Is the SAT a Graduation Requirement_ It Might Be For Your State

Is the ACT or SAT a Graduation Requirement? It Might Be In Your State

The ACT or SAT as a Graduation Requirement: Your 2023 Lowdown

Is the SAT a graduation requirement for your high school? What about the ACT?

Believe it or not, some states in the U.S. do use the SAT or ACT as benchmark assessments. Some require that high school students take either test in order to graduate.

Where does your state fall in this respect? We've done the research and have the most up to date list of SAT/ACT testing policies across the U.S. states for 2023.

Others may simply offer these exams for free at school, without requiring students to take them for graduation.

Note: We always recommend that students consult guidance counselors for their school's specific testing policies, because these can vary from district to district within states.

Here's what we cover:

Where is the SAT a Graduation Requirement?

The following states require high school students to take the SAT in order to graduate:

You should bear in mind that these testing requirements are always subject to change--especially now that the SAT is transitioning to a fully digital format for 2024 onwards.

So, if you're taking the SAT through your school as a graduation requirement, what should you do? While it may be tempting not to take it too seriously, you should make sure you prepare extensively for it! Even if you're not worried about meeting the state-set benchmark for graduation, you should aim for a top score for college admissions.

Often, schools don't do a great job of preparing students for what will be tested on the SAT and how it'll be tested. That's even more true now that there's a format change! If you're serious about a top score, a good place to start would be our overall guide to the new digital SAT.

Once you're ready to start actually studying, we recommend working with a dedicated, personal SAT tutor. Ours have years of experience raising students' SAT scores: no matter how well you're scoring on your own, a tutor can help you lock in an even higher SAT score.

Where is the ACT a Graduation Requirement?

The ACT is a graduation requirement in the following states:

Other State Testing Policies

There are some states that require students to take either the ACT or the SAT for graduation.

Here they are:

We want to emphasize that many states offer the ACT and/or SAT to students for free but do not require students to take either exam (like South Carolina, for example).

For more information on SAT School Days or in-school ACT administrations, consult your guidance counselor.

Which Test Should You Take?

All U.S. colleges and universities accept either SAT or ACT scores from applicants. No college requires students to submit scores from both tests (although they can do so if they like).

So which test should you take? We've created an entire post to answer this question, which we encourage our students to read.

In the meantime, regardless of whether or not the ACT or SAT is a graduation requirement for your state, it's important to prepare for the exam that is the right fit for you.

The ACT and SAT are similar in some ways, but they are very different in others. Your best fit test will be the one that plays to your personal strengths and ultimately gives you the higher score.

A great place to start is a diagnostic SAT practice test or ACT practice test, both of which you can download and take for free. When it comes to using that diagnostic to meaningfully improve your scores and set up an SAT prep plan, there's no substitute for a good test prep tutor. Our tutors range from students at Ivy League universities to perfect scorers who've been tutoring for decades--contact us, and we'll find the right one for you.

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.

A Good ACT Score

What's a Good ACT Score for 2023? Our Data-Backed Answer

Your Guide to a Good ACT Score in 2023

Bonus Material: ACT Score Ranges for 499 Colleges

What's a good ACT score? What's an average ACT score? Is there such a thing as a bad ACT score?

We hear these questions all the time from our students.

In this post, we use up-to-date industry data to define a good ACT score for 2022. We also give insight into what makes for a good ACT score for you personally

Understanding the components of a "good" ACT score can be helpful for choosing a target score, which should be the first step in your ACT prep. Plus, students who take the time to figure out their personally great ACT scores are more likely to achieve college admissions success.

We also give readers access to ACT Score Ranges for 499 Colleges, which outlines the score ranges of successful applicants to nearly 500 U.S. institutions. Grab this for free below.

Here's what we cover in this post:

Your Guide to a Good ACT Score for 2022

A perfect score on the ACT is 36.

Most students assume that because 36 is the highest possible ACT score (both composite and individual), it's a "good" ACT score.

Yet while a 36 will definitely add a competitive edge to an application, anything less than a 36 isn't necessarily a bad ACT score.

In fact, it all comes down to how you define a "good" ACT score. We have 2 definitions for this.

student taking a test

Our 2 Definitions of A Good ACT Score

  1. “Good” is anything that is “above average” with sectional scores and percentile rankings
  2. “Good” is anything that will look competitive on a college application

Let’s start with the first definition.

Good ACT Score #1: The “Above Average” ACT Score

ACT regularly releases a "National Norms" report for ACT scores. This includes data from all ACT test scores reported between 2021 and 2022 (although these scores could be from 2019, 2020, and 2021 class graduates).

The most recent National Norms ACT Report includes the average section and composite scores of those reported between 2021 and 2022.

Average scores range from 19.9 to 21.1:

Section 2021-2022 Average Score
English 19.9
Math 20.2
Reading 21.1
Science 20.5
Composite 20.6
Source: ACT National Norms

Using the first definition of a "good" ACT score, a composite score of 21 or higher on the ACT could be considered a competitive score for 2022.

At the very least, we encourage students who are new to the ACT to aim for a target score that is above national averages, on individual sections and the whole test itself.

This would mean establishing a goal score of the following on each section:

Section Goal Above-Average Score 
English 21
Math 21
Reading 22
Science 21
Composite 21

Of course, your starting score may be higher than a composite of 21, so we also recommend that students start with a diagnostic ACT to see where they currently stand.

What about those ACT "Ranks"?

ACT score reports also include information about a student's "ranking" in the U.S. and that student's home state. These are approximate percentages of recent grads who have taken the ACT in the U.S. and your state and achieved the same score as you or lower.

The ACT offers these rankings for your composite score, individual section scores, and STEM/ELA scores. 

Naturally, the higher your "rankings," the better. Yet we recommend that students prioritize target ACT scores as opposed to rankings, as these are a lot more straightforward (and less likely to fluctuate dramatically in any given year).

Good ACT Score #2: The College-Competitive ACT Score

Of course, scoring above-average on the ACT is just one interpretation of what it means to do well on the test.

In the context of college entrance, one student’s “good” ACT score could be vastly different than another student’s. It just comes down to where you are applying and the average ACT scores of admitted applicants.

So, we like to say that, under this definition, a "good ACT score" is the one that is right for you given your college aspirations. This will probably be close to the ACT scores of admitted applicants. 

Plenty of universities specify ACT score ranges of successful applicants on their websites (although some are not public with this information).  

Most do so by specifying the "Middle 50," or the 25th and 75th percentile of accepted students’ ACT scores.

Here’s a sampling of the Middle 50s from various elite institutions:

College 25th Percentile ACT Composite  75th Percentile ACT Composite
Yale University 33 35
Vanderbilt University 33 35
Amherst College 30 34
Pomona College 32 35
Princeton University 33 35
Brown University 33 35
Barnard College 31 34

Source: The National Center for Education Statistics IPEDS (2019)

We've compiled the Middle 50s of ACT score ranges of successful applicants to the top 499 U.S. colleges and universities, which you can download right now.

student writing on a whiteboard

The Common Data Set

If the colleges on your list do not specify these score ranges on their websites, you can check out the Common Data Set.

The Common Data Set (CDS) initiative is an effort to give clear, relevant information to everyone involved in the college admissions process about universities' "institutional priorities."

What are institutional priorities? These refer to what a college cares about when it's admitting an incoming class.

The Common Data Set for Princeton University, for example, contains information about the university's enrollment, admissions, financial aid, and more. A school's CDS should also include details about test scores of admitted applicants, as Princeton's shows here:  

Princeton's CDS also breaks down ACT scores into 25th and 75th percentiles. You can use these percentiles to understand competitive scores of admitted applicants.

For example, one can safely conclude based on this CDS that 50% of admitted applicants to Princeton in 2019-2020 had ACT composite scores ranging from 33 to 35.

What This Means In Terms of Questions

How many questions do you have to get correct on the ACT to earn a score that is above average (as per our first definition of a good ACT score)?

Because no two ACTs are alike, it’s difficult to translate average ACT scores into total correct questions. It is possible to generalize, however, which we have done in the following table.

ACT Section Average 2020 Score Average Questions Right
English 20.1 ~ 43-45 (out of 75)
Math 20.4 ~ 29-31 (out of 60)
Reading 21.2 ~ 22-24 (out of 40)
Science 20.6 ~ 19-21 (out of 40)
Total 20.7 ~ 113-121 (out of 215)
Data based on raw score conversion tables for ACT Official Practice Tests 1-5.

Notice that average ACT performance boils down to getting just about (or over) 50% of all questions correct. 

student sitting on a roof

Bad ACT Scores: Do They Exist?

We've discussed the good. What about the bad? Is there such thing as a bad ACT score?

Once again, the answer to these questions really depends on your definition of "bad."

Yet from a general perspective, a “bad” SAT score often misses the mark of what has called college readiness. 

These scores are typically below-average in comparison to the mean. They may also not meet the benchmark scores has established in terms of college preparedness, especially with respect to content areas like English and Math.

Here's what says specifically about benchmark scores on its website:

Students who meet a benchmark on the ACT have approximately a 50% chance of earning a B or better and approximately a 75% chance of earning a C or better in the corresponding college course or courses. 

Here are the benchmark ACT scores for college readiness as of 2022 (Source: ACT):

  • English: 18
  • Math: 22
  • Reading: 22
  • Science: 23

First-time ACT students should prioritize meeting and surpassing these benchmark scores.

How to Get a Good ACT Score

We've discussed the good and the bad. Now what can you do to get a good ACT score? 

Preparation, preparation, preparation.

The ACT is entirely different from traditional high school tests. Much like a second language, it requires dedication, immersion, and time to understand and eventually master. 

To launch your ACT test prep journey, begin by establishing your initial goal score. It’s also important to set aside a decent amount of time for your ACT prep.

The ACT is not a test that students can cram, and nor should it take a side-burner in a student’s college application process. Allocate a generous timeline for sufficient ACT test prep, and stick to it! 

Build that college list.

Crafting a list of colleges of interest can help students identify ballpark ACT score ranges for competitive entry.

It can also inform other aspects of the college application, such as supplemental essay topics, scholarship opportunities, and optional application components.

Take a diagnostic ACT.

Taking a diagnostic practice ACT can give students a greater understanding of their personal great score. 

Plus, it’s an essential starting point for effective test prep!


Download ACT Score Ranges for 499 Colleges

Curious about what ACT score you need to get into your dream school?

We've compiled the ACT score ranges of successful applicants to the top 499 U.S. colleges in one simple document, which you can download for free below!

Here's what you'll get with this handy resource:

  • Middle 50 ACT composite scores for the top 499 U.S. colleges and universities
  • Middle 50 ACT sectional scores for English and Math
  • Admit rate for each college
  • All based on the most recent available data (2020)

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. 

What is a good SAT Score?

What is a Good SAT Score for 2024? (And 6 Steps to Get One)

What is a Good SAT Score for 2024? (And 6 Steps to Get One)

Bonus Material: SAT Score Ranges for 499 U.S. Colleges

What is a good SAT score? And how do you get one?

Our students ask these 2 questions all the time. But answers to them can vary widely, depending on who you ask.

In this post, we use up-to-date industry data to define a good SAT score for 2024. 

Yet we won’t leave you hanging there.

We also give insight into what makes for a good SAT score for you personally. Plus, we outline 6 actionable steps for getting closer to that target score.

