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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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Weighing in on “Test Optional”

One of the most common questions I hear from students and parents involves that idea of “test optional” schools. As a result of the COVID-19 dilemma, some colleges and universities have seemingly relaxed their admission requirements in order to accommodate those students who weren’t able to take the SAT or ACT due to cancellations. It’s a great gesture by those schools, but it’s been confusing for students. Does it mean you don’t even need to take an SAT? If you already have an ok score, does it mean there’s no need to push for more? Is everyone just getting admitted based on GPA?

No, no, and no.

What does “test optional” mean?

In a June 9 web article, Forbes Magazine took a look at the top schools who’ve gone “test optional” and dug in to what that actually means. Forbes maintains a ranked list of the top colleges and universities, and author Christopher Rim used that list to see which elite schools have switched to “test optional.” Of the top 20 on the Forbes list, only six had made the decision to make the SAT or ACT optional. Four of those schools were Ivy League institutions: University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Cornell. The other two schools to offer test optional application were Cal Tech and Pomona College.

The key, however, isn’t that some schools are “test optional.” The real key is to understand what that actually means. As Rim writes in his Forbes piece, “test optional” isn’t the same as “test blind.” The schools who aren’t requiring an SAT or ACT score aren’t trying to discourage students from taking the exams. On the contrary, other than Cal Tech, the “test optional” schools on the Forbes list are all still considering test scores for admission, placement, and merit scholarships. The schools are still accepting scores and are still using them. Students applying this year simply have the option to submit their applications without accompanying test scores.

Is “test optional” the new normal?

And this brings up a secondary point. Of the “test optional” schools, most of them are instituting this policy for this application year only. The anticipation is that students who apply next year–those who are about to enter their junior year this fall–will still need competitive test scores to gain entrance.

The “test optional” disadvantage

Additionally, Rim writes that this “test optional” policy could actually create a disadvantage for those students who apply without a test score. This would serve to single out students who hadn’t prepared for and taken an official exam early enough to have a score to submit.

Most students aiming for some of the top schools in the country prepare and sit for these tests early in their high school career. Omitting test scores on a college application to a competitive school indicates a failure to prepare as early as students can.

So as we enter the fall season and school begins to come into view, it’s as important as ever to begin preparation for the SAT or ACT as soon as possible! The next SAT dates are August 29 and September 26, and the ACT will offer several test dates in September (9/12, 9/13, and 9/24) and October (10/10, 10/17, 10/24, and 10/25).

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Surveys and Polls on the SAT

2020 has been an interesting year, to say the least. COVID-19, earthquakes, murder hornets, and a rejuvenated civil rights movement have all hit the headlines in the first half of the year. As we enter the summer, however, the drama dial will be turned up to 11 as the next wave of chaos rolls in: the 2020 presidential election. And as part of that process, Americans will be inundated with surveys and polls. Even standardized test takers aren’t immune! Understanding surveys and polls on the SAT is an integral part of success on the math sections.

We’ll take a look at a couple of examples of polling and survey questions on the test and talk you through the strategy behind them.

Question 1: How to create a successful poll

A political scientist wants to predict how the residents of New Jersey will react to a new bill proposed in the state senate. Which of the following study designs is most likely to provide reliable results for the political scientist?

A) Mailing a questionnaire to each of 300 randomly selected residents of New Jersey

B) Surveying a group of 200 randomly selected New Jersey residents

C) Interviewing a group of students randomly selected from a large public university in New Jersey

D) Surveying a group of 1,500 randomly selected US residents

Any ideas? This is a fairly straightforward question that tests students on what makes a survey valid. Students can usually eliminate choices C) and D) because they don’t involve New Jersey residents directly.

But A) and B) can be a little more tricky. A) seems like the right choice at first glance because the survey involves more respondents–if it weren’t for the fact that the success of a questionnaire is dependent on a person returning it. Would all 300 residents return the survey? And, as I often ask my students, who returns a mailed questionnaire? A person who has a more pressing or direct interest in the issue! So while the political scientist may get some data from the questionnaire, a far more reliable method would be to directly survey a random group of state residents.

