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.]

Introduction 

  • 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.

Conclusion

  • 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
Anecdote/Story/Narrative
  • 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
Counterargument
  • 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
Also

And

Furthermore

In addition

Moreover

For example/instance

Essentially

In other words

Likewise 

Similarly

Previously

Subsequently

Finally

Although

Even so 

However

Instead

Meanwhile

Nevertheless

Nonetheless

Rather

Regardless

Still

Whereas

While

Yet

Alternately

Alternatively

By/In Contrast

On the contrary

On the other hand

Accordingly

As a result

Because

Consequently

So

Therefore


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.


No Time to Prep for SSAT Vocab_ Try These Hacks_PrepMaven

No Time to Prep for SSAT Vocabulary? Try These 6 Hacks

No Time to Prep for SSAT Vocabulary? Try These 6 Hacks

Bonus Material: Top 50 Word Parts for Learning SSAT Vocab Quickly

When it comes to the SSAT Verbal Section, we encourage our SSAT students to work on the following:

  • Strategies
  • Vocabulary building

We’ve outlined our favorite strategies for succeeding on SSAT Verbal in another post

But when it comes to vocabulary building, the test prep path might not feel so straightforward. The key to building a robust vocabulary? Time. 

And time is exactly what many SSAT students don’t have enough of

We’ve already discussed some general tips for mastering SSAT vocab. Now we’re here to offer our expertise in building your SSAT vocabulary quickly and effectively within a limited timeline.

You’ll also get access to our Top 50 Word Parts for Learning SSAT Vocab Quickly, which you can grab below.

Here’s what we cover:


6 Hacks for Learning SSAT Vocab Quickly

1. Learn by word parts

This is the most essential hack for quickly and effectively building your vocabulary, whether you’re prepping for the SSAT or English exams.

Every word in the English language consists of specific parts:

  • Prefixes
  • Roots
  • Suffixes

By learning the general meaning of these word parts, you can infer the general meaning of a vocabulary term, as in the following examples.

Vocabulary Word Word Part and Meaning General Meaning of Word Actual Meaning of Word
ambivalent ambi: both sides Both sides of something Having or showing simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings toward something or someone
vociferous voc: voice, speak Something to do with speaking or voice Marked by insistent outcry
lucid luc: light, clear Having the quality of clarity or lightness Clear; intelligible; coherent

Notice how knowing the word part and its meaning for each of these three terms does not necessarily create a precise definition. But it allows one to get fairly close, which can be helpful when eliminating answer choices on SSAT Verbal (both synonyms and analogies). 

We’ve compiled the top 50 word parts you should know for the SSAT here:

We also recommend that students check out Merriam-Webster’s Vocabulary Builder for a full range of word parts, associated vocabulary terms, and definitions.

2. Learn by category

As you build your SSAT vocabulary, try grouping new words into categories.

This has 2 benefits:

  1. It trains your brain to think in terms of synonyms (valuable for the Synonym questions on the SSAT Verbal section)
  2. Learning by category can help you work through large numbers of words relatively quickly

Here are some examples of word categories based off of common SSAT vocabulary:

  • 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”)

3. Learn by visual or auditory memorization

For some students, new vocab terms are more likely to stick if they have visual or auditory elements. 

If you are a visual learner, try associating new words with specific colors or images. Your flashcard for “serene” might be blue, for example, or you might draw a picture of a clear window next to the word “translucent.” Some students might also wish to create a memory palace, a memorization technique utilized by ancient Greeks.

This can be an especially valuable trick when paired with category learning, discussed in the previous tip. 

Auditory learners might want to record themselves reading full sentences incorporating new vocab terms or work through flashcards by reading words and definitions out loud.  

4. Learn by speed rounds

Students only have thirty minutes to work through 60 questions on SSAT Verbal. To prepare for this time crunch and build a robust SSAT vocabulary in a short amount of time, practice learning through speed rounds.

Have a friend or family member test you with flashcards, for example, in 1-minute, 3-minute, and/or 5-minute speed rounds. See how many words you can get right in these shorter increments, and try to beat your record on subsequent rounds!

To take things up a notch and practice for the Synonyms section, try Synonym speed rounds. When a flashcard with a given word appears, instead of providing the definition, offer a word with a similar meaning.

5. Learn by repetition

Yes, repetition is vital when it comes to developing vocabulary! It is particularly essential if you are working with a shorter test prep timeline.

When learning new SSAT vocabulary terms, return to these words several times throughout a given day. 

And once you feel that you truly know a word, don’t relegate it to the back of the flashcard stack! Keep cycling through familiar words on a daily basis so that they don’t lose their grip in your memory.

These repetition rounds do not have to be intensive. Spend three minutes flipping through flashcards on the bus, for example, over breakfast, or right before falling asleep.

6. Learn by cross-definitions

When looking up definitions for new words and adding these to flashcards or vocabulary banks, consider using vocabulary terms you’ve already learned in these definitions! This improves your capacities to:

  1. Recognize new words in different contexts
  2. Learn by synonyms
  3. Solidify new vocabulary terms

Here are a few examples of cross-definitions:

torpor Dullness; apathy; a state of mental and physical inactivity
lucid Clear; intelligible; coherent; filled with light
virulent Full of malice; harsh or strong; malignant

Notice how apathy, coherent, and malignant are all SSAT vocabulary words in themselves that surface in the definitions for torpor, lucid, and virulent.


Download our Top 50 Word Parts For Learning SSAT Vocab Quickly

We recommend incorporating all of these strategies into your vocabulary practice.

Yet of the hacks in this post, the most effective is the first one: learning by word parts. We’ve compiled the top 50 word parts you should know for learning SSAT vocabulary on a limited timeline.

Here’s what you get in this free download:

  • The top 50 word parts that surface in SSAT vocabulary
  • Their definitions
  • Three example words per word part


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 Verbal Strategies

SSAT Verbal Strategies From the Experts

SSAT Verbal Strategies From the Experts

Bonus Material: FREE SSAT Verbal Practice Questions

The Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) tests reading, writing, quantitative, and verbal skills.

One of the most challenging sections for SSAT test-takers is the Verbal section, and for good reason! With 30 Synonym and 30 Analogy questions, the Verbal section requires a strong vocabulary and solid reasoning skills.

It also rewards the efficient test-taker. The SSAT Verbal section gives students only 30 minutes to answer all 60 questions.

However, like all standardized tests, the SSAT can (and should) be approached strategically. In this post, we discuss the SSAT verbal strategies you need to succeed on this section. You can apply these strategies right away to our free SSAT Verbal practice questions, which you can grab below:

Here's what we cover:

Note: for the purposes of this post, we will be referring to the Upper-Level SSAT Verbal section.

The SSAT Verbal Section in a Nutshell

On the Upper-Level SSAT, the Verbal section is the 4th section of the test. Here's a quick visual of the entire SSAT format:

SSAT Test Format
Source: SSAT.org

Remember that the SSAT is a virtual marathon of a test. Students are likely to be fairly fatigued by the time they get to the Verbal section! That's why it's doubly important to have some solid strategies in place before getting there.

The SSAT Verbal Section

  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Format: 60 multiple choice questions, divided into Synonyms and Analogies sections of 30 questions each

Synonyms

Students will encounter Synonyms questions first on the SSAT Verbal section. In general, these questions will be arranged in order of increasing difficulty.

What does this mean? The first 10 questions will be generally easier than questions 11-20. Questions 21-30 will likely be the most difficult of the entire set.

For each question, students must choose the answer that has the closest meaning to the word provided. Here is an example SSAT Synonyms question:

SSAT Upper Level Verbal Section_Synonyms
Source: SSAT.org Upper-Level Sample Questions

Analogies 

The 30 Analogy questions will come after the 30 Synonym questions on the SSAT Verbal section. Just like the Synonym questions, Analogy questions are generally arranged in order of increasing difficulty.

An analogy is a comparison of two things.

On an SSAT Analogy question, these two things will have a very specific relationship. Students must determine what this relationship is and select the answer choice that most closely features that same relationship.

Vocabulary is still essential for Analogy questions: students will not necessarily know all of the words in the analogy described and/or the answer choices, especially on higher-difficulty questions.

Here is a sample SSAT Analogy question:

SSAT Verbal Section: Analogies
Source: SSAT.org Upper-Level Sample Questions

General SSAT Verbal Strategies

Before we dive into specific tips for Synonym and Analogy questions, we'll cover some general SSAT Verbal strategies that apply to the section as a whole.

1. Prioritize low-difficulty questions first.

This may sound obvious, but it's a great strategy to use on SSAT Verbal because of the way the section is structured.

Remember that those 30 Synonym questions and 30 Analogy questions are arranged generally in order of increasing difficulty. What's more, students do not get more points for correct high-difficulty questions. Every SSAT Verbal question is essentially worth the same number of points.

What does this mean? SSAT students should spend more time on those easier questions to ensure they are getting those easy points before they navigate harder ones. This can also give them a chance to get their vocabulary brains warmed up for those medium- and high-difficulty questions.

This can be especially important for higher-achieving students who might be more prone to moving too quickly on those initial, easy questions and making careless errors.

We understand that "easy" is a relative term, so be sure to cater to your own personal order of difficulty, tackling those questions that are easiest for you first.

2. Know your guessing strategy.

On the SSAT, students lose 1/4 point for every question they answer incorrectly. They do not lose points for leaving questions blank. That's why we don't necessarily encourage all SSAT test-takers to answer every question on the test, as doing so could hurt rather than help their score!

Because of this, we encourage students to have a solid guessing strategy in place for each SSAT section. You can read more about guessing on the SSAT in our guide to SSAT scores.

3. Use context and connotation.

If you don’t know a word in an answer choice or question, use context (where you may have heard the word before) or connotation (a word's positive or negative charge).

If you see the word jubilation, for example, you might remember that you have seen it in the context of the name of a celebratory Fortnite dance. You may also reason that it has something to do with feeling happy and triumphant, a positive connotation.

Or if you see the word miserly, it might remind you of something miserable, leading you to pick an answer choice with a negative connotation or charge (miserly means a person who is ungenerous with his/her money).

4. Watch out for homonyms.

Homonyms are words with the same spelling but different meanings. If you see foil in an SSAT Verbal question, for example, it could mean a “thin sheet of metal” or “to prevent." Be on the lookout for homonyms in both questions and answer choices.

If you do identify a homonym situation, ask yourself which meaning makes the most sense based on the answer choices. You can and should use SSAT Verbal answer choices to your advantage, which we discuss at greater length in the next 2 sections of this post.

5. Sometimes, you have to pick the best of the “bad” options. 

The correct answer choice might not reflect the direct way you would define the word, which can confuse some students. In these situations, imagine your task is to pick the best of the “bad” options.

Here is a sample question that demonstrates this:

THWART
A) approve
B) facilitate
C) confuse
D) conceal
E) forgive

Correct Answer: C

You may feel pretty confident that “thwart” means preventing something from happening, but that choice doesn’t seem to be listed here.

