only in the 500s on his official GMAT. I think in his case, the student got used to the questions on the CD-ROM, and the questions were too easy and  too narrow in scope. And the reverse also happens—sometimes non-official tests are harder (or just different) from the real tests, and students score much lower.

Innumerable factors raise or lower test scores. For example, how well you do on any given SAT depends, of course, on your knowledge base (a 4.0 GPA native-speaker of English will have an easier time of the SAT than a newly arrived student still learning English), how well prepared you are for the SAT specifically, how many practice tests you’ve taken (aim for five to fifteen, depending on how much time you have and how important your SAT score is to you), how much sleep you’ve had, how hungry you are, how hot or cold the room is, how noisy the testing environment is, how confident or nervous you feel, the content of the test on that day (you got a passage on Frederick Douglass, whom you’ve just studied in APUSH (An “AP” US History class)? Awesome!), the state of your bladder and stomach, and much, much more. In other words, there is a variance in test scores that you need to take into consideration, a fact that practically means that you should plan to take more than one official SAT.

But even after eliminating all extraneous factors, not all practice SATs are created alike. Some practice tests are sloppily cobbled together by publishers looking to sell copies of books. Other practice tests are poor “clones” of existing tests. Some companies seem to spend more money on the covers of the books than they do on the content of the books themselves, knowing that people do in fact judge books by their covers. Other companies may make an honest effort to keep their content updated, but the fact remains that no one, not even the largest test-prep companies in the world, have access to the pool of data that College Board (the official SAT organization) does.

Let’s now discuss the actual content of the official SAT and the fake practice SATs.

Is the content the same?

The content of the official SAT and the books you buy at a bookstore or check out from the library are different. When I tell people this, they often don’t believe me. Many people think that all standardized tests are made alike, no matter who makes them. But if you ask any experienced test-prep instructor worth his salt, he’ll tell you the same thing I’m going to tell you: SAT tests made by other (i.e., not College Board) publishers are never as good as the official SATs. Sometimes they just “feel” different. Other times the content is just… wrong. For example, I once saw a “practice SAT question” on that required the test-taker to choose between who and whom, a testing point I’ve not seen on the SAT, TOEFL, GMAT, or GRE in my two decades of preparing people for standardized tests. (I emailed Yahoo to tell them, but never heard back, surprise, surprise.) Other times the differences are subtler and harder to pinpoint. The questions and content just have a different feel or focus. Sometimes the questions are debatable or worse, downright wrong. Other times the language is stilted, inaccurate, or unnecessarily complex.

And in some cases, the questions are written in a way to reinforce the content and strategies taught by a specific book or company. For example, I was once reviewing the SAT-prep manual from the #2 test-prep company in the United States, and noticed that almost all of the questions in the practice tests could be explained with a strategy taught in the book. In other words, the questions on the practice test in the back of the book reinforced the strategies taught in the book. There is a certain rationale for that approach, but I think in the end, you’re doing your students a disservice if you don’t present them with the full breadth of questions that could appear on test day. (The fact of the matter is that there’s just not enough space in even a 500-page book to adequately cover all the points that could show up on an SAT test. Savvy students know this, and strategically focus on certain areas. “Choose your battles”, as we say.)

Related comment: Some older questions I see on SATs from the 1980s are different from current SAT questions as well, so again, be sure to use the most current official SATs that you can.

Cloned questions and breadth of question types

To create mock SAT tests, many publishers outsource the work to freelancers. These freelancers often “clone” or copy an existing test. Sometimes when I’m looking at a practice SAT, I can tell exactly where the question comes from. And I mean exactly—the date of the test administration, the section, and the question number. Now, a good question “cloner” can make passably good test questions for most of the test, but not for all of the test. For example, the Critical Reading questions are the hardest to create. It’s pretty much impossible to replicate existing questions without copying the passage verbatim, which is not legal unless the work is in the public domain.