Students who take the time to figure out their personally great SAT scores are more likely to achieve college admissions success.

Often, having the right SAT tutor can boost your score. If you're thinking about working with one, check out our expert-reviewed list of the 15 best SAT Tutoring Services.

We also give readers access to the SAT score ranges of competitive applicants to the top 499 U.S. colleges, which you can download below.

Here’s what we cover:

  1. Our 2 Data-Backed Definitions of a “Good SAT Score” for 2024
  2. How Many Questions You Need to Get Right to Achieve a Good SAT Score
  3. “Bad” SAT Scores — Do They Exist?
  4. 6 Steps for Getting a Good SAT Score (that you can easily start today)
  5. Bonus: SAT Score Ranges for 499 U.S. Colleges

Your Guide to a Good SAT Score for 2024

Students taking the SAT for the first time often ask these two questions:

  1. What’s a good SAT score?
  2. What do I need to do to get a good SAT score?

That first question can be tough to answer. After all, “good” is a relative term, right? And isn’t every single SAT technically different?

Yes and yes. 

That’s why it’s so important to define what we actually mean by a “good SAT score.” We have 2 definitions for this.

Our 2 Definitions of A Good SAT Score

  1. “Good” is anything that is “above average” with sectional scores and percentile rankings
  2. “Good” is anything that will look competitive on a college application

Let’s start with the first definition.

Good SAT Score #1: The “Above Average” SAT Score

Average SAT Scores

With this definition, in very basic terms, a good SAT score for 2024 could be anything above 1060. This was the average national composite SAT score for the graduating class of 2021. 

A good SAT Reading and Writing score could be anything above 533 and a good SAT Math score could be above 528, based on the same data released by the CollegeBoard in its 2021 annual report. 


But we like to be more precise than this.

Remember that an SAT score—composite or section—always comes attached to a percentile ranking. This percentile indicates the percentage of comparison students an individual test-taker out-performed.

There are two comparison groups: "SAT Users" (actual SAT test-takers from the classes of 2020 and 2021) and a "nationally representative sample," weighted percentiles derived from a research study of 11th and 12th grade U.S. students.

Because these comparison groups are different, the percentiles are likely to vary, as you can see in this sampling below:

What is a Good SAT Score?

A student who scores 1180 on the SAT in 2021, for example, will likely have a composite percentile of 78 (nationally representative sample) and 72 (SAT user percentile). This means that this student out-performed roughly 72-78% of SAT test-takers across these two comparison groups.

SAT scores are also usually normally distributed. This means that the bulk of students’ composite SAT scores hover around the middle of the curve. Far fewer scores appear on the higher or lower end of the SAT score range between 400 and 1600.

Normal Distribution Curve_SAT Scores

The middle-of-the-road (or median) SAT composite percentile is the 50th. Students in this percentile range out-performed 50% of all test-takers and under-performed 50% of all test-takers. Students with a 1080 SAT composite are in this 50th percentile.

What does this mean?

Students who score higher than 1080 on the SAT are above average nationally from a percentile basis. These students also hold a 51% or higher SAT percentile.

Thus, a good SAT score on a national scale is above 1080. 

Good SAT Score #2: The College Competitive SAT Score

Let’s not forget about one major reason for taking the SAT: college entrance! 

In the context of college entrance, one student’s “good” SAT score could be vastly different than another student’s. It just comes down to where you are applying and the average SAT scores of admitted applicants.

So, we like to say that, under this definition, a "good SAT score" is the one that is right for you given your college aspirations. This will probably be close to the SAT scores of admitted applicants. 

If a student is aspiring to attend a highly selective institution like Princeton University, for example, a “good” SAT score likely surpasses the 90th percentile. 

Plenty of universities specify score ranges and percentiles of successful applicants on their websites (although some are not public with this information).  

Most do so by specifying the "Middle 50," or the 25th and 75th percentile of accepted students’ SAT scores—this is not to be confused with SAT score report percentiles! 

Here’s a sampling of the Middle 50s from various elite institutions, updated based on 2022 data:

College 25th Percentile Reading and Writing Score  75th Percentile Reading and Writing Score 25th Percentile Math Section Score 75th Percentile Math Section Score
Yale University 740 780 760 800
Vanderbilt University 730 770 760 800
Amherst College 710 770 750 790
Pomona College 730 770 750 790
Princeton University 730 780 760 800
Brown University 730 780 760 800
Barnard College 720 770 720 780

Source: The National Center for Education Statistics IPEDS (2022)

When researching competitive applicant SAT scores, keep in mind range.

Successful Vanderbilt applicants, for example, often have an SAT Reading and Writing score of 730-770. Successful Barnard College applicants have an SAT Reading and Writing score between 720 and 770.

Those ranges are actually significant. Yes, the higher your score in these cases, the better. But, technically, students on the lower end of these ranges still earned acceptance!

Some institutions have test score and/or GPA cut-offs for scholarship considerations. Review these requirements ahead of time to identify score ranges for eligible applicants.

What is a Good SAT Score_ (2) (1)

What about schools that don’t explicitly state the average SAT scores of admitted applicants on their websites? 

There’s a workaround. 

Many colleges also release what is called a Common Data Set, which presents data related to admitted applicants' test scores and more.

Princeton University's CDS, for example, includes the 25th and 75th percentiles of SAT scores as well as the percentage of 2022-2023 freshman students with specific SAT score ranges.

Based off of this data, we can conclude that a competitive SAT score for a Princeton applicant would fall within these ranges:

  • Reading and Writing: 740-780
  • Math: 760-800
  • Composite: 1510 - 1570

But of course, that's not the whole story. If you want to know what it takes to get into Princeton, you can read our comprehensive guide here, which covers everything you need to know about getting admitted to Princeton.

You can also simply download these SAT Score Ranges for 499 U.S. Colleges, which includes the most recent data about SAT performance of competitive applicants.

What This Means In Terms of Questions

How many questions do you have to get correct on the SAT to earn a score that is above average (as per our first definition of a good SAT score)?

Every SAT exam is scaled for difficulty in a process the College Board calls “equating.” We discuss this more in our guide to scoring on the SAT

Because no two SATs are alike, it’s difficult to translate the 2020 average SAT scores into total correct questions.

It is possible to generalize, however, which we have done in the following table.

Section Average 2020 Score Average Questions Right
Evidence-Based Reading + Writing 533 ~46-52 questions right (out of 96)
Math 528 ~21-38 (out of 58)
Total 1060 ~67-90 questions (out of 155)
Data based on raw score conversion tables for College Board Official Practice Tests 1-8.

Notice that average SAT performance boils down to getting just about (or over) 50% of all questions correct. 

What is a Bad SAT Score? (Does it Exist?)

Is there such a thing as a bad SAT score? Kind of. 

A “bad” SAT score often misses the mark of what the College Board has called college and career readiness. These scores are typically below-average in comparison to the mean.

They may also not meet the benchmark scores the College Board has established in terms of college preparedness, especially with respect to content areas. These benchmark scores vary according to grade (from 8th grade to 11th grade).

For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the benchmark scores for college and career readiness. 

  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing: 480
  • Math: 530

Students who meet these benchmarks will see a green checkmark next to their scores. A yellow circle with an exclamation point indicates that a student has not met a benchmark for a given section.

Source: The College Board, Understanding SAT Scores

So, if you score below 480 on Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and 530 on Math, you’re technically earning a “bad” SAT score.  But remember 3 things:

  1. Every college will have different standards when it comes to SAT scores of admitted applicants 
  2. 530 on SAT Math is actually above average (on sectional scores) compared to 2020 average SAT scores
  3. You can take the right steps for increasing your SAT score (with the tips we’re about to talk about)

6 Steps for Getting a Good SAT Score (that you can easily start today)

Now we get to answer that third question mentioned in the intro to this post: What do I need to do to get a good SAT score?

1. Take a diagnostic SAT.

It’s hard to figure out your destination if you don’t know where you are starting in the first place!

Take a diagnostic SAT practice test to pinpoint where your skills currently lie. In fact, this is the first thing we have our students do when they sign up for any PrepMaven SAT test prep program. 

A benchmark set of SAT scores is essential for creating reasonable goals. And reasonable goals are critical for reaching your target SAT score.

You can find 10 FREE Official SAT Practice Tests here

We also recommend checking out our guide to self-proctoring your first SAT practice test—it’s important to replicate Test Day conditions as much as possible in order to generate accurate results.

2. Make sure the SAT is actually the right test for you.

You heard that right.

The SAT might not be the test for you, depending on the results of your diagnostic SAT. Some students are better suited for the ACT, the other standardized test used in college admissions.

Colleges accept both tests equally, but it’s important to prep for the test guaranteed to give you the highest score. 

The ACT and SAT are similar in some ways. But they are also vastly different in others. To see which test is right for you, ask these 5 questions now.

If you’re simply curious about the ACT, our post on the ACT’s general format will give you a good overview of what to expect with this test. 

We can also help students figure out which test to pursue in a free test prep consultation.

3. Build a general college list.

You might not be certain exactly where you’d like to apply to college.

That’s okay!

Most high school students solidify their college lists the summer or fall of their senior years.

However, to truly know what a good SAT score looks like for you, a general college list is essential. This list can help you identify ballpark SAT score ranges for competitive entry, which we talk about in the next step.

If you aren’t able to pinpoint exact colleges, think in terms of tier:

  • Tier 1: Ivy League Schools (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc.)
  • Tier 2: Extremely Selective Schools
  • Tier 3: Highly Selective Schools
  • Tier 4: Selective Schools
  • Tier 5: Moderately Selective Schools
  • Tier 6: Somewhat Selective Schools….. etc.

We recommend choosing 3 tiers of schools, arranged as follows, and at least 2 schools for each of these tiers (total of 6):

  1. Safety schools (you know you’ll probably get in)
  2. Competitive schools (odds are neutral)
  3. Reach schools (a “reach” to earn acceptance)

Of course, students will want to keep building this college list as they progress with their SAT test prep. For now, however, a general list of at least 6 schools will be sufficient to get to the next step.

4. Investigate college score ranges.

Once you’ve assembled your general college list (with at least 6 schools), it’s time to check out the average SAT scores of admitted applicants to these institutions. You have a few resources for this:

  • The college’s website itself
  • The most recent Common Data Set for that college (if possible)
  • National Center for Education Statistics IPEDS
  • PrepMaven’s SAT Score Ranges for 499 U.S. Colleges

Remember to keep in mind score ranges of admitted applicants and 25th / 75th percentiles (if applicable) as you do this research.

Let’s say that you want to research the SAT score ranges for applicants accepted to Fordham University.

Fordham does specify test score ranges on its website (not all colleges do this):

We can also back this up with information from Fordham’s Common Data Set from 2018-2019:

Do this for all 6 schools on your general list.

5. Identify your target SAT score

SAT test prep without a target score is like a ship without a rudder. A target SAT score is essential for 2 things:

  1. Setting goals
  2. Figuring out your test prep timeline

Before setting your target SAT score, we encourage you to:

  • Take a diagnostic SAT practice test
  • Assemble a general college list 

A concrete target SAT score can mean the difference between a mediocre score and a good score. Why? You are more likely to reach your goals in life if they are:

  • Specific
  • Time-oriented and
  • Realistic

In fact, students who don’t choose a target SAT score at the start of their test prep are less likely to be successful in their journey. 