However, if you go with the word that most closely expresses this idea – “confuse” – you would choose the correct answer.

6. Think like the test-maker, not a test-taker.

This is a tenet we encourage all of our standardized test-takers to embrace. Test-makers write standardized tests with predictable test-makers in mind. In other words, each question will contain traps designed to trick the average test-taker.

Once you can start learning about these specific traps and tricks, you'll start to think like the test-makers themselves. Doing so gives you the upper hand (and often a lot of points!). We'll be discussing ways to think like the SSAT test-makers in the next 2 sections as we cover strategies for Synonym and Analogy questions.

Ready to apply these strategies to some sample SSAT practice questions? Grab our free SSAT Verbal worksheet below.


Approaching SSAT Synonym Questions

Synonym questions appear first on SSAT Verbal (questions 1-30). If you feel more confident with these questions, we recommend beginning with these.

If, however, Analogies are more your jam, we recommend starting with question 31 (the first of the Analogy questions set) and completing the Synonyms set second. Remember: play to your strengths on SSAT Verbal, and prioritize the questions that are easiest for you first.

The key to approaching SSAT Synonym questions successfully lies in remembering that they are just that: Synonym questions.

What do we mean by this?

With Synonym questions, your task is to find the answer choice that is most similar in meaning to the question word.

It's important to remind yourself of this simple fact on each question, as the test-makers love trapping students with answer choices that may be associated with the question word but, in fact, do not share a similar meaning. What's more, a "synonym" is not the same as a straight-up "definition" of a word!

We'll apply these thoughts to the sample Synonym question we mentioned above:

SSAT Upper Level Verbal Section_Synonyms

With this question, students must choose the answer that is most similar in meaning to the word "incognito." This doesn't mean that we're looking for the definition of "incognito," merely a term that most closely matches that definition.

The word "incognito" might suggest someone going undercover, like a ninja in a crowd. Be careful, though: answer choice (D) at first glance looks a lot like "undercover," when, in fact, it means the opposite (uncovered). But the idea of being undercover has a connotation of being hidden from sight, which leads us to answer (C): concealed.

Be careful with answer choice (A), which might be tempting for some students. "Lost" is a good example of an answer that is an association but not necessarily a synonym of a question word. Something that is incognito may not be very visible, but this doesn't mean it is lost.

Here are some other tips for approaching SSAT Synonym questions.

1. Put the question word into a sentence of your own.

This is an excellent, tried-and-true way to situate a question word in its context, especially if you don't know the full meaning of a term. Put that word into a sentence, even if it's the most basic sentence you've ever written.

Using the sample question above, that sentence might look like this:

The ninja chose to go incognito, moving casually through the crowd without attracting attention.

In this sentence, we can gather that "incognito" is a behavior or attitude of some kind that the ninja adopts in this crowd. Would it make sense for someone to choose to be "lost"? No! "Lost" is not a behavior or attitude, and the same goes for "replaced" or "distinguished."

Context tells us that the ninja is choosing to be somewhat invisible, so (C) is the best answer yet again.

2. Apply your knowledge of word parts.

Remember all those word parts and roots your teacher taught last year? Those will definitely prove valuable on SSAT Verbal, particularly with those Synonym questions.

Identifying word parts in answer choices and question words can be vital. It can be a straight-up life-saver on those questions full of vocabulary students may not know.

Be on the hunt for specific prefixes, roots, and suffixes that can give at least partial meaning for a term.

For example, if you see the word "benevolent" in a Synonyms question, you might recognize the prefix ben / bene, which means well or good. This has a positive connotation or charge, which can be useful for elimination purposes.

3. "Plug in" your final choice.

Much like plugging the answer to a math question into the original problem to check your work, "plug in" your final choice on a Synonyms question to the sentence you've created.

This serves as a double-check mechanism and a means of catching careless errors. Using the example sentence and question above, this would look like the following:

The ninja chose to go concealed, moving casually through the crowd without attracting attention.

Yes, "chose to go concealed" sounds a bit awkward, but it still fits in meaning and context.

4. On higher-difficulty questions, the weirder the better.

Remember: the SSAT test-makers will create specific traps on each Verbal question designed to trick the predictable test-taker.

What are predictable test-takers likely to do on harder Synonym questions? They are probably not likely to choose an answer they don't know. They will likely avoid those really weird, foreign-looking terms. However, on really tough Synonym questions, these answers can be correct.

Here's an example of this in action, modeled after a sample SSAT.org practice question:

ZEALOUS
A) heartfelt
B) fervent
C) irritating
D) praiseworthy
E) interested

The "weirdest" answer choice here, the one many students are not likely to know, is fervent. This happens to be the correct answer choice.

We do want to offer this tip with a caveat, however: students should still adhere to their established guessing strategy, regardless of the difficulty level of the question. It may still be worth your while to leave a question blank if you generally have no clue about the question word and the answer choices.

Ready to apply these strategies to some sample SSAT Synonym questions? Grab our free SSAT Verbal worksheet below.


Approaching SSAT Analogy Questions

Analogy questions appear second on SSAT Verbal (questions 31-60). If you feel more confident with these questions, we recommend beginning with these.

If, however, Synonyms are more your jam, we recommend starting with question 1 (the first of the Synonym questions set) and completing the Analogy set second.

The key to succeeding on Analogy questions lies in your capacity to identify specific relationships. Each question will provide students with two words that demonstrate a certain relationship. Students must then select the choice that best reflects that relationship, thus completing the meaning of the sentence.

Here's our strategy for approaching an Analogy question on SSAT Verbal:

  1. Identify the specific relationship between the two question words
  2. Search for the answer that shows the same relationship
  3. Eliminate accordingly

Sounds easy, right? Well, not necessarily. It can be really tough to identify a specific relationship, particularly between words you don't know (or only have partial meanings for). Those answer choices will also be chock-full of associative words, terms or pairs that might have a similar connotation but not necessarily similar relationship.

That's where the following tips come into play.

1. Start noticing Analogy categories.

Every SSAT Analogy question presents a specific relationship between the two ideas presented. As you continue to work with these questions, start noticing the various "categories" of these relationships, such as size (one word is smaller than another), time (one thing happens before another), or cause and effect (one thing causes another).

Take a look at this sample Analogy question and see if you can identify the "category" of the relationship presented:

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

If you guessed a relationship of degree or size, you're correct! Gargantuan is a larger or more extreme version of big. Their relationship is one of degree, making the correct answer (ecstatic is a more extreme version of happy).

"Degree" is an example of just one “category” of relationships you will start to see in the Analogy section. Just as there isn’t a finite list of words on the Synonyms section, there is no complete list of categories for the Analogy section. However, the list below gives some common relationship categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Size
  • Material
  • Part and Whole
  • Example and General Category
  • Cause and Effect
  • Synonyms
  • Antonyms
  • Degrees
  • Actor and Action
  • Product and Producer
  • Tool and User
  • Tool and Use

This can be essential as an elimination strategy, too. Once you've identified the category of the relationship, you can eliminate any answer choices that fit other relationship categories.

2. Create a specific relationship sentence for the question words.

Much as we encourage students to put Synonym words into their own sentences, we also recommend crafting a "relationship sentence" for SSAT Analogy question words. You can then eliminate answer choices that don't "fit" the sentence.

When creating this sentence, try to be as specific as possible.

Using the above sample question, for example, a relationship sentence like “If you’re gargantuan, you’re big” is too broad – if you plug in the answer choices, they might all sound right! “Gargantuan is a stronger version of big” is more specific and will lead you to the correct answer.

3. Eliminate answer choices that have no relationship or are "conditional."

The right answer to an Analogy question will demonstrate the specific relationship of the question words. If you can’t establish a relationship between two words, that answer choice is automatically wrong! The same goes for any answer choices that may show a conditional relationship, one that is only true some of the time.

Here’s a sample question that proves this point:

Insult is to offense as:
A) laugh is to joy
B) fabricate is to falsehood
C) injure is to prepare
D) innocent is to child
E) forge is to creation

In choice C, “injure” and “prepare” have no relationship, so you can eliminate C immediately. Similarly, a "child" may be "innocent," but not necessarily 100% of the time (it depends on the child, the definition of innocent, etc.). You can eliminate D as well.

4. Focus on relationships, not synonyms.

It can be really easy, especially if you tackle SSAT Synonym questions first, to start identifying synonyms for the Analogy words rather than relationships. As best you can, remind yourself that your task on this set is to classify the relationship between the words presented and select an answer choice that reflects a similar relationship.

On the plus side, those answer choices that contain synonyms to words in the question are most likely incorrect. So if you do spot some synonyms in the answers, be very skeptical.

5. Think of all possible relationships.

You may find that some questions have multiple reasonable answers. If this is the case, try to think of additional possible relationships between the question words. Here is a sample question that demonstrates this:

Carousel is to horse as:
A) hospital is to waiting room
B) anthology is to story
C) sun is to planet
D) bike is to wheel
E) fleet is to ship

Correct Answer: C

At first glance, you might feel stuck with this question. A “horse” is a “part” of a “carousel.” With this relationship in mind, don’t multiple answer choices here fit the “whole and part” category?

However, if you think of additional ways to specify the relationship, you could reach the correct answer by reasoning that the horses revolve around a carousel just as a planet orbits the sun.

With these tips in mind, let's work through the sample Analogy question mentioned in the first section of this post:

SSAT Verbal Section: Analogies

It will be easiest to craft a relationship sentence with these words. We might say that "an epidemic is the spread of disease." Plugging in the answer choices, we can see that only (A) fits this sentence: "a famine is the spread of hunger." Our answer is (A).

You can apply these strategies to some sample SSAT Analogy questions by downloading our free SSAT Verbal worksheet below.


SSAT Verbal Strategies: Study Tips

Now that you have some great SSAT Verbal strategies in place, it's time to talk study tips. What's the best way to prepare for success on the SSAT Verbal section? Here are our top recommendations.

1. Prioritize learning word roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

We've already highlighted the value of applying your knowledge of word roots, prefixes, and suffixes to words you don't know on Synonym and Analogy questions.

Knowing word parts can also make your SSAT study plan so much more efficient and robust: in many cases, learning just one word part can help you identify 10+ new vocabulary terms!

You can find many lists (some SSAT-focused) of these word roots, prefixes, and suffixes online or in books that focus on vocabulary building. Searching Quizlet for online SSAT vocabulary lists or investing in a Merriam-Webster Vocabulary Builder book are good places to start.

2. Make flashcards.

Flashcards can be an excellent tool for solidifying new vocabulary and word parts. Quizlet is a favorite online flashcard site for many students. Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned notecards.

Review these flashcards regularly. If you are a visual learner, try integrating colors or images into your flashcards for improved memorization. For an extra challenge, come up with a unique sentence for every word you review or identify synonyms (using other vocabulary terms!) for the word in question.