So what’s wrong with cloned questions? In many cases, nothing. Let’s be charitable and assume that the cloned question is of good quality. What if it so happens that you’ve taken the practice SAT from which the question was cloned? You would, in this case, have at least a marginal advantage when answering that question, which effectively means that your performance on that practice SAT would not be indicative of your true SAT level. That said, I should point out that it is actually important to practice concepts in different forms, so in fact, there is some benefit to answering cloned questions. But you should be aware of what you’re working on if you’re taking a Dolly test, i.e., one that’s actually a clone of an existing SAT.

But the real problem with cloned tests is simply that after time, you will not experience the true breadth of the types of questions that could appear on your SAT test day. To prepare students best, good SAT prep teachers need to give their students a wide variety of questions types that haven not appeared on published tests. Yes, you need to know subject-verb agreement for all SATs. And it’s good to know about correlative conjunctions, too, such as not only… but also… But what if the SAT sneaks in a not just… but… as well instead of the standard not only… but also…? It’s happened before, and could easily happen again, and students need to be prepared.


This is an easy one. Some of the SAT-prep books of the very largest publishers are riddled with typos and wrong answers in the answer keys. I remember one book published by the largest test-prep company in the world that contained the very same typos year after year. Mind you, the cover changed, but the typos remained. For five or six successive years, I bought a particular book when it was released. The first thing I did was check to see whether the same typos were in the book. They were. Again, the graphics were different, but the typos remained.

This is particularly infuriating (at least to me) because I think educators have a responsibility first to… Well, educate. Large publicly-traded companies have ample resources to hire proofreaders and editors, and they should.

Mercenary publishers

This issue of the persistent typos is a nice segue to talk about what I consider overly-mercenary behavior. As I mentioned above, many publishers don’t hire competent editors or proofreaders, most likely to maximize profits. You don’t see such errors in text books, nor in official test-prep material (the notable exception being the first few printings of the current Official SAT Study Guide, an egregious and embarrassing error that hopefully will not be repeated), so it’s certainly possible for publishers to produce error-free books, but the large publishers choose not to.

I mentioned above that many test-prep organizations hire freelancers to create content for them, and these freelancers, while often intelligent and educated, are frequently simply not experienced enough with the content they’re writing to create authoritative content. I’ve browsed job listings and have been sent unsolicited samples by freelancers of published material, and some of it is just awful. I remember one particular case in which an author frequently used the explanation that a particular answer choice was “not stylistically appropriate for the sentence”, which is just hogwash. The vast majority of wrong answer choices have clear reasons for why they’re not right, and a fudge such as “sounds funny” just doesn’t work most of the time.

Finally, I’ve seen the very same questions used on different tests. I was once reviewing a practice HSPT book, and saw what I believed to be an error (turns out it was a typo corrected in later editions of the book). I searched the Internet for the question and saw that that very same question appeared not just on the HSPT (a test for middle-school students applying to high school), but also on a proficiency test for a certain vocation (think fire fighter or law enforcement officer) and in a general study guide. In other words, the author or publisher had sold the question at least three times.

Yes, I realize it’s business, and that’s the way business runs. But that’s precisely my point—test-prep organizations should see themselves as educators first and businesses second.


Before you do anything else, get as much official SAT material as you can. You can buy the Official SAT Study Guide, which we call the OSSG for short, from many booksellers. You can also download many free SAT-prep materials from the College Board web site. Many SAT-prep books are good for learning SAT-prep strategies, but for the tests, stick to official material only.

And finally, that wasn’t as short as I thought it would be. Somehow, it never is.

Any comments? Say something. I’d love to hear. :)


When should I start preparing for the SAT?

Summary: When should you start studying for the SAT? The short answer: Yesterday. The longer answer: When to start depends on how much time you have and how much time you wish to devote to your SAT preparation. The ideal approach is to do well in your school courses to help you build a solid foundation of knowledge and then ramp up your SAT-specific preparation as your SAT test date draws near.

Many people, usually apprehensive parents who want to make sure that their children are on the right track, often ask me when they or their children should start preparing for the SAT. I sometimes jokingly respond, “Well, when your child is three months old, start reading to her. Keep reading to her every day for at least fifteen to thirty minutes a day for the next ten years or so. And whenever she has a question about anything, answer her. If you don’t know the answer, tell her that she and you can find out together.”

