There's a persistent myth about the SAT Essay: the idea that you can't prepare content because you don't see the prompt until the day of the test. This is a myth because, in order to be standardized, the test has to require the same complexity of argument in every SAT essay question: yes or no, this or that, what causes what.
And since all these arguments are very simple, almost every SAT essay argument can be boiled down to one of the 6 we list here. In addition to that, though, we also explain how to argue each one, and give you sample support for both sides of every argument. Read on for the inside scoop on this important aspect of the SAT.
SAT Essay prompts are unlike any other writing assignment. The questions are extremely general, asking things like "is the world changing for the better," but they only ever require a very simplistic thesis statement about a complex idea. There are, for example, many ways in which the world is and is not changing for the better. The most "accurate" answer would have to be "yes AND no," but that's the opposite of what you should say on the SAT.
Because on the SAT Essay, simplicity and clarity is the name of the game. You are expected to make a broad, definitive statement about what people 'should' do or whether something is possible. You don't have to believe it, you just have to present a few examples (between one and three) that can show why your statement is correct. In this way, the SAT Essay is easier than most students think.
All of the essay questions in this article are taken from real SATs or College Board prep materials. We've categorized them not by their content--for example, "success" or "personality"--but rather by their reasoning. This is because the logic of the question, not its content, is what determines the best argument on which to build your essay.
For each type of SAT essay question below, we give you 3 sample prompts similar to what you'll run into, and a breakdown of how to argue either side of any SAT essay question of that type. You'll get detailed SAT essay examples that guide you through how to construct an argument.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 1: Discuss what people should do
This type of SAT essay question lends itself to many different kinds of examples. Anything that involves people and their choices is fair game. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
- be valued according to their capabilities rather than their achievements?
- weight all opinions equally, or place more weight on informed opinions?
- always value new things, ideas, or values over older ones?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, people should always value new things, ideas, or values over older ones," or "no, people should not always value new things, ideas, or values over older ones."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). For example, if you argue "Yes, people should value new things" as your thesis, you can give evidence of a time when people valued new things and it turned out well, or of a time when people didn't value innovation and it turned out poorly.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-world or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes for ideas). To support the Yes thesis with evidence of when people valued new things with success, we could talk about Civil Rights in the United States, the Industrial Revolution, FDR's new deal, or any other example dealign with positive innovation. We could also discuss evidence where refusal to accept new things turned out poorly, like fear of vaccinations and Galileo being excommunicated for his (true) scientific beliefs.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 2: Discuss which of two things is better
These questions can be fodder for 12-scoring essays because they can be answered so simply: this thing is better than that thing. Then you just have to think of 1-3 examples in which that thing worked and/or in which the other thing didn't work. See the diagram below for more information on how this can be done.
Is it better...
- to take an idealistic approach or a practical approach?
- to do fulfilling or high-paying work?
- to use cooperation or competition to achieve success?
Step 1: Pick a side. "It is better to use cooperation to achieve success," or "it is better to use competition to achieve success."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Similar to Prompt Type 1 above, in this case you can use evidence that supports your thesis, or argues against the opposite thesis. For example, if you write that "Cooperation is better to achieve success," you can use evidence on a time when cooperation led to success, or when competition led to failure.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (blue boxes). Following our "cooperation is better" thesis, we can talk about when people cooperated to great success - like the Civil Rights movement, or Abraham Lincoln's cabinet during the Civil War. We could also discuss how competition is inferior through examples like the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, or the North Korea vs South Korea standoff.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 3: Support or refute counterintuitive statements
These can be the toughest SAT essay prompts--if you don't know how to tackle them. The easiest way to really knock this essay type out of the park is to say yes, it is possible, and then think of an example. The other side--no, it isn't possible--is harder to logically prove, but it can be done. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
Is it possible for….
- deception to have good results?
- working to reach an objective to be valuable even if the objective is not reached?
- any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, it is possible for any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial," or "no, it is not possible for any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Unlike the two prompt types above, this one is more simplistic - just find evidence that can support your thesis in a straightforward way. If you write "No, it's not possible for any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial," you just need to find evidence for when obstacles exist but don't lead to anything helpful.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). To support the No thesis, we could use the example of how gender discrimination against women and income inequality has caused far more harm than the good it has caused.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 4: Cause and effect
These can be logically complicated, depending on which side you choose. If you say x is the result of y, then you just have to think of 1-3 examples that illustrate it. If you choose the other side, though, then you have a harder logical task in front of you--your examples have to fit a much narrower definition to make sense. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
Is __ the result of __?
