Upper Level Ssat Essay Format

This summary has detailed information about each SSAT section and will help you prepare.

Writing Sample Section

This section is not scored, but schools use it as an indicator of what a student can write independently.

Elementary Level Writing Sample

The Elementary students are given a picture prompt, and are asked to write a story about what happened in the picture, including a beginning, middle, and end. Students should practice this activity so they are comfortable with the task and the time frame given, and should review editing for capitals, spelling, and punctuation.

Middle Level Writing Sample

The Middle Level students have the choice of two creative prompt story starters.


I opened the door and couldn’t believe what I saw.

Nothing could have prepared her for this moment.


The prompts are intentionally open-ended, and students can get creative with their stories! It’s only 25 minutes, however, so it’s important to keep an eye on the time. Spending a few minutes jotting down the main plot points can help writers plan a complete story arc and keep them on task. Students should also leave time to review their work, checking for spelling, punctuation, and clarity of ideas.


Upper Level Writing Sample

The Upper Level students have the choice of two prompts: a creative short story, or an opinion essay.

Creative prompt sample:

It was completely dark.

Essay Prompt Sample:

What qualities make a good leader?


Students generally have a preference for writing creative stories or essays, so they might want to focus preparation on one style or the other. Practising for the creative prompts will include working on story arc, character development, literary devices, and editing skills. Practising for the essay prompts will include planning and organizing ideas, developing examples, essay structure, and editing skills.


Tips for improving:

  • Read creative short stories by others. Inspiration goes a long way! Identify what authors did well, the main plot points, why the author’s writing spoke to you, etc.
  • Practise! At first, learn about the parts of story writing or essay writing from a teacher, tutor, or even a guide book. Then use prompts and practice under timed conditions. Use a plan each time so you know where your writing is going.
  • Get feedback. Have a teacher/tutor/parent look over your writing, identify what they liked and where you could improve, and point out any errors in grammar or punctuation that you may need help editing.
  • Write again! Take the suggestions of others to heart, and try again! Go to the same person and see if you hit the nail on their suggestions.


Tips for during the test:

  • Make a plan. Knowing where your writing is going will keep it focused and directed. But don’t spend too much time on this–2-4 minutes is plenty.
  • Watch the clock. You only have 25 minutes, so make sure you leave time to finish your writing and read what you’ve written.
  • Think about past ideas. If you’re writing the creative prompt, you might have elements of a story you did for practice that weave nicely into this prompt. Don’t force it though–it’s obvious when a student tries to make an unrelated story prompt fit with a story they’ve already written.
  • Use juicy vocabulary. Add those scintillating adjectives that hook readers and vividly describe your story or topic.
  • Edit. As mentioned earlier, leave a few minutes at the end to look back over your work and make minor edits. Be aware of what you might need to watch out for based on your practice writing samples. Capitals? Periods? Quotation marks? Demonstrate what you know about editing in those final minutes.

Math Section

Referred to as the ‘Quantitative’ Section, both the Middle and Upper Level math sections test a wide range of math concepts, including number sense, geometry, algebraic reasoning, visual/spatial awareness, and problem-solving. According to the SSAT official website, both the Middle and Upper tests could test any of the following concepts:


Information from ssat.org:

Topics covered:

Number Concepts and Operations

  • Arithmetic word problems (including percent, ratio)
  • Basic concepts of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division
  • Estimation
  • Rational numbers
  • Sequences and series
  • Frequencies

Algebra (elementary concepts of algebra)

  • Properties of exponents
  • Algebraic word problems
  • Equations of lines
  • Patterns
  • Absolute value


  • Area and circumference of a circle
  • Area and perimeter of a polygon
  • Volume of a cube, cylinder, box
  • Pythagorean theorem and properties of right, isosceles, equilateral triangles
  • Properties of parallel and perpendicular lines
  • Coordinate geometry
  • Slope

Data analysis/probability

  • Interpretation (tables, graphs)
  • Trends and inferences
  • Probability


What you’re probably wondering, is why would the Middle Level and Upper Level test cover all the same topics? Well, they both put emphasis in different areas, and the level of difficulty varies. This list of topics is helpful, but certainly overwhelming. To help narrow down your study, here’s the same list with reference to each test level:


TopicMiddle LevelUpper Level
• Arithmetic word problems (including percent, ratio)Very commonVery common
• Basic concepts of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and divisionNecessary for most other questionsFrequent
• EstimationCan be used instead of complex calculations for some questionsFrequent
• Rational numbersCommonVery common
• Sequences and seriesCommonCommon
FrequenciesSomewhat commonCommon
• Properties of exponentsInfrequentCommon
• Algebraic word problemsCommonVery common
• Equations of linesVery infrequentCommon
• PatternsCommonInfrequent
• Absolute valueInfrequentInfrequent
• Area and circumference of a circleInfrequentInfrequent
• Area and perimeter of a polygonCommonFrequent
• Volume of a cube, cylinder, boxLess commonFrequent
• Pythagorean theorem and properties of right, isosceles, equilateral trianglesSomewhat commonFrequent
• Properties of parallel and perpendicular linesInfrequentFrequent
• Coordinate geometryLess commonCommon
• SlopeInfrequentFrequent
• Interpretation (tables, graphs)CommonCommon
• Trends and inferencesCommonCommon


