SAT Essay Prompts: What They Look Like And How To Approach Them

Alex Khurgin from Knewton Advises on the SAT Essay

This week brings another guest post from our friends at Knewton - this time from essay expert Alex Khurgin.

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

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

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

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

- Adapted from Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

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

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

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

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

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

(2) Is an unrealistic goal worth pursuing?

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

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

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

- Adapted from a philosopher’s Mixed Opinions and Maxims

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

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

- Adapted from J. Krishnamurti, Commentaries on Living

Does obeying authority always limit personal freedom?

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

- Adapted from Dale Carlson, Who Said What?

Are external conflicts caused by negative thinking?

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

- Adapted from George Bernard Shaw

Can something be considered beautiful by everyone?

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

- From James B. Twitchell, 20 Ads That Shook The World

Does freedom mean the freedom to be a consumer?

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

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The College Essay Updates Roll On

Virtually every college in the CEO database is now updated for the 2010/2011 application season, with a whopping 60 added this week alone! Head on over to our Essay RoadMap preview page to see how many essays your schools require.

A number of schools will make their scholarship and department-specific requirements available later in the year, and we'll be adding those too, as they are released. Remember that CEO can help you find scholarship money you didn't know was available, and departments you didn't even know existed!

We also are continuously updating our Facebook and Twitter pages. Take a look, become a fan, and follow along.

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How To Tell A College That You're Interested

So, so interested.

When you're answering why you're so interested, try not to say, "because it's shiny."

Why are you interested in our college?

This kind of prompt is common, of course, and it seems easy enough at first – you’re applying to the school, aren’t you? You’re interested in it. But now what? Your first instinct might be to repeat what’s in the guidebook, or just talk about what you heard on the informational tour. You might want to act like you need to sell the school back to itself.

But don’t. Essays like these need to be interpreted as what they are – essays about you and your skills. In the broad scheme of things, this is what you might want to call an “Intellectual Interest” essay.

What you want to do with an Intellectual Interest essay is make yourself look good to the school. You don’t need to fill the page with a series of meaningless and optionally funny anecdotes from your summer trip to Lake George with your uncle that one time when he fell off the boat and everyone laughed. What you’re really trying to communicate with this is something about who you are and what you can bring to the school that no one else can. Those are your Intellectual Interests.

It wants to be an essay about the time you demonstrated your love of Steinbeck’s writing to make a point about modern America, or the time you used your knowledge of physics to bond with a carpenter about his work you saw at a fair. Something specific, but tied to your love of academics.

In writing an essay like this, you need to focus your argument or story all around you and what you are capable of. If you want to structure it as an autobiographical episode, make sure the episode is about something specific, namely your interests or skills, and why those are important to have at a university like the one you’re applying to.

You can, of course, talk about your personal experiences visiting the college or about student clubs or opportunities unique to the school, but if you do, make sure that these examples are more about your personal interests than about the school itself.

When broad, vague, or even crazy prompts pop up, give them some thought about how they can be used to reflect something unique about you that the rest of your application doesn’t allow for. Then tell that story in terms of the wacked out prompt the school threw at you.

The SAT Essay: Top 10 Dos and Don'ts

Cailey from Knewton

This week brings another guest post from our friends at - Cailey Hall is the SAT essay guru for Knewton’s SAT prep course.

As Knewton’s resident SAT essay grader, I get to read a lot of SAT essays. While every essay is different – and I always enjoy seeing how students choose to tackle the prompts – I do notice some of the same issues coming up again and again. Rather than tear my hair out every time I encounter one of these problems, I wanted to let you guys know what to do – and what not to do – on the SAT esssay.

Here’s a foolproof list of advice to get you a 6 every time:

1) Do take the time to read the prompt and make sure you understand what it’s asking. Rewrite it in your own language if that’s helpful. If you don’t write an essay that is on the topic presented, you will get a zero. Be sure you know what you’re supposed to be writing about!

2) Don’t start your essay by restating the prompt. SAT essay graders know what the prompt is. They don’t need to see it again. Instead, open with what we at Knewton like to call a “dazzler” sentence – in other words, a sentence that grabs the reader’s attention and gets them excited to read more of what you’ve written!

3) Don’t hide your thesis! Your thesis statement is not an Easter egg. Nobody wants to go hunting for it. Make sure it’s the last sentence of your introduction.

4) Do make your examples specific. The SAT essay is not the place to offer up hypothetical and/or vague examples. Save the metaphysics for when you’re hanging out in a dark Left Bank cafe with a philosophy graduate student named Fabian. Spend the first 5 minutes of the essay section brainstorming specific examples (from literature, history, current events or personal experience) that support your essay. Then choose the best 2-3 examples to turn into your body paragraphs – and make sure you only address one example per body paragraph!

5) Don’t write in the first person. Unless one of your examples is a personal anecdote – in which case, go for the narcissism – stick to the third person. Phrases such as “I think,” “I believe,” “In my opinion,” etc. should be avoided. The essay graders already know that this essay is from your point of view – you don’t need to tell them again!