- Is a successful community the result of individuals sacrificing their personal goals?
- Is accomplishment the result of freedom to do things one's own way?
- Is learning the result of experiencing difficulties?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, learning is the result of experiencing difficulties," or "no, learning is not the result of experiencing difficulties."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). For example, if our thesis is "Yes, learning is the result of experiencing difficulties," we can either argue with evidence of a time when learning IS the result of difficulty, or when a lack of difficulty led to an absence of learning. Both types of evidence support your thesis.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). For our Yes thesis, we could talk about how the difficulty of unmanageable healthcare costs in the USA led to learning and the Affordable Care Act. We could also use the other type of evidence and talk about how Jay Gatsby's lack of difficulty in having immense wealth led to poor learning about what really makes him happy.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 5: Generalize about the state of the world
These kinds of SAT essay prompts are so open-ended that they lend themselves to all kinds of examples and interpretations. But for this same reason, they can be overwhelming and confusing. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
What is the modern world like?
- Is the world more in need of creativity now more than ever?
- Is the world actually harder to understand due to the abundance of information now available?
- Is the world changing in a positive way?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, the world is changing in a positive way," or "no, the world is not changing in a positive way."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Let's consider the Yes thesis. We can use evidence that problems in the past that are being solved today, or innovations today that didn't previously exist.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). To support our Yes thesis, we can find examples of problems that are better now - women's rights, slavery, and reduced violence. We can also discuss recent innovations that dramatically improve quality of life, like the Internet and widespread access to education.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 6: Generalize about people
Much like the "state of the world" questions, these can be supported by almost anything, but can also get away from you if you're not careful. See the diagram below for some ideas of how to manage these prompts.
What are people like?
- Do people underestimate the value of community due to our culture of individualism?
- Are people defined by their occupations?
- Do people learn from the past?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, people learn from the past," or "no, people do not learn from the past."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Let's consider the No thesis that people don't learn from the past - we would have to find an example of when someone repeated a mistake that they could have avoided from history.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). A great example to use for our No thesis is comparing Hitler and Germany to Napoleon. In 1812, Napoleon fought a war on multiple fronts, fighting the Spanish army and the Russian Empire simultaneously. This led to a drastic dilution of focus and led to his defeat. A century later in World War 2, Hitler fought on two fronts as well, facing the Allies in Europe and Russia at the same time. He too was defeated through this mistake.
What do I do now?
Now that you know the basic types of SAT essay prompts and the types of arguments they require, what can you do with this information?
A few different things: one is to practice with these questions, thinking of one or two examples to support at least one answer to each question. We've written a guide to 6 SAT essay examples you can use to answer nearly every prompt.
We show you how to construct an SAT essay, step by step. If you want to get a perfect SAT essay score, read this.
Another is to take a look at our comprehensive SAT essay prompts article, which gives you lots more questions to think about answering and supporting with the arguments above.
Finally, make sure you read our 15 SAT essay tips to know how to get an edge on the essay.
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It's pretty scary to walk into a room on ACT test day and not know anything about the essay question you're about to answer. Luckily, you don't have to—the ACT essay prompts only ask about a teensy, tiny category of ideas. And the best part is, you already know all about it!
Keep reading to see sample ACT Writing prompts you can practice with. More importantly, we also teach you how to gather evidence before the test so you can walk in 100% prepared to answer any prompt they give you.
6 Sample ACT Essay Prompts
The idea behind the ACT essay is that it's a fair test of everyone's writing ability because nobody knows the topic or question before the test. In order for this to be true, the ACT actually has to choose from a pretty small sliver of questions (since the topics must be broad enough that all test takers can write about them).
See for yourself: here are the two free and publicly available official ACT Writing prompts. Do you notice any common threads?