3. Don’t try and memorize 500 words at once

You won’t remember them! It is better to focus on 5-10 words at a time (ideally, per week), and keep coming back to vocab sets for review.

More importantly, be sure you are also using those words that you’re learning. Integrate new words into school assignments and personal practice to make them a concrete part of your vocabulary. (Hint: you can also use these words when practicing your SSAT Writing Sample response.)

4. Read widely

Reading can introduce you to a wide variety of new words to supplement your vocabulary building. Aim to digest advanced reading materials, such as higher-level nonfiction texts, editorials and articles, and journal pieces.

More than any other section, the SSAT Verbal section depends on you slowly but surely improving your vocabulary in a consistent fashion.

In this way, studying for the SSAT Verbal section is like putting money in a piggy bank: it might feel like you’re getting nowhere with the little contributions you make each day, but as long as you keep putting in time, you’ll see a big reward in your score going up after a few months.


Download PrepMaven's SSAT Verbal Practice Questions

There you have it -- the SSAT Verbal strategies designed to give you the greatest success on this challenging section. However, the power of these strategies lies in practice, so be sure to apply them regularly to actual SSAT practice questions.

You can do this right now by downloading our free SSAT Verbal Practice Questions worksheet.

SSAT Verbal Practice

With this worksheet, you'll get:

  • 10 Synonyms practice questions
  • 10 Analogies practice questions
  • Answers & explanations


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). 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.


SAT Reading Passage Walk-Through_PrepMaven

SAT Reading: Passage Walk-Through

SAT Reading: Passage Walk-Through

Bonus Material: Our Top SAT Reading Hacks

NOTE: this walk-through was written for the kinds of reading passages on the old, paper SAT. The digital SAT, which has been administered since 2024, features radically different reading passages. While this post can still be helpful practice, we recommend checking out our newer resources. For a guide to the new digital SAT, click here. For our new guide to SAT Reading passages, click here.

Several of the tips we discuss in our 16 SAT Reading Tips for Getting a Perfect Score have to do with the passage.

To do well on SAT Reading, students should get in the habit of actively reading passages. 

This means annotating for main ideas, opinions, and keywords from the questions. Students should also be sure to back up every answer with evidence from the passage.

It’s called the Evidence-Based Reading Section for a reason!

We want to show students what it looks like to approach SAT Reading passages in this way. That’s why we’ve created this SAT Reading passage walk-through.

In this post, you’ll see what successful annotation looks like. You’ll see how every SAT Reading question can and should be based off of what’s in the passage, and you'll get access to our top SAT Reading Hacks, which you can download now.

Here’s what we cover:


Approaching an SAT Reading Passage

The SAT Reading section rewards the strategic test-taker. No outside content knowledge is necessary to succeed in this section!

For that reason, students should do the following:

  • Take passages out of order, starting with the easier ones for them
  • Take questions out of order, starting with the easier ones for them
  • Actively read the passages, annotating for main ideas
  • Back up every answer with hard evidence from the passage

We discuss these tips at length in 16 SAT Reading Tips to Get a Perfect Score.

Active Reading & Annotation

SAT Reading passages are complex, dense, and boring. Maintain focus by annotating when you engage with any passage.

What does it mean to annotate?

Pay attention to main ideas as you work a passage. Jot down the main idea for every paragraph in the margins, circle words you recognize from the questions, and underline anything that feels relevant.

Students should focus less on details. They should prioritize big picture ideas and arguments as they annotate, as SAT Reading questions are most interested in these.

These notes can be extremely valuable later on as students answer questions, providing a specific road map for passage ideas.

We also want to emphasize that you don’t have to read every single word of an SAT Reading passage to understand it! Students should prioritize reading for main ideas and moving more quickly through details or elaborations.

We’ve actively read and annotated a social science SAT Reading passage from the College Board’s Official SAT Practice Test #2 below so you can see what this looks like.

You’ll see that our notes prioritize the following:

  • Main ideas of each paragraph
  • Main idea of the passage as a whole
  • Keywords from the questions
  • Topic sentences
  • Conclusions
  • Structure
  • Graph: main idea and trend(s)

(Hint: these are all the things that most SAT Reading questions concern!)

Tackling the Questions

When approaching SAT Reading questions, test-takers should keep the following tips in mind:

  • Know the question types
  • Think in terms of main ideas
  • Don’t get lost in the answer choices
  • Find evidence for your right answer
  • Start with easier questions, end with harder ones
  • Get familiar with typical wrong answer choices

We discuss these tips at length in 16 SAT Reading Tips to Get a Perfect Score.

Here are the types of questions you can expect to find on SAT Reading:

  • Words in Context
  • Command of Evidence
  • Function / Purpose
  • Main Ideas
  • Detail or Line Reference
  • Inference
  • Character analysis
  • Charts & graphs

Students should get in the habit of finding answers to each of these questions in the passage itself

They should also think in terms of main ideas when they answer these questions. In many cases, it’s possible to employ process of elimination based on which answers are in line with the passage’s central claim, and which aren’t.

Understand that the questions on SAT Reading are not your friends! Students are apt to encounter very tempting trap answers. That’s why we recommend answering questions on your own before wading through those answers, and getting familiar with what makes an answer wrong on SAT Reading.

We work through all questions associated with the annotated passage above to show you what these strategies look like in action!

Save the harder passages and questions for the end--or for guessing. Beginning with your strengths on SAT Reading is the surest way to guide you closer to a high score.

We also recommend taking a look at these top SAT Reading Hacks. We're using many of these right now, in this post!

Question #11

We’d label this question as a high-difficulty one, given that it requires students to have a working understanding of the passage as a whole. We encourage students to save these higher difficulty questions for the end!

With big picture questions like these, it’s vital to think about the passage’s main idea as a whole, which we’ve labeled as “exploring three interpretations of “ethics” in an economic context and offering a promising fourth view.”

This is very much in line with answer choice (D), which is, in fact, the correct answer. Notice how all the other answer choices only describe one thing (a “study” or one “ethical dilemma”) and/or take extreme positions (the “free market prohibits ethical economics”).

Questions #12 and #13

This is a Command of Evidence pair, a medium-difficulty question type.

It’s best to approach question #12 in tandem with question #13. We’ll read question #12 and then select the line reference from question #13 that best answers this question.

Our goal is to identify the lines that reference an objection to “criticizing the ethics of free markets.” 

The only line reference of the four choices offered that discusses an argument in relation to the ethics of free markets is A, lines 3-4, which is our correct answer.

The paraphrase of these lines is answer choice (D) in question #12, which is the correct answer.

Question #14

This is a Words in Context question, which requires very little reading of the passage! For these questions, we encourage students to read the surrounding context of the line in reference and predict their own synonym for the word referenced.

Here’s the full sentence:

A good prediction for “embraced” might be “favored” or “taken on.” Keep in mind that we are discussing a type of responsibility, too. The best match for such a prediction is answer choice (B), “readily adopted.”

Question #15

This is a function question (medium difficulty) that requires precise understanding of this paragraph’s main idea. 

In our annotations, we’ve identified the main idea of the fifth paragraph as the third view towards ethics in economics, as presented by the author. This third view has to do with “actions.”

The exact match for this is answer choice C!

Question #16

Here is another Words in Context question! Once again, these are low-difficulty questions students should attempt first.

The relevant context of the word in question is:

A good prediction for a similar meaning to “clashes” based on context might be “conflicts.” And guess what? That is an exact match for answer (A).

Question #17

This is a medium-difficulty line reference question. Here, pinpoint the reference that discusses common ground in the perspectives the author has analyzed.

We use the term “common ground” in our annotations for lines 57-66. Is there an answer choice that falls within this window?

Yes! Answer choice C. When we read these lines, we see that they do in fact discuss common ground in the form of an example (fair trade coffee). C is the correct answer.

(Hint: this is why annotating is so important!)

Find this helpful? We encourage you to download these top SAT Reading Hacks. We use many of these hacks in this walk-through.

Question #18

This is a straightforward Main Ideas question. Let’s look and see what our annotations say for the final paragraph.

We have two notes: “the rise of behavioral economics” and “author finds promise” in this subject.

The only answer choice that has to do with this idea of behavioral science and the author’s idea that this is promising is C, which is our correct answer.

Question #19

Questions 19-21 have to do with the graph. These questions can be intimidating, but it’s important to approach them from the perspective of main ideas (just like all the other questions).

The graph itself, according to our annotations, compares profits of fair trade versus regular coffee.

Question 19 is only about the data in the graph. Carefully check each answer choice against the trends visible in the graph, and you’ll see that only A is correct--fair trade coffee had consistently higher profits than regular coffee. 

We also wrote this trend down in our annotations.

Question #20

This question is exactly like question 19 in that it solely requires data analysis and careful reading of the question. We’re looking for the greatest difference in profits between the two coffee types, and when this occurred.

The biggest gap between the two lines we see on this graph occurs between 2002 and 2004, when regular trade coffee profits were just above 20 and fair trade profits were at approximately 130.

This matches answer (B).

Question #21

This graph question requires a synthesis of main ideas -- the main idea of the graph and the main idea of the passage.

Remember that fair trade coffee is discussed in the paragraph about finding “common ground” in the three perspectives on ethical economics examined. In general, the author also feels that ethical economics has promise.

This best matches answer C, which is also the broadest of the options. 

Download Our Expert SAT Reading Hacks

Want to know a secret?

Many of the strategies we used in this post have to do with our top SAT Reading hacks, designed to get you started on your path to a great SAT Reading score.

You can download these 8 great hacks right now for free!

Here's what you'll get:

  • 8 of our very best SAT Reading Hacks
  • Examples from official SAT practice tests


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.



How is the SAT Scored? Your Complete Guide

Scoring on the SAT: What You Need to Know

Scoring on the SAT: Your Ultimate Guide

What does scoring on the SAT look like?

Most importantly, what do you need to know to get your highest score yet?

If you're taking the SAT for first time, you've likely already asked these questions. You might have already visited our post on what counts as a good SAT score.

We're here to answer all of your SAT scoring questions (and more).

Here's what we cover in this detailed post:


Scoring on the SAT: The Basics

The SAT is scored on a scale of 400-1600.

This means that SAT test-takers can earn a maximum score of 1600 and a minimum of 400 on the test. This composite score is a combination of students’ Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math section scores.

SAT Section Score Range
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing 200-800
Math 200-800

The SAT Reading and Writing Score

There are two verbal tests on the SAT:

  • Evidence-Based Reading
  • Writing and Language

A student’s scores on both tests are combined into an Evidence-based Reading and Writing section score on a scale of 200 - 800. The Verbal section score does not include the SAT essay.

How is this Reading and Writing score calculated?

First, the SAT test graders calculate a student’s test score on each of the two tests. This test score is on a scale of 10-40 and depends on the number of questions a student gets correct on each test.

This conversion from a student’s SAT raw to scaled score varies from SAT to SAT: in just a moment we will explain why.

