SAT Essay Prompts
Here is a list of the most recent SAT essay prompts. You will notice how similarly broad all the questions tend to be, and that there are a few recurrent themes: Success, Power, Happiness, History, Modern Society, Truth, Freedom, Leadership, Independence, Conformity, etc. I advise reading this article about how the essays are graded, as well as the College Board's own advice on essay writing.
The biggest difference between people who succeed at any difficult undertaking and those who do not is not ability but persistence. Many extremely talented people give up when obstacles arise. After all, who wants to face failure? It is often said about highly successful people that they are just ordinary individuals who kept on trying, who did not give up.
Adapted from Tom Morris, True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence
Whether it is a child pouting to get ice cream or a politician using emotionally charged language to influence potential supporters, all people use some form of acting to achieve whatever ends they seek. Public figures of all kinds would have short, unsuccessful careers without the aid of acting. Acting—consciously assuming a role in order to achieve some purpose—is a tool people use to protect their interests and gain advantages in every aspect of life.
Adapted from Marlon Brando, Foreword to The Technique of Acting by Stella Adler
When people are very enthusiastic—always willing and eager to meet new challenges or give undivided support to ideas or projects—they are likely to be rewarded. They often work harder and enjoy their work more than do those who are more restrained. But there are limits to how enthusiastic people should be. People should always question and doubt, since too much enthusiasm can prevent people from considering better ideas, goals, or courses of action.
Why do people help others? Many philosophers and psychologists claim that everything people do, no matter how noble and beneficial to others, is really directed toward the ultimate goal of self-benefit. According to this view, helping others is always motivated by the prospect of some benefit to the helper, however small, and not out of genuine concern for the welfare of another.
Adapted from C. Daniel Batson, The Altruism Question
We are frequently told that compromise is the best way for people to work out their differences. When people compromise, with each side losing a little in order to reach a satisfactory agreement, both sides can continue to live in harmony. However, compromise can work only when the issues at stake are not that important. Compromise does not work when there is a genuine difference of opinion about strongly held principles or ideas.
People usually assume that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it. We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and then spending as much time as possible analyzing that information. But there are times when making a quick judgment is the best thing to do. Decisions made quickly can be as good as decisions made slowly and cautiously.
Adapted from Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
It is unrealistic to think that any group of people—a family, a committee, a company, a city—can function peacefully and productively without some kind of authority. The needs and interests of the individuals who make up any group are too varied for its members to operate as a unit without having someone to make the final decisions. Somebody has to be in charge; somebody has to be ultimately responsible.
Most of us are convinced that fame brings happiness. Fame, it seems, is among the things people most desire. We believe that to be famous, for whatever reason, is to prove oneself and confirm that one matters in the world. And yet those who are already famous often complain of the terrible burden of fame. In fact, making the achievement of fame one's life goal involves commitments of time and effort that are usually wasted.
Adapted from Leszek Kolakowski, Freedom, Fame, Lying, and Betrayal: Essays on Everyday Life
A society composed of men and women who are not bound by convention—in other words, they do not act according to what others say or do—is far more lively than one in which all people behave alike. When each person's character is developed individually and differences of opinion are acceptable, it is beneficial to interact with new people because they are not mere replicas of those whom one has already met.
Adapted from Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
When someone has the same ideas or views as most people do, we tend to believe that the person is reasonable and correct. Often, however, views that are considered reasonable or commonsensical are anything but sensible. Many widely held views regarding current events, science, education, arts and literature, and many other topics ultimately prove to be wrong. The fact that an idea or view is widespread—held by many people—does not make it right.
Planning lets people impose order on the chaotic processes of making or doing something new. Too much planning, however, can lead people to follow the same predetermined course of action, to do things the same way they were done before. Creative thinking is about breaking free from the way that things have always been. That is why it is vital for people to know the difference between good planning and too much planning.
Adapted from Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
Most people underestimate their own abilities. They tend to remember their failures more vividly than their successes, and for this reason they have unrealistically low expectations about what they are capable of. Those individuals who distinguish themselves through great accomplishments are usually no more talented than the average person: they simply set higher standards for themselves, since they have higher expectations about what they can do.
