The SSAT Essay: What to Expect

The SSAT requires an essay, but it’s not graded. So why do you need to write it? Well, the essay is a great way for schools to see how well you express yourself. The rest of the test tells them how well you perform on a series of standard tasks, but the essay is the one part of the exam where you get to shine as an individual. Schools look closely at your essay, so think of it as part of your application and take it seriously.
So, what do you need to know to write an essay that will stand out? Really, only a few key things. First and most important, stick to the topic. Second, write clearly and logically. And finally, proofread your essay before you finish. Even if you think you have been very careful, you’ll undoubtedly find things that you’ll want to fix or change.

Introduction to the SSAT Essay

There are five important things to know about the essay:

  1. You’ll need to organize your thoughts quickly (you’ll have 25 minutes to write a complete essay).
  2. Your essay is limited to two pages.
  3. Essay topics will be easy to grasp.
  4. What you say is more important than using perfect grammar.
  5. Your essay will not be graded.

The Golden Rule of essay writing is to stick to the topic. All you need to do is stay on course and write clearly, giving examples to support your points. Whether a question is academic or creative, there should always be a beginning or introduction, a middle (body paragraphs), and a conclusion.

How can you avoid making these types of mistakes? How can you make sure you don’t get sidetracked while you write or repeat yourself? Kaplan has an easy method that you should follow when you write your essay. By following each and every step, you’ll be guaranteed to create an organized, clear essay.

The Kaplan 4-Step Method for Writing

This method of essay-writing might sound pretty general, a lot like the essays you’ve written for school. In fact, the essay is the part of the test that most closely resembles the work you do in school. However, the essay follows a much more specific format than most essays assigned in school, and you don’t have a lot of time to do it, so it’s very important that you follow all four steps. Let’s break them down.
  • Step 1: Brainstorm

    When you start to brainstorm for ideas, first think about the topic. With the sample topic, your thinking might go like this: I believe that people are rewarded for good deeds, not punished. Okay, what examples can I use to support this point of view?
    It’s important that you’re clear in your head about what your stance is before you start to organize your essay. Once you start to put your examples together, you don’t want to have to go back and figure out what you’re trying to show.

  • Step 2: Make an outline

    Once you’ve decided on your topic or opinion, the next step is to write an outline. Come up with three examples to support your points or opinion.
    Next, decide the best order in which to present your examples. Is there a logical order to lay out your ideas? How do you want to start your essay? How do you want to end it? Make some notes on your scratch paper so when you start to write, you can glance at them to keep you on track and writing quickly.
    Even if you’re feeling rushed, don’t skip the Outlining step. Planning your essay will make the entire writing process easier and faster, and it will ensure that your writing is well organized. Remember, wear a watch on Test Day so you can keep a handle on your pacing.

  • Step 3: Write your essay

    Now you have to write the essay. Follow your outline carefully, but be flexible. Maybe you’ll think of another great idea midway through your writing. Should you ignore it, or should you substitute it for the third example you had planned to include? If you think it’s better than what you originally came up with, go ahead and write about it instead. Just make sure that any deviation you make from your outline is in fact an improvement over the original idea.

  • Step 4: Proofread

    Wrap up your writing five minutes before the end of your allotted time. Give your essay a good read-through, making sure you haven’t made any spelling mistakes, written any run-on sentences, or forgotten to capitalize a proper name. You won’t be able to make any huge changes at this point—after all, you only have a few minutes left—but you do want to make sure that you haven’t made any egregious errors.


How much time should you spend on each step? Use your watch and this guideline as you write. You want to give yourself sufficient time for each step, because planning and proofreading will make your essay much stronger. Use the following guidelines for timing:
Outlining/Planning5 minutes
Writing15 minutes
Proofreading5 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes

Show, Not Tell

You’ve probably heard the saying that good writing shows rather than tells. What does that mean, and what do examples have to do with it?
Take the statement “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Say you wanted to disagree with it. You could explain why you believe the statement isn’t true, what you think about teaching and age, and so forth. Or you could use examples that illustrate the same point. You could discuss the fact that retired people now use the Internet on a regular basis. The fact that people generally considered old by society are adapting to a new technology in large numbers serves to show that you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks.
What makes a good example? A good example illustrates the point you want to make. In addition, it comes from the world at large rather than from your personal life. While it may be true that your grandmother emails you, it’s more powerful to say that many retirees use the Internet every day.
If you’re not doing so already, try reading the newspaper on a regular basis. Not only will you know more about what’s going on in the world and be ready with great examples for your essays, you’ll also improve your vocabulary, which will improve your performance on the Verbal section of your test.
Check out an SSAT practice essay here!