Writer’s block is the curse of the SAT essay section, but not because the prompts are too difficult, as an SAT newbie might imagine. In fact, the problem is that they’re too easy. You’re asked to answer incredibly general questions, and often it’s hard to come up with intelligent and specific examples to support such vague prompts.

One of the most commonly made mistakes on any section of the SAT is simply running out of time, most often on the essay section. Unfortunately, the SAT is ALL about time management. It’s so terribly easy to get sucked into the lull of brainstorming that you end up wasting half your time collecting supportive examples and start writing too late to finish. When I first started studying for the SAT, I was no different. English was my favorite subject in high school, and I was used to forming complex theses and fully expanding my ideas. I quickly came to realize that the SAT essay is an entirely different animal. You should spend AT MOST five minutes brainstorming and outlining, and in the next 20 minutes, your pencil should hardly leave the page. Easier said than done.

The truth is, there’s no way can you write a decent two-page essay in 25 minutes if your brain slides into derp mode within the first minute of brainstorming. If only you didn’t have to come up with supporting examples on the spot…

Actually, you don’t! That’s the best part. Save some time by preparing your essay examples IN ADVANCE. Mentally fill three “cans” of supporting examples under three different categories – history, literature, and other (current events, science, etc.) – so you can approach the SAT essay with “canned examples” already in your pocket. I learned this strategy from my father, Chris Borland, owner and operator of Borland Educational, when he first coached me on the SAT.

With three whole years of high school under your belt, you have a plethora of sources at your fingertips: find the ones with the greatest amount universal themes that could apply to almost any SAT essay prompt. A few canned examples are listed below:

History Can: Important Events and People

  • World War II and the Holocaust (Adolf Hitler) – authority, racism, punishment, genocide, hiding one’s true identity, alliances, war
  • Civil Rights Movement (Rosa Parks, MLK) – human rights, racism, freedom, determination
  • Hollywood Blacklist – McCarthy era, censorship, communism, artists
  • Industrial Revolution – inventions, energy use, difference in social classes
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. — Civil rights, freedom, rights for all, racism, equality, making a difference

Literature Can: Novels, Poems, Plays and Speeches

  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien: war, loss, fear, insanity, morality, friendship, memoir
  • Daddy by Silvia Plath: relationships, family, gender, mortality, confinement, the supernatural
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller: deceit, gender, redemption, religion, chaos, hidden agenda, community, colonization
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding: violence, isolation, survival, teamwork
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: love, forgiveness, gender, social cues, hidden pasts, religion
  • The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling: heros, good vs evil, magic, fate, family
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: corruption, love, loss, money, greed,

Other: Current Events, Science, Films, etc.

  • Presidential Election of Barrack Obama: leadership, civil rights, American government
  • Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells: development of medicine, betrayal, racism
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin: poverty, home, fairy tale, death, childrens’ perceptions, bildungsroman

You can use your canned examples in your essay, or at the very least, use other examples inspired by your canned examples. When a prompt asked me about taking risks, an adventure novel in my canned examples (namely Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne,) inspired me to list all of my other favorite adventure novels as examples.

An important note: don’t be afraid to use a historical event as an example just because you can’t remember the leader of a particular movement or can’t remember the time span of a certain war. If you miswrite a date or a name, the College Board does not hold it against you and will NOT dock points off your essay score. Why? The College Board simply wants to see whether or not you can construct a solid argument that you can support with evidence. As long as the evidence supports your thesis, you’re golden. With that said, try to be as accurate as possible, and don’t invent historical events that never occurred!

Canned examples will help you brainstorm less and write more. Nail the SAT essay by preparing these examples in advance.

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5 Readers Commented

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  1. Youree Choi on October 29, 2013


  2. Lahiru on December 2, 2013


  3. Angelina on December 3, 2013

    Thanks SO much. Super helpful.

  4. saumya on January 21, 2014

    haha…i loved it. especially this part “the SAT essay is an entirely different animal”..great!

  5. Suzanne on November 5, 2015

    I can write about Harry Potter? \=D/

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