People are taught that they should not go back on their decisions. In fact, our society supports the notion that to change your mind is evidence of weakness and unreliability, leading many people to say, "Once I decide, I decide!" But why do people make such a statement? If factors, feelings, and ideas change, isn't the ability to make a new decision evidence of flexibility, adaptability, and strength?
Adapted from Theodore I. Rubin, Compassion and Self-Hate
Many people believe that being honest and honorable limits their options, their opportunities, their very ability to succeed. Unfortunately, in today's me-first culture, ethics may be the only thing people choose to live without! They believe they have only two choices: (1) to win by doing whatever it takes, even if it is wrong, or (2) to be ethical and therefore lose. Few people set out to be dishonest, but nobody wants to lose.
Adapted from John C. Maxwell, There's No Such Thing as "Business" Ethics
Whatever happened to good manners? Many books and articles have been written about the lack of common courtesy and old-fashioned politeness in today's society. From spoiled children acting out in restaurants to so-called experts yelling at each other on cable news shows, people seem less concerned with good manners and civilized behavior than ever before. On the other hand, if people really want to change the world for the better, they have to risk being seen as impolite or uncivil.
We define "courage" too loosely. Real courage is conscious self-sacrifice, either for the sake of others or to uphold a value. But we typically identify a single aspect of courage—daring or honesty, for example—as the entire virtue. We even say it takes courage to differ from the mainstream in one's preferences in fashion or music or to speak out about certain wrongs. Such acts, though admirable, are not necessarily courageous.
Adapted from John McCain with Mark Salter, Why Courage Matters
There are good reasons to pay attention to people who are older or more experienced than we are, even if their opinions on important issues are very different from ours. Of course, not every person older than us is worth learning from, while many young people are. But if the only people we listen to are our age and are likely to see things the same way we do, we will miss out on something important.
Good decision making generally requires people to think carefully and logically and to pay attention to practical details. However, people who depend on their feelings and emotions to make important decisions are not likely to spend hours gathering information, making lists, considering all possible outcomes, and so forth. When comparing the advantages or disadvantages of one course of action to another, these people ask themselves, "What do my feelings tell me?"
Thanks to great advancements in technology, we live today in a world in which knowledge is more readily available to greater numbers of people than ever before in history. Having more and better technology, however, has not made people wiser or more understanding. Indeed, people are so overloaded with information today that they have become less, rather than more, able to make sense of the world around them than our ancestors ever were.
The discovery that someone we admire has done something wrong is always disappointing and disillusioning. Yet even when people we consider heroes have been tarnished by their faults, they are no less valuable than people who appear perfect. When we learn that an admired person, even one who is seemingly perfect, has behaved in less than admirable ways, we discover a complex truth: great ideas and great deeds come from imperfect people like ourselves.
Some people say you should be content with what you have and accept who you are. But it is possible that too much self-acceptance can turn into self-satisfied lack of ambition. People should always strive to improve themselves and to have more in their lives—friends, things, opportunities. After all, where would we be if great people, both in history and in our own time, did not try to have more and to improve themselves?
So-called common sense determines what people should wear, whom they should respect, which rules they should follow, and what kind of life they should lead. Common sense is considered obvious and natural, too sensible to question. But people's common sense decisions may turn out to be wrong, even if they are thought to be correct according to the judgment of vast majorities of people.
Adapted from Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy
Both in society and in our own lives, today's problems are serious and require serious solutions. Increasingly, however, people are taught to laugh at things that aren't usually funny and to cope with difficult situations by using humor. They are even advised to surround themselves with funny people. There is strong evidence that laughter can actually improve health and help fight disease.
Adapted from Marshall Brain, How Laughter Works
Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. You need one because you are human. You didn't come from nowhere. Before you, around you, and, presumably, after you, there are others. Even if you live alone and even if your solitude is by your own choice, you still cannot do without a network or a family.
Adapted from Jane Howard, All Happy Clans Are Alike: In Search of the Good Family
Thanks to the Internet, the word "friendship" now has a much broader meaning. No longer are the bonds of friendship limited to telephone conversations, shared activities, or speaking face-to-face. In this day and age, very close friendships can be formed without the people ever meeting and by simply typing words on a screen.
