Writer’s block is the curse of the SAT essay section, but not because the prompts are too difficult, as an SAT newbie might imagine. In fact, the problem is that they’re too easy. You’re asked to answer incredibly general questions, and often it’s hard to come up with intelligent and specific examples to support such vague prompts.
One of the most commonly made mistakes on any section of the SAT is simply running out of time, most often on the essay section. Unfortunately, the SAT is ALL about time management. It’s so terribly easy to get sucked into the lull of brainstorming that you end up wasting half your time collecting supportive examples and start writing too late to finish. When I first started studying for the SAT, I was no different. English was my favorite subject in high school, and I was used to forming complex theses and fully expanding my ideas. I quickly came to realize that the SAT essay is an entirely different animal. You should spend AT MOST five minutes brainstorming and outlining, and in the next 20 minutes, your pencil should hardly leave the page. Easier said than done.
The truth is, there’s no way can you write a decent two-page essay in 25 minutes if your brain slides into derp mode within the first minute of brainstorming. If only you didn’t have to come up with supporting examples on the spot…
Actually, you don’t! That’s the best part. Save some time by preparing your essay examples IN ADVANCE. Mentally fill three “cans” of supporting examples under three different categories – history, literature, and other (current events, science, etc.) – so you can approach the SAT essay with “canned examples” already in your pocket. I learned this strategy from my father, Chris Borland, owner and operator of Borland Educational, when he first coached me on the SAT.
With three whole years of high school under your belt, you have a plethora of sources at your fingertips: find the ones with the greatest amount universal themes that could apply to almost any SAT essay prompt. A few canned examples are listed below:
History Can: Important Events and People
- World War II and the Holocaust (Adolf Hitler) – authority, racism, punishment, genocide, hiding one’s true identity, alliances, war
- Civil Rights Movement (Rosa Parks, MLK) – human rights, racism, freedom, determination
- Hollywood Blacklist – McCarthy era, censorship, communism, artists
- Industrial Revolution – inventions, energy use, difference in social classes
- Martin Luther King, Jr. — Civil rights, freedom, rights for all, racism, equality, making a difference
Literature Can: Novels, Poems, Plays and Speeches
- The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien: war, loss, fear, insanity, morality, friendship, memoir
- Daddy by Silvia Plath: relationships, family, gender, mortality, confinement, the supernatural
- The Crucible by Arthur Miller: deceit, gender, redemption, religion, chaos, hidden agenda, community, colonization
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding: violence, isolation, survival, teamwork
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: love, forgiveness, gender, social cues, hidden pasts, religion
- The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling: heros, good vs evil, magic, fate, family
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: corruption, love, loss, money, greed,
Other: Current Events, Science, Films, etc.
- Presidential Election of Barrack Obama: leadership, civil rights, American government
- Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells: development of medicine, betrayal, racism
- Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin: poverty, home, fairy tale, death, childrens’ perceptions, bildungsroman
You can use your canned examples in your essay, or at the very least, use other examples inspired by your canned examples. When a prompt asked me about taking risks, an adventure novel in my canned examples (namely Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne,) inspired me to list all of my other favorite adventure novels as examples.
An important note: don’t be afraid to use a historical event as an example just because you can’t remember the leader of a particular movement or can’t remember the time span of a certain war. If you miswrite a date or a name, the College Board does not hold it against you and will NOT dock points off your essay score. Why? The College Board simply wants to see whether or not you can construct a solid argument that you can support with evidence. As long as the evidence supports your thesis, you’re golden. With that said, try to be as accurate as possible, and don’t invent historical events that never occurred!
Canned examples will help you brainstorm less and write more. Nail the SAT essay by preparing these examples in advance.
Over-achiever alert: the new SAT’s essay is optional! If you choose to accept this challenge, you’ve come to the right place. If you’ve been keeping up with Magoosh’s in-the-know, breaking-news blog posts, then you already know that the new SAT uses real world essays, articles, and samples. Believe me, that’s the best thing you’ve heard all day. Why? Because you can read articles from the same sources the SAT gets material from.
Extra, extra! Read all about it!
The new SAT pulls articles from major newspapers and reputable magazines like The New York Times, The Economist, and The Atlantic. What do essays from all these different sources have in common? The articles the new SAT uses as prompts are all entering a bigger conversation, which means:
- They usually respond to another article, author, or major event
- They rely on statistics, articles, and other important people to help make a point
- They’re usually deep enough in perspective for solid analysis
Responding to the issues
Think about the context of the real world. Stuff is happening all the time! And writers are constantly publishing new material on current events. But, the new SAT isn’t likely to use breaking-news stories that are old by tomorrow morning’s bowl of corn flakes. Instead, the new SAT will use articles about big world issues with far-reaching effects. You might see pieces about climate change, or other environmental issues, like these articles:
Other events and issues the new SAT might use as essay prompts include new discoveries about disorders like autism, gender pay differences, or the recent discovery of gravitational waves.
Let’s agree to disagree
These are pretty big issues, but that means writers have a lot of different opinions about how to talk about complex problems. The new SAT asks you to analyze the excerpt or essay given to you. Analysis means you need to pay attention to the different ways authors build their arguments. What kinds of sources do the author rely on? What kind of language does he or she use? Answering these questions means you must look at the bigger picture. That’s why the new SAT likes to use editorials, or opinion-based articles, for essay prompts. They’re practically asking for analysis!
Some hot-button issues that might show up in editorial form on the new SAT include articles on the effects of natural disasters, college athlete compensation, and the problem of distractions in a digital age.
I bet you weren’t expected to see Sports Illustrated in that list, were you! Remember, the new SAT uses articles from all kinds of publications. Once you check out the articles linked here, browse around those publication websites! Don’t worry if some of the articles you come across seem long. Essay prompt articles won’t usually be longer than a page and a half, so some articles that you find in the LA Times or Scientific American might be abbreviated or adapted for the exam prompt. One of the best ways you can be prepared is to keep up with current events and read articles like these. For more on the what the prompts look like, read this Magoosh post.
And if you’re ready to practice, check out our New SAT Essay Example Passage and Prompt!!
About Emily Faison
An avid reader and art enthusiast, Emily has degrees in English from Florida State University and Southeastern University. When she's not editing web content for a local magazine, you’ll probably find her catching up on her Netflix queue or reading a novel with a fresh cup of coffee at a local cafe.
Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will approve and respond to comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! :) If your comment was not approved, it likely did not adhere to these guidelines. If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!