Question 2: What do the poll results mean?

A city with 120,000 residents is voting on a proposal that would eliminate overnight parking of vehicles on the city’s streets. An independent company randomly surveys 1,200 residents to see whether or not residents would support this proposal. The outcome of the survey shows that 60% of the residents surveyed approve of the proposal with a margin of error of 2%. Which of the following statements is a plausible conclusion from the outcome of the study?

A) Exactly 60% of city residents approve eliminating overnight parking.

B) There are 72,000 city residents who approve eliminating overnight parking.

C) About 2% of the city residents do not approve eliminating overnight parking.

D) Between 58% and 62% of the city residents approve eliminating overnight parking.

In this question, the survey has already been completed and the results are in: 60% of people approved eliminating overnight parking with a margin of error of 2%. This question is focused on just what that result means.

We can eliminate choice A) because of one word: exactly. While a well-done poll can give a predicted result that is very close to reality, it’s still just that–a prediction. Even under the best of conditions, it’s not an exact science. One only needs to look at predictions surrounding recent elections to see how unscientific polls can be.

B) is an attractive choice because it looks like it might require some math. Surely the SAT would want us to calculate something in a math question! And, in fact, 60% of 120,000 is 72,000. The problem, however, comes back to the exactness of that result. A poll is always a prediction. So to say that 72,000 people would approve is far too precise for any poll. If the answer had said, “Around 72,000 city residents will likely approve…”, it would be far closer to the truth.

That leaves us with C) or D), and the choice between the two comes down to an understanding of the term “margin of error.” Because polls are only predictors, polls are often presented with a bit of wiggle room. Our poll said that 60% of people approved eliminating overnight parking. That 2% margin of error is just that: a range in which the truth might actually lie. And choice D) reflects that idea. According to the poll results, the correct percentage that approves could be anywhere between 58% and 62%, given the margin of error.

Takeaways

The most important strategy to use with questions about surveys and polls on the SAT is an important strategy for every question on the test: read carefully. The test writers aren’t doing you any favors, and they’ll word things in convoluted ways just to make it tougher on you. If you’re working too quickly, it can be easy to overlook words like “exactly” or “likely,” and those types of words can be incredibly important. So take a breath and read that question carefully.

Practicing on actual SATs is also helpful. Poll and survey questions appear in the no-calculator and/or calculator sections of nearly every SAT, and the more of them you see and work through, the less likely that you’ll be duped by a trick. So putting in the time to practice is essential to be successful on these questions, as well as all the other types you’ll see on a typical SAT.

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Choosing the Right School

For most students across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic completely disrupted the end of the academic year. Juniors and seniors saw the March, April, May, and June SATs canceled. Those students who would normally receive vital guidance from their school counselors as the year wrapped up were not able to get it. Because of this, it’s becoming increasingly important for students and parents to have good resources to help them choose the right school for their financial and academic needs. And choosing the right school can be easier if you know where to look.

Money.com

Money.com has one of the best ranking sites to help parents and students balance the financial cost of the college decision with the academic achievement and potential future earnings a particular school could provide. The initial web page has Money.com’s rankings based on over 19,000 data points. The rankings take into account such elements as potential student debt, standardized test scores, acceptance rate, and graduation rate.

Some of the schools that rank high on the Money.com list aren’t surprising: Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Stanford. What is surprising is that the number one value in the country, according to the list, is the University of California-Irvine.

What makes the Money.com list even more valuable to college seekers is that feature that allows a user to rank the colleges based on numerous criteria. For example, if a student wanted to study marine biology at a mid-sized school in the western United States, s/he could enter in those parameters, and the website would show which schools fit the bill. Incidentally, the top school for our future marine biologist would be Sonoma State University.