6. Take your time

The SAT is vastly different from traditional high school tests. Much like a second language, it requires dedication, immersion, and time to understand and eventually master. 

Thus, it’s important to give your test preparation time. The SAT is not a test that students can cram, and nor should it take a side-burner in a student’s college application process. 

Allocate a generous timeline for sufficient SAT test prep, and stick to it! 

Download SAT Score Ranges for 499 U.S. Colleges

We've compiled the SAT score ranges of successful applicants to the top 499 U.S. colleges in one simple document, which you can download for free below!

Here's what you'll get with this handy resource:

  • Middle 50 SAT composite scores for the top 499 U.S. colleges and universities
  • Middle 50 SAT sectional scores for Reading & Writing and Math
  • Admit rate for each college
  • All based on the most recent available data (2019)

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.

ACT Math Strategies from the Experts_PrepMaven

10 ACT Math Strategies from the Experts

10 ACT Math Strategies from the Experts

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

ACT Math is the second section of the ACT. It contains 60 questions to be answered in 60 minutes.

That's quite a tight time limit! Plus, ACT Math tests a lot of content most test-takers haven't studied since freshman or sophomore year of high school.

What can you do to improve your ACT Math score?

Besides having a firm grasp of the math topics tested on this section, it's important to have some solid strategies in place.

It’s extremely important to establish a strategic approach for all sections of the ACT, precisely because it is a standardized (and thus predictable) test. 

In this post, you'll find our very best ACT Math strategies to help you get closer to your target score.

We also give you access to our ACT Guidebook, a fantastic (FREE) resource for students navigating the test for the first time. Grab it below!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Here's what we cover:

  1. The ACT Math Section in a Nutshell
  2. 10 ACT Math Strategies from the Experts
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

1) ACT Math in a Nutshell

ACT Math tests the math subjects most students will have learned through their senior year in high school. That includes pre-algebra, Algebra 1 and 2, geometry, trigonometry, and advanced math.

Here's what you need to know:

  • ACT Math is the section section of the ACT
  • It's scored on a scale of 1-36, like every other ACT section
  • There are 60 questions on ACT Math, to be completed in 60 minutes
  • Questions are arranged (generally) in order of increasing difficulty (so questions 1-20 are lowest difficulty, for example)
  • You are allowed to use a calculator
  • This section does not give you any reference information (i.e., math formulas)
  • The math topics tested include geometry, trigonometry, pre-algebra, algebra 1 and 2, and some advanced math
  • ACT Math favors word problems and "reasoning," which basically means that it tests familiar content in unfamiliar ways

Let's look at the strategies you can use on ACT Math to succeed!

For an even deeper dive into ACT Math, including all the math that you need to know, check out our post Everything You Need to Know About ACT Math.

2) 10 ACT Math Strategies from the Experts

Strategy #1: Prioritize easier questions.

On each section of the ACT, every question is worth the same number of points. This means that an "easy" question is worth just as much as a "hard" question.

This can be counterintuitive, because many students are used to hard math questions being worth more on exams! They race through the easy questions on standard high school tests so they can spend most of their time on the more difficult problems.

However, this approach will not serve you on ACT Math.

Prioritize easier questions first and make sure you feel 100% confident on those before proceeding to difficult questions. This typically means spending most of your time on questions 1-40 on ACT Math.

Don't race to get to questions 41-60, because those questions are high-difficulty -- in fact, the majority of test-takers won't get these questions correct, or even have time to get to them!

If you find yourself spending more than a minute working a problem, skip it and come back. Save any remaining time at the end of the test for double-checking your work on those early questions.

Strategy #2: Make the answers work for you.

Take a look at this sample ACT Math word problem:

sample ACT math question, solve by plug in
example ACT Math question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

Do you see how all of the answers are in number form? If all the answer choices are numbers, this is a good sign that you can make those answers work for you instead of diving into complicated algebra!

You can "plug in" the answers to the problem and see which one fits the stipulations of the question. This is a much easier and faster way of solving this word problem.

Remember: on ACT Math, it doesn't matter how you arrive at the right answer, because no one's grading you on your work. For that reason, choose the most efficient and easiest way of getting to that correct answer.

Strategy #3: Replace abstract values with concrete ones.

ACT Math loves to ask questions that contain variables or unknown values, like this question here:

sample ACT math, create a test number
example ACT Math question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

It is always a lot harder to work with abstract values as opposed to concrete ones. So replace those abstract values with actual numbers!

In the example question above, that would mean replacing ‘negative real value of x’ with something like -4. Then, plug your chosen value of x into the answer choices to see which ones are true and which ones aren’t.

When picking numbers in this way, be sure to choose ones that are relatively small and easy to work with, but avoid using 1, -1, or 0.

Strategy #4: Cut through the fluff on word problems.

ACT Math contains a lot of word problems! These can be tricky to navigate, because they're often very wordy and do a great job of hiding the actual math involved -- and the question itself.

When approaching these word problems, try to separate the "fluff" -- stuff you don't need -- from the actual problem. Identify what the question is truly asking and focus on that.

This word problem is a great example of this. There are a lot of words here, but what is the question really asking?

sample ACT math, word problem
example ACT Math question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

If you realized that this is really asking what what’s the smallest number that’s divisible by 5, 6, and 7 — you’re right! (Then, once we have that number, we need to divide it by 7.) This really has nothing to do with relay races, grades, or groups of students.

The actual math involved in this word problem is pretty basic, but ACT Math loves to mask that in complicated wording.

Strategy #5: Build a solid foundation of content knowledge.

ACT Math and ACT English are the two sections of the test that rely most heavily on outside content knowledge. (Reading and Science are basically 100% strategy-based.)

For this reason, a solid foundation of content knowledge can only serve you on ACT Math!

Because a lot of this content covers algebra and geometry, topics many test-takers study earlier on in high school, it's important to review any topics you're rusty on.

You can pinpoint what you need to review by taking a practice ACT.

Keep in mind that the ACT does not include a reference page with relevant math formulas before the Math section. You'll have to go into the test with those memorized, so make sure to use flashcards or other study tools to lock those formulas in place!

You can find all of these ACT Math strategies and so much more in our ACT Guidebook, a free resource for students taking the test for the first time. Grab your copy below!

Strategy #6: Identify the concept the question is actually testing.

According to ACT, the organization that writes the test, there are three types of content areas tested on ACT Math:

  • Preparing for Higher Math (~60% of all questions)
  • Integrating Essential Skills (~40% of all questions)
  • Modeling (~25% of all questions)

These categories may seem pretty broad, which is why we've broken these content areas into the following topics they test.

Concept Topics Tested
Geometry Triangles
Pythagorean Theorem
Special Right Triangles (30-60-90 and 45-45-90)
Rule of 180 (interior angles)
Isosceles triangle properties
Similar Triangles
Equilateral triangle properties
Right triangle properties
Area & Circumference
Sectors, Interior Angles, and Arcs
Tangent Lines
Radius and diameter
4-Sided Shapes
Rectangle area and perimeter
Area of a trapezoid
Area of a parallelogram
Internal angles of a parallelogram
Interior angle of a polygon formula
Area of embedded shapes
Statistics & Probability Probability formula
Percent change
Patterns and sequences
Functions Solving functions
Graphing functions
Composition of functions
Algebra 1 & 2 Slope
Slope intercept form
Linear equations (solving, graphing)
Parallel lines
Perpendicular lines
Midpoint formula
Distance formula
Exponential decay and growth
Systems of equations
Range and domain
Unit circle
Imaginary numbers and complex numbers
Combinations and permutations
Number and Quantity Adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing fractions
Number properties
Absolute value
Scientific notation
Pre-Algebra Mean, Median, Mode
Volume of 3-D shapes (cones, prisms, spheres, etc.)
Surface area of 3-D shapes (cones, prisms, spheres, etc.)
Area of shapes (triangles, rectangles, circles, etc.)
Perimeter of shapes (rectangles, triangles, etc.)
Solving equations and expressions
Types of numbers (rational, real, integers, etc.)
Modeling Linear equations
Exponential equations
Analyzing graphs, charts, figures, and other data

Familiarizing yourself with these concepts is a vital part of learning the "language" of ACT Math. It can also help you cut through the fluff on word problems, one of the ACT Math strategies we've already discussed, and focus on the actual math involved.

Let’s try this ACT Math strategy out on this sample question. What is the concept hiding behind the question here?

sample ACT math, exponent rules
example ACT Math question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

At its heart, this question is testing the depth of our understanding of operations with exponents!

Of course, this question also requires a little bit of critical thinking and reasoning in order to make the rules of exponent operations work in this context — that’s what makes it a medium-difficulty ACT Math question.

Strategy #7: Embrace a guessing strategy.

While you might not have time to attempt every ACT Math question, never leave a question blank. There are no penalties for wrong answers on the ACT, so make sure to bubble in an answer for every question, even if it’s a total guess! 

That being said, try to use process of elimination as much as possible to weed out unlikely answers and increase the probability of guessing correctly. Every answer choice ruled out significantly increases your odds of getting a correct answer. 

In the event that no answer choices can be ruled out, choose a “Letter of the Day” (i.e. A, B, C, or D) and use that same letter for every guess.

You can find all of these ACT Math strategies and so much more in our ACT Guidebook, a free resource for students taking the test for the first time. Grab your copy below!

Strategy #8: Be suspicious of figures.

In the ACT Math instructions at the start of the test, the first point specifically notes that "Illustrative figures are NOT necessarily drawn to scale" -- what does this mean?

Any time you see a figure associated with a problem, be careful about making any assumptions. Don't assume an angle is 60 degrees, for example, just because it looks like it is!

Derive values from a figure based on values that are already clearly marked, and when in doubt, draw your own figure to work from.

Strategy #9: Be calculator savvy.

It's important to understand the how-and-when of using calculators on ACT Math. (Find ACT's policy on calculator use here.)

While many students rely on a calculator for computation, it’s not always the quickest way to solve a problem (especially on the ACT!). Practice problems with and without a calculator in advance of the test to understand which is fastest for you.

However, a calculator can be very handy for eliminating careless errors, especially on low-difficulty questions or those that involve negative numbers, fractions, and/or decimals.

Strategy #10: Show your work.

You might be tempted to answer a low-difficulty Math question in your head. But be careful -- this can lead to careless errors.

In fact, it's not uncommon to see high-achieving test-takers make most of their mistakes earlier on in the section, because of either moving too quickly or not showing work.

You won't get credit for showing your work as you often do in high school math class. But writing out the steps in a problem you're completing can be vital for maintaining accuracy, double-checking your work at the end of the test, and pinpointing the concepts tested.

3) Download PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

With these ACT Math strategies, you'll be well on your way to boosting confidence, accuracy, and time management on this section!

Find these strategies and so much more in our free ACT guidebook, which contains valuable guidance from the experts for navigating this test.

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

What is the College Essay Your Complete Guide_PrepMaven

What is the College Essay? Your Complete Guide for 2023

What is the College Essay? Your Complete Guide for 2023

Bonus Material: 30 College Essays That Worked

The college essay is one of the most important parts of your college application. 

As important as it is, however, it’s very different from the essays you’re used to writing in high school. 

From word count to genre, the college essay is in a category entirely of its own--and one that can be unfamiliar for most students applying to college.

So, what is the college essay? What role does it play in college admissions?

And, most importantly, how do you get started writing an amazing essay?

