There are a lot of “Best SAT Books” lists out there, but we think that most of them aren’t very good or thorough. As a result, I’ve tried to write a much better guide here.
In this article, you’ll learn which books are absolutely critical for your SAT prep, which books to use to improve your individual section scores, and which books you'll need if you’re aiming for a top score. More importantly, you’ll learn how to use these SAT prep books for effective studying.
This guide is pretty detailed, so here are reference links you can use to jump directly to different parts of the article. That said, I recommend reading the whole guide if you can!
What’s Better About This Guide to the Best SAT Books?
Since your SAT score is important for your college applications and you’ll likely spend a fair amount of time studying for the test, it’s important to get the right advice. Follow the wrong advice, and by the time you realize it's wrong, it'll probably be too late to improve your SAT score.
Ideally, you'll vet any advice you get (including ours) before deciding on your SAT prep plan. Before you read each article in your research, be sure to ask yourself, "Why should I trust this person online giving me SAT advice?"
Well, we answer that question right here. Here’s why this SAT prep books guide is far better than others you might find online:
- I explain in detail why certain SAT books are good and what each book's flaws are. You probably haven’t heard of some of these prep books; many are newer or less well known and thus aren't featured as widely as books from more popular companies with larger marketing budgets. Most other SAT books guides just list a few books without context, but we tell you every critical piece of information you need to know before buying a book.
- I believe it’s important to target your weaknesses and where you need to prep. Thus, I’ll point out SAT books that are best for training for specific sections, and books that are better for low or high scorers. Other guides assume all students are the same, but we tailor ours to a variety of test-taker levels.
- I don’t get paid for promoting these SAT books over others. I don't know any of these authors personally. In reality, I’ve studied dozens of SAT prep books, and these are the ones I'd use if I myself were prepping. Other sites, such as about.com and reviews.com, get paid to adjust their rankings or get kickbacks from publishers for mentioning their prep books.
- I like to think that I know what I’m talking about. I scored two perfect scores on the SAT and have worked directly with thousands of students prepping for the SAT. I’ve helped test takers of all levels, from those scoring around 800 to those aiming for 1530+. Other writers don't have the expertise needed to differentiate between good and bad SAT books, and end up recommending books as an afterthought.
One important disclaimer: I’m co-founder of PrepScholar, an online SAT/ACT prep program. I believe we’ve built the best SAT prep program available. It diagnoses your strengths and weaknesses and gives you a structured all-in-one guide, combining the best aspects of the SAT books below so you can know exactly what to study at every point in your prep.
I want to stress that you don’t need a prep program to do well on the SAT. In fact, writing this guide could lose us some customers if you decide you don’t need a program after all. If, however, you're not interested in managing 10 books and would rather have an integrated program that's customized to your learning style, check out our SAT prep program now.
In either case, if you’re serious about SAT prep, keep reading.
Who Is This SAT Prep Books Guide For?
First, this guide is for students who are serious about test prep. You need to be motivated to get a high score, and you need to be willing to put in hard work. Getting through these books will take dozens of hours simply because the SAT covers so much material.
If you plan to study just five hours or so, your choice of book won't make much difference. In this case, it's best to focus on taking an official SAT practice test and reviewing your answers. With such little prep time, your score won’t go up much in the end, so don't expect any miracles.
Buying SAT prep books is the first and easiest step of SAT prep. You'll need to put in serious work to actually get the score improvements you want, though. In the following sections, we explain the best ways to get the most out of each SAT book we recommend.
Secondly, this guide targets students who want to improve their scores by more than 100 points. To consistently score this much higher on the SAT, you'll need more than just tricks; you'll need to understand the actual content being tested—that is, the underlying math concepts and grammar rules. Don't bother with ineffective "tricks" that simply make you feel as though you've learned something when you actually haven't.
If you’re only looking to improve your score by 50 points or so, however, it’s possible for you to do this just by retaking the SAT, especially if you’ve taken the test only once.
Lastly, to improve your score through SAT prep books, you'll need to have an excellent study strategy. It isn't enough to just read a book cover to cover—you must focus on your weaknesses by brushing up on the content you struggle with the most.
Unfortunately, many students spend dozens of hours poring over one book after another without improving their SAT scores. Why? Because they're not understanding what their weaknesses are and aren't focusing their time on their weaknesses.
Without learning how to attack your weak spots, you won't improve your SAT score! It might sound obvious, but it's pretty hard for many students to do this well. I write a lot more about how to prep for the SAT in my guide to a perfect SAT score. It's also how I designed our online SAT program to do all of the hard structural work for you.
Ultimately, if you’re serious about SAT score improvement and want to study with top prep books, this is the guide for you.
The Best SAT Prep Books of 2018
For this guide, we’re going to divide our picks for the best SAT books into the following categories:
- Critical Books: These are must-have SAT books for your prep, no matter your strengths or weaknesses.
- Subject-Specific Books: These are by far the best books to use to better your SAT Reading, Math, and Writing skills.
- Books for Top Scorers: These SAT prep books are guaranteed to push you over the top and help you get the best score you're capable of achieving.