Adapted from Sharon Hendricks, A Broader Definition of Friendship
An Internet phone service is offering unlimited free telephone calls for anyone who signs up. There is only one catch: the company will use software to listen to customers' phone conversations and then send customers advertisements based on what they have been talking about. For example, if they talk about movies with their friends, advertisements for movies will appear on their computer screens. Commentators have voiced concern about customers' giving up their privacy in exchange for phone service.
People are often criticized for working out their own ideas before learning all that others have discovered about a problem or subject. But those people are right; it is possible to know too much, especially at first. The time for thorough inquiry and extensive research is later, after you have made your own discoveries and come to your own conclusions.
Adapted from Charles Horton Cooley, Life and the Student
Photographs are very much a part of our daily lives. They show us faraway places, things to buy, important people and happenings, and sometimes just the ordinary. These pictures seem like frozen moments of real life. Cameras do copy what is in front of the lens, and so, in that sense, photographs show us what is real. They are at the same time, however, creations of the artist's intentions and unconscious mind.
Adapted from Leslie Sills, In Real Life: Six Women Photographers
When we are young, we learn from parents and teachers that we should wait patiently for what we want. Few people would dispute the wisdom or truth of this teaching. Our society, however, with its mad rush and hurry and its insistence on instant gratification and quick responses, encourages and rewards impatience. Experience teaches us that we should not and do not have to wait.
People today seem to spend most of their free time being passively entertained: they just sit on the couch and watch movies or television or sporting events. This is mainly because they use up all their energy at work or at school. If they had more time and energy to devote to activities outside of work or school, you can be sure they would enjoy more creative and active pursuits during their free time.
While serious thinking about important matters may disturb people in the short term, it benefits them immeasurably in the long term. Only by confronting unpleasant truths and by weighing both sides of complex issues can people understand the facts—whether in history, politics, literature, or their own lives—and make appropriate decisions. People may find it difficult, or uncomfortable, to think seriously about important matters, but not doing so means that they are leading lives without meaning or purpose.
Loyalty is a virtue that is encouraged and rewarded in every aspect of our lives. We are, therefore, loyal to our families, our teams, our schools, and our countries. But too often loyalty is blind: by automatically identifying ourselves with a group and accepting its values as our own, we avoid taking responsibility for our own thoughts and actions.
A requirement for membership in any group is conformity. Members must agree on such vital issues as how decisions will be made, who will serve as leaders, and how much freedom group members will have. The quality of decision making, however, is better when groups encourage nonconformity and disagreement among their members. Although it sometimes creates disorder and conflict, disagreement may prevent powerful majorities from making mistakes.
"Discipline" is a negative word for many people because it is associated with rigorous training, strict rules, and strong self-control. But we fail to realize that freedom comes only through discipline. Discipline compels us to sacrifice immediate rewards and pleasures, but it also gives our lives structure and prevents us from making costly mistakes. It keeps us from being subject to our impulses and weaknesses and thus frees us to achieve our true goals.
We are often encouraged to stop worrying about making mistakes and advised not to dwell on those we have already made. But without analyzing mistakes—decisions and actions that made a project fail, for instance—how can anyone be successful? Besides, there are some well-known mistakes others have made that seem worth studying carefully. Perhaps these mistakes could have been prevented if those responsible had been more concerned about making mistakes in the first place.
The making of illusions—misleading images or ideas that appear to be authentic or true—has become the primary business of our society. Included in this category are not only the false promises made by advertisers and politicians but all of the activities which supposedly inform, comfort, and improve us, such as the work of our best writers and our most influential leaders. These promises and activities only encourage people to have unrealistic expectations and to ignore facts.
Adapted from Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image
Although most of us do not like being criticized, it is said that we can always benefit from being told what we are doing wrong. We may lose a valuable learning opportunity if we do not listen to the criticisms expressed by others. Yet criticism, even when honest and well-intended, can be more harmful than helpful. We have more to gain by ignoring or shielding ourselves from the criticisms of others.
It has been said that "All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing." This statement suggests that people should do more than merely think about themselves and a few others, that they should feel responsible for issues and concerns that affect the larger society or community. But aren't most people already doing a lot more than "nothing" by taking responsibility for their own well-being and that of their families and friends?
All communities and groups have reliable rules of right and wrong in the form of laws, values, and social standards. It is therefore generally assumed that most people know the difference between right and wrong and that they usually know the right thing to do. This view is simplistic, however. People often find themselves in complex situations for which no rule provides adequate guidance and the right course of action is unclear.