The point is that, in many ways, preparing for SAT is the same as doing well in school. The SAT is designed to be a test of general, not specific, knowledge, and as a result, long-term preparation is best. (I should point out that several key parts of the test are actually quite specific and can be coached relatively quickly and easily. But more on that point in another article.) In a word, “long-term” preparation simply entails being a good student, doing your homework, paying attention in class, but most importantly, being actively engaged in your learning.

But if you’re like most of our students, no matter how solid your foundation, you want to do better. You want to fill in the gaps in learning for the days your mind wandered, thinking about that Korean drama you downloaded the night before. Or perhaps your teacher didn’t think it was important to explain gerunds in the way you need to know them for the SAT, or maybe he didn’t teach grammar at all. Or perhaps you’re aware that there are a few shortcuts to learning and doing well on the SAT. So you want to do some SAT prep.

But before I continue, I must make an important point: No matter how smart you are or how well you do in school, you should always, always, always take a nine-section practice SAT (the Official SAT Study Guide contains these) before you take the real SAT so that you know what you’re up against. You wouldn’t compete in a game of fútbol or play piano in a recital without first practicing, and the SAT is no different. So, if you do nothing else, at least download an official SAT test for free (Please, always use only official SAT tests), take the test under simulated testing conditions, and review it. Do less than this, and you shoot yourself in the foot.

So, we have several plans, depending on how much time you wish to devote to reaching your potential on the SAT:

  • Lifelong learning: Long-term SAT-prep. In a sense, you start when you begin school.
  • The standard: Four to six months or so before your SAT.
  • Panic prep: Oh no! SAT in two weeks!

And be sure to have a look at TestMagic classes and our SAT courses and our enrichment courses to see how they fit in with your plans.

Remember, there are myriad factors at play for every student, and the numbers and times above are only rough guidelines. Your mileage will vary. The bottom line is that you know yourself best, and you should therefore make the final decision after doing your due diligence, researching, and getting advice from family, teachers, professionals, and friends.

Let’s now take a closer look at the various types and lengths of study.

Using school as your SAT prep


TestMagic recommends: TestMagic courses designed to complement school

College Board has said that “the best preparation for the SAT includes maintaining a rigorous high school course load, reading and writing extensively, and taking a few practice tests to become familiar with the test format and timing.” (Source: It is important to notice the word “includes,” which gives College Board a bit of wiggle room if someone points out that an experienced SAT-prep instructor can greatly facilitate learning the SAT quickly and relatively painlessly.

But it’s true—taking good courses in school and doing well in them is probably the best overall preparation for the SAT. In fact, for most people, lack of good schooling will make it difficult or impossible to score high on the SAT. If for whatever reason you haven’t given school your all or you’ve faced challenging learning situations (poor learning environments, family hardship, etc.), you’ll most likely have a very definite “score ceiling” that will be hard (but not impossible!) to break through.

There’s just no substitute for building a rock-solid foundation of knowledge in school by learning in a large variety of ways and environments from different instructors over a decade or more; such an environment provides the richest possible learning. Add to this a stimulating home environment in which all household members contribute to the student’s learning by, for example, asking the student about her day or her homework or talking about the news during dinner, and you have an SAT-test-taker who’s ideally prepared to do her best on the SAT. If you’re one of these people, go right now to your parents and thank them for everything they’ve done. Seriously.

So what are the drawbacks of relying on school to prepare you for the SAT? There are unfortunately many. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of school or disparage schools or teachers. Quite the contrary—most schools and teachers are committed to their students and do the best they can with the time and resources that they have to work with. But the truth of the matter is that schools truly have too much to cover in very little time and simply cannot devote enough time to the areas that are tested most frequently on the SAT. TestMagic Ascend and Essencia classes are designed specifically to bolster the SAT-specific areas that many students seem to need a boost in (e.g., writing, vocabulary, grammar, geometry, tricky word problems, combinations and permutations, to name a few).