- Books for Low Scorers and Low Motivation: If you only want to study for a few hours and improve your SAT score just slightly, these books are OK to use. Otherwise, avoid them.
- The #1 Book to Avoid: The book I always used to recommend for the old version of the SAT is now squarely on the "Do Not Buy" list. Find out why!
Since the format of the SAT changed so much in early 2016, I do NOT recommend using old SAT books to study for the current SAT. Although older SAT practice tests do share some similarities with newer ones, you'll waste a lot of time studying for the wrong topics and questions if you don't know exactly how the old SAT differs from the current SAT.
Therefore, always use books that target the current SAT (that is, books published in 2016 or later), such as the ones listed below. You can also use our online SAT prep program to learn more about your specific weaknesses and how you can improve them.
Critical SAT Prep Books
These are the books I believe all test takers should have, regardless of their SAT scores or what skills they need to improve. This is an extremely high standard to meet—in fact, there are only two books out of dozens I’ve tested that qualify for this title. We introduce them below.
Official SAT Practice Tests
We’ve written at length about the importance of official SAT practice questions. As you might know, the SAT is a bizarre exam that tests concepts in ways you’ve never seen in school. Thus, you must train with realistic questions in order to accurately learn the patterns of the SAT.
Official SAT tests released by the College Board are the gold standard for practice questions. At present, there are eight official tests. These aren't exactly a "prep book" in the standard sense, but altogether they make up quite an important resource not too different from a book.
Each test contains real questions given to actual students on previous administrations of the SAT. Without a doubt, the quality of official questions is far better than those of questions written by unofficial sources such as Kaplan or Barron's.
Even better, all official SAT practice tests are free! You can download the tests as PDFs from the College Board website or our complete guide to official SAT practice tests. Make sure to print them out to get the realistic on-paper testing experience.
- They're the best set of SAT practice tests you can get anywhere, period. If you want to take a full-length practice test, these are absolutely the ones you should use first.
- Each test is completely free to access and download.
- Eight full-length practice tests mean a decent amount of studying. If each test takes about four hours to take and two hours to review, that's a solid 48 hours of study time.
- Answers and answer explanations are available for all questions.
- Most students will find that the answer explanations aren't that helpful for self-learning. Many explanations read like this: “A is wrong because A is wrong. B is correct for these reasons.” In other words, they don't show you how to solve the question from step one. If you don't know key strategies such as how to approach reading passages or how to plug in numbers for math problems, you'll need a different resource to teach you.
- The tests don't offer any other instructional material. If you’re bad at algebra, you can’t rely on this resource alone. These tests are just that—practice tests and practice questions. Nothing else!
- With only eight practice tests available, there's not enough practice materialfor more motivated students. You'll want to have one test to get used to the format, two or three to track your progress, one to take right before the actual test, and a couple to keep as backups. Unfortunately, you'll need more practice questions than this to get really good at the SAT (which is why our prep program has the equivalent of four more practice tests to help you improve your skills).
- You have to print out the PDFs yourself to be able to work through them on paper. But in my opinion, this is better than having to buy the tests as hard copies (more on this later).
- Taking practice tests without a system for learning SAT content isn’t going to improve your score, and the tests don't provide any guidance on how to do this. Remember, mastering the SAT is as much about strategy as it is about content!
SAT Prep Black Book, Second Edition
The Black Book by Mike and Patrick Barrett is the only other critical book I recommend for SAT prep. Unfortunately, the book itself isn't sufficient, and even with the practice tests above you’ll likely need supplemental help (as I explain below).
What it does have, though, is so good that I believe every student studying with SAT prep books should read it.
What you’ll get from the Black Book is essentially a way to think about the SAT. But what does this mean exactly? Here are a few examples:
- You'll learn that the SAT is designed to be a predictable, standardized test. It needs to test basic concepts so that it can be administered nationwide to all students, but it also needs to be difficult, so it often distorts questions in a weird way.
- It explains how every answer on the SAT must be unambiguously correct, or else test takers would complain that their incorrect answers are correct. Thus, your main strategy should be to rule out all incorrect answer choices—this is especially important on SAT Reading.
The concepts in this book were things I understood intuitively back when I took the SAT and was studying for a perfect score. This resource influenced the way I think about teaching our students at PrepScholar. Overall, of all books on the market, the Black Book aligns most closely with my personal philosophies on how to succeed on the SAT.
- It offers a very lucid take on the SAT. Its ideas will not only change your view on the SAT but also motivate you to work harder by showing you that any student can excel on it.
- The book contains practical strategies that are more helpful than those in most other SAT books. Unlike other popular prep books, this one doesn’t rely on ineffective tricks.
- It doesn’t assume all students are the same. Rather, the book offers a few alternatives for strategies, and then suggests you try them out to see which one works best for you.
- The book has a thorough set of answer walkthroughs for all Reading, Writing, and Math questions in the first four official SAT practice tests (included in the recommended "book" above). Each explanation clearly breaks down how to approach the question and get the right answer.
- The book requires a ton of self-discipline and insight to be able to use it effectively. Because you’re learning from your mistakes with no one there to guide you, you must be self-driven and willing to experiment with different strategies to figure out which one works best for you. For some students, following a set of straight guidelines could be less confusing.