SAT test graders then multiply these two test scores by 10 and add the results to get the student’s Reading and Writing score.

SAT Verbal Score Calculation (1)

Here’s an example.

Let’s say that a student scored a 28 on the Evidence-Based Reading section and a 31 on the Writing and Language section. Multiplied by 10, these would equate to a 280 (EBR) and 310 (WL), or a 590 Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score.


The SAT Math Score

There are two math tests on the new SAT: a shorter No-Calculator test and a longer Calculator test.

SAT test graders calculate how many total questions a student gets right on both of these tests. They then convert this raw score to a sectional score by using a test-specific algorithm.

(Unlike the Reading and Writing score calculation, there’s no multiplying by 10.)

This conversion from raw to scaled scores varies from test to test. On SAT Math, a student can earn a minimum section score of 400 and a maximum of 800.

SAT Math Score Calculation (1)

Here’s an example of the SAT math score calculation in action.

Let’s say that a student gets 15 questions right on the No-Calculator Math test and 27 questions right on the Calculator Math test. This equates to 42 correct questions total (out of 58).

Depending on the SAT, this could convert to a Math section score between 630 and 700.


The SAT Essay Score

The SAT essay is the fifth and final section of the test. It is optional, and after the June 2021 SAT administration, it will no longer be a part of the test. (Here are our thoughts on whether or not you should still take it if you plan to test before then.)

A student’s SAT essay score does not impact their Reading and Writing score.

Unlike the rest of the test, the SAT essay does not have a composite score. Two separate readers analyze students’ essays. They give each student a score between 1 and 4 for three categories: reading, analysis, and writing.

The SAT test graders then add these two sets of scores together per category. Students can thus receive a score of 2 - 8 on each of the three categories.


The SAT Bell Curve: Does It Exist?

In this article, we’ve discussed the fact that SAT score conversions vary from test to test.

There’s a myth out there that these mysterious conversions depend on student performance on each individual SAT. In other words, if everyone else does fairly well on a given SAT, this is bad news for test-takers who struggled with the exam (and vice versa).

This is entirely untrue. Individual test scores have nothing to do with overall student performance. The SAT bell curve does not exist!

However, it’s virtually impossible to create SATs with identical difficulty but different content. For this reason, the CollegeBoard uses a process called “equating” to adjust scores based off of each test’s difficulty. In their words:

To make sure a section score from any SAT is equivalent to that same section score from any other SAT, regardless of its level of difficulty, we use a method called “equating.” Equating is a universally accepted statistical process used for all standardized tests. It ensures that scores are fair and valid for all test takers.

What does this mean?

Getting 35 Math questions right on one test may result in a different score than getting 35 Math questions right on another. But, the CollegeBoard emphasizes, this still results in a fair score.

In the next session, we display a comparison of two previously administered SATs that proves this point.

Sample SAT Scoring Chart

Source: The College Board Practice Tests #1 and #3

Notice how 35 correct Math questions on Test 1 equated to a 570. On Test 3, the same number of correct Math questions resulted in a 610. Roughly speaking, Test 1’s Math sections were likely easier than Test 3’s.

Conversely, 30 correct Writing and Language questions on Test 1 equated to a test score of 29. On Test 3, the same number of correct questions resulted in a 30.

Can you predict the difficulty levels of SATs? No. Nor should you hold out hope for an “easy” SAT.

In fact, an "easy" SAT does not guarantee a higher score. On easy SATs, more test-takers will answer more questions correctly. This means those high-difficulty questions will be worth more.

But you can prepare for difficult SAT questions in your test prep journey. You can also prepare to take the test at least twice to maximize your odds of achieving your highest score.


SAT Percentiles

There’s one more aspect to scoring on the SAT that parents and students should emphasize throughout their test prep: SAT percentiles.

When students receive their SAT score reports, they will also receive percentages based on their performance. Students receive sectional percentiles and composite percentiles.

These are quite different from high school percentages, which often translate directly to how many questions students got right.

SAT percentiles reflect the percentage of test-takers an individual student out-performed.

An SAT composite percentile of 77%, for example, signifies that a test-taker earned a higher score than 77% of all students who took that particular test.

Percentiles are important, especially when assessing eligibility for more competitive colleges. When it comes to test prep, however, it is often more valuable to establish a goal score range rather than a goal percentile range.


Average SAT Scores

Here are the average SAT scores from the last two years of SAT administration. As you can see, SAT averages are actually declining.

SAT Score National Averages for the Class of 2020:

  • Reading and Writing: 528
  • Math: 523
  • Total: 1051

SAT Score National Averages for the Class of 2019

  • Reading and Writing: 531
  • Math: 528
  • Total: 1059

Source: The CollegeBoard: 2019 Report and 2020 Report


Scoring on the SAT: Where This Leaves You

There you have it: your complete guide to scoring on the SAT. So what happens next?

1. Set a goal score before beginning SAT test prep.

It’s vital to have a goal score or percentile in mind prior to starting SAT test prep. Doing so can help students more efficiently prioritize specific content areas and strategies. It can also give your test prep journey trajectory and focus.

Some students begin their SAT test prep with a goal score in mind. Others may have no idea what score range to aim for, especially if they are still fleshing out their list of colleges.

Students who have already taken the PSAT, administered to high school sophomores, can refer to their PSAT score report for assessing goals and percentiles. Those who have yet to take the PSAT should begin with a diagnostic SAT practice test.

2. Practice questions of all difficulty levels.

The notion of an SAT bell curve can understandably make students anxious!

However, it is possible to succeed on the SAT despite this curve. It all begins with test prep. Increasing your fluency in all kinds of practice questions, including the most challenging ones, can help combat test fluctuations.

We also strongly recommend that students take the SAT officially at least twice.

3. Understand what a good SAT score looks like.

While a “good SAT score” is a relative phrase, students should have a sense of competitive SAT scoring before they start preparing for the exam.

So, what does a good SAT score look like? Is there such a thing as a “bad” SAT score? What should be your goal SAT score?

We answer all of these questions and more in our comprehensive guide to good SAT scores.

Students can also work with our SAT experts to establish a goal score and concrete steps for achieving it!


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.


SAT Reading Tips to Get a Perfect Score_PrepMaven

16 Easy SAT Reading Tips to Get a Perfect Score in 2023

16 Easy SAT Reading Tips to Get a Perfect Score in 2023

Bonus Material: 8 Extra SAT Reading Hacks from the Experts

What SAT Reading tips do you need to get a perfect score?

We get asked this question a lot.

The SAT Reading test is the first section of the SAT. With this section, students have a little over an hour to complete 52 questions associated with 5 passages.

This is a tough section for many reasons, but the good news is that a perfect SAT Reading score is in range for students who apply the right strategies and prepare accordingly. 

In this post, we offer 16 easy, expert SAT Reading tips for getting a perfect score on this section. We also have an additional 8 SAT Reading hacks, which you can download below!

Note: this article is about the paper version of the SAT, which will be phased out in 2024. For our breakdown of the new, Digital SAT, check out our comprehensive post here.

Here’s what we cover in this post:


16 Easy SAT Reading Tips to Get a Perfect Score

Tip #1: Familiarize yourself with this strategy-based section

Many students preparing for the SAT assume that the reading section is just that: a section that requires test-takers to read some stuff and answer questions about it.

That is only partially true. 

In fact, the Evidence-Based Reading section is a bit more complex than that. It has a wide variety of reading passages, for one thing, a strict time limit, and tough questions. 

The first thing you should do on your path to a perfect SAT Reading score is understand exactly what this section looks like in terms of the following:

  • Format
  • Scoring
  • Strategy

Format

The SAT Reading section is first in the lineup of sections on the SAT.

Here are the nuts and bolts of the SAT Reading section’s format:

  • Time limit: 65 minutes
  • Questions: 52
  • Passages: 5 (one of these is a dual passage)
  • Genres of passages: History, social science, natural science, literary narrative

The passages can appear in any order, with the exception of literary narrative: that always comes first.

Dual passages, passages that contain two shorter excerpts from different pieces, will always be history, social science, or natural science--never literary narrative.

It’s also worth noting that not all of these passages will be contemporary, meaning that they’ve been written recently. At least one passage will be an “older” text, such as:

  • An excerpt from a nineteenth- or twentieth-century novel
  • A selection from a Federalist paper or other founding document
  • 18th or 19th century speeches

Scoring

Your SAT Reading score is combined with your SAT Writing & Language score for a total Verbal score of 400-800.

On its own, your SAT Reading score is calculated on a scale of 200-400. Basically, the College Board converts the number of questions you get right on SAT Reading (your raw score) into a scaled score of 200-400.

This conversion process is different for every test, due to the fact that no SAT is the same. But it is possible to approximate the relationship between raw and scaled scores.

For example, based on our assessment of the raw score conversion tables for the College Board’s officially released SAT practice tests, we can conclude that students need to get X questions right on SAT Reading to earn a “perfect” score.

That’s right--you don’t have to get every single question right in order to earn a perfect SAT Reading score

This has to do with the College Board’s “equating process,” the process it uses to convert raw scores into scaled scores based on that exam’s difficulty.

Strategy

The SAT Reading section is the only section on the SAT that doesn’t require outside content knowledge. That’s both good and bad news.

The good news is that you don’t have to memorize author names, texts, or dates for this section. You don’t even have to study a lot of vocabulary, necessarily.

The bad news is that you’ve got to learn and implement strategy on this section. For many students, this is an unfamiliar component of test-taking. In a typical high school English classroom, students aren’t tested on their capacity to be strategic test-takers.

But the good news in that bad news is the fact that there are a lot of tried and true strategies out there for succeeding on SAT Reading, many of which we discuss in this post.

What’s more, if you find yourself bringing in outside knowledge to answer an SAT Reading question, that’s a sign that you’re veering towards a wrong answer choice. All of your information should come from the passage, and the passage alone.

Before you keep reading, we recommend that you check out these other 5 things you should know about SAT Reading.

Tip #2: Start by knowing where you stand

Before you start prepping, it’s vital to take an SAT practice test if you haven’t done so already. 

Taking an official practice test under test-like conditions will give you the most accurate reading of where you currently stand on SAT Reading.

A diagnostic score report can also be very revealing in terms of the following:

  • Timing
  • Accuracy with passage and question types
  • Testing habits

Find all officially released practice SATs and advice on self-proctoring a diagnostic test here

After you take your first SAT practice test, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which passages did I have higher accuracy on? Least accuracy?
  • Where might timing have been an issue?
  • What types of questions am I missing consistently? What types am I acing?

Answering these questions can be helpful for establishing goals in your SAT Reading prep. They can also be helpful for pinpointing where your strengths lie on this section (a key point we discuss in Tip #5).

Tip #3: Establish a realistic timeline for increasing your score

Some students assume they can cram for the SAT and boost their score that way. Unfortunately, this is not a solid strategy for earning a perfect score on any SAT section.

SAT test prep takes time. We encourage students to set aside at least three months--and often many more--to prepare for this exam.