A great example is the writing component of the SAT, which heavily tests a specific set of grammar rules that many students today are simply unfamiliar with. Ask students the last time they studied grammar, and many will mention a teacher in seventh or eighth grade. American educators have made a conscious decision to drop grammar from most of their curriculum because most native speakers learn the fundamentals of grammar by consuming (reading and listening) and producing (writing and speaking) good English. But the problem is that many people simply don’t acquire the knowledge in a way that is rewarded on the SAT. The SAT likes to give questions that test certain points in such a way that people will miss the question, even if people are familiar with the point being tested. A very simple example—do we say “a group of people is” or “a group of people are”? Such grammar points are tested on the SAT, and a good SAT-prep course will show students how to choose the credited response (and raise their scores). But rarely do English teachers have the time to teach points in enough detail to prepare their students for the SAT.

So, in short, do your best in school. Read a lot, write a lot. Pay attention—you’re building your foundation in school. But when it comes time to take the SAT, do yourself a favor and at the very least take one (or more) practice SATs and review them to see where you erred and at least consider taking and completing a formal SAT-prep class.

The most common plan: The fall of junior year, or a few months before your SAT

TestMagic recommends: TestMagic SAT prep.

I like the period of four to six months for studying for the SAT, especially for people who have a solid foundation, but still need to improve in some areas. This length of study seems to be the sweet spot for acquiring new information, digesting it, and then applying it correctly and accurately on your actual SAT.

For many people, this means starting to study for the SAT in the fall of eleventh grade or the summer between tenth and eleventh grades, as many students opt to take the SAT in the spring of eleventh grade. The fall is a great time to start studying for the test. Too much earlier, and you may forget some of the information that you learn while preparing when you take your real SAT.  Too much later, and you may not have enough time to learn everything you need to learn or worse, to assimilate the information. Furthermore, many high school juniors are devoting more and more time to their AP tests and finals in the late spring, so adding SAT prep to this already-heavy load can prove to be onerous for some.

Last-minute SAT prep

For last-minute SAT prep, TestMagic recommends: One-to-one tutoring

Every now and then we talk to parents of students who are taking the SAT in a few weeks and want to do the best they can in a matter of weeks. While studying for the SAT two weeks before the test is better than not studying at all, there is simply too much to cover in a standard course in such a short time. Worse, even if someone were somehow able to work his way through an entire good SAT course in two weeks, chances are he would not do as well had he been able to spend, say, two or three months working on the same material. It is almost always better to do a little bit over a long period of time than a lot over a short period of time. As I say to my students, would you be a better basketball player if you practiced once a week for six hours or an hour a day for six days a week? Most people agree that the latter would result in a better basketball player, and the same holds true for SAT prep as well.


The SAT is a test of general knowledge. As such, an infinite number of test questions or testing points could show up on the test. Only a good education can provide the foundation of learning necessary to excel on the SAT, but chances are that even a 4.0-student at a nationally-ranked high school will have some gaps in knowledge and will benefit from a good SAT-prep course. (We know because we routinely work with students like this.)

Your first decision is to figure out how much time you want to devote to raising your SAT score. Of course, the longer and more you study, the higher your score should (or will) go. As a rule of thumb, the law of diminishing returns applies here as it does in other areas—the first 200 points come much more easily than do the final 200 points. And in general, it’s easier to go from a 1400 to a 1700 than from a 2200 to a 2400. If you are considering taking an SAT-prep course, earlier is better than later, and six months before your test is a great time to start your course. But a sincere word of advice: If you care at all about your SAT score, at the very least take a few mock SAT tests and review them to see how you could improve.

In future articles, I will flesh out the plans a bit more, so for now, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments below or contact TestMagic.

And here are some helpful links:

SAT resources

Is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the biggest star of the SAT essay?

Summary: You should always use examples that will help you write the best essay possible. Don’t be afraid to use personal examples in your SAT essays; a historical or literary example is not necessarily better than a personal example. You should craft the best writing you can with what you know and what you are passionate about. Finally, be careful with cookie-cutter essays, as they may backfire and result in a lower score.