6) Don’t write in a stream-of-consciousness style. Yes, James Joyce did it to excellent effect. But the “Penelope” chapter of Ulysses would also get a bad grade on the SAT. Also – don’t feel like you need to write loooong sentences because they sound “smart.” More likely than not, they will just sound confusing. You don’t want to lose the reader halfway through your sentence-paragraph. Use Ernest Hemingway for inspiration… not Henry James. At the same time, don’t write sentence fragments. Make sure you’ve got a main subject and verb!

7) Don’t be redundant. Make your point and move on. Don’t make it twice (or three times) in slightly different language.

8 ) Do know when – and when not – to use a comma. While comma usage is one of the more debated topics in the scintillating field of grammar studies, the number one rule to keep in mind is: Would I pause at this point when speaking this sentence? If yes, put a comma. If no, don’t put a comma. There are plenty of other times when you should use a comma, but when you’re reading through your essay, keep this main guideline in mind.

9) Don’t introduce new material in your conclusion. I know – it’s hard! You have one more point you desperately want to make but you’re almost out of time and space. Exercise some self control and save that point for later. The conclusion is the place to restate your thesis (using new language, of course), to remind the reader of the excellent, specific examples you have used to support your thesis, and to end with a brilliant parting thought.

10) Do leave yourself time to proofread. The most common errors? Missing words, subject-verb agreement issues, and missing punctuation and capitalization. Also – watch out for verb tenses!

With these rules in mind, writing the SAT essay should be almost as easy and fun as reading (or re-reading) Twilight. Hey, I said almost

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Educational Consultants Are Raving About College Essay Organizer!


Guidance For College

Independent Consultants Love College Essay Organizer

We are thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive feedback from members. Our technology was designed to make the college essay process simpler, faster, and smarter. See what our members are saying:


“College Essay Organizer has become an integral part of my service package for clients. My students have benefited from having all their essay prompts in one place. The RoadMap shows students how to work smarter, not harder, with their essays. Having a definite plan for completing essays in an efficient and organized manner is saving my clients considerable time and reducing their stress. This service is an absolute ‘must have’ for any educational consultant who works with college issues. My students are more focused and their parents appreciate having this resource to assist their child.”

- Jim Overton, College Consultants of South Carolina (South Carolina)


“I cannot imagine doing this ‘by hand’ now that I have signed up for College Essay Organizer. It is an extremely useful tool to keep track of everything and to organize the essay requirements.”

- Kathryn Miller, Miller Educational Consulting (Colorado)


“The feedback from my students has been great! Most are excited to discover they have fewer essays to write than they originally expected and love seeing how to ‘tweak’ them to work for multiple schools.”

- Deb Shames, College Consultant (New Jersey)


“I love using College Essay Organizer! It has saved quite a bit of time for students as they begin the college essay process.”

- Lu Anne Wood, Lu Anne Wood Consulting (North Carolina)


“College Essay Organizer has been ridiculously easy to use! It's organized and precise. My students love it.”

- Christine Hall, CMH College Consulting (North Carolina)


“I continue to tell IECA and NACAC members about College Essay Organizer; I'm really spreading the word! My students have enjoyed the ease of College Essay Organizer. To me, the biggest benefit is that many started work on their supplements sooner this year.”

- Ronna Morrison, Certified Educational Planner (New Jersey)


“Everything is well laid-out and easy to use. [When] I contacted College Essay Organizer, the response was very fast and very satisfactory. Well done.”

- Gordon Kirtland, American Education (Singapore)


“The students who are applying to many very selective colleges were especially appreciative of a way to keep track of all the supplemental essay requirements. I've also had very quick and helpful responses from your support team.”

- Ann Montgomery, CEP, Sage Education Group (Texas)


I like the initial list of colleges showing who has posted their current essays as well as the emails letting us know when new ones are posted…I like getting a consolidated list of all the essays for the selected colleges. I like the sample essays provided with the Essay Roadmap. I am very happy with the experience!”

- Teri Greenbaum, LA College Consulting (California)


"I have been using College Essay Organizer for the past 3 weeks and it is a definite time-saver! I used to spend hours researching the essay requirements for each school and then doing grids for each student so they could see which essays they could reuse for each school. This has made my job so much easier. The students love it because it makes the most difficult part of the application (the essays) manageable. They get so excited when they see they only have to write 5 essays for the 12 schools they're applying to."

- Courtney Watkins, Early Light Educational Consulting (Chapel Hill, NC)


“As you know, I love College Essay Organizer.”

- Shelley Levine, College Bound (Maryland)


All that and more. Thanks again to all our members, and please feel free to recommend our Facebook and Twitter pages.



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Using CEO to Find Scholarships And Departments For College

One of the hidden benefits (which we've tried here on CEO blog to keep not-so-hidden) is that the Essay QuickFinder and Essay RoadMap tools will help you find department-specific and scholarship essays you didn't even know existed.