We answer all of these questions in this complete college essay guide. 

Plus, we give readers access to 30 college essays that earned applicants acceptance into the nation’s top colleges. They're free and you can grab them below right now!

Here’s what we cover in this guide:

What is the College Essay?

Most students will use the Common App to apply to U.S. colleges and universities. A smaller number of colleges require students to submit applications through Coalition.

Regardless, both platforms require students to submit a personal statement or essay response as part of their application. Students choose to respond to one of the following prompts in 650 words or fewer.

College Essay Prompts 2022-2023

The Common App  Coalition
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? What interests or excites you? How does it shape who you are now or who you might become in the future?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? Describe a time when you had a positive impact on others. What were the challenges? What were the rewards?
Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? Has there been a time when an idea or belief of yours was questioned? How did you respond? What did you learn?
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced? What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience?
Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? Submit an essay on the topic of your choice.
Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

What do these questions all have in common? They all require answers that are introspective, reflective, and personal. 

Take a look at some of these buzzwords from these prompts to see what we mean:

  • Story
  • Growth
  • Understanding
  • Learning
  • Motivation
  • Challenge
  • Belief / Idea
  • Contribution
  • Identity
  • Experience

These are big words attached to big, personal concepts. That’s the point!

But because that’s the case, that means the college essay is not an academic essay. It’s not something you write in five paragraphs for English class. Nor is it a formal statement, an outline of a resume, or a list of accomplishments.

It’s something else entirely.

Our Definition of the College Essay

How do we define the college essay? We’ll keep it short and sweet.

The college essay is a personal essay that tells an engaging story in 650 words or fewer. It is comparable to memoir or creative nonfiction writing, which relate the author’s personal experiences. 

The college essay is fundamentally personal and creative. It is rich with introspection, reflection, and statements of self-awareness. It can have elements of academic writing in it, such as logical organization, thesis statements, and transition words. But it is not an academic essay that fits comfortably into five paragraphs.

Your task with the college essay is to become a storyteller--and, in the process, provide admissions officers with a valuable glimpse into your world, perspective, and/or experiences.

Example of a College Essay That Worked

Take a look at this essay that earned its writer acceptance into Princeton. We won’t take a super deep dive into the components that make it great. 

But we do want to point out a handful of things that align with our definition of the college essay. This essay:

  • Tells an engaging story
  • Clearly conveys the author’s voice
  • Is rich with introspection and reflection
  • Provides insight into the author’s character, values, and perspective
  • Is not an academic essay or list of accomplishments
  • Is deeply personal

It also exemplifies the 7 qualities of a successful college essay.

Here’s the full essay:

“So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.” -Franz Kafka

Kafka, I’m afraid, has drastically overestimated the power of food. And though it pains me to undermine a statement by arguably the greatest writer of the 20th century, I recognize it as a solemn duty. Perhaps Kafka has never sat, tongue wild in an effort to scrape residual peanut butter off his molars, and contemplated the almost ridiculous but nevertheless significant role of peanut butter in crafting his identity. Oh, did I just describe myself by accident? Without further ado, the questions (and lack of answers, I point out) that I contemplate with peanut butter in my mouth.

When I was three and a half years old, my tongue was not yet versed in the complex palate of my peers, consisting mainly of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. (It did not help my transition into pre-school that I did not speak English, but Russian and that my name, which had been hurriedly switched from Alya to Alex, was unpronounceable to me.) But it is most worth noting that I refused lunch for months, waited at the windowsill with tear-stained cheeks every day unless my mom left law school midday to bring my own comfort food: borscht, katlety, kampot.

I slowly assimilated into American culture, like most immigrant kids. I began to eat the peanut butter sandwiches at pre-school in the presence of my mom, and then did not need her altogether. She must have been elated that I was comfortable, that she could stay at school all day without worrying. She must have been destroyed when I waved her away the first time and told her I did not need her to come anymore.

I realized much later that the Russian food my mother brought me in pre-school made me comfortable enough to learn the language of the children there, to share their lunches, to make friends. Ironically, my Russian culture enabled the rise and dominance of American culture. When my parents wanted to visit their birthplace, my birthplace, Odessa, Ukraine, I rolled my eyes and proclaimed Disney Land, Florida. I rolled my eyes when I spoke too fast for my parents to understand. I rolled my eyes when I checked my mom’s grammar and when she argued with customer service in her thick Russian accent.

Peanut butter, and foods like it, represented not only my entrance into American culture, but the swift rejection of anything Russian that followed. Chicken noodle soup replaced borscht, meatballs replaced katlety, Sunny D triumphed over kampot. I became embarrassed by the snacks packed in my brown paper bag, begged for Cheetos, lime Jell-O cups, and that creamy spread between two damp pieces of Wonder Bread. My American identity tried to eclipse the Russian one altogether.

I realized later still that the identity battle I fought must have been more difficult to watch for my parents than it could have ever been for me to experience. They let me figure myself out, even though it meant I spent years rolling my eyes at them. Though I do not claim to have discovered a perfect balance of Russian and American, I would venture that a healthy start is eating peanut butter for lunch and katlety at dinner.

So, Kafka, I hope that next time a memorable quote comes to mind, you think before you speak. Because when peanut butter cleaves to the roof of my mouth, I think about what it means “to cleave:” both to adhere closely to and to divide, as if by a cutting blow, especially along a natural weakness. And I think about my dual identity, how the Russian side and American side simultaneously force each other apart and bring each other together. I think about my past, feeling a little ashamed, and about my present and future, asking how I can create harmony between these two sides of me. That, Kafka, does not sound like solved questions to me.

Want to read more essays that worked? Download our 30 college essays that earned their writers Ivy League acceptance for free below.

The College Essay’s Role in Admissions

In our post about what college admissions officers are looking for, we outline the Golden Rule of Admissions.

The Golden Rule of Admissions

We also define “a student of exceptional potential.” In general, competitive applicants to top U.S. colleges and universities exemplify three pillars:

  • Character and personal values
  • Extracurricular distinction
  • Academic achievement
3 Pillars of Successful Applicants

Admissions officers have a lot at their disposal when it comes to assessing extracurricular distinction and academic achievement. They’ve got transcripts, test scores, resumes, and letters of recommendation. 

But how do they assess character and personal values?

A recent survey of admissions officers revealed some interesting answers to this question.

Source: National Association for College Admissions Counseling

Notice how an overwhelming 87% of officers surveyed reported that they infer character and personal qualities of an applicant from the content of the college essay!

The Common Data Set for individual colleges further supports this notion that officers infer character and values through the college essay, teacher recommendations, and other application components. The CDS for Cornell, for example, reveals that the application essay and character/personal qualities are "very important" in admission decisions.

What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly altered the college application landscape by introducing some serious inequity in the realm of extracurricular activities, academics, and general access. 

Many admissions officers have stressed their focus on character and personal values (more qualitative components) in recent admissions cycles as a result.

Schools are hungry for as much material as possible that they can use to assess students’ character and values! This is one of the reasons why many top colleges require applicants to answer supplemental essay questions -- ones in addition to the college essay. These essays can range from 50-650 words, and many colleges have more than one.

For example, Princeton requires applicants to respond to six supplemental essay questions. Here's one of them from the 2022-2023 admissions cycle:

At Princeton, we value diverse perspectives and the ability to have respectful dialogue about difficult issues. Share a time when you had a conversation with a person or a group of people about a difficult topic. What insight did you gain, and how would you incorporate that knowledge into your thinking in the future?

So how important is the college essay in the application process?


Princeton's former Dean of Admissions summed it up nicely with this quote about the college essay in a conversation with the New York Times:

Your ability to write well is critical to our decision because your writing reflects your thinking. No matter what question is asked on a college application, admission officers are looking to see how well you convey your ideas and express yourself in writing. It is our window to your world.

The 7 Common Challenges in Writing the College Essay

Now that you know what the college essay is and how it influences college admissions, let's discuss the challenges in writing it. This list isn't comprehensive, but it does compile some of the most common challenges most students face when preparing to write their personal statement.

Challenge #1: The Pressure

The college essay is integral to the college admissions process. It's only likely to carry more weight in coming admission cycles in the wake of COVID-19.

There is immense pressure on students to write essays that will make them competitive in admissions! This essay can also very much feel like uncharted territory for students given their lack of experience in the world of personal writing. This pressure can become a veritable roadblock in writing the college essay.

Challenge #2: What's Introspection?

Successful college essays are deeply personal and full of introspection. We define introspection as reflection on what's important in your life -- values, beliefs, opinions, experiences, etc. It also can have a lot to do with what makes you you.

To some students, introspection might come naturally. To others, it might not! This is understandable. The high school classroom doesn't necessarily give space for students to reflect on what they've learned from certain experiences or what they believe are their core values. However, this is exactly what admissions officers are looking for in essays!

Challenge #3: You Just Don't Write Personal Essays in School

Most English classes spend a lot of time on the academic essay. But most don't include many units on writing personal essays or creative nonfiction--if any!

Many students writing the college essay thus face an entirely unfamiliar genre that comes with its own word limit, structure, and style of writing.

Challenge #4: The Word Limit

Both the Common App and Coalition require students to limit their essays to 650 words. That's a little over a page of writing, single-spaced.

This means that students have to be incredibly concise in crafting their responses. This can be a tall order given what the college essay often includes: big ideas, big themes, and big reflection!

Challenge #5: Choosing a Topic

Given the college essay's requirements, it can be tough to choose the "right" topic. Should you discuss an extracurricular activity? Personal experience? An important mentorship figure?

Some students have a wide variety of experiences and personal stories to choose from. Others might feel that they have a limited number.

Challenge #6: Choosing a Structure

Let's say that you've chosen your college essay topic. Now how do you fit it into a concise structure that gives ample air space to what college admissions officers are looking for?

Choosing a structure can be critical for telling your specific story in a compelling fashion. But once again, this is unfamiliar terrain for most students who haven't really written a personal essay before.

And when we say that structure really is critical for college essay writing, we mean it--we've written an entire post on college essay structure.

Challenge #7: Getting Started

Last but not least, it can be incredibly difficult simply to start the college essay writing process. From choosing a topic to writing that first draft, there's a lot to navigate. Many students also have a lot going on in general when they get around to writing their essays, including AP exams, summer programs, and the chaos of senior fall schedules.

If this sounds like where you're at in the college essay writing journey, keep reading. We've got 6 tips coming up to help you take those first steps.

How To Write an Amazing College Essay - 6 Tips

You’ve learned what a college essay is and the weight it carries in college admissions. You’ve also heard a bit about what makes this essay challenging. Now what?

It’s time to get started writing your very own. 

The following tips are designed to help you begin the journey towards an amazing college essay, regardless of your story, college aspirations, or timeline. Let’s dive in.

Tip #1: Give Yourself Time & Get Organized

Good college essays take time, and we mean time. We recommend that students establish a generous timeline for writing their personal statements. Ideally, students should start thinking about their essays seriously in the spring of their junior year or summer immediately following.

It's also important to get organized. Create separate documents for brainstorming and free-writes, for example, and clearly mark your drafts based on where you're at in the writing process.

We also recommend researching supplemental essay prompts for the colleges on your list and keeping track of these--including deadlines and word limits--in a spreadsheet. This is especially important for students applying early.