- The fundamental content is lacking. If you’re weak in word problems, for example, this book alone will not help you master the subject. I believe in recognizing your weaknesses and then mastering that skill through focused prep and practice questions. While this book gives you a general approach to SAT prep, it doesn't teach you the specific content you'll need to know.
- It's fairly long (more than 600 pages!), with answer explanations that often feel repetitive; however, that's partly due to the structure of the SAT itself (remember, it's a standardized test and therefore repetitive in how it tests certain skills).
- I personally disagree with some of the key points in this book. For example, the writers believe you should aim to reach a certain skill level rather than aim for a particular score. By contrast, I believe that setting an SAT score goal is a useful motivator.
Once again, I highly recommend these two resources for all students studying with (or only with) SAT prep books. We cover most of the important concepts in the Black Book in our SAT prep program and also provide focused practice on individual skills.
As mentioned above, you'll most likely need specific training on each subject to be able to shore up your weaknesses. Next, we provide you with key resources for individual subjects on the SAT.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Best SAT Books by Subject
Beyond the critical SAT books covered above, you’ll likely need supplemental help on specific SAT sections. Here, we discuss the best prep books to use for SAT Reading, Math, and Writing. These books all follow my SAT prep philosophy:
- Divide SAT content into skills, and then get focused training on those skills.
- Use realistic, high-quality questions that prep you well for the SAT.
- Cover only what you need to know—not advanced material that won't be on the SAT.
Best SAT Reading Prep Book
In my experience with thousands of students, SAT Reading is the most difficult section score to improve. This section uses logical reasoning skills that aren’t as easily mastered as math concepts or grammar rules are. As a result, it’s extremely important to learn what kinds of questions will be asked and how you can approach them in a systematic way.
My recommendation for best SAT Reading book is The Critical Reader: The Complete Guide to SAT Reading, Third Edition by Erica L. Meltzer. This book dissects the SAT Reading section by question type and skill, and does a great job teaching the core of what each question is asking. It also clearly explains how to work with a passage to arrive at the correct answer.
Of all writers, Meltzer uses an approach to SAT Reading prep that aligns most closely with mine: to drill questions skill by skill so you can recognize patterns.
- It offers a great breakdown of the Reading section on a skill-by-skill level, as well as helpful strategies for every question type. This is the same approach we use in our own SAT prep program.
- There are lots of high-quality, realistic passages and questions. Meltzer uses passages that are extremely similar to those you’ll see on the actual SAT.
- The book has a helpful guide listing the questions on the SAT by skill so you can get even more focused practice.
- The cost is somewhat high for a book that covers just one SAT section (about $30).
- Its writing style is dry and clinical like that of an academic textbook. It feels very formal and there are no images to break up the text. I personally prefer this style—cut out the fluff—but it can be too dense for some students. What this means is that you might not even read the book because you find it so boring.
- Its lack of creative page layouts and lots of text on large pages can get tiresome—sort of like reading a phone book.
Best SAT Math Prep Book
My philosophy on SAT Math is that the best way to significantly improve your math score is to learn the underlying content. Getting familiar with Math questions and learning some strategies like plugging in answer choices can help you make some progress, but you’ll quickly run into a wall if you have gaps in your underlying math knowledge.
Your best bet, therefore, is to find a book that can teach you math content in an organized way and give you practice problems you can use to focus on individual skills. It should also cater to your skill level, since math questions that are too hard or easy for you will be a waste of time.
For these reasons, I recommend Steve Warner’s series of SAT Math books. He's written multiple SAT prep books for beginner, intermediate, and advanced students, and has a set of 240 SAT Math problems organized by topic and difficulty.
- Lessons that teach math concepts are clear and helpful. They suggest ways to speed up your ability to solve questions and help you identify what a question is really asking.
- Practice questions are all fairly realistic with good answer explanations.
- Customizing your SAT Math practice by skill level is important. If you’re scoring below 600, there’s no reason to focus on attacking the hardest questions on the test. Warner's books give you appropriate practice for your specific math level.
- The books' categories are too broad, making it difficult to find specific math concepts to practice. In contrast, our SAT program splits large topics into smaller subjects. In algebra, for example, we go over linear functions, single-variable equations, and systems of equations. By focusing on each individual skill, you can more accurately pinpoint your weaknesses and drill them in your prep.
- If you’re planning to make a large score improvement, you'll need to buy multiple SAT Math books, which can end up costing you around $100. This is pretty pricey for basically pages of practice questions.
- Math questions can get repetitive from book to book, as though they're being generated from templates. Thus, you definitely need to supplement these books with real practice tests to get broader exposure to how the College Board phrases its SAT Math questions.
- The SAT has some creative, out-there Math questions that I don’t see covered well in Warner's books.
If you’re really struggling with SAT Math at a basic level (say, scoring 500 and below), I recommend supplementing your work with Khan Academy’s math modules. This website is a free program that provides an engaging way to train your most basic skills. I believe the core Khan Academy program has better instruction than its SAT prep program, even though it's not focused on the SAT.
