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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What is a Definition Essay?
A definition essay works to provide the nitty-gritty details about a word or concept. For example, in an art class, you may be asked to write a definition essay on Vermillion (a vivid reddish-orange color) or Cubism, a specific approach to creating art. A definition essay should always focus on a complex subject; simple subjects won’t provide enough details to adequately write an essay. While the subject may change, the structure of an essay remains the same. All definition essays should include an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
Types of Definition Essays
Professors often assign definition essays towards the beginning of a class. The focus of this type of essay is to explore a specific concept. These concepts are often divided into one of three categories:
In this type of essay, the assignment explores how to fully define a difficult topic. By definition, an abstract concept is one that is vast and complicated. Examples of abstract concepts include liberty, ambition, love, hate, generosity, and pride. The focus of the essay should be to break down the concept into more manageable parts for the audience.
Definition essays that focus on a place tend to explore a specific type of place and how you as the writer view this particular place. Types of places which may be assigned are a country, state, city, neighborhood, park, house, or a room. The place may be huge or small. A key to writing a good definition essay focused on the place is to select a specific place you are familiar with; it shouldn’t be a place you need to research — it should be a place that you know intimately.An Adjective
An adjective essay focuses on creating a definition for an adjective. Common topics may include describing a “good” or “bad” friend, present, or law. The focus of the essay should explore the qualities and characteristics of a good friend or a bad present.
Perfecting the Definition Essay Outline – and Beyond!
Before sitting down to write a definition essay, you’ll need to make out all the parts to the whole. In other words, how, exactly, will you define the subject of the essay? You’ll need to consider all the different parts, or the gears, that make the clock work. Once you’ve brainstormed the parts, you’re ready to create an outline, and then write some paragraphs. The outline for this essay is as easy as in five paragraph essay – it contains an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The number of body paragraphs is determined by how many aspects you’re subject needs defined. This type of essay is exactly what it sounds like: it works to define a specific word or concept.
Take Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s advice when writing: “Never say more than is necessary.”
So, here is what constitutes the outline of the definition essay:
An introduction paragraph should act as a gateway to the subject of the definition essay. Use this paragraph to gently introduce the subject, and gain the reader’s interest. This paragraph should begin with an attention getter (the “hook”) that makes the reader curious and want to read more. Quotations are always a great idea as are interesting facts. Next, provide background details that the reader will need to understand the concept or idea to be defined in the body paragraphs.
Unlike other papers, like cause and effect essay, the definition essay is unique in that it requires the writer to provide the dictionary definition of the word, and then the thesis definition. Since dictionary definitions are often dry and narrow, the thesis definition is your opportunity truly encompass the complexity of the word.
Each body paragraph should focus on a different aspect that contributes to the overall definition of the subject being discussed in the definition essay.
A definition essay typically contains three body paragraphs, although there can be more if the writer desires. The first body paragraph delves into the origin of the word and how it became mainstreamed into the language. This paragraph can talk about any root words, prefixes, and/or suffixes in the word, as well as the evolution of the word (if there is one).
- The Denotative Definition Paragraph
The second body paragraph should focus on the dictionary definition, and how the word can be used in writing and conversation. For example, love can appear as several different parts of speech; it can be a noun, verb, or adjective.
- The Connotative Definition Paragraph
The third body paragraph, and often the longest one, should focus on conveying the writer’s definition of the word. This definition should be based on both the writer’s personal experience as well as research. Don’t be afraid to be bold – describe this word in a way that no one else has! Be original; describe the word as a color or animal, and defend your choice. Provide examples of the word in action and maintain the reader’s engagement at all costs. Aim for sentences like this:
Quixotic describes the eternal quest of optimistic individuals striving to find the magical, the visionary, the idealistic experiences in life despite all obstacles and naysayers.
This exists as an excellent sentence because it provides clues as to the type of word quixotic is by pairing it with magical, visionary, and idealistic. By stating that it’s a word optimistic individuals would gravitate towards, the audience inherently understands it’s more positive than negative. Indeed, the third body paragraph should focus on communicating the writer’s comprehension of the concept, idea or term.
Just because this is the shortest paragraph, doesn’t mean that it will be the easiest to write. In fact, the better the body paragraphs are, the easier writing the conclusion paragraph will be. Why? Because a good conclusion paragraph reiterates the main points stated in each body paragraph. If the body paragraphs are clear and avoid rambling, pulling the main ideas for the conclusion will be easy! Just remember: you don’t want to repeat yourself word for word, but you do want to echo your main ideas; so summarize yourself instead of copy and pasting.
Many professors may create the definition essay as a personal writing assignment. If this is the case, then it would be appropriate to also discuss what the word or concept means personally to you. Select an example in your own life and validate your descriptions of the word.
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Definition Essay Outline Example
Once you got the concept of your future essay wrapped up, it’s time to put things to the practice and create an outline. Here is what your outline might look like. Our topic is: Love.
- Introduction. Thesis: While different cultures define the concept of love differently, most cultures will agree that love exists as a positive, yet broad concept that has fueled humans since the dawn of time.
- Topic Sentence 1. While the Ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Persian cultures all approached love differently, they also shared many similar attitudes towards love.
- Topic Sentence 2. The denotative definition of love includes 7 noun definitions and 6 verb definitions; this highlights the complex nature of love as a concept.
- Topic Sentence 3. Modern society is fueled by the idea of love whether in intrapersonal, interpersonal, or business relationships.
- Conclusion. Love affects every aspect of the human experience and has since the beginning of time.
Definition Essay Sample
Be sure to check the sample essay, completed by our writers. Use it as an example to write your own argumentative essay. Link: Essay sample: Team Norms and Procedures.
Tips on Writing a Definition Essay from Our Experts
Need some advice from our professional writers? We’ve got you covered. Here are some great tips on how to write an A-level definition essay:
- When writing a definition essay, keep the sentences simple when you can; however, occasionally, you’ll need to create longer, more descriptive sentences. Consider juxtaposing short sentences with longer ones to maintain reader interest.
- Incorporate literary devices when trying to define an abstract word or concept. Check out this example: Love is a campfire on a chilly November evening. Its warmth glides over your entire being, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes – but watch out: get too close, and you’ll catch fire and burn.
- Stuck on deciding on a topic? If you get to select your own topic, remember that selecting an abstract topic is best: love, forgiveness, contentment, or hero are all great options. Don’t fall into the trap of selecting a topic with too many aspects to define such as the history of man.
- Select a topic that allows plenty of original description – that’s the goal: to describe a concept in such a way that hasn’t been done before. Be original: state the history and the original of the word and then delve into your perception of it.
- Finally, begin early. Create an outline to help organize your idea, and then begin the research process to determine the origin of the word as well its evolution. Consider answering such questions as who created the word (Did you know Shakespeare coined the words lonely and majestic?), how it has evolved, and whether it has multiple parts of speech. The more questions you answer, the more definition will be put into your essay!