There's a persistent myth about the SAT Essay: the idea that you can't prepare content because you don't see the prompt until the day of the test. This is a myth because, in order to be standardized, the test has to require the same complexity of argument in every SAT essay question: yes or no, this or that, what causes what.
And since all these arguments are very simple, almost every SAT essay argument can be boiled down to one of the 6 we list here. In addition to that, though, we also explain how to argue each one, and give you sample support for both sides of every argument. Read on for the inside scoop on this important aspect of the SAT.
SAT Essay prompts are unlike any other writing assignment. The questions are extremely general, asking things like "is the world changing for the better," but they only ever require a very simplistic thesis statement about a complex idea. There are, for example, many ways in which the world is and is not changing for the better. The most "accurate" answer would have to be "yes AND no," but that's the opposite of what you should say on the SAT.
Because on the SAT Essay, simplicity and clarity is the name of the game. You are expected to make a broad, definitive statement about what people 'should' do or whether something is possible. You don't have to believe it, you just have to present a few examples (between one and three) that can show why your statement is correct. In this way, the SAT Essay is easier than most students think.
All of the essay questions in this article are taken from real SATs or College Board prep materials. We've categorized them not by their content--for example, "success" or "personality"--but rather by their reasoning. This is because the logic of the question, not its content, is what determines the best argument on which to build your essay.
For each type of SAT essay question below, we give you 3 sample prompts similar to what you'll run into, and a breakdown of how to argue either side of any SAT essay question of that type. You'll get detailed SAT essay examples that guide you through how to construct an argument.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 1: Discuss what people should do
This type of SAT essay question lends itself to many different kinds of examples. Anything that involves people and their choices is fair game. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
- be valued according to their capabilities rather than their achievements?
- weight all opinions equally, or place more weight on informed opinions?
- always value new things, ideas, or values over older ones?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, people should always value new things, ideas, or values over older ones," or "no, people should not always value new things, ideas, or values over older ones."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). For example, if you argue "Yes, people should value new things" as your thesis, you can give evidence of a time when people valued new things and it turned out well, or of a time when people didn't value innovation and it turned out poorly.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-world or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes for ideas). To support the Yes thesis with evidence of when people valued new things with success, we could talk about Civil Rights in the United States, the Industrial Revolution, FDR's new deal, or any other example dealign with positive innovation. We could also discuss evidence where refusal to accept new things turned out poorly, like fear of vaccinations and Galileo being excommunicated for his (true) scientific beliefs.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 2: Discuss which of two things is better
These questions can be fodder for 12-scoring essays because they can be answered so simply: this thing is better than that thing. Then you just have to think of 1-3 examples in which that thing worked and/or in which the other thing didn't work. See the diagram below for more information on how this can be done.
Is it better...
- to take an idealistic approach or a practical approach?
- to do fulfilling or high-paying work?
- to use cooperation or competition to achieve success?
Step 1: Pick a side. "It is better to use cooperation to achieve success," or "it is better to use competition to achieve success."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Similar to Prompt Type 1 above, in this case you can use evidence that supports your thesis, or argues against the opposite thesis. For example, if you write that "Cooperation is better to achieve success," you can use evidence on a time when cooperation led to success, or when competition led to failure.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (blue boxes). Following our "cooperation is better" thesis, we can talk about when people cooperated to great success - like the Civil Rights movement, or Abraham Lincoln's cabinet during the Civil War. We could also discuss how competition is inferior through examples like the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, or the North Korea vs South Korea standoff.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 3: Support or refute counterintuitive statements
These can be the toughest SAT essay prompts--if you don't know how to tackle them. The easiest way to really knock this essay type out of the park is to say yes, it is possible, and then think of an example. The other side--no, it isn't possible--is harder to logically prove, but it can be done. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
Is it possible for….
- deception to have good results?
- working to reach an objective to be valuable even if the objective is not reached?
- any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, it is possible for any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial," or "no, it is not possible for any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Unlike the two prompt types above, this one is more simplistic - just find evidence that can support your thesis in a straightforward way. If you write "No, it's not possible for any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial," you just need to find evidence for when obstacles exist but don't lead to anything helpful.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). To support the No thesis, we could use the example of how gender discrimination against women and income inequality has caused far more harm than the good it has caused.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 4: Cause and effect
These can be logically complicated, depending on which side you choose. If you say x is the result of y, then you just have to think of 1-3 examples that illustrate it. If you choose the other side, though, then you have a harder logical task in front of you--your examples have to fit a much narrower definition to make sense. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
Is __ the result of __?
- Is a successful community the result of individuals sacrificing their personal goals?
- Is accomplishment the result of freedom to do things one's own way?
- Is learning the result of experiencing difficulties?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, learning is the result of experiencing difficulties," or "no, learning is not the result of experiencing difficulties."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). For example, if our thesis is "Yes, learning is the result of experiencing difficulties," we can either argue with evidence of a time when learning IS the result of difficulty, or when a lack of difficulty led to an absence of learning. Both types of evidence support your thesis.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). For our Yes thesis, we could talk about how the difficulty of unmanageable healthcare costs in the USA led to learning and the Affordable Care Act. We could also use the other type of evidence and talk about how Jay Gatsby's lack of difficulty in having immense wealth led to poor learning about what really makes him happy.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 5: Generalize about the state of the world
These kinds of SAT essay prompts are so open-ended that they lend themselves to all kinds of examples and interpretations. But for this same reason, they can be overwhelming and confusing. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
What is the modern world like?
- Is the world more in need of creativity now more than ever?
- Is the world actually harder to understand due to the abundance of information now available?
- Is the world changing in a positive way?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, the world is changing in a positive way," or "no, the world is not changing in a positive way."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Let's consider the Yes thesis. We can use evidence that problems in the past that are being solved today, or innovations today that didn't previously exist.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). To support our Yes thesis, we can find examples of problems that are better now - women's rights, slavery, and reduced violence. We can also discuss recent innovations that dramatically improve quality of life, like the Internet and widespread access to education.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 6: Generalize about people
Much like the "state of the world" questions, these can be supported by almost anything, but can also get away from you if you're not careful. See the diagram below for some ideas of how to manage these prompts.
What are people like?
- Do people underestimate the value of community due to our culture of individualism?
- Are people defined by their occupations?
- Do people learn from the past?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, people learn from the past," or "no, people do not learn from the past."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Let's consider the No thesis that people don't learn from the past - we would have to find an example of when someone repeated a mistake that they could have avoided from history.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). A great example to use for our No thesis is comparing Hitler and Germany to Napoleon. In 1812, Napoleon fought a war on multiple fronts, fighting the Spanish army and the Russian Empire simultaneously. This led to a drastic dilution of focus and led to his defeat. A century later in World War 2, Hitler fought on two fronts as well, facing the Allies in Europe and Russia at the same time. He too was defeated through this mistake.
What do I do now?
Now that you know the basic types of SAT essay prompts and the types of arguments they require, what can you do with this information?
A few different things: one is to practice with these questions, thinking of one or two examples to support at least one answer to each question. We've written a guide to 6 SAT essay examples you can use to answer nearly every prompt.
We show you how to construct an SAT essay, step by step. If you want to get a perfect SAT essay score, read this.
Another is to take a look at our comprehensive SAT essay prompts article, which gives you lots more questions to think about answering and supporting with the arguments above.
Finally, make sure you read our 15 SAT essay tips to know how to get an edge on the essay.
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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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