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The Importance of the SSAT Writing Sample

Daren Worcester
Oct 23, 2023
4 minute read

When it comes to taking the SSAT, one section is not like the others—the writing sample. For starters, it’s an essay instead of multiple choice questions, and EMA doesn’t score it. Unfortunately, students sometimes overlook the writing sample in their preparations because of these differences, and that’s a mistake. 

The following will help you understand how schools view the SSAT writing sample and provide tips for preparing for it.


<span class="text-color-orange" role="decoration">Private schools value the SSAT writing sample.</span>

Many admissions evaluators will tell you they value the SSAT writing sample more than the student’s application essay. Why? According to John Hutchins, director of admissions and financial aid at Phillips Exeter School, “Schools will look at that writing sample as being the most authentic piece of writing that we’re going to get from an applicant.”

Schools understand that students receive editorial guidance on their application essays. In fact, they expect it—editing is a critical aspect of the writing process. What they don’t know is how much assistance the student received. ChatGPT and other AI content services further cloud the authenticity waters. With the SSAT writing sample, there’s no question that the essay is the student’s uninfluenced creation.

Watch the following video for Hutchins’ complete discussion on the SSAT writing sample, including preparation tips.


<span class="text-color-lightblue" role="decoration">Schools do evaluate the SSAT writing sample.</span>

While EMA doesn’t score the writing sample, schools evaluate these essays. Each school has its own review process, and many score the essays internally.

What are the schools evaluating?

Mostly, they want to know whether the student’s writing meets the grade-level expectations or if it is an area where the student may need additional assistance if admitted. Specifically, they evaluate the writing for:

  • Adherence to the writing prompt
  • Proper essay structure with an introduction, body, and conclusion
  • Clarity: Does the essay stay focused on the opening thesis? Did the student provide examples to make their argument?
  • Writing style: Does the student’s voice stand out? Are the sentences varied or repetitive? Are grammar and punctuation correct?
  • Originality


<span class="text-color-green" role="decoration">Practicing tips for the SSAT writing sample.</span>

During the Middle and Upper Level SSAT, students have 25 minutes to complete the writing sample. As Hutchins mentions in the video, writing a timed essay is a skill improved upon with practice. 

It’s best to practice in the testing format the student will take. On the paper SSAT, students have two pages in the answer booklet to hand-write their essays, whereas they type on a keyboard with the SSAT-at-Home and Prometric exam. There is a 10,000 character limit on the SSAT at Home and a 32,767 limit on the Prometric. All testers have scrap paper or a whiteboard (Prometric) to make notes and organize their thoughts.

Upper Level testers have the option between a personal or general question prompt. Try practicing with the following sample Upper Level SSAT writing prompts.

Practice Example 1:

  1. Is there a social media influencer or pop-culture icon that has impacted you, and why?
  2. Has social media had an overall positive or negative impact on society?

Practice Example 2:

  1. If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would it be and why?
  2. Name a challenge facing the community where you live. How could it be fixed?

Middle Level testers choose between a creative story starter or a personal question prompt. The creative starter—option A in the practice examples below—is typically an abstract prompt. 

Practice Example 1:

  1. “Are you going to eat that?” she asked.
  2. How can food connect us to family, friends, and new people we meet?

Practice Example 2:

  1. And that’s when the fire alarm sounded.
  2. What school subject do you think is most important and why?

For more Middle and Upper Level writing sample preparation, only the Official SSAT Guide Books from EMA contain four full-length tests from the team that make the actual SSAT, each with a writing section to simulate the testing experience.

Elementary Level testers have 15 minutes to write a story based on a picture prompt. The student is asked to tell a story about an image with a beginning, middle, and end. Practice by showing your student any age-appropriate image they aren’t already familiar with, or use the prompts in the free Elementary Level Study Guides.


<span class="text-color-orange" role="decoration">Review the SSAT writing sample before submitting results to schools.</span>

Given the importance that schools put on the SSAT writing sample, it’s a good idea to review it before submitting results to schools. Reviewing the writing sample may help you decide whether or not to take the SSAT more than once, and in the case of multiple assessments, it could be the deciding factor between which result to submit. 

It’s worth noting that the numerical scores and the writing sample from an SSAT test administration are a package and cannot be separated when the results are submitted to schools.

By default, EMA submits writing sample results to score recipients; however, parents can obtain a copy through an additional purchase (not available for Elementary Level).

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