Tip #2: Practice Introspection

You can start flexing your introspective muscles before writing your essay! Practice journaling, for example, or responding to daily reflective prompts like the following:

  • What is your greatest strength? Weakness?
  • What is one of your core beliefs? Why is it core?
  • What is your best quality?
  • What matters to you? Why?
  • What challenges you? Why?

The New York Times has even released 1,000 free writing prompts for students that range from identity and family to social life and technology.

With introspection, focus on using "I" as much as possible. This can feel awkward, especially as most English teachers encourage students to avoid using "I" in academic essays. But it's the key to deep reflection.

You can also check out our post on College Essay Brainstorming or download 30 FREE college essay brainstorming questions right here.

Tip #3: Familiarize Yourself with Personal Writing & Storytelling

Immerse yourself in examples of powerful personal writing and storytelling. A great place to start is by downloading our 30 examples of college essays that earned students Ivy League acceptance or checking out our 11 College Essays That Worked post.

Otherwise, check out memoirs or creative essay collections.

The Moth, a storytelling radio project, is another great resource for students looking to learn more about how people tell personal stories in an engaging fashion. Plus, it's just plain fun to listen to!

Tip #4: Know What Makes for An Amazing Essay

What qualities do most successful college essays have?

We've done the research. A successful college essay is often:

  1. Introspective and reflective
  2. Full of a student's voice
  3. Descriptive and engaging
  4. Honest
  5. Unconventional and distinct
  6. Well-written
  7. Meaningful

We take a deeper dive into these 7 qualities of a successful college essay in a separate post.

Tip #5: Review Supplemental Essay Questions

Don't forget about supplemental essay questions! It's easy to overlook these or assume that they are less important than the college essay.

But remember--many colleges require supplemental essays as a means of gaining more information about competitive applicants. The Common App and Coalition also now have optional COVID-19 essay questions (learn our tips for answering these COVID-related questions here).

Don't save your supplemental essays for the last minute! Review questions well in advance through the Common App or Coalition platform so that you are aware of the other responses you'll have to write.

We've actually compiled the supplemental essay questions for the top 50 U.S. colleges and universities right here.

You can also check out our 8 tips for writing amazing supplemental essay responses.

Tip #6: Work with a Mentor

Yes, it is possible to write your college essay, personal as it is, under the right one-on-one guidance. Mentors can help you with all stages of the college essay writing process, from topic brainstorms to final draft polishing.

They can also help create an actionable timeline for tackling both the college essay and all of those supplements, and hold students accountable!

You can sign up to work with one of PrepMaven's master essay consultants if you'd like. Or check out our summer College Essay Workshops.

Download 30 College Essays That Worked

One of the best ways to start the college essay writing process is to look at examples of successful essays. But these examples can be hard to find, and few and far between.

That's why we compiled 30 college essays that earned their writers acceptance into Ivy League schools. You can download these examples for FREE below.


Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. 

Qualities of a Successful College Essay

7 Qualities of a Successful College Essay

7 Qualities of a Successful College Essay

Bonus Material: 30 College Essays That Worked

The college essay is one of the most important aspects of a student's application.

It gives applicants an opportunity to articulate their personal values, character traits, and perspectives. It's also a chance to add more value to your application, simply by demonstrating who you are outside of your resume and transcript.

A "successful" college essay is one that makes the most of these opportunities and, in many cases, earns an acceptance.

We've demystified what most admissions officers look for in college applications. But what are these officers looking for in the college essay itself? What are the top qualities of a successful application essay?

In analyzing various essays of admitted applicants, we've come up with a list of the characteristics that most of these pieces have in common. We'll be referring to some of these pieces throughout the post.

Plus, we give you access to 30 college essays that earned their writers acceptance into Ivy League schools. Grab these below.

Here's what we cover:

The College Application Essay In a Nutshell

Most students applying to a college or university in the U.S. must submit an application essay (or "personal statement") with their application.

Depending on the application platform the college uses (typically either Coalition or the Common App), students have 500-650 words to craft a response. While each of these platforms has college essay prompts, it's helpful to view these prompts as general guidelines as to what colleges are looking for in a response.

Based on these prompts and our own experience coaching college essay students, the application essay is:

  • the chance to say what the rest of your application doesn't say
  • a demonstration of your character, values, and/or voice
  • the platform to show who you are outside of a resume/transcript
  • an introspective personal essay

The college essay is NOT:

  • a rehashing of your resume
  • an excuse or explanation of other components of your application
  • a formal, five-paragraph essay
  • what you think "colleges want to hear"

A standard college application includes an academic transcript, recommendation letters, extracurricular / activities section, an optional resume, and standardized test scores. The essay is an addition to these 4 general components, so it makes sense that it should complement them by saying something new.

That's why we like to define the essay as a "demonstration of character, values, and/or voice." True, these elements can be inferred from other components of the application. But the essay is your opportunity to clearly and personally demonstrate what matters to you, who you are at the core, and/or your essential perspectives of the world.

For this reason, the college essay is introspective and personal. Colleges want to hear that "I" voice in the application essay, loud and clear, and they want active, intelligent reflection.

You can see this in action in the 30 college essays that worked, which you can download below.

(Note: Some colleges might require applicants to submit supplemental essays in addition to their personal statement. These often have very specific prompts and different word lengths. Here are 8 great tips for approaching supplemental essays.)

 7 Qualities of a Successful College Essay

We've assessed several college essays of applicants admitted to a wide range of schools, including Ivy League institutions. While extremely diverse, these pieces generally had the following characteristics in common.

1. Introspective and reflective

Many English teachers tell their students not to use the first-person "I" in their essays. While this might be the standard for some academic essays, the college essay should include that "I." What's more, it should include a lot of that "I"!

This can be understandably uncomfortable for students, many of whom may simply not be used to talking about themselves openly and declaratively on a page. It can also feel awkward from a stylistic point of view for students who are not used to writing in the first-person.

Yet colleges want to hear your words in your own voice, and they are especially interested in learning more about your perspectives on the world and insights gleaned from your various life experiences. That's why many successful college essays are highly introspective, full of the writer's active reflections on what they've learned, how they view the world, and who they are.

We typically see the bulk of such introspection at the end of an essay, where the writer summarizes these reflections (although this is by no means standard), as we can see in the conclusion to Erica's essay here, which describes her earlier attempt to write and publish a novel:

Sometimes, when I’m feeling insecure about my ability as a novelist I open up my first draft again, turn to a random chapter, and read it aloud. Publishing that first draft would have been a horrible embarrassment that would have haunted me for the rest of my life. Over the past half-decade, I’ve been able to explore my own literary voice, and develop a truly original work that I will be proud to display. This experience taught me that “following your dreams” requires more than just wishing upon a star. It takes sacrifice, persistence, and grueling work to turn fantasy into reality.

In her personal statement, Aja reflects deeply on what she specifically learned from an experience described earlier on in the piece:

I found from my experiment and questioning within my mind that my practices distinguished me from others, thereby allowing me to form relationships on the basis of common interest or personality, rather than cultural similarities, that summer. I valued the relationships more, and formed a deep connection with my lab partner, whom I had found was similar to me in many ways. 

Notice how both of these selections contain a lot of that first-person voice, which is critical to elaborating perspectives, learning points, and introspective thoughts. And did we mention that admissions officers are looking for those specific perspectives, learning points, and thoughts that compose who you are?

2. Full of a student's voice

An academic transcript can be revealing to admissions officers. The same goes for recommendation letters and resumes. But it's hard to convey an individual voice in these application components. The college essay is your prime vehicle for speaking directly to colleges in your own words about what matters to you.

Successful college essays thus veer away from the formal voice many students employ when writing academic essays. Rather, they showcase a student's unique way of expressing themselves on a page, which can be, for example, humorous, informal, intimate, lyrical, and/or speculative.

Voice is at the forefront of Elizabeth's essay about her love for "all that is spicy:"

I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier. Ever since I was a child, I have been in search for all that is spicy. I began by dabbling in peppers of the jarred variety. Pepperoncini, giardiniera, sports peppers, and jalapeños became not only toppings, but appetizers, complete entrées, and desserts. As my palate matured, I delved into a more aggressive assortment of spicy fare. I’m not referring to Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the crunchy snack devoured by dilettantes. No, it was bottles of infernal magma that came next in my tasting curriculum.

Notice how Elizabeth's descriptions of her passion for spice are rich with her voice: playful, intelligent, and humorous. This also gives us insight into a specific aspect of her character--that's the power of voice when it comes to personal essay writing, and college admissions officers are very interested in applicants' characters.

3. Descriptive and engaging

You don't have to be a natural creative writer to compose a successful college essay. Yet competitive essays aren't afraid to dive deeply into a subject and describe it, whether that description relates to imagery, emotions, perspectives, or insights. A college essay shouldn't leave the reader guessing in any way--it should be highly specific and it should tell your story in an engaging fashion.

Harry's more intellectual essay presents his views on common values in society. He is careful to be very specific and descriptive in these views, incorporating both a relevant incident from history and his own direct relationship to the issue:

Admittedly, the problem of social integration is one I feel can be widely overstated – for example, when I was looking into some research for a similar topic a couple of years ago, I found numerous surveys indicating that ethnic minorities (especially Islam) identify much more closely with Britain than do the population at large. Still though, I, like many others, find myself constantly troubled by the prospect of the war from within that seems to be developing. This fear is fuelled by events such as the brutal killing of the soldier Lee Rigby at the hands of two British Muslims a couple of years ago.

In her essay, Amanda is extremely detailed in describing her experience as a caretaker for a difficult child. The result is a clear portrait of the challenge itself and Amanda's relationship to this challenge, told from the perspective of an engaging storyteller:

Then I met Robyn, and I realized how wrong I was. Prone to anger, aggressive, sometimes violent (I have the scar to prove it). Every Sunday with Robyn was a challenge. Yoga, dancing, cooking, art, tennis – none of these activities held her interest for long before she would inevitably throw a tantrum or stalk over to a corner to sulk or fight with the other children. She alternated between wrapping her arms around my neck, declaring to anyone who passed by that she loved me, and clawing at my arms, screaming at me to leave her alone.

4. Honest

The successful college essays we see always emerge from a place of honesty. Writing with honesty also is more likely to accurately convey a student's unique voice, inspire reflection and introspection, and result in a descriptive, meaningful piece (all of the qualities listed in this post!).

Sometimes this means adopting a candid or direct voice on the page. James starts his essay frankly in this singular statement:

Simply put, my place of inner peace is the seat of that 50 foot sliver of carbon and kevlar called a rowing shell, cutting through the water in the middle of a race.

Or it might mean describing a challenge, vulnerability, or perspective truthfully, as Martin does in his essay about the experiences that have molded his character over the years:

Looking back, I have never been the “masculine boy” as society says my role to be. I have always thought I do not fit the social definition of a male as one who is “manly” and “sporty” and this alienating feeling of being different still persists today at times. However, I also have become more comfortable with myself, and I see my growth firsthand throughout high school.

Given that many universities value "truth" in their own mission statements and mottos, admissions officers will prioritize those essays that ring with a student's honest voice.

5. Unconventional & distinct

This is by no means a requirement of a successful college essay. But many of the essays that earn students acceptance at their dream schools veer away from the predictable or expected, as we saw in Elizabeth's essay above ("I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier"). They are, in a nutshell, 100% unique.

We've seen some essays, for example, that follow more radical structures, such as list formats or experimental narratives. Others focus on unexpected subjects, like Shanaz's piece on the relevance of Game of Thrones in her life and trajectory of learning.