Best SAT Writing Prep Book
The best way to excel at SAT Writing is to understand the grammar rules and how they appear on the test. You also need to answer a lot of high-quality practice questions to ensure you learn the patterns of the SAT (that’s how we designed our online SAT program to teach you grammar!).
Once again, I’m returning to Erica L. Meltzer for her SAT grammar books. Meltzer’s fantastic at distilling all the rules of English grammar into what you need to know for the SAT; you won’t learn any arcane grammar concepts not on the SAT. For the rules that are tested, Meltzer presents them clearly and covers their foundations in case you’ve forgotten grammar rules learned in school.
Unlike her single prep book covering SAT Reading, Meltzer has two books for SAT Writing:
Neither book is sufficient on its own, which is a big drawback. The first one doesn’t have enough SAT Writing questions to let you really drill grammar rules. Meanwhile, the second one doesn’t teach grammar rules, and questions aren’t organized by rule. These problems can complicate studying for students, but I still believe these are the best SAT Writing books out there.
- Each book uses a clear writing style and cleanly articulates SAT grammar rules.
- The books cover only what you need to know for SAT Writing and omit extraneous material. A lot of SAT grammar books suffer from including too many esoteric rules that aren't tested on the SAT.
- The Writing practice questions are all fairly realistic.
- There's no guidance on study strategy. The books offer a nice breakdown of the SAT, but you don't get instruction on how to use each book to best maximize your Writing score.
- Like other SAT resources, the price for each book is a bit high—about $30. They have good content, but I believe Meltzer could get a lot more customers by lowering her prices.
- I'd prefer a more unified, skill-based approach in a single book. Ideally, you'd practice single grammar rules with practice questions and then bring them all together in a full-length practice test. At PrepScholar, we believe in a unified, seamless experience, and integrate test content, customization, and feedback into a single package.
Bonus: Looking for the very best guides to every SAT section? Check out our top guides for every single section of the SAT. Choose the score level you're aiming for:
800 Score Guides:SAT Reading | SAT Writing | SAT Math | SAT Essay
Choose these guides if you're scoring a 600 or above on a section, and you want to get the highest SAT score possible.
600 Score Guides:SAT Reading | SAT Writing | SAT Math | SAT Essay
Choose these guides if you're scoring below a 600 on a section, and you want to boost your score to at least a 600 level.
These are the very best guides available on boosting your SAT score, section by section. They're written by Harvard grads and perfect SAT scorers. Don't disappoint yourself—read these guides and improve your score today.
Best Books for Top SAT Scorers
As you can see, you already have a lot to work on. With eight full-length practice tests and more than five SAT books at your disposal, you'll be studying for well over 50 hours. By using the guidelines we recommend, you can make huge improvements in your score.
If you still need extra practice, though, I recommend Barron's SAT prep book, especially if you want a perfect or near-perfect score. I remember using these books for my own SAT prep in high school. While their questions aren't as good as those in official SAT practice tests, they’re a solid backup source to use when you finish all the other SAT prep books above.
- Each book offers a lot of content—thousands of practice questions and detailed lessons with many examples.
- The books are extremely thorough, covering every nook and cranny of what you need to know for the SAT. You can be confident that little is tested outside of what’s in these books.
- The topics can get too difficult for what you need to know on the SAT. Some questions get unrealistically hard in a way you’d never see on the actual test. If you’re not an SAT expert yet, you won’t be able to detect when this happens and might end up wasting time studying irrelevant concepts.
- The books lack clear direction on what’s important and what's not for the SAT. For example, a grammar rule that appears once every SAT gets the same number of pages as a grammar rule that appears eight times on the SAT. Specifically, algebra is really important but gets far too little treatment. Thus, these are definitely not the books to use if you have limited time to study for the SAT.
- Not all SAT strategies are top notch. For example, I have mixed feelings about the SAT Reading passage strategies detailed in these books.
Best All-in-One Book for Less Motivated Low Scorers
So far my recommendations have been primarily for the super ambitious students who really want to improve their SAT scores. But I know that there are some students who just want to put in a few hours of prep, get exposure to the test, and then take the SAT and forget about it.
I personally believe that for most test takers, raising your SAT score is the best way to improve your chances of college admission. If you don't want to put in hours of time to raise your score, I strongly suggest questioning your approach to test prep.
Still, some of you either won't have the time or motivation to prep better. If you’re one of those just hoping to get the SAT over with, I recommend using Kaplan’s SAT Prep Plus 2018. It’s an all-in-one book that covers the three sections and has a wide assortment of practice questions and tests.
The book doesn’t excel at any of what it’s doing, but it addresses the most important bases for SAT prep. It also has more reasonable content than other all-in-one SAT books like the one by The Princeton Review.
The truth is, I don’t love this book. I don’t even really like it. I don’t recommend it if you actually want to improve your score and are willing to put in the study time needed to do so. However, if you just want a single resource that's easily digestible and does an OK job teaching you the basics, this book is the best one out there.
- It covers all three SAT sections and contains five full-length practice tests.
- At about $25, it's pretty affordable for the breadth of SAT content it covers.
- The book offers some basic test-taking strategies that can get you a few easy points if you're new to standardized testing and often feel like you have no idea what to do.