Tips for Improving:


Tips for During the Test:


Reading Comprehension Section

Both the Middle Level and Upper Level sections follow the same format: students read a short passage, and answer comprehension questions about them. The types of passages range in style and genre, but there are generally 8-9 passages chosen from history, science, sociology, art, biography, novels, poetry, medicine, etc.

On the SSAT score report, answers will be grouped into two categories: main idea and higher order. In reality, there are many more detailed question types, and it’s important to recognize them when you see them.

Main idea: Asks about the author’s central idea

Detail: Asks for specific information from the passage

Inference: Asks the reader to use clues from the passage to determine new information

Tone/attitude: Asks how the author feels about the subject (or how the character in a story feels)

Author’s purpose/intent: Asks why the author chose to include a specific phrase or word

Vocabulary: Asks reader to determine the meaning of a word in the context of the text–usually a word with more than one meaning

Text type: Asks the reader where the text might appear (e.g., newspaper, biography, textbook, etc.)


For all questions, referring back to the text to double-check your gut answer is the most helpful in improving accuracy. Many times there are “trap answers” that reuse words from the text, but don’t actually answer the question being asked, or have changed in meaning slightly to make an answer choice wrong. It doesn’t take long; just look back and check for proof for your answer!

Verbal Section

This section includes 30 synonym and 30 analogy questions.

The synonym questions ask students to read a word and determine which of the five answer option words is a synonym of the question word. The vocabulary for these ranges from words found in the top 3000 spoken words of the language (rank, debate, solve) to more obscure words that would leave many adults scratching their heads (bellicose, vetted, callow). Students who are voracious readers have a natural advantage in this section, as the more frequently you see or hear a word, the more likely you are to infer and retain its meaning. That being said, those who want to improve their vocabulary can start to read more challenging books/journals/newspapers on a regular basis, and learn about the roots of words to help figure out the meaning of those they haven’t seen before.

The analogies ask students to determine the relationship between a pair of words, and find another pair of words with the most similar relationship. There are many common types of relationships that will appear, such as “synonyms” (joyful is to elated) and “worker/tool” (painter is to brush), but there are many other obscure relationships that might be mistaken for more common relationships (e.g., June is to July shows not just category, but sequence). Learning to recognize these relationships is very helpful in this section, as well as using the process of elimination.

The SSAT Narrative Essay

By Rob Gilliver

(English Literature, ESOL, and SSAT tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Many students who take the SSAT mistakenly believe that the essay is the least important section – that, because it is ungraded, the essay is somehow less significant than Verbal, Reading, or Quantitative Reasoning. While it may be true that the SSAT essay will not affect overall score, as the SSAT essay is ungraded, it will be sent to admissions officers in the schools you are applying to. Therefore, the essay should be seen as an opportunity to showcase your skillset, display your ability to write clearly and concisely, demonstrate your capacity to produce a high standard of written work under timed pressure, and exhibit your vocabulary and creativity. Crucially, it could be the ultimate deciding factor that separates you from other candidates with similar scores.

There are three different styles of prompts on the SSAT, and which ones you will encounter will depend on your grade and on the level of test you will be taking. Let’s take a look at an overview of each level and its various options, with examples of each from the SSAT website.

  • Elementary Level Students (Grades 3&4)are given 15 mins to respond to one prompt. This particular prompt will be a picture and the student will be expected to create a story based on the picture. The prompt always requires the story to include a beginning, middle, and end.   

  • Middle Level Students (Grades 5-7) are given two prompts and 25 mins to complete a response. Both these prompts will be narrative; they will give you a sentence that you have to use as the first sentence and basis for your own story.

  • Upper Level Students (Grades 8+)are given a choice between one narrative and one traditional essay prompt. Again, you only have 25 mins to form a response. For the narrative essay, you will get a sentence to form the beginning of a story (exactly like the middle level). For the traditional essay you have to respond to a given prompt. (We’ll save this for another blog!)

For the purposes of this blog entry, let’s focus on the narrative prompt. Many of you surely have some experience writing short stories, but before we begin, let’s cover the basics.

