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Common SAT Essay Themes and Archetypes

Posted by Vicki Wood on Aug 3, 2012 11:08:00 AM


The makers of the SAT use several themes from which they draw essay questions. By knowing these themes ahead of time, you can prepare several preplanned examples to use for each theme.

For example, take Thomas Edison. He used over 6000 filaments before finding one that worked in the electric light bulb. You could use this example for essays on adversity, success, history, and progress.

The following is a list of these themes and real examples of essay questions produced by the College Board. The questions have been paraphrased for simplicity, but they provide you with an idea of how the themes are recycled each year. 

Theme: Adversity

  • Do people benefit from adversity?
  • Do people learn more from losing than from winning?
  • Do people learn more from difficulty or from ease?
  • Do people learn from their effort even if their goal is not reached?
  • Does humor help in difficult situations?  

Theme: Success

  • Do people put too much stress on winning?
  • Can people be successful and ethical at the same time?
  • Is persistence more important than ability in achieving success?
  • Is optimism more important than realism in achieving success?
  • Is idealism more important than practicality in achieving success?
  • Is success a result of choices or of luck?
  • Do people’s expectations of themselves affect their success?
  • Can people be successful with low expectations?
  • Is it better to have low expectations and meet them or high expectations and miss them?
  • Do people have to aim for perfection in order to be successful?
  • What motivates people the most in their quest for success?
  • Does success result from improvement to one’s best attribute or skill?
  • Can people succeed by repeating their past behaviors?
  • Are people more likely to be successful by compromising or by being inflexible?
  • Do memories help people be successful?
  • Are people more successful when they are under pressure?
  • Do all successes create new challenges?
  • Do all significant inventions and findings result from concentrating on a single area?
  • Can success ever be disastrous?
  • Is it important to sometimes take risks?  

Theme: Creativity and Originality

  • Does planning have a negative effect on creativity? 
  • Can people be original or are original ideas all taken?
  • Is creativity as important today as it was in the past?
  • It is better for a person to imitate others or be original?
  • Is it better for society when people imitate others or when they are original?  

Theme: Happiness and Self-Satisfaction

  • Is it better to accept one’s lot in life or to strive for more?
  • Does the pursuit of a goal make a person happy?
  • What is better: a job one likes or a job that pays well?
  • Is knowledge ever a burden?
  • Does fame create happiness?
  • Does having many options create happiness?
  • What change leads to happiness: one’s attitude or one’s environment?
  • Are rules and restrictions necessary for happiness?
  • Can a person be too enthusiastic?
  • Is happiness a choice?
  • Is it better to act quickly or be patient?  

Theme: Authority and Leadership

  • Do people need to listen more to people who are older and experienced?
  • Can people function without a leader?
  • Should one ever question someone in authority?
  • Should national leaders be judged differently than others?
  • Should society limit people’s exposure to certain forms of information?
  • Is censorship ever okay?
  • Are leaders always the best people for the job?
  • Are established rules realistic for guiding people in real-life scenarios? 

Theme: Individuality

  • Do people need to compare themselves to others in order to appreciate what they have?
  • Is it more important to be different or to fit in with others?
  • Do people let the opinions of others affect their success?
  • Do people put too much value on the opinions of others?
  • Is a person’s identity innate or created?
  • Do people over-emphasize individual accomplishments?  

Theme: Morality and Ethics

  • Can people learn from other people’s flaws and mistakes?
  • Can people be successful and ethical at the same time?
  • Is a school responsible for teaching morals and ethics?
  • Are society’s common beliefs more likely to be right or wrong?
  • Is it ever okay to be disloyal?
  • Is it ever okay to lie?
  • Is it ever okay to deceive someone?
  • Is it ever okay to be rude?
  • Is acting a normal part of life?
  • Are there only two sides of an issue?
  • Should people tolerate all opinions or speak out against those that are wrong?

Theme: Motivation

  • Does power motivate people? 
  • What motivates people the most in their quest for success?
  • What motivates people to change?
  • Should emotion be involved when making important decisions?
  • Should people learn the motivation for someone’s actions before passing judgment on the person?  

Theme: History and Tradition

  • Should all traditions continue?
  • Are new ideas better than the ideas of the past?
  • Does the past influence the present and future?
  • Does history help people be successful and avoid failure?
  • Are new solutions always necessary?
  • Have modern advancements made life easier than what it was in the past?
  • Is society too materialistic today compared to in the past?
  • Is creativity as important today as it was in the past?
  • Is it better for society when people imitate others or when they are original?  

Theme: Society and Community

  • Should people be more concerned about the common good?
  • Is criticism necessary for the progress of society?
  • Is discipline a necessary component of freedom?
  • Should people be more private about some parts of their lives?
  • Do people pay too much attention to details?  

Theme: Decision-Making

  • Should emotion be involved when making important decisions?
  • Are impulsive decisions as good as deliberate decisions?
  • Should people ever change their decisions?
  • Does having many options create happiness?
  • Can small decisions have big consequences?
  • Should people trust in common sense or question it?
  • Are negative consequences equally likely for good choices as for bad choices?  

Theme: Education and the Arts

  • Is a school responsible for teaching morals and ethics?
  • Do the arts teach people about the world?
  • Can people learn from fictional characters or stories?
  • Are practical skills deemed too important?
  • Where do people learn more: in school or out of school?
  • Are the arts essential to education?
  • Do people learn something from every experience?
  • Do people learn more from themselves or from others?

Theme: Friendship and Collaboration

  • Is it easier to make friends today than in the past? 
  • Are people more successful when they combine their efforts with others?
  • Are groups more successful when they pursue a common goal or individual goals?
  • Which results in success more often: competition or collaboration?
  • Is compromise the best solution?
  • Can people learn anything from a group that shares a commonality?
  • Can people ever benefit from following the crowd instead of having their own ideas?
  • Do people get along better with people like them or with people different than them?
  • Is it wise to be trusting or suspicious of others?
  • Do people help others for selfless or selfish reasons?  

Theme: Media and Entertainment

  • Is reality entertainment beneficial or harmful?
  • Does media (such as television and the internet) influence what people find important?
  • Should society limit people’s exposure to certain forms of entertainment or information?
  • Should society admire celebrities?
  • Does media have too much of an effect on some people?
  • Do photographs reflect reality or the photographer’s viewpoint?  

Theme: Progress and Technology

  • Does progress eliminate problems or create new ones?
  • Does focus on technology cause society to neglect other important areas, such as education and the environment?
  • Are there times that avoiding technology is beneficial?
  • Has the abundance of information available today made the world easier or harder to understand?
  • Has the purpose of technology changed?
  • Have modern advancements made life easier than what it was in the past?
  • Is the world getting better or worse?
  • Is criticism necessary for the progress of society?
  • Has society become too concerned with money?  

Theme: Heroes

  • Are heroes people who risk their lives or people who stand up for what they believe in?

Can you think of any other essay themes that constantly show up on the SAT? Leave them in the comments!

Topics: SAT Prep

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