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How to Avoid Blanking on an ACT or SAT Essay Prompt

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One of the worst experiences you can have on the ACT or SAT is realizing that you know absolutely nothing about the essay prompt. There’s nothing like that sinking feeling you get as you desperately try to come up with examples, all the while watching the minutes tick away. Fortunately, the essay sections on both exams are formulaic enough that it’s possible to anticipate and prepare for the kinds of issues they raise. There are also a couple of strategies you can employ during the test to get around not having examples that relate directly to the prompt. By combining preparedness with these improvisational skills, you can avoid “going blank” on the ACT or SAT essay.

Read as much as possible

The most “organic” way to make sure that you’re prepared to discuss any essay prompt is to read as much as possible during high school. Read as many works across as many subjects from as many points of view as you can get your hands on. Make a concerted effort to track down the kinds of works you would normally not read. While this approach doesn’t guarantee that you will be prepared for all the prompts all the time, broadening your literary horizons will make it much less likely that you’ll come across a prompt that you cannot provide examples for.

Create a set of canned examples

This tactic works well if you’re good at memorizing facts and trivia. The essay prompts consistently draw from the same series of topics and themes. You can take advantage of the ACT and SAT’s fondness for well-worn topics by creating a series of note cards with short, canned “talking points.” Common essay themes include adversity, success, creativity, originality, happiness, self-satisfaction, authority, leadership, morality, ethics, motivation, history, tradition, society, community, decision-making, education, the arts, friendship, collaboration, media, entertainment, and heroes. Write a few note cards for each of these themes, and you will cover 99 percent of the topics usually addressed in ACT and SAT prompts. This is especially true in the case of the SAT. Since the exam has been completely redesigned for 2016, no new essay prompts are being written for the 2015 SAT.

Stretch the prompt until it (almost) breaks

We’ve talked about this before, but you should take full advantage of the vagueness of ACT and SAT prompts. The prompts for both exams are incredibly open-ended. If you have developed a reasonably broad base of examples to draw on, you can stretch pretty much any prompt to fit at least a couple of your examples. As long as you stay on a prompt’s broadly defined topic, you can massage even the most tangential examples into a form that you can successfully use.

Make something up

If all else fails, you can simply invent examples out of whole cloth. Neither exam cares whether the personal experiences you introduce are true or not. The SAT does not even require that the examples you use are factually accurate as long as they support your argument and sound reasonably plausible. While you shouldn’t claim that you once fought ninjas on the moon, there is nothing stopping you from embellishing or inventing believable personal experiences. Obviously, this tactic is only practical if you are good at crafting stories on the fly. If you’re not, you should consider writing out your “true enough” personal experiences ahead of time.

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