And, time and again, successful college essays step away from what admissions officers already see in applications--academics, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and classes. They may focus on something very specific (hot sauce or Game of Thrones), seemingly ordinary (eating a kosher meal in public or working on a problem set), or personally interesting (a historic murder or wrestling game).

Regardless, the essays that "work" emphasize the unexpected, as opposed to the expected. Distinct essays will also feel as if they could not have been written by anyone else.

6. Well-written

This might also sound like an obvious quality of a successful essay, but it's still worth mentioning. The most competitive application essays showcase strong writing skills, providing evidence of a student's ability to tell a specific story artfully and well. 

Essays should also be error-free, grammatically precise, and stylistically on point. Successful pieces also might demonstrate versatility through varied sentence structure, word choice, and rhetorical or literary devices. Lastly, well-written essays typically adhere to a specific storytelling structure.

This excerpt from Justin's essay about his experience in the California Cadet Corps, for example, displays a high command of language, word choice, and sentence structure:

Through Survival, I learned many things about myself and the way I approach the world. I realized that I take for granted innumerable small privileges and conveniences and that I undervalue what I do have. Now that I had experienced true and sustained hunger, I felt regret for times when I threw away food and behaved with unconscious waste. 

7. Meaningful

Above all, a successful college essay adds value to a student's holistic college application. It is full of meaning, in that it

  • showcases a student's unique voice
  • elucidates an applicant's particular perspective(s), character trait(s), and/or belief(s) and
  • honestly conveys a significant component of who a student is

It might be difficult to compress the entirety of who you are into 650 words. Yet it is most certainly possible to craft 650 words that add significant meaning to an overall application in terms of a student's personal potential for the future. This is exactly what admissions officers are looking for

Download 30 College Essays That Worked

What can you do to ensure that your college essay aligns with these successful qualities? You can check out examples of essays that do!

You can download 30 actual college essays that earned their writers acceptance into Ivy League schools, right now, for free.

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. 

Is the SAT Optional_ Featured Image (1)

Is the SAT Optional? Your Guide to Test-Optional Colleges in 2021

Is the SAT Optional? Test-Optional Colleges in 2021

Most colleges require applicants to submit a personal statement, resume, transcript, supplemental essays, and recommendation letters. In the past, many have also required students to submit ACT or SAT scores. 

The global pandemic has profoundly impacted college admissions, however.

For the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, many colleges decided to go test-optional or test-blind. Others have temporarily or permanently modified their standardized testing policies.

Given the evolving role of the SAT in college admissions, is the SAT optional? Should you even take it? What do you need to know about test-optional schools in the wake of COVID?

Here’s what we cover in this post:

COVID, the SAT, and College Admissions

A large portion of U.S. colleges and universities have historically required students to submit test scores from either the SAT or the ACT. (Most colleges don’t prefer the SAT over the ACT or vice versa--they accept either equally.)

The big question, of course, has been the role SAT or ACT scores play in the college admission decision. How much weight have colleges actually been giving them? The answer: it depends.

Is the SAT Optional_ Quote 1 (1)

In a Common Data Set from 2019-2020, for example, the University of Notre Dame specifies the following:

  • Standardized test scores are “important” to the admissions decision (but not “very important”)
  • The university does make use of SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Test scores in admission decisions 
  • The university uses the SAT essay or ACT essay for advising purposes only (but does not require it)

Such data sets are not available for all U.S. colleges and universities.  However, it is safe to assume that, if required, SAT or ACT scores can range from slightly to very important in informing the college admissions decision.

For more competitive, elite institutions--like the Ivy Leagues--these scores can be very important.

The chart below sums up the role of standardized test scores in college admissions pre-COVID. Most schools have placed considerable importance on test scores.

Test-Optional Schools_Is the SAT Optional?

Now, of course, the story is a little different. The pandemic has significantly impacted students' ability to actually sit for the SAT (or ACT). Many of our students have faced endless test center closures and test cancellations.

In an effort to bring equity into their admissions process, many colleges have modified their test score policies for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. In fact, for this year alone, two-thirds of colleges have gone test-optional, meaning that they'll accept test scores from students but won't require them.

For some colleges, this change is only temporary. For others, it's semi-permanent or permanent.

We take a deeper dive into how COVID has impacted college admissions in another post. For now, keep reading to learn more about test-optional colleges in 2021.

Test-Optional Colleges in 2021

Before the pandemic began, quite a few U.S. colleges and universities did not require SAT scores or standardized test scores for that matter. Now, more schools have either become test-optional or significantly modified their test score policies.

According to, more than half of 4-year U.S. colleges and universities will not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores. At the time of writing this post, 1,240 institutions are test-optional at least for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle.

You can find the full list of top-tier U.S. colleges and universities "deemphasizing" test scores in college admissions here, via

Historically Test-Optional Schools 

Here is a sample of U.S. institutions that were test-optional before COVID-19.

Sarah Lawrence College

Wake Forest University

Bard College

Furman University

Bowdoin College

Bryn Mawr

Smith College

Skidmore College

Bates College

St. Lawrence University

University of Puget Sound

Pitzer College

University of Chicago

Wheaton College

Mount Holyoke College

Wittenburg University

Wesleyan University

Hanover College

Trinity College

Hartwick College

Newly Test-Optional Schools

Here is a small sample of elite U.S. colleges and universities that have become test-optional (at least for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle) since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Brown University
  • CalTech University
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Columbia University
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth College
  • UPenn University
  • Washington University in St. Louis
  • Yale University
  • MIT

We want to point out that test-optional does not mean test-blind (meaning that the school won't even look at test scores if they are submitted). Here's what MIT says, for example, about test scores for this admissions cycle, which are not required for only this year:

Students who have already taken the SAT/ACT are encouraged to report their scores with the understanding that they help us more accurately evaluate their preparedness for MIT, and with the knowledge that tests are only one factor among many in that process. 

What's more, test-optional schools likely still require other standard components of the college application, including (but not limited to the following):

  • Essay(s)
  • Recommendation letters
  • Transcripts
  • Additional supplements (portfolios, essays, interview, etc.)

In some cases, these schools may place even greater emphasis on these components, especially those that can demonstrate a student's academic promise. Some students may also need standardized test scores to qualify for certain scholarships, especially when it comes to athletic recruiting, and for advising or placement purposes.

Harvard, for example, is not requiring students to submit test scores for this admissions cycle. But it is encouraging enrolling students who did not submit scores to do so in the summer prior to enrollment:

Because standardized test results are used for academic counseling, placement, and institutional research, enrolling students who applied without considerations of tests will be invited to submit test scores over the summer, prior to matriculating at Harvard.

Test-Flexible Schools

In the past, some colleges and universities have required students to submit something in lieu of ACT or SAT scores. Once again, in the wake of the pandemic, more schools are becoming test-flexible.

These schools may permit applicants to submit AP Exam scores in relevant subjects. Still others may waive the SAT or ACT score requirement for applicants with a certain GPA, or require students to submit a graded academic paper instead.

Test-flexible schools are likely to have a wide range of policies and score alternatives. For this reason, it’s essential to check out the school’s website to know exactly what you need to submit to be an eligible applicant.

Should You Take the SAT?

Given the SAT’s evolving role in college admissions, should students even take it?

It’s certainly a valid question.

At PrepMaven, we do encourage students to still take the SAT (or the ACT, depending on which test suits their skills).

Doing so will allow them to keep their options open as they navigate future college admissions cycles, and our philosophy as educators is to give our students as many tools as possible to maximize their future opportunities.

Higher test scores will still give applicants an advantage at most schools. Students who have top grades and extracurriculars but have never considered a selective school before because of less-than-competitive test scores should certainly do so for this reason.

What’s more, many currently test-optional schools, especially selective ones, might eventually revert to requiring test scores. Some still look at test scores (even if they are required), too.

Others, like Harvard, might require scores after a student has accepted an offer of admission.

Younger students--i.e., freshmen and sophomores--should thus continue to prepare for the SAT even if the colleges on their list are currently test-optional. Just in case such colleges do extend these test-optional policies, however, students should keep prioritizing grades and extracurriculars.

Regardless, students should make sure they are 100% clear on the standardized testing policies of every college on their list. As these are also evolving, it's wise to regularly check college websites throughout the admissions process.

Feel free to give us a shout if you have any questions!

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. 

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's SSAT Guidebook

The Secondary Schools Admissions Test (SSAT) is a common requirement for students applying to select private schools.

There's a lot that goes into preparing for the SSAT, which we do our best here at PrepMaven to assist with.

But there's one part of SSAT prep that students may not be aware of: the SSAT Character Skills Snapshot. This additional, twenty-minute assessment gives schools yet another benchmark with which to assess applicants.

The Snapshot is a free add-on for students sitting for the SSAT. Those who aren't taking the SSAT must pay a fee to take the assessment.

What exactly is this Snapshot, and what do you need to know about it? We answer these questions and several more in this comprehensive post. Plus, we give you access to our free SSAT Guidebook. You can grab this now by clicking the button below.

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's SSAT Guidebook

  • Details about SSAT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s SSAT strategies
  • Information about SSAT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. private high schools

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Here's what we cover:

The SSAT Character Skills Snapshot: The Nutshell

There's more to the SSAT than just the test itself. Students have the option of taking the SSAT Character Skills Snapshot, an additional online assessment that is meant to give schools a "richer holistic view" of an applicant.

Here's what says about the Snapshot on its website:

It measures your student's view of his/her character skill development and is meant to complement more traditional cognitive assessments such as the SSAT. The Character Skills Snapshot gives admission teams additional information and illuminates areas where their schools can help your student grow, thrive, and shine. 

Also according to, the SSAT Character Skills Snapshot tests a wide range of character traits, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Teamwork
  • Social Awareness
  • Resilience
  • Self-Control
  • Openmindedness
  • Initiative
  • Intellectual engagement

You can check out the Character Skills Card for more details here.

This online assessment takes approximately twenty minutes to complete, and can be completed in one sitting at home. Students who are in grades 5 through 11 applying to grades 6-12 are eligible to take the Snapshot. admits that the Snapshot may not be representative of the full scope of a student's character:

The Snapshot is meant to provide a snapshot in time of your student's view of his/her character skills - it is not a fixed, absolute measure.

While we agree that it's pretty challenging to assess a person's full character in twenty minutes, the Snapshot can provide potentially valuable information not otherwise able to be gleaned from other parts of an application.

Want more information on preparing for the SSAT? We discuss the Snapshot and more in our detailed SSAT Guidebook, which you can download for free below.

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot Sample Questions

This may all sound well and good, but what do students have to do in those twenty minutes it takes to complete the assessment?

Luckily, the does provide some sample questions students can peruse in anticipation of taking the Snapshot. Students can expect to encounter two types of questions on this assessment:

  1. Forced-choice
  2. Situational judgments

Forced-choice questions ask students to choose responses to certain statements based off of what they feel describes them best. Here is an example:

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot

Students shouldn't overthink these questions--simply identify what you feel best reflects you!

Situational judgments present a general situation and ask students to assess the appropriateness of responses to this situation. Here is an example:

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot

Once again, don't try to overthink these questions--simply identify what you personally feel represents an appropriate / inappropriate / neutral response to the described situation.

Who Uses This?