1. Intelligent Machines (source: ACT.org )
Many of the goods and services we depend on daily are now supplied by intelligent, automated machines rather than human beings. Robots build cars and other goods on assembly lines, where once there were human workers. Many of our phone conversations are now conducted not with people but with sophisticated technologies. We can now buy goods at a variety of stores without the help of a human cashier. Automation is generally seen as a sign of progress, but what is lost when we replace humans with machines? Given the accelerating variety and prevalence of intelligent machines, it is worth examining the implications and meaning of their presence in our lives.
Perspective One: What we lose with the replacement of people by machines is some part of our own humanity. Even our mundane daily encounters no longer require from us basic courtesy, respect, and tolerance for other people.
Perspective Two: Machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs, and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases they work better than humans. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone.
Perspective Three: Intelligent machines challenge our long-standing ideas about what humans are or can be. This is good because it pushes both humans and machines toward new, unimagined possibilities.
Write a unified, coherent essay about the increasing presence of intelligent machines.
2. Public Health and Individual Freedom (source: ACT.org )
Most people want to be healthy, and most people want as much freedom as possible to do the things they want. Unfortunately, these two desires sometimes conflict. For example, smoking is prohibited from most public places, which restricts the freedom of some individuals for the sake of the health of others. Likewise, car emissions are regulated in many areas in order to reduce pollution and its health risks to others, which in turn restricts some people’s freedom to drive the vehicles they want. In a society that values both health and freedom, how do we best balance the two? How should we think about conflicts between public health and individual freedom?
Perspective One: Our society should strive to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. When the freedom of the individual interferes with that principle, freedom must be restricted.
Perspective Two: Nothing in society is more valuable than freedom. Perhaps physical health is sometimes improved by restricting freedom, but the cost to the health of our free society is far too great to justify it.
Perspective Three: The right to avoid health risks is a freedom, too. When we allow individual behavior to endanger others, we’ve damaged both freedom and health.
Write a unified, coherent essay about the conflict between public health and individual freedom.
Here are four other prompts that I have constructed, based on the core question and core perspectives I extracted from the official prompts (if you're curious about how I constructed these prompts, check out our article on how to attack ACT Writing prompts):
Many of the goods and services we depend on daily have global sources. Where once you might speak with a customer service representative from across the country about your computer problems, your call now would most likely be routed across the world. In one grocery store, it can be possible to find a mixture of foods from multiple continents. Various pieces of culture can be instantaneously broadcast around the world via the Internet, enabling shared experiences among people of disparate geographic origins. Globalization is generally seen as a sign of progress, but what happens when we replace local interactions with global ones? Given the accelerating rate of globalization, it is worth examining the implications and meaning of its presence in our lives.
Perspective One: Globalization requires a shift in the way we think about other people, other societies, and the world. This is good, because it will push humanity towards previously unimaginable possibilities and achievements.
Perspective Two: Removing geographic boundaries from commerce means that the right people can be chosen for the right jobs at the right price. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone.
Perspective Three: The flourishing of a new, global society comes at the cost of local cultures. Less diversity leads to deficits in empathy and creativity, two of the most defining characteristics of humanity.
Write a unified, coherent essay about the increasing presence of globalization.
4. Information Accessibility
At this moment in time, there is more information more readily available to more people than ever before. Smartphones can instantly provide directions to your destination, when even 10 years ago you had to look up directions before you left and/or bring along a map. Researchers from all over the world are able to pool their knowledge to advance their fields more quickly. Many libraries have broadened their collections to include subscriptions to online/electronic databases as well as printed works. Greater access to information is generally seen as a positive advance, but what are the consequences of making so much knowledge available to so many people? Based upon the ever-increasing amount of information in the world and the ever-broader access to it, it is worth examining the implications and meaning of easy access to information in our lives.
Perspective One: With increased ease of access to information, we lose the incentive to gain knowledge ourselves. By outsourcing our memories of facts and other information, we are becoming less intelligent.
Perspective Two: Greater access to information allows us to avoid memorizing facts and, instead, use our brains for higher-level thinking. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone.
Perspective Three: The more people who have access to more information, the greater the chances of collaboration and thus further advances in human knowledge. This is good because it pushes us toward new, unimagined possibilities.
Write a unified, coherent essay about the increasing accessibility of information.