- Practice questions tend to be unrealistic—the book doesn't phrase questions the way the SAT would and doesn't always test concepts correctly. In addition, the questions don’t trick you in the same ways the real test does.
- Answers and other materials have a lot of errors, indicating poor quality control. You'll probably notice many of these mistakes yourself, but if you don't catch them you'll learn the wrong facts and strategies.
- The strategies are not super helpfulonce you move past a 600 score in a section. To improve beyond this point, you'll need to master specific content and develop customized strategies based on your weaknesses.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
The #1 SAT Prep Book to AVOID Buying
Unlike every other section in this guide, I'm making one specific recommendation against buying an SAT book. This is particularly unusual because, prior to 2015, this was the #1 SAT prep book to get!
So what book is it? None other than The Official SAT Study Guide, 2018 Edition.
It feels really weird to recommend notbuying this book because, for years and years, this was the book to use to study for the SAT. This guide used to contain 10 full-length practice tests you could only get by buying the book.
Here's the problem today, though: everything in this book is available for free online. You just go to the College Board website and download PDFs for every section of the book. (The practice tests contained in it are my #1 recommendation at the beginning of this article.)
So why release this guide for free? This is all part of the College Board's move to make the SAT more accessible to test takers and to reduce educational inequality.
Such an endeavor is admirable, and I support them—but it also means that The Official SAT Study Guide is now a waste of money. What's more, the material outside the practice tests is superficial and overall unhelpful (we've written far better guides on the Reading, Math, and Writing sections, all of which are available on our blog for free).
- The guide has eight official SAT practice tests pre-printed for you, so you don't need to print them out yourself.
- It can be ripped apart for fire kindling or birdcage lining.
- Everything in this guide is available for free through the College Board website.
- The book doesn’t provide any instructional material, so don't expect to actually learn skills and content here. If you’re bad at algebra, you can’t rely on this book alone. Most test takers buy it for the tests, and the College Board knows this.
- Taking practice tests without a system for learning isn’t going to improve your score, and the book doesn’t provide any guidance on how to do this.
Other Free Resources to Help You Plan Your SAT Prep
More important than buying SAT books is knowing how to use them effectively. The more prep books you have, the more important it is to build a unified study system. We've written thorough guides to help guide you through your SAT studies.
Before you buy any books, though, take a realistic SAT practice test to assess what areas you're weak in. Check out our guide on how to set up a diagnostic practice test if you aren't sure where to start.
After taking this first practice test, you'll need to go over your results in detail to pinpoint your weaknesses; this will determine where you should spend your SAT prep time and money. For instance, if you did fine on the Reading and Writing sections but bombed Math, you'll want to focus your prep on Math and potentially invest in the SAT Math books recommended above.
It's also important to set a target SAT score so you know what your end goal is for your SAT prep. Students aiming for around 1200 (600 on Math and 600 on Evidence-Based Reading and Writing) should use different strategies and prep books than students shooting for 1600. If you're aiming for a top score, check out my comprehensive guide detailing how I got a perfect SAT score.
Finally, you'll need to build a study plan that works well with your schedule and lets you figure out the best time to take the SAT. We offer a free guide explaining the five essential components of an SAT study program guaranteed to improve your score by 160+ points.
Use these free resources to guide yourself through the maze that is SAT prep. (FutUndBeidl/Flickr)
Is Using SAT Prep Books the Best Option for You?
There are a lot of prep methods available, and book studying is just one of them. To explore all our options, let's quickly examine whether using SAT prep books is right for you.
Students who choose to study for the SAT with books do so for different reasons. Some use books because they're cheaper than other options like prep programs and tutors. That said, the best SAT books can get expensive: if you buy all top books, you'll be spending around $200. This is close to the cost of our online SAT prep program, which goes beyond books by guiding your studies step by step and motivating you to put in study time.
Other students use SAT prep books because they're self-motivated and like teaching themselves. If this isn't you, books can be a disappointing way for you to spend your time prepping. Without a solid study strategy, you can put in dozens of hours yet make zero improvement since you're not understanding your weaknesses and how to fix them.
By far one of the most important ways to improve your SAT score is to study and learn from your mistakes. If you can't do this reliably, you'll need extra help to get you started. We've written a free guide comparing various methods of SAT prep. Download this to see which methods are best for you.
Recap: The Best SAT Book in Every Category
Here's our shortlist of the best SAT prep books for 2018, complete with links:
Best Critical SAT Books
Best SAT Subject-Specific Books
Best SAT Book for Top Scorers
Best SAT Book for Low Scorers and Low Motivation
We've given you an excellent array of SAT books to choose from. Now, it's time to start looking for the ones you think will help you the most and get studying!
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or more? We've put our best advice into a single guide. These are the 5 strategies you MUST be using to have a shot at improving your score.
Download this free SAT guide now:
Understanding your SAT target score is critical for success. Read our step-by-step guide to help you figure out what exact SAT score you need to aim for on test day.
Want to score a super high SAT score? Get all the tips and expert advice you need in my guide to getting a perfect SAT score.
