Reading and Analyzing the Topic Carefully

At the risk of stating the obvious, begin by reading the assigned essay topic, or prompt. Read it very carefully. Read it twice or three times, or until you are absolutely sure of what you have been asked to do.

SAT essay prompts usually begin with a quotation or a short passage meant to draw you into an issue. Their intention is to provoke thought and suggest an idea or two to discuss in your essay. When writing your essay, you may wish to refer to the quotation or passage, but you don’t have to. Weave it into your essay if you wish, but only if it’s appropriate and advantageous to do so.

The prompt may not turn you on right away, but once you begin to think about it, you may begin bursting with good ideas. Consider your essay as a kind of contract or agreement between you and readers who’ll be spending time with your words. They’ll want something that will engage their minds and hearts. As the writer, you are being challenged to write something so riveting that readers will resist the temptation of moving their eyes off of the page or letting their minds wander. In a way, writing an essay is a lot like giving a gift to a friend. You think about what they’d like. You try to please them by choosing it carefully and presenting it as stylishly as you can. If all goes well, you get a reward for your efforts.

Practice in Analyzing Topics

Directions: Read the following pair of typical SAT essay topics. Underline the key words that define the task to be performed. Then, in the blank spaces, write the steps that you would take to respond to the topic.

Topic A

Think carefully about the issue presented in the following statement and the assignment below.

Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.

Denis Waitley, Seeds of Greatness

Assignment: Is failure a temporary setback resulting from inaction or indifference? Plan and write an essay in which you explain and develop your view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and evidence drawn from your reading, studies, experience, or observation.

Required task:


Explanation: Do you agree with Denis Waitley’s definition of failure—that failure is a temporary condition that stems from apathy and indifference? Or do you think that failure is like an unavoidable chronic disease over which we have no real control? Or do you stand somewhere between those two extremes?

The essay you are asked to write should discuss your opinion. The position you take is less crucial than your ability to support your ideas with specific examples from your knowledge, background, or observation. Examples may come from books, from your studies, from personal experience, or from what you know about the lives of others.

An interesting and readable response to the question might be based on your own life. If you agree with the prompt, you might write about a failure you experienced in school, a personal relationship that turned sour, or a difficult task that bombed. Briefly describe the failure and explain its cause. Did it stem from your own apathy or inaction? Were you slow to act or perhaps misinformed? Maybe you were distracted or not thinking straight. Explain how your lack of success may have taught you a valuable lesson.

On the other hand, through no fault of your own, you may have experienced a failure that altered your life. In that case, your essay might show that the prompt is dead wrong.

Obviously, there are at least two sides to the issue. Regardless of your position, however, be sure to include more than one example. An argument that relies on a single example will often fall flat on its face.

Topic B

Think carefully about the issue presented in the following quotation and the assignment below.

Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be.

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)

Assignment: Does the need to question or evaluate your happiness mean that you are not as happy as you think? Plan and write an essay in which you state and develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with evidence drawn from your reading, studies, experience, or observation.

Required task:


Explanation: What you write depends largely on your interpretation of the word happiness. If you take it to mean a state of blissful well-being and unexamined contentment, then you might agree with the prompt. Questioning your own happiness may indeed lead you to the startling discovery that you are less happy than you thought. Such an event may call to mind the fate of Adam and Eve. Once they tasted of the Tree of Knowledge, they lost their paradise forever. But if you think of happiness as a complex emotion requiring scrutiny from time to time, then your essay would take issue with the prompt. Think of Socrates’ famous saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Or you might take another, more circumspect, point of view. May be you believe that absolute statements about happiness are foolish because happiness comes in so many forms. Happiness experienced over a lifetime, for instance, differs greatly from short-lived merriment at a party on Friday night.