If we take a look at this simple example, the Essay RoadMap finds 9 requirements that can be answered with just 3 pieces of writing. But if you read on, you'll see that even this small selection of colleges brings with it 49 departmental and scholarship essay prompts. 49! And almost none of these questions appear on the Common App.

Searching For Free Money With CEO

Seeing these prompts will doubtlessly set you off towards programs and, in many cases, opportunities for free money that you might have overlooked.

How to Write Fewer Essays for College with CEO's Essay RoadMap

CEO's Essay RoadMap is designed to take any list of universities and find the fewest number of essays that can satisfy all your requirements. We've cooked up a sample here for you to see just how much work it can save you.

Twelve turns into Four!

The schools that appear in the checklist below have 12 required questions among them, and CEO's Essay RoadMap shows you how to answer those 12 questions using just 4 pieces of original writing.

It's also worth noting that there are 19 (count them!) optional, department-specific, and special applicant questions that may or may not apply to every applicant. These can include specific programs within the universities, scholarships, or certain majors that have their own application requirements. These questions are rarely located on the Common App and take hours to locate on the schools' own applications (if you even know to look for them).

The Essay RoadMap is flexible, too. Each check box next to a school's name can be deselected and the RoadMap can be regenerated using the modified list of schools.

Try it yourself with our free Essay RoadMap preview tool!

What to Avoid in Your Application Essays

Yesterday we touched on some basic tips for improving your writing and making a lasting impression on over-worked admissions officers. Today we'd like to flip the script a bit and show you what not to do in your application essays.

These errors are all too common, and they're the kinds of things that can sink an application for good. Letting yourself be sloppy, cliched, repetitive, or negative won't just make your essays forgettable, they can even actively work against you, ruining whatever goodwill the rest of your application has engendered with the person reading it.

So without further adieu, make sure you never make these common mistakes:

  • Don't litter your essay with quotes from others
  • Don't go thesaurus-happy
  • Don't generalize or stereotype
  • Don’t use profanity or crass humor
  • Don't use stuffy language

Take a look at our more comprehensive list of writing styles to avoid and see what other kinds of common errors you can be sure to look out for.

Tips for Personal Statement and College Essay Writing

Now that we've talked a bit about the essay topics you should consider and those you should avoid, let's talk about your actual writing, and how to easily improve the impression you're making on the admissions officers who will see your pieces.

After a cliched topic, the biggest problem you'll want to avoid is writing in generalities. This note applies to many elements of an essay, but overall, it means that you should identify something that is of importance to you and to talk about it with commitment. Make sure that you are addressing the most specific elements of it that you understand, and that you're focusing on the decisions and actions you made during the event you're writing about.

Avoid phrases like "she's always there for me" or "looking around the room, I realized..." Avoid phrasings that don't tell us what someone is actually doing, saying, or feeling.

Here's a short list of writing suggestions to improve others' sense of your writing:

  • Take a risk
  • Show, don't tell
  • Use specific details
    • General: My uncle Mike has been a huge influence in my life.
    • Specific: My uncle Mike was the man who told me my brother had broken both his legs skiing in the Alps. Mike was the man who took me to the father-son picnic when my dad was ill. And when I found myself in need of help that late Friday night that would forever change my life, it was Mike’s number I dialed.

There are a whole lot more here at CEO's guide for what to do in a college essay.

We would love to hear your ideas or other good examples in the comments.

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Bad College Essay Topics For Your Applications

Sometimes knowing what not to do can be as useful as knowing what you ought to do. There are many essay topics that spring to mind quickly. These ideas can be enticing, too - in many cases they seem to almost write themselves... until you realize that they don't paint a particularly flattering portrait of you, or that the reason they sprung to mind so easily is that you've read essays just like them several times before.

Always look out for cliche! Avoid it like the plague, as well as essay topics that center themselves around your faults or around things that you are not, rather than things that you are.

Any advice about what not to do, of course, always comes with a grain of salt. There are always exceptions, so use this only as a guide. Just make sure that if you cover one of the following topics, you do so in a unique way that highlights your strengths:

  • Crime you've committed
  • Character flaws
  • Excuses for your shortcomings
  • The "Big Game"

This last one might surprise you - the big success at a sporting event is a common topic, and it talks about a positive, emotional event. So why not use it?

It often leads you down very well-worn paths without necessarily telling us much about what you will be able to bring to an academic or social environment. More often than not, these essays focus on one-off events that don't translate to your everyday life. But worse, they aren't memorable.

Picture an admissions officer reading through five hundred essays. Five. Hundred. Essays. How many of these feel the same? How many are about a success in a sporting event? Push further, past cliche and into the elements of who you are that are specific to you and what you do. Things no one else in your school can say.

There are many, many more. Take a look at CEO's list of college essay topics to avoid.

If you have more suggestions of good essay topics (or bad ones), we look forward to seeing them in the comments!