Looking for additional SAT prep help? Check out our picks for the top SAT prep websites and apps you should be using in your studies.
Check out our industry-leading online SAT program. We've designed it to cover all the advantages of books and tutors at an affordable price. Featuring in-depth strategy lessons and thousands of practice questions, we have the content from the leading books. We include the critical Official SAT Study Guide above.
Beyond that, the program acts like your personal tutor. It guides you step-by-step through what you should be working on at every moment to best improve your score. It customizes to your strengths and weaknesses, then gives you focused practice so you learn the patterns on the SAT. Furthermore, it motivates you to study so that you put in enough time.
There's a 160 point guarantee—if you don't improve your score by 160 points, you get all your money back.
Just as with most essays, the major secret to excelling on the SAT essay is to pre-plan the examples and evidence you want to use.
"But wait!" I hear you cry. "Can you do that on the new SAT essay? Isn’t the point of the essay that you’re supposed to be using information from the passage in your answer, which you don’t know about ahead of time?"
The answer: Yes and no. While the specifics of each example will obviously change, depending on the passage, the types of examples you choose to discuss (and the way you explain each example builds the author’s argument) can be defined, and thus prepared for, ahead of time.
In this article, we give you 6 good SAT essay examples you’ll be able to find in nearly every prompt the SAT throws at you. By assembling a collection of these reliable types of evidence that can be used to answer most prompts, you'll cut down on planning time and significantly increase the amount you can write, making you able to walk into every SAT essay confident in your abilities.
feature image credit: 1 to 9 mosaic, cropped/Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Before You Continue
If you haven’t already read our introduction to the SAT essay prompt, read it now. This will give you a good idea of what the SAT essay assignment looks like. Then come back to this article.
Why You Can Prep SAT Essay Examples Before Test Day
The SAT essay prompts have several important things in common:
- They’re all passages that try to convince the reader of the veracity of the author’s claim
- They’re all around the same length (650-750 words)
- They’re all meant to be analyzed and written about in a relatively short period of time (50 minutes)
This means that you can have a pretty good idea ahead of time of what types of argument-building techniques you might see when you open the booklet on test day.
The main techniques the author uses aren't going to be overly complex (like the first letter of every word spelling out a secret code), because you just don’t have the time to analyze and write about complex techniques. Because of that, you can prepare yourself with SAT essay examples that’ll be likely found across persuasive passages about many different issues.
Naturally, for each passage you're going to want to play to its particular strengths—if there are a lot of facts/statistics, make sure to discuss that; if it dwells more on personal anecdotes/appeals to emotion, discuss those. However, if you struggle with analysis in a short period of time, memorizing these categories of examples ahead of time can give you a helpful checklist to go through when reading the SAT essay prompt and point you in the right direction.
Below, we've chosen two examples of evidence, two examples of reasoning, and two examples of stylistic/persuasive elements you can use as stellar evidence to support your thesis.
For each example below, we also show you how you can use the type of evidence to support your thesis across a range of prompts. This flexibility should prove to you how effective pre-planned examples are.
So, without further ado, onto our list of multipurpose support for any SAT Essay prompt.
Examples of Evidence
The most basic way author builds an argument is by supporting claims with evidence. There are many different kinds of evidence author might use to support her/his point, but I'm just going to discuss the two big ones I've seen in various official SAT Essay prompts. These two types of evidence are Facts and Statistics and Anecdotes.
Example Type 1: Facts and Statistics
Employing statistics and facts to bolster one's argument is one of the most unassailable methods authors can use to build an argument. This argument-building technique is particularly common in essays written about scientific or social studies-related topics, where specific data and facts are readily available.
How Can You Identify It?
Statistics usually show up in the form of specific numbers related to the topic at hand—maybe as percents, or maybe as a way to communicate other data.
Here are a couple of examples of statistics from an official SAT essay prompt, "Let There Be Dark" by Paul Bogard:
Example: 8 of 10 children born in the United States will never know a sky dark enough for the Milky Way
Example: In the United States and Western Europe, the amount of light in the sky increases an average of about 6% every year.
Factual evidence can also be in the form of non-numerical information. Often, you'll see facts presented with references to the research study, survey, expert, or other source from which they're drawn. Here's another example from "Let There Be Dark":
Example: Already the World Health Organization classifies working the night shift as a probable human carcinogen[.]
Why Is It Persuasive?
Facts and statistics are persuasive argument building techniques because the author isn't just making up reasons for why his/her argument could possibly be true—there's actually something (data, research, other events/information) that backs up the author's claim.
In the case of the examples above, Bogard presents specific data about issues with light pollution (8 in 10 children won't be able to see the Milky Way, light in the sky increases 6% annually) to back up his statements that light pollution is real, then goes on to present further information that indicates light pollution is a problem (working the night shift puts humans at risk for cancer).
By presenting information and facts, rather than just opinion and spin, Bogard empowers the reader to connect the dots on her own, which in turn gives the reader ownership over the argument and makes it more persuasive (since the reader is coming to the same conclusions on her own, rather than entirely relying on Bogard to tell her what to think).