The SSAT Character Skills Snapshot gives schools supplemental information about applicants that may or may not be present in other application materials.

It is essentially designed to complement existing materials, which include the following:

  • application essay(s)
  • SSAT scores
  • transcripts
  • and interviews

However, not all schools require that applicants take the Snapshot! In fact, it's best to consult your schools of choice prior to taking the Snapshot to see what role it plays in the admissions process. does provide a School List of private institutions, but still encourages applicants to contact admissions offices to see if the Snapshot is required.

If a school does require applicants to submit the Snapshot, admissions officers are likely to use Snapshot Reports very differently. Some may place a lot of emphasis on it, while others may not--similar to the way that officers analyze SSAT scores!

For example, the Lawrenceville School strongly recommends that applicants take the Character Skills Snapshot. Here's what it says on its website:

All applicants to Lawrenceville are strongly recommended to submit the Character Skills Snapshot. Lawrenceville is more than just a place where you will learn math, English and science. We believe the reason you are considering Lawrenceville is because you’re interested in an education that goes beyond the classroom and encourages personal growth. Similarly, we know that you are much more than grades and test scores. That’s why we’re asking you to take the Character Skills Snapshot, which looks at eight non-cognitive areas, and will hopefully be a fun, exploratory exercise for applicants. For the applicants who submit it, the CSS will provide us with richer information about you, and show us areas where our community can help you grow, thrive, and shine. 

Want more information on preparing for the SSAT? We discuss the Snapshot and more in our detailed SSAT Guidebook, which you can download for free below.

Registering for the Snapshot

It's relatively straightforward to register for the Character Skills Snapshot.

If you are registering for the SSAT exam, simply click the "Snapshot" link on the homepage of your parent/guardian account to register for this as well.

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot

Parents will have to review a consent form and candidate agreement form to complete Snapshot registration.

Registration is free if you are an SSAT test-taker. You can still take the Snapshot if you aren't signed up for an SSAT exam, but you'll have to pay a fee of $35 to do so.

Please note: You can only register for the SSAT Snapshot through a parent/guardian account. You can only take the Snapshot via a student account.

Taking the Snapshot Assessment

Once you've registered for the Character Skills Assessment, you can essentially take it whenever you wish. The assessment is on-demand, meaning it is designed to be taken at leisure.

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot

We recommend that students take the Snapshot as soon as possible, to ensure on-time reporting. Getting it out of the way will also free up time for your SSAT prep!

When you're ready to take the assessment, all you have to do is log in to your student SSAT account. On your homepage, you'll see a "Take the Snapshot" icon. Click this, submit the integrity statement, and begin the Snapshot. It's as easy as that!

Sending Snapshot Reports to Schools

Students receive a Snapshot Report after they've completed the Snapshot, but this doesn't necessarily happen right away. Reports are released according to a very specific schedule outlines on its website:

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot_Reports

So, as an example, if you take the Snapshot on February 7th, 2020, you'll be able to view your Report on February 13th, 2020.

To view reports, navigate to the homepage of a parent/guardian SSAT account. Click "View Results Details" under the section that states that Snapshot Results are ready to view.

We encourage parents to download a PDF of these reports, in case schools request (for any reason) a paper copy.

From here, you'll be able to search for schools that accept the Snapshot and submit the Report directly through this portal. For more information, view's guide to sending Snapshot Reports here.

Download PrepMaven's SSAT Guidebook

The SSAT Character Skills Snapshot gives schools a greater sense of applicants' perspectives of the world and others. It can also be a valuable addition to other required application materials, such as application materials and SSAT scores.

Remember that taking the Snapshot is free if you're registered for an SSAT exam. We recommend that families register for the Snapshot when signing up for the SSAT itself, just to be safe.

At Prep Maven, we are here to help students experience success on the SSAT and beyond. That's why we created our free SSAT Guidebook, an excellent resource for families navigating secondary school admissions.

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's SSAT Guidebook

  • Details about SSAT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s SSAT strategies
  • Information about SSAT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. private high schools

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Here's what you'll get:

  • 90+ pages of valuable SSAT guidance
  • Details about SSAT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven's SSAT strategies for all 5 sections of the test
  • Information about SSAT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. private high schools
  • and much more!

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.

Tips for Mastering SSAT Vocabulary_PrepMaven

7 Tips for Mastering SSAT Vocabulary

7 Tips for Mastering SSAT Vocabulary

Bonus Material: The Top 100 SSAT Vocabulary Words You Need to Know

The SSAT Verbal section can be one of the most challenging sections for test-takers.

This is because the section’s Synonym and Analogy questions require students to have strong working knowledge of advanced vocabulary.

This can be tricky and overwhelming for test-takers. Vocabulary isn’t always a part of middle school curriculum. Plus, it can be difficult to build vocabulary in a short amount of time.

In this post, we offer our expert tips for mastering SSAT vocabulary. 

Plus, we give you access to the top 100 SSAT Vocabulary Words you need to know (with definitions). Grab this valuable resource below before we get started.

Here’s what we cover in this post: 

The SSAT Verbal Section: A Recap

We outline the specifics of the SSAT Verbal section in a separate post

In the meantime, here’s a recap of the essentials:

  • 30 minutes /  60 multiple choice questions
  • 2 sections: Synonyms and Analogies

The Upper-Level SSAT will test higher-level vocabulary than the Middle-Level SSAT. While both Verbal sections test students’ vocabulary range, the Analogy section has an extra element of identifying relationships between words.

Synonym Questions

In the Synonyms section, students are given a word in capital letters and asked to find a word or phrase with the closest meaning.

Here’s a sample Synonyms question:


A) angry

B) nervous

C) elated

D) shy

E) thoughtful

Correct Answer: A

Analogy Questions

In the Analogy section, students are given two words that demonstrate a certain relationship.

They are then asked to select the choice that best completes the meaning of the sentence.

Here’s a sample Analogies question:

Gargantuan is to big as:

A) hot is to steamy

B) thirsty is to dry

C) pleasant is to melody

D) clumsy is to coordinated

E) ecstatic is to happy

Correct Answer: E

Explanation: Just as gargantuan means very big, ecstatic means very happy. Their relationship is one of degree. 

Because it involves identifying relationships, the Analogy section is more skill-based than the Synonym section.

7 Tips for Mastering SSAT Vocabulary

Success on the SSAT Verbal section does have a lot to do with strategy. So, if you haven’t done so already, check out our SSAT Verbal Section Strategies post.

But one skill will definitely prove valuable on this section: a strong working vocabulary. At the end of the day, the more words you know, the greater your odds are of succeeding on this challenging section.

How do you master SSAT vocabulary? Follow these tips.

1. Give yourself a generous timeline

Students may be tempted to try to learn 500 new vocabulary words a week as they prepare for the SSAT. This is ambitious and understandable, but we strongly encourage test-takers to allocate as much time as possible to build their SSAT vocabulary bank.

This is because it takes time to acquire new words and recognize them accurately in a variety of contexts.

Set aside a generous timeline for SSAT vocabulary prep--at least three months (during which students should also be preparing for the test’s other sections, too). If you don’t have three months, check out these hacks for building SSAT Vocabulary quickly.

2. Sign up for a word of the day service

Exposure to new terminology is essential when it comes to building SSAT vocabulary. Sign up for a free word-of-the-day service to ensure you’re digesting new words on a daily basis. 

Just make sure to add these to your vocabulary bank (instead of just reading through the email and then forgetting about it)!

Try out Merriam Webster's word of the day email service or the Word of the Day app.

3. Use the words you learn

We can’t emphasize this tip enough! Simply memorizing a word is unlikely to prove useful come test time. 

As you build your vocabulary, integrate the terms you use in daily conversation and writing. Practice crafting sentences of your own that utilize new terms accurately, for example, or consciously using a new word during a dinner table discussion.

Be consistent in this practice, and don’t be shy when it comes to creativity. We’ve had our SSAT students, for example, integrate new terms in songs, poetry, art, screenplays, and more. You can also try integrating SSAT vocabulary terms into your SSAT Writing Sample practice responses. 

In our Top 100 SSAT Vocab Words You Should Know download, you’ll have an opportunity to create your own unique sentences utilizing each word.

4. Read regularly

Reading offers students another channel for vocabulary exposure. It also enables test-takers to boost recognition of terms that they’ve already learned in various contexts.

In fact, that’s the great value of reading when it comes to vocabulary building--it trains your brain to infer meaning based off of context. And putting words in context is essential to success on the SSAT verbal section.

What should you be reading? We encourage students to consider advanced materials, such as journals, newspapers, editorials, nonfiction, and literature. 

The New York Times has an excellent learning section that also includes weekly reading challenges, an excellent opportunity to improve your fluency in current events and vocabulary.

5. Learn and recognize word parts

This is one of the hacks we discuss in our guide to learning SSAT vocabulary with a limited test prep timeline.

Learning and recognizing common word parts--suffixes, prefixes, and roots--can give you the capacity to infer general meaning of a new term (even if you’ve never seen it before).

For example, the prefix “ambi-” means “both.” Thus, “ambidextrous” means having the capacity to utilize both your right and left hands equally to complete a task. “Ambivalent” means having mixed feelings about a subject, i.e., being on “both sides of the fence.”

An excellent resource for learning word parts is Merriam-Webster’s Vocabulary Builder. This is a resource we always recommend our SSAT students work with when beginning their prep.

6. Categorize learned words into synonym groups

Sometimes it’s easier to memorize categories of words (as opposed to individual definitions of select terms). After you’ve acquired some new SSAT vocabulary, categorize your new words into synonym groups.

Example categories based off of common SSAT Vocab words include:

  • Positive feelings or qualities (i.e., “elated” and “benevolent”)
  • Negative feelings or qualities  (i.e., “malignant” and “virulent”)
  • Difficulty (i.e., “arduous” or “onerous”)
  • Light (i.e., “translucent” or “lucid”)
  • Dark (i.e., “obscure” or “furtive”)
  • Wordy (“verbose” or “loquacious”)

7. Use flashcards wisely 

Just knowing the definition of a word isn’t apt to get you too far on the SSAT Verbal section. You still need to understand a term's nuance, especially within different contexts.

For this reason, use flashcards (digital or paper) wisely.

When testing your knowledge of a new term, challenge yourself to come up with a unique sentence utilizing that term before flipping that flashcard over and reading the definition.

You might also want to try adding a visual element to your flashcard game, including sketches, images, and colors. Such visual components can aid in memorization techniques.

Download the Top 100 SSAT Vocabulary Words You Need to Know

You can get started on your SSAT Vocabulary practice right now by downloading these 100 SSAT Vocab Words you should probably know.

We’ve analyzed official SSAT practice tests and materials to create this list of the most likely to be tested vocabulary terms. 

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • The top 100 SSAT vocabulary words (based on our research)
  • Precise definitions for every word
  • Opportunities to craft your own custom sentences to solidify knowledge


Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.

How to Get That High SAT Essay Score (1)

Get That High SAT Essay Score With These Tips

Get That High SAT Essay Score With These Tips

NOTE: The SAT Essay no longer exists as of 2024. The SAT has transitioned to a new digital format, which is radically different. For an updated guide to the new digital SAT, follow the link here.

You’ve decided to take the optional SAT Essay. You’re familiar with the essay’s format and instructions.

Now what does it take to get that high SAT Essay score?

