Guessing on the SAT/ACT

No matter how skilled or how experienced the student, at some point on the SAT or ACT, they’ll find it necessary to take a guess. Or two. Or ten.

Guessing is part of any good test-taking strategy. Knowing the ins and outs of guessing on the SAT/ACT can make a big difference in the final outcome of a test.

Be sure to actually guess!

One of the biggest mistakes I see students make, especially early in their test prep journey, is leaving answers blank if they aren’t sure or if they run out of time. Unlike the SAT of days gone by, the current SAT and ACT do not penalize students for guessing. As a result, students should always put an answer down, even when they have no idea what it might be. Leaving answers blank is leaving points on the table!

Even on the SAT Math grid-ins!

Students tend to give a funny look when I encourage them to guess on the fill-in-the-blank math questions on the SAT.

Their look says, “It would be like… impossible to get those right, right?”

My response is that, at least if they guess something, they have a chance. Even if it’s a small chance, it’s still more than if they left it blank. Some chance is always better than no chance! And many of the grid-in answers on the non-calculator section tend to be single-digit integers (0-9). So that makes the chances a little better if you stick to something in that neighborhood.

Multiple choice straightlining

Another guessing strategy I pass along to test takers is to guess in a straight line. So if a student is running out of time, fill in the remaining answers with A, B, C, or D (or E, if on the ACT math section). In terms of probability, you always have a 1 out of 4 chance to hit the right answer. But because the test answers tend to hit every letter at some point, your chances of at least getting some correct tend to be higher if you guess in a straight line.

Especially on ACT Math

One of the quirky things I’ve noticed through teaching the ACT for years has been the tendencies of the end of the ACT math section. After doing some anecdotal research, I started coaching students to guess the outside lines (A/F or E/K)–or anything but the very middle line (C/H)–if they ran out of time at the end of the math section. When I looked through 20 or so ACTs, I found that the outside lines were good for roughly 1-2 more questions correct in that last 15 of the math test. One to two questions could make a point or two difference on the section.

Students are always curious as to why the answers tend to drift to the outsides. The answer is simple: psychology. What do most test takers guess on a multiple choice test? The old axiom is to guess C. Human nature compels us to stay away from extremes and guess toward the middle. It seems as though the makers of the ACT understand this and tend to push more answers to the outsides, making it less likely that students will guess well at the end.

Know the tendencies

Knowing the types of answers that the tests prioritize can be incredibly helpful if you need to do any guessing on the SAT/ACT. For example, in the English section of the ACT, clear and concise answers tend to be correct. When in doubt, go with the shortest selection. On the math section, CANNOT BE DETERMINED is a regular answer choice. However, this answer is very rarely correct, so it wouldn’t be wise to randomly guess it. Having some familiarity with the way the test operates can really be a game-changer, even when you have to guess.

Narrow down your options

Finally, one of the best strategies for guessing on the tests is to eliminate answers that can’t work. Does the answer have to be positive? Then eliminate the negatives. Are there verb forms that you know are incorrect? Get rid of those first. Then, if you’re left to make a guess, your odds are considerably higher. On most sections of the SAT and ACT, you have a 25% chance of guessing the correct answer. Eliminate one, and that percentage jumps to 33%. Eliminate two, and it soars to 50%. So the more you can eliminate, the better your chances.

Ideally, a student will know how to work through every question and problem on the test. But test taking isn’t often ideal, and even the best test takers will have to make a guess at some point during an exam. Using a little strategy for guessing on the SAT/ACT can make the difference between hitting a goal score and falling agonizingly short.

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