First, do not underestimate the difficulty of this task. Our aim is to create a complete, satisfying, and entertaining story that showcases strong grammar and vocabulary, and in only 25 minutes. Many prolific writers would find this a daunting task. Here’s The Edge’s breakdown of how you should be managing your time:

0-1 min: Read the prompts and select one

1-3 min: Plan

4-24 min: Write

24-25 min: Proofread

Luckily, the essay will be the first section for middle and upper level test takers to complete. So, hopefully, you will be able to approach this task with well-rested, fresh eyes.

Let’s take a look at some typical narrative structures and consider how we can use this to help us plan our short story. Many of you will already be familiar with Freytag’s representation of narrative structures, which outlines the essential elements of a plot.


For a detailed breakdown of the stages the dramatic structure, check out this simple guide. Essentially, within any complete story you should be able to identify the exposition, the rising action, the climax, the resolution, and the denouement. If we consider this short animation by Shaun Tan, we can see the exposition (man searches for bottle tops), an inciting incident (man spots “The Thing”), the rising action (various attempts to identify “The Thing”), the climax (finding a home for “The Thing”), the falling action (man leaves “The Thing” behind), the resolution (man remembers “The Thing” and considers if there are other oddities out there), and the denouement (man fades into the hue of the busy, grey cityscape).

When we write our narrative essays, we need to be aware of how we take our reader through these structural elements in order to ensure we reach a satisfying conclusion. Speaking of which, we absolutely, unequivocally, definitely DO NOT want to end on a “cliffhanger,” and for obvious reasons: a cliffhanger is a device writers use to try to encourage people to return to the story in order to find out what happens, and as our stories are being sent one time, with one application, we will have no opportunity to complete the narrative, meaning it will appear incomplete to anyone who reads it.

One of the biggest issues The Edge teachers see while marking, editing, and teaching the SSAT Narrative Essay is finding an appropriate ‘problem’ or ‘thing-the-protagonist-must-overcome-to-achieve-resolution.’ The prompts almost always allow enough room to make the problem as complex or as simple as you like, but you should always consider HOW you are going to resolve the problem before you start writing.

Imagine baking a cake. First, you decide that you’re going to bake a delicious chocolate cake. You find a recipe and go to buy all the necessary ingredients. You artfully combine them following the recipe to the letter. You delicately ladle the mixture into carefully greased tins before realizing you don’t have an oven. So, you end up scoffing raw cake mixture (and that’s all well and good), but in the end, it’s probably going to make you sick. This is kind of how a badly planned story can read. Let’s take a look at an example and brainstorm some potential ideas for problems and resolutions.

“The classroom was empty.”

This prompt immediately gives us a physical setting, but, remember, it doesn’t provide a time – this could be Victorian London (fog and misery) or modern-day Iceland (snow and Björk) or a futuristic space station (lasers and … pipes). Most people would consider attaching the problem to the reason the classroom was empty. Where’d everyone go? And why? But remember, just considering that won’t give you a complete story – you have to find a way to get everybody back again. And you have to know how you’re going to do that BEFORE you start writing.

The above prompt does not give us any indication of the text’s perspective, so we could introduce a 1st-person narrator (I, me, my) or a 3rd-person (he, she, Sara, the knight, Juanita). However, this is not always the case – many prompts indicate who a person might be, and we would be expected to continue with that description. Also, be aware that the prompt uses the past tense “was”, meaning we should continue in the past. Irregular tenses in stories are not only grammatically annoying, but they can also make the plot really confusing.

Let’s imagine a student arrives late, only to remember that there was a school trip that day and that the whole class was supposed to meet at the train station. You could give your protagonist a short amount of time in which to complete a hectic race to the station. They could make it just in time or just miss the train and learn a lesson about tardiness. Or, maybe you could have the classroom empty because your archnemesis, Destructanator, has kidnapped your trainee space-pilots and you must vanquish him in a laser-jousting battle that you only win because you have been training solidly ever since Destructanator maimed your father. Perhaps a volcano erupted nearby and the town was evacuated, but a group of intrepid students had raced into the school, braved the slowly moving lava, and rescued the class’s hamster before the building collapsed. The possibilities are endless but the point is that you must have the resolution planned before you start writing.

While there are many other things to consider when writing the narrative essay (spelling, grammar, vocabulary, descriptive language, etc.), having a well thought out plan and a strong resolution to the problem is the most vital aspect of this task.

And it goes without saying that the best way to improve on this section is to practice. Why not take a look at these prompts from ssatprep.com?

I knew it was dangerous, but…

She opened the door and saw…

How could I have turned into a…

Try to follow the time guidelines above and spend 25 minutes crafting a response to one or all of these prompts. Once you have finished, critically assess how well you have done. Can you easily identify the dramatic elements from Freytag’s pyramid? Does your protagonist overcome the problem? Does it seem believable? Would you enjoy it if you were a 50 year-old admissions officer from a fancy American Boarding School?

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