In the world today, newness is highly valued. Social media apps constantly update to make sure you’re shown the newest information or posts from those you follow. Many of the products we purchase today are purposefully created with short lifespans to encourage consumers to continue to get the newest, up-to-date versions. Subscription services for music and video make it possible to continuously listen to and watch new media. Novelty is generally seen as a positive characteristic, but what are we losing by constantly focusing on the new? Given its increasing prevalence, it is worth examining the implications and meaning of the growing emphasis on novelty in our lives.
Perspective One: Change is the only constant in life, and to ignore this is to grow rigid and stagnate. More exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking can only lead to progress for society and for humanity as a whole.
Perspective Two: By exclusively focusing on the new, we lose sight of what we already know. Instead of ignoring the old, we should be focusing more past accomplishments and errors. The only way to move forward is to heed the lessons of the past.
Perspective Three: Information, products, and ways of thinking should only be valued if they are useful and reliable, not just because they are new and exciting. New does not automatically equal improved.
Write a unified, coherent essay about the increasing value assigned to novelty.
6. Job Changes
Fewer and fewer people are staying with the same job their entire lives. In the United States, the average person will switch jobs more than 10 times in over the course of his/her life. Some workers will make lateral, or even downward, moves in order to increase personal fulfillment. Others switch jobs in an effort to obtain the highest possible salary. Increasing personal autonomy is generally seen as a sign of progress, but what happens when length of experience is replaced with variety of experience? As the number of jobs people will hold over the course of their lives continues to climb, it is important to examine the implications and meaning of this trend for our lives.
Perspective One: Because jobs are no longer a lifetime commitment, people will feel freer to accept a greater variety of positions. This increase in breadth of experience will in turn make job applicants more attractive to future employers.
Perspective Two: As the frequency with which people change jobs increases, the loyalty of people to their employers will decrease. This in turn will lead to more fractured company cultures, as employees will only care about what’s best for them.
Perspective Three: The disappearance of the stigma associated with frequent job switching will allow employees more leeway with employment decisions. Increased autonomy will lead to increased happiness and job satisfaction.
Write a unified, coherent essay about the increasing frequency with which people switch jobs.
For additional Writing Prompts to practice with, you also might want to consider purchasing the Official ACT Prep Guide 2016-2017, which includes 3 additional official essay prompts.
There is in fact only one ACT Writing Prompt (and three types of perspectives) you have to know. We call them the Core Question and Core Perspectives. This question (and these perspectives) will run through every and all ACT Essay prompts you'll get.
The Reasoning Behind The Core Question
As you can see, all the ACT writing prompts are about how the world (and the people in it) is (are) changing. All of them boil down to the following question:
"What are your views on how humans are changing the world?"
or, even more broadly,
"What do you think about the way the world is changing?"
The ACT has chosen to frame its prompts this way because ACT, Inc. wants to choose essay topics that all students can have an opinion on, rather than asking about something extremely specific for which some students are more prepared than others.
First Global Image from VIIRS by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, used under CC BY 2.0/Resized from original.
Read through the two official prompts again (above). Rather than asking about high school life (as the old ACT Writing prompts did), the prompt now asks students to consider how changes in the world today affect all humanity, forcing the students to place the issue in a broader context. While the topics may appear to be highly specific at first glance (e.g. "intelligent machines"), the explanatory paragraphs for each prompt make it clear that the topics can be parlayed in a number of different directions (and be accessible to most people). This means there won't be prompts about issues that mainly affect urban dwellers (e.g. subways), or only affect certain geographic areas (e.g. snow preparedness). Similarly, something like "smartphones," for instance, would never be a topic on its own; rather, it would be an example that could be used for the topic (as in the "intelligent machines" prompt).
It really helps to have strong opinions about this core question, "What do you think about the way humans are changing the world?" but if you don't, no problem: it's easy to develop opinions! And we're here to give you a head start. In the next section, we're going to give you some basic opinions around the core ACT essay question, how to apply them to specific prompts, and even online research to support them!
The Reasoning Behind The Core Perspectives
As you can see above, the new ACT prompt has three different perspectives that you need to discuss during the course of your essay. To figure out the three core perspectives, I read and re-read the perspectives for both of the official prompts, considering them in light of the informational paragraphs that preceded them.
Core Perspective A: The changes caused by [Prompt topic] are not good and have negative results.
This perspective maps onto Perspective 1 of the first official ACT sample prompt above or Perspective 2 of the second official sample prompt. My nickname for this position is "conservatism," since this perspective wishes to be conservative and not change things.