When judging ourselves, we tend to consider our motives as well as our actions. If we mean to do something that will benefit others but our actions have hurtful consequences, we may feel that our good intentions are just as important as the effects of our actions. But we give our intentions too much credit. Actions can and should be judged on their own merits, regardless of what motivated someone to take them in the first place.
It is often observed that some sense of unease or dissatisfaction with oneself or one's circumstances, some self-criticism, is absolutely necessary for people to move forward and make any kind of progress or change. But optimism—a feeling of confidence that one's actions will be successful and will pay off in the future—is even more important. If people are not optimistic, what motivation will they have to change?
Adapted from Richard B. McKenzie, The Paradox of Progress
Most people tend to trust others too readily. To avoid being taken advantage of, however, it is generally wise to be doubtful and suspicious of others' motives or honesty. Many people would agree that if you find yourself doubting other people's sincerity or questioning their intentions, your instincts are probably correct. You are less likely to regret being cautious than being too trusting.
People who complain about progress and change expose themselves to criticism. Yet there is always a subtle danger in life's improvements and refinements, a drawback or disadvantage that occurs along with the benefits of progress. It sometimes seems that we devote half of our time to making what we call "improvements"—in our lives, our work, our relationships—but so often the original conditions had some quality that is lost in the process of change.
Adapted from E.B. White, Progress and Change
Learning and doing are their own rewards. No external rewards are required. Yet when external rewards are introduced—whether attention and praise from parents or prizes from teachers—these rewards exert a substantial influence. Instead of reading books to find out about the world, kids will read to win prizes. Kids will produce for rewards, but the quality of their activity and their interest in it will be dramatically altered.
Adapted from Barry Schwartz, The Costs of Living
We almost always tend to treat people on the basis of what they have done: the star athlete is recognized and rewarded with a college scholarship, while the lawbreaker is prosecuted and punished. But our past deeds provide only a partial measure of our real worth as human beings. We should be treated according to what we are capable of accomplishing, regardless of what we may or may not have actually done.
We would like to think that progress causes problems to be solved completely, and sometimes that happens. For example, some diseases that once posed a serious threat are no longer a problem, thanks to modern medicine. Some problems can be solved, and they go away. But as often as not, problems exist in a chain of cause and effect: for each problem solved, a new one develops.
Adapted from Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse
Too often, people fail to solve problems because they focus only on the problems, thinking that if they study a problem, it will eventually suggest its own solution. Instead, they should remember their past successes and retrace their steps by analyzing what they did or did not do in similar situations in the past. It is often said that there is no formula for success, but if people would only focus on repeating the specific actions that worked for them before, they would surely succeed again.
The word "uncompromising" is often used as a compliment, especially when it describes someone who is completely dedicated to certain principles and values. Uncompromising people have indeed recorded great achievements. But being uncompromising is not always a virtue. People who are uncompromising tend not to consider other people's views, seeing themselves as right and everyone else as wrong. All in all, it is better to be flexible and make compromises.
Most people try to be fair to others and respect their opinions. It is sometimes difficult, however, to be open to and accepting of all opinions, especially when the people expressing them are obviously uninformed or mean-spirited. It is more important to point out to others what they are doing and saying wrong than to try to tolerate every opinion.
There is something good to be said for holding firm opinions, whether in politics, art, business, or daily life. A person who is deeply committed to a certain position on a film, a political candidate, or an idea may have thought long and hard before reaching that position. But too often such opinions are not based on careful thought and may be so rigidly held that those who express them do not consider other viewpoints or positions.
It seems that we are always ready to justify our own actions and overlook our own errors. Why, then, are we so unwilling to judge others in the same way? We tend to hold others to very high, even unrealistic standards, expecting them to be always right, always honest, or always conscientious. All of us have personal flaws and shortcomings that we are quite willing to excuse. Surely we should be more willing to excuse such shortcomings in others.
Many people say that money is not the most important thing in life and that being overly concerned about money leads only to unhappiness. Others point out, however, that money and wealth have always been of dramatic significance in society. They argue that there is really nothing more important to one's overall quality of life than money.
