The SSAT Writing Sample 

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 produce a high-quality response.

After all, with the right tips, SSAT test takers can use the writing sample as a tool for impressing admissions departments with their writing abilities!

Here’s what we cover in this article:

The SSAT Writing Sample: The Basics 

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!

The SSAT Writing Sample: General Tips

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.

  • Write legibly: If admissions departments can’t read your response, they’ll never know how amazing your essay is!
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Let’s look at some sample SSAT writing prompts. 

SSAT Writing Sample: Creative Essays

Here are two sample creative prompts:

I would have to come up with a new plan. She ran as fast as she could down the rocky trail. 

In the creative essay, you want to show that you can tell an engaging story. 

It may be a true story from your own life or completely based on imagination. All that matters is that you tell it in a compelling fashion! 

Below are some tips to help with this.

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

A great tool here is vivid descriptive detail that utilizes the senses. Think about what the characters are seeing, touching, hearing, tasting, or smelling.

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:

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 him/her 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 man against nature, man against man, and man against self.

Here is an example of 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 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 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. In the middle of the story, 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. 

SSAT Writing Sample: Persuasive Essays 

Here are two sample persuasive prompts:  

Is it more important to learn from failure or success?
What three qualities define a good friend?

For the SSAT persuasive writing sample, students should show that they can logically and convincingly build an argument. It is all right to use the first-person point of view in these responses!

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

1. Include an introduction, thesis, and conclusion. 

Given the time limit, the introduction and conclusion can be fairly brief–feel free to write just a sentence or two. 

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. Stick to your thesis. 

It’s easier to pick one side of an argument and commit to it. 

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.

3. Use examples to support your argument. 

Strong examples demonstrate that you can point to 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:

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.

Tutor Tip

For some students, it may prove challenging to come up with a story or argument on the spot while also staying on top of those writing craft details in such a brief timeframe. It’s not easy! 

If this sounds like you, it may be helpful to plan a “go-to” creative story that you have already structured, spell-checked, and practiced writing within the time limit. The creative prompts are generally broad enough that you can repurpose an idea across several essays. 

Of course, there is the chance that the prompt may not be flexible enough to fit your planned essay, so practicing multiple responses will allow you a larger safety net on test day. 

Next Steps

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!

Working with a professional SSAT instructor can be especially helpful for tackling the SSAT writing section successfully. Book your free consultation today!

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!