Prep for the SAT Essay

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.

Prep for the SAT Essay

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. :)

SAT Prep Strategies and Practice Questions

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.