Young people are highly influenced by popular culture. They attempt to define themselves on the basis of what they see on television, in newspapers and magazines, and in the movies. In fact, young people accept the values of popular culture as their own, believing that those values are central to their personal development and social acceptance.
Many people believe that our behavior should be consistent, that we should always be ourselves. They feel that we should not act one way with some people and another way with others. But is this right? Should our behavior always be consistent, or should we behave differently in different situations? Isn't behaving differently according to the people we are with or the situation we are in simply a matter of politeness and common sense?
Our cherished notions of what is equal and what is fair frequently conflict. Democracy presumes that we are all created equal; competition proves we are not, or else every contest would end in a tie. We talk about a level playing field, but it is difficult to make conditions equal for everyone without being unfair to some.
Adapted from Nancy Gibbs, Cool Running
Many colleges now offer courses in which students study television programs, comic books, magazines, advertising, and other aspects of popular culture. Critics complain that schools should not replace serious literature and history courses with such fluff. They claim that courses in popular culture present material that is trivial and inconsequential. But the study of popular culture can be just as important, demanding, and instructive as the study of traditional subjects.
Many voters think that integrity and character are the most important qualifications for political office. I disagree. Integrity—the quality of standing up for the same values in every situation—is not a good qualification for getting people to work together. Strongly held morals may make a candidate too inflexible and incapable of negotiation. And if character were really so important, candidates would be judged by their personal relationships rather than by their ability to deal with a community's or a nation's problems.
Adapted from Stanley Fish, Integrity or Craft: The Leadership Question
Thanks to the Internet, people have more access to more information than at any other time in history. People can instantly find information on almost any topic in the time it takes to type a couple of words and click a mouse. But we often know so little about the source of this information, including its reliability and the qualifications of the person who wrote it. If we do not know its source, information is not much good to us.
Being unwilling to change is often seen as a limitation. For example, a common accusation people often make in arguments is that the other person refuses to even consider taking new positions on issues. But being consistent is not always a bad thing. In fact, firmly supporting a position or point of view shows that one is stable and constant and does not change one's position whenever circumstances change. This consistency is far more important than a willingness to adjust one's thinking.
Getting people to work well in teams is crucial to accomplishing ambitious goals. Teams work a kind of magic in developing important ideas and getting hard work done, and they give us the close human contact and shared purpose that we all need. But there’s a dark side to teams too: group identity can be too powerful. The desire to be an accepted member of a group can prevent individuals from forming their own moral judgments.
Adapted from Peter S. Temes, The Power of Purpose
Modern society values convenience. From disposable napkins to the personal computer, from fast-food restaurants to cell phones, it seems that nearly everything we buy or use has been designed to maximize convenience. Unfortunately, instead of saving time and energy and minimizing frustration, many of the so-called conveniences in our lives turn out to be nuisances or have a negative impact on our health, the environment, or our emotional well-being.
When we go shopping, most of us do not think about the impact our spending has on other people. However, if we buy products from companies or individuals that mistreat their employees or the environment, or that otherwise do harm, we indirectly approve or even encourage such behavior. On the other hand, it may be unrealistic to assume that anything would prevent people from buying a good product at the right price.
Frederick Douglass once said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle." He was right. Progress is something that must be fought for; without conflict, progress simply does not occur.
There are two false assumptions about experts. One is that they see more clearly and think more intelligently than ordinary citizens. Sometimes they do, sometimes not. The other false assumption is that these experts have the same interests as ordinary citizens and hold the same values. In fact, the important decisions of society are within the capability of ordinary citizens. Not only can ordinary people make their own decisions without the help of experts, but they ought to.
Adapted from Howard Zinn, Declarations of Independence
For many people, the traditional path to success involves graduating from high school and college before working their way up in a particular profession. However, many of society’s most successful individuals taught themselves the skills they needed to start their own businesses, invent new technologies, or create works of art. For these individuals, the nontraditional path turned out to be the path to success.
Some see printed books as dusty remnants from the preelectronic age. They point out that electronic books, or e-books, cost less to produce than printed books and that producing them has a much smaller impact on natural resources such as trees. Yet why should printed books be considered obsolete or outdated just because there is something cheaper and more modern? With books, as with many other things, just because a new version has its merits doesn’t mean that the older version should be eliminated.