This is especially important for SAT Reading, which requires a significant amount of strategy and practice. We discuss SAT goal-setting in more depth in this post here

We also want to reiterate that it’s not necessarily realistic to set your target score as a perfect 400 out the gate, unless you are already very close to this number. Establish incremental goals that can get you closer to that perfect score over time.

When establishing these goals, it can be helpful to think in terms of number of questions correct (as opposed to the scaled score itself). 

For example, if you get 35 questions right on your first SAT Reading section, a reasonable goal would be to get 40 questions right on the next round (then 45, 50, etc.). Think about maximizing your raw score (the questions you get right) and this will maximize your scaled score.

Tip #4: Think like the test-makers, not a test-taker

The test-makers design the SAT Reading section to be challenging. They want students to fall for trap answers and use their time inefficiently. They want students to answer questions in predictable ways.

That’s why it’s important to think strategically on SAT Reading. Be on the lookout for ways that the SAT is trying to trick you--the more you can anticipate these traps, the more likely you are to not fall for them! 

Here’s one example.

The literary narrative passage is always the first passage on SAT Reading. At first glance, this passage sounds easy-peasy. Fiction? Characters? Dialogue? Cool!

But on second glance, the questions associated with this passage are detail-oriented and time-consuming. Many students who start with this passage end up losing a lot of time, especially if the passage is from an older literary text, like Pride and Prejudice.

You guessed it: the test-makers do this for a reason. They want you to waste your time on this first passage so you have limited time to get to the others! The predictable test-taker will do this passage first.

The savvy test-taker will not.

Tip #5: Identify where your strengths lie and always play to these

There is no wrong answer penalty on the SAT. This means that students do not lose points when they answer a question incorrectly.

They simply do not gain any points. 

For this reason, there’s no harm in guessing! Students should never leave answers blank on SAT Reading. 

Every question is also worth the same amount of points on each individual section of the SAT. There is no point value difference between an easy SAT Reading question and a hard one.

Make your life easier from the outset by prioritizing what is easier for you in terms of:

  • SAT Reading passages
  • Questions

For example, if you consistently have high accuracy on questions associated with Science passages on the SAT Reading section, start with those passages. If you always nail Words in Context questions, do those first for every passage.

Save the harder passages and questions for the end--or for guessing. Beginning with your strengths on SAT Reading is the surest way to guide you closer to a high score.

Want even more SAT Reading tips? Check out these additional hacks from the experts.

Tip #6: Boost your fluency in SAT Reading question types

In line with Tip #5, it’s important to recognize the different types of questions you’ll encounter on SAT Reading.

This fluency will help you pinpoint your strengths and cater to these. It can also clue you in to the predictability of SAT Reading. It will have the same types of questions every time, after all. 

And each question type will have its own predictability, especially in terms of wrong answer choices.

Here are the types of questions you can expect to find on SAT Reading:

  • Words in Context
  • Command of Evidence
  • Function / Purpose
  • Main Ideas
  • Detail or Line Reference
  • Inference
  • Charts & graphs

Words in Context

These questions ask students to choose a word or idea similar in meaning to a word or idea used in the passage, as in this example here from the College Board's Official SAT Practice Test #1:

Command of Evidence

These ask students to select a line reference in the passage that best supports their answer to the previous question. Students can expect to encounter 8-10 of these on SAT Reading.

Function / Purpose

Function or Purpose questions are interested in a student's knowledge of the purpose of a part of the passage, whether that's a line, word, paragraph, idea, or passage as a whole.

Main Ideas

These questions are all about main ideas of passages as a whole, a series of lines, or paragraphs.

Detail or Line Reference

Detail or Line Reference questions ask test-takers about specific details in the passage, often with a line reference attached. On the literary narrative passage, these often concern character analysis.

Inference

An inference is a logical conclusion one can make from presented evidence. With Inference questions on SAT Reading, students must make a logical inference based off of a specific part of the passage.

Charts & Graphs

This question type always surprises students. Why do figures and charts appear on SAT Reading, a verbal section? Good question! It's all part of the SAT's effort to test a student's ability to synthesize many different types of information.

Luckily, these questions aren't normally too difficult. Some can be answered without even reading the passage. Others depend on a working understanding of a passage's main idea(s).

Tip #7: Recognize typical wrong answer choices

The more you can learn to recognize typical wrong answer choices, the greater your odds are of avoiding these traps on SAT Reading.

Some common wrong answer choices include:

  • “Extreme” answers, which often include words like never or always
  • Inferences that go too far beyond the passage
  • Distortion of details or keywords from the passage
  • Verbiage that sounds “nice” but can’t be backed with passage evidence
  • References to outside knowledge

Notice a common thread in these? You guessed it -- wrong answer choices are wrong because they can't be supported with direct evidence from the passage.

Students should thus get in the habit of identifying evidence in the passage for every answer choice they select, not just for Command of Evidence questions. That's why it's called the Evidence-Based Reading section!

Tip #8: Don’t get lost in those answer choices, by the way

This is one of the most important SAT Reading tips we pass along to our students. Many test-takers get in the habit of reading through all of the answer choices before coming up with an answer to a question.

Don’t do this! This increases your odds of getting sidetracked by a “shiny” trap answer.

We recommend reading the question first, researching your answer in the passage, making a prediction, and then eliminating answers that don’t match your prediction. 

Tip #9: Divide and conquer on the dual passage

Don’t forget that one of the 5 SAT Reading passages includes a dual passage. This means students will have to read two smaller passages in one, and answer questions about both.

Instead of reading through these two passages before getting to the questions, divide and conquer! Make your life easier by tackling only one passage at a time.

  • Take a look at the questions
  • Tackle the passage that has the most questions first
  • Answer questions for that passage
  • Tackle the other passage and its respective questions
  • Complete questions about both passages

This strategy means that you only have to think about both passages at once for the questions that concern both (arguably the harder questions on the dual passage).

Want even more SAT Reading tips? Check out these additional hacks from the experts.

Tip #10: Annotate, annotate, annotate

SAT Reading passages are complex, dense, and boring. Maintain focus by annotating when you engage with any passage.

What does it mean to annotate?

Pay attention to main ideas as you work a passage. Jot down the main idea for every paragraph in the margins, circle words you recognize from the questions, and underline anything that feels relevant.

Students should focus less on details. They should prioritize big picture ideas and arguments as they annotate, as SAT Reading questions are most interested in these.

These notes can be extremely valuable later on as students answer questions, providing a specific road map for passage ideas (and ultimately answers).

Tip #11: Think in terms of main ideas

This tip goes hand-in-hand with #10. It’s important to consider main ideas when reading an SAT passage.

But it’s equally important to answer questions with these main ideas in mind. In fact, in many cases, it’s possible to employ process of elimination based on which answers are in line with the passage’s central claim, and which aren’t.

In this question, for example, test-takers should first consider the main idea of the paragraph that houses these lines. Odds are that the answer to this question has something to do with that main idea!

Tip #12: Be literal

Once again, this is one of the most important SAT Reading tips we pass along to our students.

Every correct answer to every SAT Reading question can be found in the passage itself. This means that students should be very cautious if they find themselves making assumptions, huge inferences, or other logical leaps.

Approach questions literally! Work only with what you see in the passage and in the question stem. Be very skeptical of answer choices that lead you away from these two things.

Tip #13: Read while you prep

Students will encounter a wide range of passages on SAT Reading, including some genres they might not regularly read.

These especially include older literature and primary documents, scientific articles, and speeches.

That’s why we encourage students to have a reading list on hand as they prepare for this difficult section. This doesn’t have to be intensive! 

It could be as simple as subscribing to a publication like The Economist, reading an article in a scientific journal that interests you, or working through a chapter of Jane Eyre a week.

For added practice, mentally paraphrase the main ideas of what you’re reading--or even annotate!

Tip #14: Prioritize accuracy over quantity

Accustomed to having to answer every question on a high school test, many test-takers race through SAT Reading. They try to answer every question, even if some of these answers are guesses.

This is not a strategy to embrace on SAT Reading or the test as a whole. Speed often leads to inaccuracy. Students are more likely to earn a higher score in general if they prioritize getting more questions right rather than answered.

Playing to your strengths and embracing a guessing strategy can help with this. The same goes for regularly assessing your progress via practice tests, which we discuss in Tip #16. 

Tip #15: Don’t forget about Writing & Language

Your SAT Verbal score consists of your SAT Reading score and Writing and Language score. As you think about boosting your SAT score, don’t forget this crucial point.

If you’re aiming for a perfect or near-perfect score on SAT Verbal, it’s important to devote equal prep time to this other section. 

While the passages on Writing & Language aren’t nearly as complex as those on SAT Reading, your prep on these two sections can be complementary. About 50% of questions on Writing & Language concern your understanding of context, main ideas, and logical argument.

We recommend starting by learning these 13 grammar rules tested on Writing & Language, if you haven't done so already.

Tip #16: Practice close to the source, and practice often

When it comes to standardized test prep, it’s important to utilize practice materials that are as close to the source as possible.

What does this mean? Begin by working with College Board prep materials, as this is the company that produces the SAT. You can find all 10 official College Board practice tests here.

We also encourage students to create a study plan prior to prepping for any section of the SAT. This study plan should include regular, timed practice tests.

Frequent practice tests are vital for SAT Reading prep, given that this section has a particularly tight time limit, and success depends on a variety of strategies we've discussed in this post.

Download 8 Additional SAT Reading Hacks

Want more help on SAT Reading? We've put together 8 of our very best SAT Reading hacks in addition to the awesome tips in this post.

SAT Reading Tips and Hacks

Here's what you'll get:

  • 8 of our very best SAT Reading Hacks
  • Examples from official SAT practice tests



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 Analogies_PrepMaven

SSAT Analogies Practice: 5 Strategies & 3 Drills

SSAT Analogies Practice: 5 Strategies & 3 Drills

Bonus Material: SSAT Analogies Practice Drills

The SSAT Verbal section has 60 questions. The first 30 are SSAT Synonym questions, while questions 31-60 are SSAT Analogies.

The key to succeeding on Analogy questions lies in your capacity to identify specific relationships. Each question will provide students with two words that demonstrate a certain relationship.

Students must then select the choice that best reflects that relationship, thus completing the meaning of the sentence.

In this post, we walk students through our 5 strategies for approaching SSAT Analogies. We also give readers access to free SSAT Analogies practice, which you can download now.

Here's what we cover:


5 Strategies for SSAT Analogies

Here's our general strategy for approaching an Analogy question on SSAT Verbal:

  1. Identify the specific relationship between the two question words
  2. Search for the answer that shows the same relationship
  3. Eliminate accordingly

Sounds easy, right? Well, not necessarily. It can be really tough to identify a specific relationship, particularly between words you don't know (or only have partial meanings for).

Those answer choices will also be chock-full of associative words, terms or pairs that might have a similar connotation but not necessarily similar relationship.

