The SSAT Writing Sample 

Bonus Material: 30 Free SSAT Writing Sample Prompts

The first section of the SSAT is the writing sample. While this 25-minute section is unscored, admissions officers do review student responses!

In this post, we discuss how to approach the SSAT writing sample and offer 16 easy tips for producing a high-quality response.

You’ll also get access to 30 free SSAT writing sample prompts, which you can grab below right now.

Here’s what we cover:

The SSAT Writing Sample in a Nutshell

There are a few essential things to keep in mind with the SSAT writing sample:

  • The writing sample is unscored but is sent to admissions departments with your SSAT scores
  • The writing sample is a 25-minute free response
  • Students have two pages to write their answer

SSAT writing sample prompts vary depending on whether you’re taking the Upper-Level SSAT or Middle-Level SSAT:

  • Upper Level: you have the choice to write a persuasive essay or a creative story. 
  • Middle Level: both prompt choices are creative essays.

The SSAT Writing Sample (1)

The test will begin the SSAT Writing Sample section by offering you a choice:

Please choose the idea you find most interesting and write a story using the idea as your first sentence. Please fill in the circle next to the one you choose.

Students do not need any outside content knowledge to respond to an SSAT writing prompt. In fact, the prompts are intentionally broad to enable a wide variety of responses.

The SSAT actually states that the writing sample gives admissions departments a chance to learn more about applicants:

Schools would like to get to know you better through a story you tell using one of the ideas below. 

Keep this in mind as you generate your response!

16 Tips for Writing an Impressive SSAT Writing Sample Response

Which Prompt Should I Choose?

Students taking the Upper-Level SSAT will have to choose between a persuasive and a creative writing prompt. Middle-Level SSAT test-takers must choose between 2 different creative essay prompts.

Some students agonize over which prompt to choose on the Upper-Level or Middle-Level SSAT. Will one look “better” to admissions officers over another, for example?

It’s important to note that admissions officers will not give preference to students who choose one prompt over another

Officers only review your writing sample response for its individual merits and writing proficiency. They might also review samples through the lens of what we like to call “institutional priorities”–standards that are specific to that private school itself.

Tips For Prompt Selection

We do encourage students to select the prompt that adheres to one or more of the following qualities. 

We suggest students choose the Writing Sample prompt that

  • is most relevant given a student’s life experiences and perspectives
  • inspires the most ideas during the brainstorming process
  • excites, intrigues, or compels them
  • and/or showcases a student’s specific abilities.

For example, let’s say that MacKenzie excels in debate; she loves crafting an argument and supporting her points with specific, concrete evidence. As a debater, MacKenzie might be uniquely suited to respond to the persuasive Writing Sample prompt on the Upper-Level SSAT, especially if she is talented in developing a complex, high-level argument.

On the other hand, Akshay may find that as he’s considering the two prompts on the Middle-Level SSAT, the second creative prompt reminds him about his relationship with his grandmother and the time they’ve spent playing pickleball together. In the brainstorming process, he feels that he has more to say about this personal experience, and feels excited by the prospect.

Some students like to plan the prompt they’ll choose on Test Day: i.e., they know they’ll always stick with the creative prompt over the persuasive one.

However, many of our SSAT students find that the prompts can be very distinct, and one will often “stick out” over the other one.

That’s why we recommend practicing with sample SSAT writing prompts, so that you can be prepared to craft a stellar response for whichever prompt you select. You can do this right now by downloading 30 free sample prompts below.

5 General Tips for the SSAT Writing Sample

Whether you choose a creative or persuasive essay prompt, it’s important to follow these general tips.

Doing so won’t result in a high SSAT score (because this section is unscored!). But it will guarantee a response likely to impress admissions departments.

  1. Write legibly: If admissions departments can’t read your response, they’ll never know how amazing your essay is!
  2. Budget your time: This includes a few minutes for planning/outlining at the beginning, and another few minutes for a proof-read for grammar, spelling, and punctuation at the end.
  3. Fill your booklet: We’re not advocating quantity over quality. But, in general, aim for more rather than less. If you only write one paragraph, it won’t give admissions committees much to assess.
  4. Keep tense and point of view consistent: Don’t switch from past to present verb tense or “I” to “he/she/it” halfway through your essay.
  5. Stick to a clear structure: This refers quite simply to a framework of beginning, middle, and end. This can mean slightly different things for persuasive and creative essays.

3 Tips for Responding to Persuasive SSAT Writing Sample Prompts (Upper-Level)

For the Upper-Level SSAT persuasive writing sample, students should focus on logically and convincingly building an argument. A logical, persuasive argument generally includes a cohesive structure, clear line of reasoning, and solid evidence. 

There are a couple of tools we can use to accomplish this goal.

1. Include an introduction, thesis, and conclusion. 

Essay reviewers will like to see several distinct argument building blocks in your essay, especially an introduction, a thesis statement, and a conclusion. Most SSAT test-takers will have worked on these components of the 5-paragraph essay in class.

Given the Writing Sample’s time limit (25 minutes), the introduction and conclusion of your response can be fairly brief; feel free to write just a sentence or two for both.