Core Perspective B: The changes caused by [Prompt topic] will lead to greater efficiency.
This perspective maps onto Perspective 2 of the first official ACT sample prompt above or Perspective 1 of the second official sample prompt. My nickname for this position is "utilitarianism," since this perspective is all about what will be more practical and lead to the greatest good for the greatest number of people (this is even explicitly spelled out in Perspective 1 of the second official sample prompt).
Core Perspective C: The changes caused by [Prompt topic] will yield positive future results because it will lead to improvements for all humanity.
This perspective maps onto Perspective 3 of the first official ACT sample prompt above or Perspective 3 of the second official sample prompt. My nickname for this position is "progressivism," since this perspective argues that change = progress = good.
Building a Support Bank
Now you know that the ACT essay will only ever ask you to discuss one question: "How is the world changing?" If you prepare for this question with diverse evidence before the test, you'll be ready to answer the prompt no matter what it is. To give yourself the most time to write and organize your argument, your thesis should match up with one of the three perspectives given — that way, you won't have to take the time come up with a fourth, completely new perspective and compare it to at least one the three perspectives the ACT provides.
But it gets better! The internet (and society in general) is chock-full of theories and arguments about how the world is changing, and whether or not that's a good thing. All you have to do is read up on some of them and develop your own opinions.
Opinions on the World
Your ACT essay thesis should basically be one of the three perspectives, but you have to support that yes or no with another opinion - the answer to the question "why?" (or "why not"?). Look over these sets of three opinions and try to think of reasons or examples to support each.
The world is changing to be worse than it was before. (because...)
The world is changing to be better than it was before. (because...)
The world is changing to be more efficient than ever before. (because...)
Research and Brainstorming Ideas
Unlike with the SAT essay, you can use abstract reasoning to develop your point on the ACT. This means that you don't necessarily have to come to the test pre-loaded with specific examples: if you can't think of a concrete example that will support your point, you can make one up as you go along while constructing your argument.
Now we'll look over a few sample internet resources that could serve as support (or brainstorming assistance) for the opinions above. You can use the general ideas from these resources, but you may also find some useful specific examples for when you face your real ACT writing prompt.
News sources such as the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Al Jazeera, Time, The Atlantic, Slate, The Economist, Wired, New York Magazine, Popular Science, Psychology Today, Vox, Mic, and even Buzzfeed will have information about current events that you can use.
If you prefer listening/watching the news, you can always try that as a source of current events information as well watching or listening to television, radio, or podcasts.
So How Do I Use This Information?
Just knowing what the ACT Writing prompts are likely to be about may lead you to think about the way you interact with the world somewhat differently. Keep your eyes peeled and your ears open for anything that could be fodder to answer a question about the way the world is changing - anything you learn about in history/social studies, read/hear about in the news, or even encounter in a futuristic novel can be added to your support bank.
But, of course, the more effective way to use the information in this article is to practice both planning and writing ACT essays. We have another post with ACT essay tips, which can give you more information on how to practice the actual writing process, but knowing about the prompt types can get you thinking about your own opinions on how the world is changing. After all, you're being asked about this because you have a lot of experience with it, living in the world as you do (unless you are a ghost and don't live in this world, in which case, why are you taking the ACT?).
So, using the prompts at the beginning of this article, or another group of questions about issues having to do with change (some items on this list of debate topics, for example), start planning hypothetical writing ACT essay responses. Try reading my step-by-step ACT essay example if you're stumped about where to begin.
For each issue, planning involves picking a side, supporting it with one to two reasons or examples, and deciding how to discuss at least one of the other given perspectives in relation to the one you've picked (including arguments both for and against the other perspectives). If you really want to max out your ACT essay score, you should practice planning essays about how the world is changing until you can do it in 8-10 minutes reliably. If you're curious about where that 8-10 minute estimate comes from, check out our ACT essay tips article.
Check out our comprehensive collection of ACT Writing guides, including a detailed analysis of the ACT Writing Rubric that includes explanations and strategies and our explanation of the differences between the old and new ACT Writing Test.
Find outhow to get a perfect score on ACT Writing.
Follow along as I construct a top-scoring essay step-by-step, or check out our list of tips to raise your ACT Writing score.
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