That's where the following 5 strategies come into play.

#1: Start noticing Analogy categories.

Every SSAT Analogy question presents a specific relationship between the two ideas presented. As you continue to work with these questions, start noticing the various "categories" of these relationships, such as size (one word is smaller than another), time (one thing happens before another), or cause and effect (one thing causes another).

Take a look at this sample Analogy question and see if you can identify the "category" of the relationship presented:

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

If you guessed a relationship of degree or size, you're correct! Gargantuan is a larger or more extreme version of big. Their relationship is one of degree, making E the correct answer (ecstatic is a more extreme version of happy).

"Degree" is an example of just one “category” of relationships you will start to see in the Analogy section. Just as there isn’t a finite list of words on the Synonyms section, there is no complete list of categories for the Analogy section. 

However, the list below gives some common relationship categories we’ve seen on SSAT practice tests:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Size
  • Material
  • Part and Whole
  • Example and General Category
  • Cause and Effect
  • Synonyms
  • Antonyms
  • Degrees
  • Actor and Action
  • Product and Producer
  • Tool and User
  • Tool and Use

This can be essential as an elimination strategy, too. Once you've identified the category of the relationship, you can eliminate any answer choices that fit other relationship categories.

Let’s apply this principle to the following questions. We’ve left the answer choices out here so that you can focus only on the relationship between the two question words.

  1. Lukewarm is to boiling as

____________________________________________________________________________

  1. Potable is to water as

____________________________________________________________________________

  1. Socks are to shoes as

____________________________________________________________________________

  1. Foreign is to domestic as

____________________________________________________________________________

  1. Botany is to plants as

____________________________________________________________________________

  1. Soldier is to military as

____________________________________________________________________________

  1. Tailor is to fabric as

____________________________________________________________________________

  1. Scene is to play as

____________________________________________________________________________

  1. Debris is to purity as

____________________________________________________________________________

  1. Limb is to body as

____________________________________________________________________________

#2: Create a specific relationship sentence for the question words.

Much as we encourage students to put Synonym words into their own sentences, we also recommend crafting a "relationship sentence" for SSAT Analogy question words. You can then eliminate answer choices that don't "fit" the sentence.

When creating this sentence, try to be as specific as possible.

Using the above sample question, for example, a relationship sentence like “If you’re gargantuan, you’re big” is too broad – if you plug in the answer choices, they might all sound right! “Gargantuan is a stronger version of big” is more specific and will lead you to the correct answer.

Let’s apply this principle to the following questions. We’ve left the answer choices out here so that you can focus only on the relationship between the two question words.

  1. Clasp is to necklace as

____________________________________________________________________________

____________________________________________________________________________

  1. Teacher is to educator as

____________________________________________________________________________

____________________________________________________________________________

  1. Spectators is to audience as

____________________________________________________________________________

____________________________________________________________________________

  1. Disparage is to commend as

____________________________________________________________________________

____________________________________________________________________________

  1. Sad is to devastated as

____________________________________________________________________________

____________________________________________________________________________

#3: Eliminate answer choices that have no relationship or are "conditional."

The right answer to an Analogy question will demonstrate the specific relationship of the question words. If you can’t establish a relationship between two words, that answer choice is automatically wrong! The same goes for any answer choices that may show a conditional relationship, one that is only true some of the time.

Here’s a sample question that proves this point:

Insult is to offense as:
A) laugh is to joy
B) fabricate is to falsehood
C) injure is to prepare
D) innocent is to child
E) forge is to creation

In choice C, “injure” and “prepare” have no relationship, so you can eliminate C immediately. Similarly, a "child" may be "innocent," but not necessarily 100% of the time (it depends on the child, the definition of innocent, etc.). You can eliminate D as well.

Can you spot the answer choices in the following question that have no relationship or are conditional?

  1. Mindful is to ignorant as
  1. complete is to acceptable
  2. shack is to palace
  3. novel is to idea
  4. amiable is to friendly
  5. road is to highway

#4: Focus on relationships, not synonyms.

It can be really easy, especially if you tackle SSAT Synonym questions first, to start identifying synonyms for the Analogy words rather than relationships. As best you can, remind yourself that your task on this set is to classify the relationship between the words presented and select an answer choice that reflects a similar relationship.

On the plus side, those answer choices that contain synonyms to words in the question are most likely incorrect. So if you do spot some synonyms in the answers, be very skeptical.

#5: Think of all possible relationships.

You may find that some questions have multiple reasonable answers. If this is the case, try to think of additional possible relationships between the question words. Here is a sample question that demonstrates this:

Carousel is to horse as:
A) hospital is to waiting room
B) anthology is to story
C) sun is to planet
D) bike is to wheel
E) fleet is to ship

At first glance, you might feel stuck with this question. A “horse” is a “part” of a “carousel.” With this relationship in mind, don’t multiple answer choices here fit the “whole and part” category?

However, if you think of additional ways to specify the relationship, you could reach the correct answer by reasoning that the horses revolve around a carousel just as a planet orbits the sun. Correct Answer: C.

With these tips in mind, let's work through this sample Analogy question mentioned earlier:

SSAT Verbal Section: Analogies

It will be easiest to craft a relationship sentence with these words. We might say that "an epidemic is the spread of disease." Plugging in the answer choices, we can see that only (A) fits this sentence: "a famine is the spread of hunger." Our answer is (A).


Download Our SSAT Analogies Practice Questions

Now it's your turn to apply these awesome strategies to some SSAT Analogies practice questions. You can download three free practice drills right now if you'd like.

Here's what you'll get:

  • 3 FREE SSAT Analogies Practice Drills
  • Answers to every question


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 Synonym Practice _ PrepMaven

SSAT Synonym Practice: 4 Strategies & 3 Drills

SSAT Synonym Practice: 4 Strategies & 3 Drills

Bonus Material: 3 SSAT Synonyms Practice Drills

The SSAT Verbal section has sixty total questions: 30 Synonym questions and 30 Analogy questions.

Synonym questions ask test-takers to select the answer choice closest in meaning to the question word.

These questions can be challenging for SSAT students, especially those who are still building their vocabulary. Yet with some solid strategies and practice in place, test-takers can quickly improve their accuracy on these questions.

In this post, we outline 4 expert strategies for navigating SSAT Synonyms questions. We also give readers access to some free SSAT Synonym practice, in the form of three timed drills. Grab these below.

Here's what we cover:


4 Key Strategies for SSAT Synonym Questions

Synonym questions appear first on SSAT Verbal (questions 1-30). If you feel more confident with these questions, we recommend beginning with these.

If, however, Analogies are more your jam, we recommend starting with question 31 (the first of the Analogy questions set) and completing the Synonyms set second.

Remember: play to your strengths on SSAT Verbal, and prioritize the questions that are easiest for you first.

The key to approaching SSAT Synonym questions successfully lies in remembering that they are just that: Synonym questions.

What do we mean by this?

With Synonym questions, your task is to find the answer choice that is most similar in meaning to the question word.

It's important to remind yourself of this simple fact on each question, as the test-makers love trapping students with answer choices that may be associated with the question word but, in fact, do not share a similar meaning. What's more, a "synonym" is not the same as a straight-up "definition" of a word!

We'll apply these thoughts to this sample Synonym question:

SSAT Upper Level Verbal Section_Synonyms

With this question, students must choose the answer that is most similar in meaning to the word "incognito." This doesn't mean that we're looking for the definition of "incognito," merely a term that most closely matches that definition.

The word "incognito" might suggest someone going undercover, like a ninja in a crowd. Be careful, though: answer choice (D) at first glance looks a lot like "undercover," when, in fact, it means the opposite (uncovered). But the idea of being undercover has a connotation of being hidden from sight, which leads us to answer (C): concealed.

Be careful with answer choice (A), which might be tempting for some students. "Lost" is a good example of an answer that is an association but not necessarily a synonym of a question word. Something that is incognito may not be very visible, but this doesn't mean it is lost.

Here are 4 other strategies for approaching SSAT Synonym questions. We follow each pointer with a guided practice question.

#1: Put the question word into a sentence of your own.

This is an excellent, tried-and-true way to situate a question word in its context, especially if you don't know the full meaning of a term. Put that word into a sentence, even if it's the most basic sentence you've ever written.

Using the sample question above, that sentence might look like this:

The ninja chose to go incognito, moving casually through the crowd without attracting attention.

In this sentence, we can gather that "incognito" is a behavior or attitude of some kind that the ninja adopts in this crowd. Would it make sense for someone to choose to be "lost"? No! "Lost" is not a behavior or attitude, and the same goes for "replaced" or "distinguished."

Context tells us that the ninja is choosing to be somewhat invisible, so (C) is the best answer yet again.

Let’s apply this principle to the following guided practice question.

MALEVOLENT
A) uncertain
B) emphatic
C) generous
D) wanton
E) ill-intentioned

Let’s put the word “malevolent” into a sentence, keeping in mind that that sentence doesn’t have to be complex.

Take a look at the sentence you just wrote. What does it tell you about the word “malevolent”? For example, is malevolent anything of the following?

  • Behavior
  • Attitude
  • Action
  • Description
  • Belief
  • Quality/characteristic

Based on these observations, which answers can you eliminate? Now what’s the difference between the answers that remain, if any? Can you apply any of your other observations from your initial sentence?

What answer did you end up with?

Here’s how we would approach this problem. 

Example sentence: 

The malevolent queen was very jealous of Snow White’s beauty and attempted to get her to eat a poisoned apple.

We can learn from this that someone who is “malevolent” wants to do bad things to others. This eliminates every answer choice except for E, which is the correct answer.

#2: Apply your knowledge of word parts.

Remember all those word parts and roots your teacher taught last year? Those will definitely prove valuable on SSAT Verbal, particularly with those Synonym questions.

Identifying word parts in answer choices and question words can be vital. It can be a straight-up life-saver on those questions full of vocabulary students may not know.

Be on the hunt for specific prefixes, roots, and suffixes that can give at least partial meaning for a term.

For example, if you see the word "benevolent" in a Synonyms question, you might recognize the prefix ben / bene, which means well or good. This has a positive connotation or charge, which can be useful for elimination purposes.

Let’s apply this principle to the following guided practice question.

CIRCUMSPECT
A) livid
B) guarded
C) willing
D) magnanimous
E) wry

There are two word parts in “circumspect:” the prefix “circum-” and the root “spect.” 

Circum: roundabout, around, encompass

Spect: see

From these definitions, a general definition for “circumspect” might be “to see around.” What answers can we eliminate that don’t match this? 

If you have any remaining answers, try creating sentences with them to work the rest of your elimination:

Did you get B, guarded? Great job!

For the record, circumspect describes the quality of not being very willing to take risks.

Livid: extremely angry

Wry: using dry, mocking humor

Magnanimous: generous and forgiving

#3: "Plug in" your final choice.

Much like plugging the answer to a math question into the original problem to check your work, "plug in" your final choice on a Synonyms question to the sentence you've created.