The thesis statement typically comes at the end of the introduction, and concisely states the core argument that you are about to prove. 

Here’s an example thesis statement:

While there are many qualities that make a good leader, the three most important ones are integrity, commitment to a cause, and ability to inspire others.

2. Choose and maintain a clear thesis statement. 

It’s easier to pick one side of an argument and commit to it than to try to argue both sides of the fence. In fact, your thesis statement should be as clear as possible in its perspective.

That doesn’t mean your essay can’t include an evaluation of a counterargument, in which you bring up an opposing argument and show why your own is stronger. In fact, the counterargument can be a powerful device in persuasive essays! 

Here’s an example of a counterargument:

It is true that success can help show you what you are doing right, but you will always be limited by what you believe you can achieve; whereas if you are not afraid to fail, you may realize you are capable of more than you had imagined.

Be sure to maintain your thesis statement throughout your essay, referencing it in every topic sentence of individual paragraphs.

Note: It is all right to use the first-person point of view in these responses, even though most English teachers discourage this in the classroom.

3. Use specific examples to support your argument. 

Strong, specific examples demonstrate that you can point to relevant evidence correlating your argument. History, current events, and experiences from your own life are some great sources from which to draw.

Here’s an example of a statement supported by specific evidence:

Abraham Lincoln was only president for four years, but his commitment to his cause of American union makes him consistently one of the most popular presidents in history. Similarly, in my personal life, my favorite teachers and coaches have always been the ones who were passionate about their subjects or the act of teaching itself.

3 Tips for Responding to Creative SSAT Writing Sample Prompts

Students taking the Middle-Level SSAT will have to choose between 2 creative essay prompts. Upper-Level SSAT test-takers must choose between a creative prompt and a persuasive one.

If you select the creative SSAT writing sample prompt on either test, your primary goal is to show that you can tell an engaging, well-structured story

It may be a true story from your own life or one completely based on imagination. All that matters is that you tell it in a compelling fashion and demonstrate proficiency in basic creative writing techniques, such as dialogue, setting, plot development, description, and narrative arc.

Below are some tips to help with this.

1. In the opening of your essay, establish the setting. 

Setting or place is a foundational element of basic creative writing. Establishing your response’s setting at the start will demonstrate your attention to this.

A great tool here is vivid descriptive detail that utilizes the senses. Think about what the characters are seeing, touching, hearing, tasting, or smelling as they move around their specific environment.

The same goes for imagery. Fill your prose with rich images to set the scene for the reader and guide them through the narrative. Here’s an example of compelling imagery in action that establishes setting:

Pebbles crunched all around her as she pushed herself faster downhill, and her eyes watered from the red dust that was turning her throat dry.

2. Establish the main character(s) and conflict. 

What does the main character want, and what is stopping them from reaching this goal? Identify this before writing your essay, and be sure to establish it early on in your response.

The classic examples of conflict are character against nature, character against character, and character against self. Here is an example of narrative conflict:

She had to get to the bottom of the trail before the gulch flooded and took her horse downstream with it.

3. Follow the general principles of story structure.

You probably already know these general principles from all the books, movies, and TV shows you have watched in your life: most stories have a beginning, middle, and end. As the character deals with the conflict, the action rises to a climax. As the character overcomes the conflict, action falls toward a conclusion.

We strongly recommend outlining and brainstorming the story structure of your creative response before plunging in, as in the following example:

In the beginning, the main character is racing down the rocky trail to save her horse from an approaching flood. Conflict arises when a boulder is blocking the trail, which she overcomes by taking a shortcut. In the end, she reaches the bottom of the trail and saves her horse just in time. 

4 Additional Tips

Now that you have more of a sense of what the SSAT writing sample entails, here’s what you can do to prepare: 

  1. Take a practice timed SSAT writing sample. Make sure to budget a couple of minutes at the beginning for planning and a couple of minutes at the end for proofreading!
  2. Show your practice essay to trusted readers. Ask them to note any errors and provide feedback. Do they feel convinced by your argument or engaged by your story?
  3. Reflect on the comments on your writing sample. What worked in your initial attempt, and what didn’t? Should you organize your time differently?
  4. Repeat! Notice how the comments evolve as you keep practicing. Are there words you are consistently misspelling? Elements you keep forgetting to include?

Over time, you will feel yourself becoming more comfortable with the SSAT writing sample. Practice can also help you understand how the writing response can be a space for showcasing your unique ideas and personality!

Download 30 SSAT Writing Sample Prompts for Practice

You can put these 16 tips to practice right now by downloading PrepMaven’s 30 free SSAT writing sample prompts!

With this worksheet, you’ll get:

  • 15 Creative SSAT Writing Sample prompts
  • 15 Persuasive SSAT Writing Sample prompts
  • A valuable long-term resource for your continued SSAT prep

Jess Welsh_Princeton TutoringJess Welsh

Jess is a Princeton graduate who majored in English and minored in Visual Arts (Film). She has worked as an SAT/ACT/AP/SSAT/ISEE/HSPT tutor as well as a college counselor and loves getting to know students through her work. When not tutoring, she enjoys reading, writing, running, adding to her classic rock music collection, and exploring the West!