The SAT Essay presents test-takers with a challenging task. Students must analyze an author’s argument and write a response that discusses the components of that argument.

AP English and SAT test prep students are at an advantage here. But keep in mind that the SAT Essay comes last, when students’ brains are already pretty tired! 

The good news? It is possible to achieve that amazing SAT essay score.

In this post, we’ll teach you how to use those 50 minutes to get closer to that perfect score.

Here’s what we cover:

The Anatomy of a Perfect SAT Essay

As a reminder, the SAT Essay requires students to read an argumentative essay and then analyze how the author uses various techniques to build his/her argument.  

It includes three parts:  SAT Essay Parts In our post The SAT Essay: What to Expect, we emphasize what SAT essay readers look for when grading student essays. You can find a detailed SAT essay rubric here.

What does a perfect SAT essay look like? 

Here’s a simple and effective skeleton structure that addresses all the key areas of the rubric.   SAT Essay Response Skeleton Structure

Notice how this skeleton structure looks a lot like a standard five-paragraph essay structure, commonly taught in high school.

Keep in mind, however, that on the SAT Essay, most students will likely only have time to compose two body paragraphs.  Plus, the introduction and conclusion paragraphs can consist of as few as two sentences.

Breakdown of a Perfect SAT Essay Response

Now, take a look at this SAT essay response that scored a 4 in each of the three categories: Analysis, Reading, and Writing. 

Notice how this response follows the skeleton structure we have just outlined.

The Prompt

Write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved. In your essay, analyze how Bogard uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

[Find the full reading selection for this task here.]


  • Sentence 1: Restates the argument
  • Sentence 2: Thesis statement with three argument techniques

In response to our world’s growing reliance on artificial light, writer Paul Bogard argues that natural darkness should be preserved in his article “Let There be dark”. He effectively builds his argument by using a personal anecdote, allusions to art and history, and rhetorical questions.

Body Paragraph 1

  • Sentence 1: Topic statement including argument technique and quote evidence of the technique
  • Sentence 2: Paraphrases quote and explain the effect on the audience
  • Sentence 3, 4: Continues to explain the effect of argument technique on the audience, the persuasive value of technique, and includes an additional quote reference
  • Sentence 5: Conclusion sentence

[1] Bogard starts his article off by recounting a personal story – a summer spent on a Minnesota lake where there was “woods so dark that [his] hands disappeared before [his] eyes.” [2] In telling this brief anecdote, Bogard challenges the audience to remember a time where they could fully amass themselves in natural darkness void of artificial light. [3] By drawing in his readers with a personal encounter about night darkness, the author means to establish the potential for beauty, glamour, and awe-inspiring mystery that genuine darkness can possess. [4] He builds his argument for the preservation of natural darkness by reminiscing for his readers a first-hand encounter that proves the “irreplaceable value of darkness.” [5] This anecdote provides a baseline of sorts for readers to find credence with the author’s claims.

Body Paragraph 2

  • Sentence 1: Topic statement includes argument type and includes two examples of the argument
  • Sentence 2,3,4: Explains the persuasive value of example 1 and effect on the audience
  • Sentence 5: Discusses example 2 and restates quote evidence
  • Sentence 6, 7, 8, 9: Paraphrases content relevant to example, explains the persuasive value of example 2, explains how the technique and example build the argument

[1] Bogard’s argument is also furthered by his use of allusion to art – Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” – and modern history – Paris’ reputation as “The City of Light”. [2] By first referencing “Starry Night”, a painting generally considered to be undoubtedly beautiful, Bogard establishes that the natural magnificence of stars in a dark sky is definite. [3] A world absent of excess artificial light could potentially hold the key to a grand, glorious night sky like Van Gogh’s according to the writer. [4] This urges the readers to weigh the disadvantages of our world consumed by unnatural, vapid lighting. [5] Furthermore, Bogard’s alludes to Paris as “the famed ‘city of light’”. [6] He then goes on to state how Paris has taken steps to exercise more sustainable lighting practices. [7] By doing this, Bogard creates a dichotomy between Paris’ traditionally alluded-to name and the reality of what Paris is becoming – no longer “the city of light”, but more so “the city of light…before 2 AM”. [8] This furthers his line of argumentation because it shows how steps can be and are being taken to preserve natural darkness. [9] It shows that even a city that is literally famous for being constantly lit can practically address light pollution in a manner that preserves the beauty of both the city itself and the universe as a whole.

Body Paragraph 3

  • Sentence 1: Topic statement includes an argument technique
  • Sentence 2: Includes quote that includes evidence of the technique in action
  • Sentence 3,4: Explains the persuasive value of example 1 and effect on the audience
  • Sentence 5: Emphasizes how technique builds the argument

[1] Finally, Bogard makes subtle yet efficient use of rhetorical questioning to persuade his audience that natural darkness preservation is essential. [2] He asks the readers to consider “what the vision of the night sky might inspire in each of us, in our children or grandchildren?” in a way that brutally plays to each of our emotions. [3] By asking this question, Bogard draws out heartfelt ponderance from his readers about the affecting power of an untainted night sky. This rhetorical question tugs at the readers’ heartstrings; while the reader may have seen an unobscured night skyline before, the possibility that their child or grandchild will never get the chance sways them to see as Bogard sees. [4] This strategy is definitively an appeal to pathos, forcing the audience to directly face an emotionally-charged inquiry that will surely spur some kind of response. [5] By doing this, Bogard develops his argument, adding guttural power to the idea that the issue of maintaining natural darkness is relevant and multifaceted.


  • Sentence 1: Restates the argument
  • Sentence 2: Restates thesis statement with three argument techniques

Writing as a reaction to his disappointment that artificial light has largely permeated the presence of natural darkness, Paul Bogard argues that we must preserve true, unaffected darkness. He builds this claim by making use of a personal anecdote, allusions, and rhetorical questioning.

The College Board also has other sample responses to this prompt. We recommend viewing these as well.

Your Game Plan for Writing a Stellar SAT Essay

What steps can you take to get that perfect SAT essay score? Here’s your game plan!

Step 1: Read and Annotate (~ 3-5 minutes)

Read carefully and mark up your text before diving into your response. Underline the author’s central claim.  

Pay particular attention to the author’s argument techniques and make sure to underline evidence of these in action.

Step 2:  Make an Outline and Thesis Statement (~ 3-5 minutes)

Consider 2 or more key argument techniques, and connect these techniques to 

  • Specific examples from the text (IMPORTANT!)
  • The purpose and effect of these techniques on the audience (IMPORTANT!)

If you have done this step properly, your essay will almost write itself. You must also study and prepare argument strategies and purposes of these strategies before the test.  

In the next section, we will show you common argument strategies and their purposes.

Backup Thesis: If you are completely lost, you can almost always use this emergency thesis statement format:

In [essay], [author] uses a combination of evidence and emotional appeals to build his/her argument.

Step 3:  Write! (~ 35 minutes)

Follow a standard Intro + Body Paragraph + Conclusion model, using tips from our skeleton structure. 

We also recommend integrating advanced vocabulary and transition words (discussed later on in this post).

Step 4:  Revise! (~2-3 minutes)

Make sure to take a couple of minutes at the end to revise your essay for spelling, grammar, and, if possible, content.

You won't be marked off for individual grammatical errors. However, if these errors impede the reader's understanding of your response, you will lose points!

10 Argument Techniques to Use in Your Essay

The SAT Essay prompt ultimately tests students’ knowledge of argument techniques. These are the "building blocks" that make an argument compelling and persuasive.

We highly recommend you study commonly used argumentative /persuasive techniques and their purposes before you take the SAT Essay. 

Remember: a successful essay states the techniques used in the text and analyzes these techniques. It also thoroughly explains their impact on the reader.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a great start! Whenever you’re reading an article/essay with a main claim of any kind, see if you can detect these techniques in action.   

Strategy Purpose/Effect
Data / Evidence

  • Facts
  • Statistics
  • Quotations
  • experimental data
  • Examples
  • Lends credibility to an argument
  • Adds evidence to support a claim
  • Allows the audience to make conclusions on their own

Vivid language / Compelling Word Choice

  • Precisely chosen, powerful words
  • Evocative adjectives
  • Strong verbs
  • Emphasizes claim 
  • Appeals to the audience's emotion(s)
  • Heightens the impact of words on the audience
  • Puts the reader in the author’s shoes and draws them into the passage
  • Makes the topic more interesting and engaging for the reader

Figurative language 

  • Metaphors
  • Similes
  • Personification
  • Anaphora
  • Hyperbole
  • Allusion
  • Engages the reader’s attention
  • Establishes connections between words and images in new and distinct ways
  • Engages the reader by making the topic more interesting
Appeal to emotion  (fear/pride/etc…)
  • Serves as an emotional call to action
  • Raises stakes of the argument
  • Effective persuasion often involves tapping into the emotions of those reading/listening!
Allusion (referring to a well-known story, event, person, object)
  • Makes a comparison in readers' minds 
  • Can very efficiently and effectively connect the author’s idea to other familiar powerful ideas
Juxtaposition (contrast)
  • Uses contrast to heighten a claim's emphasis
  • Appeals to emotion 
  • Engages the audience’s imagination and senses
  • Makes claim more relatable and interesting to the audience
  • Engages the audience’s empathy and understanding
  • Lends further credibility to the author
  • Addresses audience doubts using the author’s own reasoning
  • Makes the author seem more objective and trustworthy
Direct Address
  • Appeals to the reader
  • Perhaps offers a call to action
  • Heightens the impact of content through direct engagement
Explanation of Evidence
  • Walks readers through the reasoning process to help arrive at the author’s conclusion

Quick Tips to Improve Writing Quality

What are some other ways you can improve your SAT essay score?

We recommend using advanced vocabulary and transition words.

Transition Words 

Transition words show the relationship between ideas. They can improve the flow and organization of your essay. 

This chart shows transition words that connect similar, contrasting, and cause-and-effect ideas.

Similar Contrast Cause and Effect



In addition


For example/instance


In other words







Even so 














By/In Contrast

On the contrary

On the other hand


As a result





Doing so will impress your SAT essay reader and influence your writing score.

Advanced Word Choice

Another way to quickly improve your writing score is to arm yourself with a very specific set of strong vocabulary words and phrases before the essay.  

You should certainly keep working on building your overall vocabulary. A shortcut for the SAT Essay, however, is to build a strong vocabulary that is related to the specific writing task (analyzing an argument and its effectiveness) and prepare to use strong words and phrases on the essay.  

Here’s a sample set of effective essay words.

Vivid Cogent Synthesis Narrative
Evidence Meticulous Juxtapose Contrast
Credibility Precision Deliberate Pathos
Central Claim Subsequent Claim Cite Appeal
Call to Action Build Argument / Further Argument Refer Convey
Evince Manifest Communicate Exhibit
Rhetorical Efficacy Analytic Power Argumentative Technique Emotional Resonance
Motivates Inspires Emphasizes Support

Other writing tips that can improve your score:

  • Write legibly.
  • Write more than one page! Quality is always better than quantity, but your analysis should be substantial. 

Next Steps

The SAT Essay task may feel daunting, but now you have a range of strategies for improving your score. 

In addition to these strategies, we strongly recommend that students regularly practice SAT essay responses. Doing so with the help of a professional instructor can be particularly beneficial.

Please note that the CollegeBoard has decided to discontinue the SAT Essay after the June 2021 administration of the SAT. 

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.