This serves as a double-check mechanism and a means of catching careless errors. Using our first example sentence and question, this would look like the following:

The ninja chose to go concealed, moving casually through the crowd without attracting attention.

Yes, "chose to go concealed" sounds a bit awkward, but it still fits in meaning and context.

Let’s apply this principle to the following guided practice question. Try applying the strategies you’ve already learned to get your answer. Then use the lines provided to plug in your final choice.

OBSOLETE
A) defunct
B) forgotten
C) massive
D) solemn
E) confused

Did you get A, defunct? Great work!

#4: On higher-difficulty questions, the weirder the better.

Remember: the SSAT test-makers will create specific traps on each Verbal question designed to trick the predictable test-taker.

What are predictable test-takers likely to do on harder Synonym questions? They are probably not likely to choose an answer they don't know. They will likely avoid those really weird, foreign-looking terms. However, on really tough Synonym questions, these answers can be correct.

Here's an example of this in action, modeled after a sample SSAT.org practice question:

ZEALOUS
A) heartfelt
B) fervent
C) irritating
D) praiseworthy
E) interested

The "weirdest" answer choice here, the one many students are not likely to know, is fervent. This happens to be the correct answer choice.

We do want to offer this tip with a caveat, however: students should still adhere to their established guessing strategy, regardless of the difficulty level of the question. It may still be worth your while to leave a question blank if you generally have no clue about the question word and the answer choices.

Let’s apply this principle to the following guided practice question.

GLIB
A) determined
B) mythical
C) slimy
D) facetious
E) considerate

Looking at the answer choices, which is our “weirdest” answer choice?

Most students will zero in on “facetious,” a word that may or may not already be a part of your working vocabulary. This is, in fact, the right answer!

For the record:

Glib: fluent and voluble but insincere and shallow.

Facetious: treating serious issues with deliberately inappropriate humor; flippant.


Download Our SSAT Synonyms Practice Questions

Now it's your turn to apply these 4 awesome strategies to some SSAT Synonyms practice questions. You can download three free practice drills right now if you'd like.

Here's what you'll get:

  • 3 FREE SSAT Synonyms Practice Drills
  • Answers to all 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.



How to Answer the Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts_PrepMaven

How to Answer the Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts (2023-2024)

How to write the Harvard supplemental essays (2023-2024)

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s 50+ Real Supplemental Essays for Ivy+ Schools

Last year, Harvard admitted just 3.2% of applicants, meaning that if you want a shot at an admission for the 2023-2024 cycle, your application has to be just about perfect. 

One element of the Harvard application that many students struggle with is the Harvard writing supplement. It’s tricky to know exactly how to approach these supplemental essays: what can you write to stand out from the thousands of other applicants? What exactly are Harvard admissions officers looking for?

Fortunately, at PrepMaven, we’ve helped thousands of students craft compelling college application essays. It doesn’t hurt that many of our expert tutors have been admitted to Harvard themselves, and so they know exactly what works. 

In this guide, we’ll break down the 2023-2024 Harvard writing supplement, explaining exactly what you need to do to maximize your chances at a Harvard acceptance. To check out our overall guide that covers everything you need to do to get into Harvard in 2024, click here.

As you read on, check out our free resource linked below: it contains real, successful examples of supplemental essays written for Harvard and other top schools. 

Jump to section:

Next steps


Harvard’s 2023-2024 supplemental essays 

This year, Harvard has a fairly intense set of supplemental essays: you’ll have to write 5 essays, each with a maximum word count of 200 words.

The supplemental essays prompts are below: 

Prompt 1

Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard? 

Prompt 2

Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you. 

Prompt 3

Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are. 

Prompt 4

How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future? 

Prompt 5

Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you.

The first thing to notice is that several of these essays fall into well-known categories of the college essay. 


How to write Harvard’s first essay: Diversity/Community

If you haven’t already, you’ll soon come to recognize this essay prompt. At heart, this kind of prompt is asking you to discuss how–based on specific elements of your life–you view your role as a potential member of Harvard’s diverse community. 

We call this the Diversity/community essay, because those are really always two sides of the same coin. 

With the Harvard Diversity/community essay, there are 2 basic options for structuring your response:

  1. Discuss community through the lens of your identity. 
  2. Discuss community through the lens of other events/activities/pursuits in your life. 

Which path you take will actually be easy to decide: 

If your identity (racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, etc.) has significantly influenced your worldview or experiences, go with option 1. 

In other words, if you know you have something meaningful to say about how your identity has shaped you, that should structure your response. This might mean writing an essay about how discrimination or systemic biases have affected you or your family; it could just as well, however, mean writing about specific experiences you’ve cherished as a member of a particular culture. 

A few great examples from recent essays we’ve worked on: 

  • An essay that focuses on a student’s biracial background and how she learned to use others’ ignorant/racist comments as opportunities for starting difficult conversations. 
  • An essay exploring how a first-generation immigrant served as a translator for his parents. 
  • An essay from a young woman exploring how she navigated the contradictions between her feminist views and the emphasis on tradition within her religion. 

If your identity has not significantly experienced how you view the world, go with option 2. 

If you don’t feel particularly connected to a specific identity, or if you can’t think of specific ways that your identity has affected you, you should instead focus on other elements of your life that have shaped your view of community. 

Think about what you want out of a community: then, think about what aspect of your life (an extracurricular, a hobby, a social circle) has shaped that desire. Tell that story. It may sound a bit tough to thread that needle, but it really isn’t so bad: here are a few really successful topics from recent students in response to this kind of prompt:

  • An essay about how a student’s participation in yearly music recitals with strangers shaped how he views community as a place for everyone to share their gifts/talents. 
  • An essay from an avid hiker about how his experiences maintaining hiking trails taught him to think of community as a shared, daily effort in the service of others. 
  • An essay from a student who moved countries multiple times reflecting on what in each place contributed to creating a cohesive community. 

All the examples are different, but share one thing in common: using your personal experiences to reflect on your role in a diverse community. 

For successful examples of Diversity/community essays, check out the first Princeton essay and the first three UMich essays in the free collection below!


How to write Harvard’s second essay: Intellectual Experience

Here’s the second supplemental prompt:

Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you. 

You can really think of this question as being a simpler version of the “Why Major?” question that colleges often ask (and on which we’ve written a guide here). 

With a simple “Intellectual experience” prompt, you don’t have to go into the nitty-gritty of how Harvard’s programs will help you pursue your interests. Instead, you’ll just tell the Harvard admissions committee how a particular experience you’ve had sharpened your curiosity, raised new questions, or affected your academic goals. 

Think of the “Intellectual Experience” essay as having two parts:

  1. Describe the experience itself
  2. Show how it affected you or what you learned

What kinds of things count as intellectual experiences? Well, it really is a very broad category, and you’re likely the best judge. Particularly good ideas include things like:

  • Independent research
  • Internships with professors or universities
  • Advanced summer programs at universities
  • Academically-focused extracurriculars 

If you don’t have any of the above to talk about, you can also make this essay about:

  • A provocative book, article, etc. that you’ve engaged with
  • A particularly memorable moment in class (a specific lab, assignment, or lecture)
  • Any other learning experience, formal or not, that had a profound effect on you

The key is that, regardless of what the topic of your essay is, you do the following:

  1. Describe it in vivid, specific detail
  2. Convey your passion for whatever you’re describing
  3. Explore its effect on you

Never underestimate the power of simply showing Harvard admissions officers that you’re the kind of person who spends time thinking about your interests. That’s really all they want here, and that’s why it’s so important that you’re specific and passionate. 

At the same time, Harvard admissions committees want to see that this intellectual experience has shaped you in some way, that you’ve meaningfully engaged with it. That’s why it’s crucial that you spend some time discussing what new ideas or questions arose out of this experience. 

And that’s it! Do all of the above, and you’ll have the second of Harvard’s supplemental essays locked down tight–plus, you’ll have a great template for any other schools that ask the same question. 

Ready to get started? A great resource to begin with is our collection of real, successful supplemental essays, many of which answer similar prompts. For stellar examples of essays that discuss intellectual experiences, check out the last supplemental essay for Princeton, as well as the first sample essay for UPenn. 


How to write Harvard’s third essay: Extracurricular

Harvard’s third supplemental essay is a classic one: the Extracurricular essay. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see a version of this prompt for a few of your schools. For reference, the exact wording of Harvard’s is below:

Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are. 

These essays usually come quite naturally to students, since the Extracurricular prompt lets you get into more detail about something on your resume/activities sheet. 

Although you may be tempted to simply write about the most “impressive” thing on your resume, we’d encourage you to think a little bit differently: the question here, as with every essay, is about what the best story you can tell is. 

You should especially think about how much more your essay can add on to what the activities list already shows. For example, if your team won first place at a national Quizbowl competition, that’s definitely impressive. But is there a story there? More to the point: is the story you tell going to add something meaningful beyond the fact that you took home the first place trophy?

If not, then Quizbowl can stay on your activities list: the Harvard admissions committee will still know you got first place, and you’ll be able to use this supplemental essay to instead provide added detail and color to an activity that might otherwise seem less impressive. 

We’ve included a sample below from an essay in response to one of Princeton’s previous prompts. 

Over the pandemic, I tutored two middle school boys. Now, I love kids, but middle schoolers are not my number one favorites. They are often dismissive of authority and it's very hard to hold their attention for longer than two minutes. So working with them on Zoom for an hour became my new challenge.

I tried many tactics. When fun warm-ups, writing prompts, and Zoom games all failed, I was officially stumped. I couldn't understand why they found me so uninteresting. I decided to pay closer attention to the passions they mentioned. Instead of imposing my own ideas, I listened to what they had to say.

It turned out Lucian loved running. Getting him to read was like pulling teeth, but I found a Jason Reynolds book called Ghost, part of a series about a track team. We would spend ten or fifteen minutes at the beginning of each session reading it aloud to each other, and while he seemed to be engaged, I couldn't tell exactly how much he was enjoying it. But when we finally finished, he asked me shyly, "What did you say the next one was called?"

Sajiah proved to be tougher to please. He wasn't swayed by any books I suggested to him, no matter the topic. He often hummed or rapped while working, which I found to be endlessly annoying, until I started listening to the actual words. I Googled the lyrics and noticed that he particularly enjoyed Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. So we began a project investigating the origins of hip hop, and created a website as the final product. He loved finding out more about the music he listened to every day, and I loved seeing him so happy with his work.

I don't pretend I saved the world by helping these boys, but I am proud of the creative way I found projects and topics they genuinely enjoyed investigating. I hope to continue working with children as a form of civic engagement throughout college and beyond; if I can help students like Sajiah and Lucian, it'll be well worth it.

Notice that the extracurricular itself (tutoring two young students) isn’t inherently impressive, but the story is. If the author just left this on their activities sheet, it probably wouldn’t have caught admissions officers’ attention. 

But, because this applicant was able to tell a meaningful, reflective story about this extracurricular activity, it added a new depth and perspective to their application as a whole. 