Example Type 2: Anecdotes
Another form of evidence that is often used as an alternative to actual facts or statistics is the anecdote. This type of evidence is most often found in speeches or other sorts of essay prompts that are written as a personal address to the reader.
How Can You Identify It?
An anecdote is a short story about a real person or event. When an author discusses own personal experience or personal experience of someone they know or have heard of, that's anecdotal evidence.
Here's an example of (part of) an anecdote from an official SAT essay prompt that was adapted from a foreword by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter:
One of the most unforgettable and humbling experiences of our lives occurred on the coastal plain. We had hoped to see caribou during our trip, but to our amazement, we witnessed the migration of tens of thousands of caribou with their newborn calves. In a matter of a few minutes, the sweep of tundra before us became flooded with life, with the sounds of grunting animals and clicking hooves filling the air. The dramatic procession of the Porcupine caribou herd was a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife spectacle. We understand firsthand why some have described this special birthplace as “America’s Serengeti.”
Why Is It Persuasive?
Even though anecdotes aren't statistics or facts, they can be powerful because it’s more relatable/interesting to the reader to read an anecdote than to be presented with dry, boring facts. People tend to put more faith in experiences if they can personally connect with the experiences (even though that doesn't actually affect how likely or not a statement is to be true).
In the example above, rather than discussing the statistics that support the creation of wildlife refuges, Jimmy Carter instead uses an anecdote about experiencing the wonder of nature to illustrate the same point—probably more effectively.
By inviting the reader to experience vicariously the majesty of witnessing the migration of the Porcupine caribou, Carter activates the reader's empathy towards wildlife preservation and so makes it more likely that the reader will agree with him that wildlife refuges are important.
caribou, the hairy eyeball/Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
I find this caribou highly persuasive.
Examples of Reasoning
All authors use reasoning to some extent, but it’s not always a major part of how the author builds her/his argument. Sometimes, though, the support for a claim on its own might not seem that persuasive—in those cases, an author might then choose to use reasoning to explain how the evidence presented actually builds the argument.
Example Type 3: Counterarguments and Counterclaims
One way in which an author might use reasoning to persuade the reader to accept the claim being put forward is to discuss a counterargument, or counterclaim, to the author's main point. The discussion (and subsequent neutralization) of counterarguments is found in prompts across all subject areas.
How Can You Identify It?
A counterargument or counterclaim is simply another point of view that contradicts (either fully or partially) the author's own argument. When "some might claim," "however," or other contrast words and phrases show up in an essay prompt, the author is likely presenting a counterclaim.
Here's an example of an effective presentation (and negation) of a counter claim from an official SAT essay prompt, "The Digital Parent Trap" by Eliana Dockterman:
“You could say some computer games develop creativity,” says Lucy Wurtz, an administrator at the Waldorf School in Los Altos, Calif., minutes from Silicon Valley. “But I don’t see any benefit. Waldorf kids knit and build things and paint—a lot of really practical and creative endeavors.”
But it’s not that simple. While there are dangers inherent in access to Facebook, new research suggests that social-networking sites also offer unprecedented learning opportunities.
Why Is It Persuasive?
So how does bringing up an opposing point of view help an author build her argument? It may seem counterintuitive that discussing a counterargument actually strengthens the main argument. However, as you can see in the brief example above, giving some space to another point of view serves to make it seem as if the discussion’s going to be more “fair.” This is still true whether the author delves into the counterargument or if the author only briefly mentions an opposing point of view before moving on.
A true discussion of the counterargument (as is present in Dockterman's article) will also show a deeper understanding of the topic than if the article only presented a one-sided argument. And because the presence of a counterargument demonstrates that the author knows the topic well enough to be able to see the issue from multiple sides, the reader's more likely to trust that the author's claims are well-thought out and worth believing.
In the case of the Dockterman article, the author not only mentions the opposite point of view but also takes the time to get a quote from someone who supports the opposing viewpoint. This even-handedness makes her following claim that "it's not that simple" more believable, since she doesn't appear to be presenting a one-sided argument.
Example Type 4: Explanation of Evidence
In some cases, the clarity with which the author links her evidence and her claims is integral to the author's argument. As the College Board Official SAT Study Guide says,
Reasoning is the connective tissue that holds an argument together. It’s the “thinking” — the logic, the analysis — that develops the argument and ties the claim and evidence together."
How Can You Identify It?
Explanation of evidence is one of the trickier argument-building techniques to discuss (at least in my opinion), because while it is present in many essay prompts, it isn't always a major persuasive feature. You can pretty easily identify an author's explanation of evidence if the author connects a claim to support and explains it, rather than just throwing out evidence without much ceremony or linking to the claim; however, whether or not the explanation of the evidence is a major contributing factor to the author's argument is somewhat subjective.
Here's a pretty clear instance of a case where an author uses explanations of each piece of evidence she discusses to logically advance her argument (again from the Dockterman passage):
And at MIT’s Education Arcade, playing the empire-building game Civilization piqued students’ interest in history and was directly linked to an improvement in the quality of their history-class reports.
The reason: engagement. On average, according to research cited by MIT, students can remember only 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear and 50% of what they see demonstrated. But when they’re actually doing something themselves—in the virtual worlds on iPads or laptops—that retention rate skyrockets to 90%.