A few years ago, I had a very bright student who would write every single assigned SAT essay (during the mock tests the students take during the TestMagic SAT-prep course) on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Literally every single one—one body paragraph would star Dr. King, the other Gandhi. The student, whom I’ll call Cecilia, did a fairly good job of adapting what she knew about these two men to the SAT essay prompts. (Cecilia scored 10/12 on her official SAT and was accepted to UCLA, one of the top campuses of the University of California.) An essay prompt about hardship and adversity? That was easy—both Dr. King and Gandhi endured great hardship to reach their goals. Autonomy vs. conformity? Again, easy—both leaders eschewed convention to promote peace in a way that their society at the time frowned upon. In fact, as the course progressed, her predictable choices became a bit of a running joke in class, and she defended her strategy by saying that she’d taken another SAT-prep course that told its students just to use Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi for every essay. She even showed me her book, which said something like, “Write about Martin Luther King, Jr. After all, who would score an essay written about the great MLK lower?” (While I don’t doubt the veracity of the sentiment, I doubt that any teacher would ever make a blanket statement advising students to use these two people for every single SAT essay prompt.) On a related point, another student told me about yet another SAT course that she’d taken that gave her the opposite advice: NEVER use Martin Luther King, Jr. for SAT essays, since the SAT essay scorers are tired of reading essays about him and will think you’re writing from an essay template. So what to do? Whom to believe? I will give you sensible advice: Use your own judgment. Write the best essays that you can.

Cecilia’s essays worked very well for many of the TestMagic essay prompts, and I as noted above, she did well on her official SAT, which in a sense is all that matters. In fact, I jokingly asked her after her SAT whether she used Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi again, and she excitedly said, “Yes! I did! It worked! Tell your students to do it, too.”

So, what’s wrong with this approach? And why am I writing about this today? I have several comments and bits of advice that I’d like to offer. First, and this applies not just to the SAT test, but to your studies and life in general as well: Don’t write without thinking critically. Evaluate what you’re going to write before you write it. Trust yourself and try to come up with your own ideas. If you do so, you’ll be a better, smarter, more interesting person and writer, and well, chances are, you’ll do better on the SAT as well. Why? Well, this is my second point. It’s quite simple. The SAT is a sophisticated test. The people at College Board are not just smart, they’re also diligent about keeping their beloved SAT up-to-date (and keeping it the #1 university admissions test in the United States). The College Board knows that SAT-prep courses like those at TestMagic exist. They know that if we test-prep teachers find a weakness in the SAT, we’ll tell our students about it. College Board will then react, either by removing the weakness (if it’s possible to do so) or slowly modifying the test to remove the weakness.

Now back to the situation with Cecilia. A few years ago, we used to give a practice prompt about fun and whether it was undervalued in modern society. (We retired that prompt because a similar one showed up in October of 2009.) In in her essay for this prompt, Cecilia predictably used her two standbys for her essay, which contained sentences such as (and again, this is not the actual writing) “For MLK, fun was vital. MLK had fun in his life, which ultimately led to his “I Have a Dream Speech.” And with Gandhi, she wrote something akin to “Gandhi had a great amount of fun in his life. It was fun that propelled him to the forefront of politics in India and enabled him to lead India to independence.” Her writing was fairly good, but the ideas were not convincing because they simply did not make sense in context, nor were they really plausible. For one, how would anybody outside of the immediate circle of family and friends of these historical figures know what role fun played in their lives? The role of fun in one’s life is not generally covered in history books or high school history classes, so if a student wanted to write about this, then she’d be well advised to mention the source of her information.