The third Harvard supplemental essay doesn’t have to be difficult: stay honest, stay direct, and tell your story. 

To read other responses to this very prompt (and many other sample supplemental essays), download our collection below. And if you’d like the guidance of one of our expert tutors (some of whom wrote the very essays in that packet), just contact us


How to write Harvard’s fourth essay: Putting your education to use

Although this question may feel oddly specific, it’s really just another version of a commonly asked question: what are you going to do with what you learn? Most frequently, this is a question asked by religious universities, or universities with a particular focus on service. 

While the answer doesn’t have to present you as somebody who will spend their whole life volunteering, it’s a good idea to reflect a bit on what the purpose of education is for you, and how you might be able to present that in a socially-minded, positive way.

Below, check out the prompt and some advice on what Harvard admissions officers are looking for. 

How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future? 

There are probably some obvious answers you could give here that (even if they’re true) should probably stay off the page. Saying you want to use your Harvard education to make a ton of money on Wall Street or make elite political connections isn’t likely to win you any admiration from the admissions officers. 

That being said, don’t try too hard to pass yourself off as someone you’re not. If you really do have a passion for service or politics and plan to pursue a major related to those ideas, then this essay will be quite straightforward for you. Describe what drives you and how the tools Harvard provides will help you achieve those socially-minded goals. 

For example, if you’re motivated to address systemic inequities in education and plan to study something like sociology, you could simply discuss where this motivation comes from and how a Harvard sociology degree would help you in your goals. The strongest essays will always come from these kinds of stories. 

If, on the other hand, you don’t have those kinds of motivations or background, you’ll likely want to focus this essay more broadly on how you plan to pursue your post-grad life. Ideally, you’ll find some way to thread in ideas about community, giving back, and service into this essay. 

This can be a big-picture, or not. You might talk about how a Harvard education will help you support your family, or how it can help you give back to the local community you come from. As long as you keep your essay specific and honest without trying to overdo your charitable intentions, you’ll be fine. 


How to write Harvard’s fifth essay: Roommates 

Ah, a classic roommate essay! Although this might seem like an offbeat or wacky question, you’ll find there’s a few colleges that ask you to share something with your future roommates. Why?

Well, basically because they want to make sure you’re a fairly sociable person who’ll get along with people. 

Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you.

You can and should have fun with these essays, and can even frame them as letters to your roommate. It’s an opportunity for you to share fun facts or quirks about yourself, sure, but more than anything these essays are a chance for you to show that you’re mindful of others. 

Whatever specific facts you include here, be sure to make some of them about you as a community member. For example, if you’re an engineering whiz, you can definitely talk about how you like to tinker and take stuff apart. But, to really make this land with Harvard’s admissions committee, you could also mention how that means you’ll always be ready to help your roommate fix a broken laptop. 

The key idea is to show that your quirks, whatever they are, will have some positive impact on the people around you. 

Be humble, be playful, but don’t forget what this is all about: you’re trying to convince Harvard you’d be a good person to have around for four years. First and foremost that means showing them that you’d be a conscientious roommate who’s mindful of others’ needs. 


Next Steps

If you’re applying to Harvard, the place to start is our comprehensive guide to the Harvard application for the 2023-2024 cycle, which you can find here. That guide doesn’t just cover what Harvard’s application requires of you: it uses the latest statistics and insights from our own Harvard undergraduate tutors to walk you through exactly what you’ll need to do to have a shot at Harvard.

Once you’re ready to start writing supplemental essays for Harvard and your other schools, we have two main pieces of advice. 

First: read real, successful sample supplemental essays that helped get students into Harvard and other hyper-selective schools. Most people don’t really know what schools like Harvard actually want from the supplemental essays, and the best solution is to spend lots of time reviewing sample essays. We’ve collected dozens of these essays in the free resource below. 

Second: get expert help. Whether you’re a brilliant writer or just an okay one, you’ll benefit tremendously from the advice of someone who’s already successfully navigated the college application process. Our college essay coaches aren’t just writing experts who can make your essay shine: they’re trained to know exactly what schools like Harvard expect to see

Check out the free sample essays below, and, when you’re ready to start writing, contact us to get paired with a college essay expert. 




What You Need to Know About Supplemental Essays_PrepMaven

8 Tips for Writing Supplemental Essays

8 Tips for Writing Supplemental Essays

Bonus Material: Download the Supplemental Essay Prompts for the 50 Most Selective Colleges

Many U.S. colleges and universities require applicants to respond to supplemental essays. These are in addition to the personal statement or college essay.

Some colleges, even top-tier ones like Northeastern, for example, don’t require supplemental responses. 

Some do but only require one or two short responses. Others, like Princeton University, have 6 supplemental essay prompts!

Regardless, it is possible to take a strategic approach to your supplemental essays, just like the college essay. In this post, we’ve got the 8 tips you need to tackle these additional writing responses with success.

We also give you access to our supplemental essay spreadsheet, which includes supplemental prompts and application deadlines for the 50 most selective colleges in the U.S. Grab it below.

Here’s what we cover:


8 Tips for Writing Supplemental Essays

1) Start planning early

Many students devote the majority of their summer and senior fall to writing their personal statement. Your personal statement is, after all, one of the most important parts of your application. You should put in the time and effort to write a successful college essay.

But many students will forget about supplemental essays, saving them for the end of their application process, sometimes a week before the deadline! 

They often don’t realize just how much work these additional essays require. And if you’ve got 8 colleges on your list with supplemental essays, that’s a lot of writing.

That’s why we recommend that students identify the supplemental essays associated with every college on their list as they are building that list. Students should also note the quantity of these essays per college and their word counts.

When we work with our college essay students, we also help applicants build a timeline for drafting these essays, depending on early or regular decision applications. In some cases, students will start work on their supplemental essays as they are finishing their college essay.

You can find out more about a college’s supplemental essay requirements by adding that college to your list on Coalition or the Common App and viewing “Writing Supplement.” Here’s what that looks like for Princeton University, for example, via the Common App:

We also encourage students to check out our supplemental essay spreadsheet for the 50 most selective U.S. colleges, which you can download below.

2) Identify what the prompt is specifically asking

Many supplemental essay prompts are very specific, as in this one from Virginia Tech’s application:

Virginia Tech's motto is "Ut Prosim" which means 'That I May Serve'. We are interested in learning more about your interests and how you have been involved and/or served. Briefly describe a group, organization, or community that you have been involved with. Is this a special area of interest for you, and why? How long have you been involved? What role did you play? What contributions have you made to this group? Were you able to influence others and/or influence decisions for the good of the group?

Others can be very broad, like this one, from Wake Forest University:

Tell us more about the topic that most engages your intellectual curiosity. 

Regardless, identify what the prompt is specifically asking. Because supplemental essays are typically shorter than your personal statement, it’s essential to craft a response that is not off-topic. 

Think about what college admissions officers are likely looking for with certain prompts. 

Do they want to learn about your relationship to service, for example? Your innate passion? Your promise as a scholar? Your authentic voice? Why this college is a good fit for you? etc.

3) Be concise

You likely won’t have a lot of room for many of your supplemental essays. Three of Princeton’s essays, for example, have 50-word limits.

This means that it’s imperative for applicants to be concise in their responses. Every word should be essential. Cut the fluff and don’t be afraid to plunge right in (just as we advise our students do with their college essays).

4) Choose topics you haven’t already discussed in your application

This might go without saying, but it is still an important point. 

Think of your application as a whole, including your personal statement, and consider the dimensions of yourself that you haven’t yet discussed. What else do you wish to highlight, especially when dealing with very broad supplemental essay prompts?

Consider all of the following:

  • Personal challenges
  • Values and beliefs
  • A specific volunteering or work experience
  • A meaningful activity or hobby
  • Your passions and interests
  • What makes you curious
  • Your unique personality

This is why colleges have supplemental essays in the first place. They want to know even more about you as a candidate, beyond your personal statement, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and test scores. Be sure to select material that is not fully evident or elaborated in these other parts of your application.

5) Think about that college’s mission statement

This can be particularly vital for supplemental essays that ask why students are interested in applying to that specific school, or how they envision that school helping them with their goals.

College mission statements are usually quite broad. But they do encapsulate that college’s priorities and core values, which can be important to reference in a “Why X College” essay response.

Take Cornell University’s core values:

“Purposeful discovery, free and open inquiry and expression, a community of belonging, exploration across boundaries, changing lives through engagement and respect for the natural environment constitute Cornell’s core values.”

These are very different from Tulane University’s mission statement, which expresses the following: 

“Tulane’s purpose is to create, communicate, and conserve knowledge in order to enrich the capacity of individuals, organizations, and communities to think, to learn, and to act and lead with integrity and wisdom.”

Both provide insight into the values admissions officers are likely seeking in applicants, which can be valuable for crafting supplemental essay responses.

6) Write them even if they’re optional

We mean it! Even if it adds more to your to-do list, we encourage all students seeking a competitive edge to write those optional essay responses. 

Why? It’s your chance to give more meaning to your application and demonstrate that you are invested in applying to a specific school. We're not saying that if you skip the optional essays you won't earn admission.

But you will be providing more information for admissions officers to evaluate, which is to your advantage.

7) Recycle where you can

In many cases, it is possible to “recycle” certain supplemental essay responses. Many colleges, for example, require students to briefly elaborate on a meaningful extracurricular activity or work experience in 150-200 words.

Others may allow you to use parts of essay responses you’ve already crafted, with a little bit of tweaking.

We don’t recommend that students copy and paste any of their “Why X College” essays, as these should be tailored to each specific school. But they can certainly reuse certain sentences, templates, and essay structures across their responses.

Regardless of how you choose to recycle, do make sure that every response is authentic and relevant to that particular school and essay prompt.

8) Be specific!

Even if you’re working with a tight word limit, be as specific as possible in your supplemental essay responses, especially for very specific prompts, like the following:

  • Why are you applying to our college?
  • How will our university’s curriculum support your professional and personal goals?
  • Discuss a time where your beliefs were challenged. How did you respond? What did you learn from this experience?

What does it mean to be specific? Incorporate relevant details whenever possible.

In “Why X College” essays, for example, think about mentioning the following:

  • Specific majors and requirements
  • Actual professors and courses
  • Names of programs
  • Research opportunities
  • Study abroad programs
  • Etc.

For more reflective supplemental essays, rely on clear and declarative “I” statements, like the following:

  • I firmly believe that ________.
  • I learned through this experience that _________.
  • I try to guide every action with the following principle: _________.

Download the Supplemental Essay Prompts for the 50 Most Selective Colleges

We've compiled the supplemental essay prompts for the most selective 50 U.S. colleges and universities in one FREE easy-to-access spreadsheet!

Here's what you'll get:

  • The supplemental essay prompt(s) for the most selective 50 U.S. colleges / universities
  • Word limits for each prompt
  • Application deadlines for each (early and regular)


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.