This is a main reason researchers like Ito say the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation of a two-hour screen-time limit is an outdated concept: actively browsing pages on a computer or tablet is way more brain-stimulating than vegging out in front of the TV.
IMG_6800_v1, cropped/Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Why Is It Persuasive?
Unfortunately, the explanation the Official SAT Study Guide gives for how to discuss an author's "reasoning" is a little vague:
You may decide to discuss how the author uses (or fails to use) clear, logical reasoning to draw a connection between a claim and the evidence supporting that claim.
But how exactly you should go about doing this? And why is it persuasive to clearly explain the link between evidence and claim?
In general, when an author explains the logic behind her argument or point, the reader can follow along and understand the author’s argument better (which in some cases makes it more likely the reader will agree with the author).
In the Dockterman example above, the author clearly lays out data (Civilization leads to improvements in history class), a claim (this is because of engagement with the game and thus the subject material), provides data that back up that claim (retention rate skyrockets when students do things for themselves), and links that smaller claim to a larger concept (actively browsing pages on a computer or tablet is way more brain-stimulating than vegging out in front of the TV). This clear pattern of data-explanation-more data-more explanation enables the reader to follow along with Dockterman's points. It's more persuasive because, rather than just being told "Civilization leads to improvements in history" and having to take it on faith, the reader is forced to reenact the thinking processes that led to the argument, engaging with the topic on a deeper level.
Examples of Stylistic/Persuasive Elements
This final category of examples is the top layer of argument building. The foundation of a good argument is evidence, which is often explained and elucidated by reasoning, but it is often the addition of stylistic or persuasive elements like an ironic tone or a rhetorical flourish that seals the deal.
Example Type 5: Vivid Language
Vivid language is truly the icing on the persuasive cake. As with explanations of evidence, vivid language can be found across all topics of essay prompts (although it usually plays a larger role when the passage is lacking in more convincing facts or logic).
Vivid language: truly the persuasive icing on your SAT essay prompt cake. Your delicious, delicious SAT cake. Mmm!
How Can You Identify It?
Vivid language is pretty easy to spot—it shows itself in similes, metaphors, adjectives, or any words that jump out at you that don’t seem to have purely functional purposes. Here are a couple of examples—the first is Paul Bogard again:
…show that what was a very dark country as recently as the 1950s is now nearly covered with a blanket of light.
This example is relatively restrained, using the metaphor of "a blanket of light" to add emphasis to Bogard's discussion of light pollution. A more striking example can be found in another official SAT essay prompt, adapted from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech "Beyond Vietnam—A Time To Break Silence":
Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.
Why Is It Persuasive?
Vivid language is an effective argument building device because it puts the reader in the author’s shoes and draws them into the passage. If used in moderation, vivid language will also make the topic more interesting for the reader to read, thus engaging them further.
In the excerpt taken from Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech above, the phrase "demonic destructive suction tube" is startling and provocative, meant to rouse the audience's indignation at the injustice and waste of the Vietnam war. If King had left out the second part of the sentence and only said, "Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money," his point would not have had as big of an impact.
Example Type 6: Direct Addresses and Appeals to the Reader
The last category I'll be discussing in this article are direct addresses and appeals to the reader. These stylistic elements are found across all sorts of different passage topics, although as with the previous category, these elements usually play a larger role when the passage is light on facts or logic.
How Can You Identify It?
Direct addresses and appeals to the reader are wordings or other stylistic devices specifically designed to provoke a response (often emotional) in the reader. This category covers many different elements, from appeals to emotion to rhetorical questions. Here's an example of an appeal to emotion, taken again from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech:
Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.
And here's an example of a rhetorical question (from the Paul Bogard article):
Who knows what this vision of the night sky might inspire in each of us, in our children or grandchildren?
Why Is It Persuasive?
Appealing to the emotions, as Martin Luther King, Jr. does in his speech, is an alternate route to persuasion, as it causes readers to emotionally (rather than logically) agree with the author. By describing how the war was causing "their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and die," King reminds the reader of the terrible costs of war, playing upon their emotions to get them to agree that the Vietnam War is a mistake, particularly for the poor.
Rhetorical questions, on the other hand, get the readers to step into the author's world. By reading and thinking about the author's question, the reader engages with the topic on a deeper level than if the reader were just given a statement of what the author thinks. In the case of the Bogard example above, the rhetorical question draws the reader into thinking about his/her descendants, a group of people for whom the reader (presumably) only wishes the best, which then puts the reader into a positive mood (assuming the reader likes his/her descendants).
As you can see, these examples of different argumentative techniques can be extracted from a lot of different article types for a wide range of topics. This is because the examples themselves are so meaningful and complex that they can be used to discuss a lot of issues.
The main point is, you don't have to wait until you see the prompt to develop an arsenal of types of argument-building techniques you can use to support your points. Instead, preparing beforehand how you’ll discuss these techniques will save you a lot of time and anxiety when the test rolls around.
DSC_1003, modified/Used under CC BY-NC 2.0.
Eh? Eh? ROLLS around? Get it get it #sorrynotsorry
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