To be fair, Cecilia was not the only student who wrote like this. She, and many others before and after her, wrote, have written, and will continue to write using illogical or inapt examples. While I’ve read countless intensely interesting essays (one about being taunted on the kindergarten playground comes to mind), I’ve also read my share of essays that weren’t quite up to snuff. I have yet to read that Gandhi had great fun during one of his famed hunger strikes, but I have read numerous essays in which the writers claimed that certain unnamed war criminals were models of success. I’ve even read an essay in which the student confidently proclaimed that scientists will soon be able to predict the future, a prediction that has yet to come to pass. I’ve been teaching long enough to know that students generally write like this simply because they’re not sure of what to say, because they don’t quite “get” the prompt (there’s usually a “big idea” that the SAT is going for in the prompt), or quite commonly at the beginning of the SAT-essay learning curve, simply because they’re not accustomed to writing an entire essay from brainstorming to conclusion in 25 minutes flat.

In the particular case of too-general essay themes, College Board has been trending towards prompts for which Dr. King and Gandhi cannot, or at the very least, should not, be used. In other words, many recent prompts are too specific to mold boilerplate examples to. For example, the June 2007 prompt about whether enduring hardship helps people become stronger is a very general prompt, and it would be a relatively trivial matter to adapt innumerable historical, literary, or personal examples to that prompt. But what about the March 2011 prompt that essentially asked whether reality TV is bad for society? (This prompt, by the way, caused a minor scandal in test-prep circles since many people thought the prompt was too culture-centric. But more on that in another article.) No, it wouldn’t work to write “MLK was a great fan of reality TV, and family-oriented reality television programs inspired him to fight for civil rights.” Or the prompt that TestMagic students received during that same administration of the SAT, the one that essentially asked whether photography accurately captures reality. Students would be hard-pressed to adapt many of the figures we learn about in history classes to discussions of reality. So what to do? What to write about?

The answer is obvious: Don’t be afraid to use personal examples in your SAT essays. There is nothing inherently wrong with using a personal example on the SAT, and in fact, training materials for the SAT essay scorers specifically tell the essay readers not to lower the score of an essay that uses a personal example. More importantly, some SAT essay prompts verily beg for a personal example. Take a look at this example written on the “fun” prompt:

“Fun is typically less esteemed in society because of our false perceptions of material success. We often judge a person by how wealthy she is, by the size of the house she owns, by the car she drives, where she went to college, where she works, and the like. Too rarely do we deem a person successful because she is happy or enjoys her life, which is unfortunate. In tenth grade, I was determined to succeed at all costs. I decided that I would conform to the expectations of others by achieving no less than a 4.0 (unweighted) GPA by whatever means necessary, whether doing so involved currying favor with my instructors or pulling all-nighters before exams. I was initially thrilled to discover that I did raise my GPA to an impressive number, but in retrospect, I now realize that my life was simply devoid of fun. In other words, I was not happy.”

(Standard disclaimers: I am not the typical SAT student—I am a college-educated adult who teaches SAT prep.)

How does this sound? Does the fact that I used a personal example hurt the essay, the writing, or the ideas? I don’t think so. In fact, this writing hits all the spots that many writing teachers are looking for—good ideas, decent sentence variety, accurate vocabulary, etc. But the best part for the SAT essay writer is that writing like this should be relatively easy. Who among us does not have the experience of sacrificing fun for some sort of success, academic or otherwise?

To sum up: Don’t be afraid to write using the the most apposite examples that you can. If a story from the third-grade spelling bee seems relevant, use it. Don’t contort your stock Dr. King or Rosa Parks stories to fit a prompt that are only tangentially related. The SAT essays are read by real English teachers who also happen to be real humans, and they won’t be tricked by impressive literary or historical figures. They, like you, will be moved by clear, persuasive writing.

Sentence Completion: If the quadrennial inauguration…

Let’s try a sentence completion question today. Your job is simply to choose the words that best complete the intended meaning of the sentence. Tip: Be sure to read the sentence carefully, and plug all the answer choices into the blanks before you make your final choice.

If the quadrennial inauguration of the president of the United States is seen as ——-, then the nation becomes more ——- than a democracy.

(A) a renaissance . . a plutocracy
(B) an initiation . . a maverick
(C) an apprenticeship . . an epitome
(D) a ritual . . a republic
(E) a coronation . . a monarchy

Answer Click Here to Show the Answer!

If you have any questions, I’d love to answer. Just post them in the comments.