BigFuture

College Board has their own detailed search for colleges, though it doesn’t have some of the more interesting financial features of the Money.com site. BigFuture is easy to use and can also be a great way of narrowing down school choices. One of the most helpful features of the site, as you might expect, is that it provides the desired SAT and ACT ranges for colleges.

The range of scores is presented with the lower score representing the 25th percentile–meaning 25% of incoming freshmen scored below that number–and the higher value representing the 75th percentile. Students applying to a particular school should be shooting for an SAT or ACT score in the middle or higher to have the best chance of being accepted.

BigFuture also allows students and parents to sort through schools by size, type, location, and other parameters to narrow their focus. And while the Money.com site focuses on the academic and financial aspects, BigFuture also allows students to refine their search by sports and activities, diversity, and other social factors.

Together, both sites can be invaluable resources when choosing the right school for you!

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When Should I Start Studying for the SAT?

To a high school sophomore just finishing up their academic year, college seems a long way off. But the truth is that the summer before your junior year is the ideal time to start studying for the SAT!

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Free time

One of the most obvious reasons for beginning exam prep in the summer is the increase in free time. Especially given that many summer camps and other activities have been canceled due to COVID-19, students have quality time to spend on sharpening their standardized test skills.

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If you start studying for the SAT during the school year, as many students do, you’re then forced to juggle your academic work (including AP and IB courses!), sports, drama, other extracurriculars, and a social life with several hours per week of SAT sessions and homework. That’s a lot to keep track of! One of the SAT students I worked with in the past was taking five AP classes, participating in marching band and jazz band, playing as the starting goalie on the soccer team, and serving on the National Honor Society council for her school. No wonder she was continually exhausted!

To avoid that sort of workload and the potential for burnout during one of the most important years of high school, start that exam prep in the summer and get it done!

Flexibility

Along with avoiding a heavy workload, another great reason for studying for the SAT during the summer is flexibility. If you take your first SAT in August, you’ll have an official score you can use in the application process.

If you prep during the summer and crush the August SAT, great! You’ll never need to take that test again! If you don’t get the score you want, you have many more opportunities throughout the year to take the exam. This year, again because of COVID-19 and the March, May, and June test cancellations, College Board is offering the SAT in August, September, October, November, and December, as well as March, May, and June in 2021. That gives many opportunities to take the test and get your goal score!

By doing your preparation and studying for the SAT in the summer, you give yourself a great deal of flexibility, which, in turn, can be a great stress reducer.

Potential for National Merit

Depending on how high you’re able to push your score on the SAT with some preparation, you might want to have an eye on the PSAT in October, as well.

Many students view the PSAT as simply a free practice for the SAT, but it can be much more. If you achieve a high score on the PSAT, you can qualify as a semi-finalist for the National Merit Scholarship. A student’s National Merit Index score is calculated by doubling her/his reading and writing scaled scores, dividing the math score by 10, and adding the three scores together. For example, if a student received a 34 in reading, a 33 in writing, and a 610 in math on a PSAT, her/his National Merit Index would be calculated in this way:

(34 x 2) + (33 x 2) + (61)

So this particular student would receive an index score of 205.

Index scores that qualify a student to be a National Merit Semi-Finalist vary by state. A list of recent scores for each state can be found here. In Idaho, for example, the qualifying index score is usually 215 to 217. Achieving a National Merit qualifying score can open doors, whether or not s/he ends up winning the actual scholarship. In fact, plenty of schools offer full scholarships just for qualifying as a semi-finalist or finalist! So it’s worth it to make a good effort on the PSAT.

And that’s where summer practice comes in.

By starting in early summer to begin preparation for the SAT, you can not only prepare yourself to achieve a great score on the regular exam in August, but you’ll also be more prepared to do well on the PSAT. What a deal!

Getting Help

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Students looking to gain insight and help on the SAT have myriad resources at their disposal. College Board itself provides a self-help program on Khan Academy, and there are many companies who offer self-directed instruction online. For those who want the best help possible, there’s no substitute for meeting regularly with an expert on the test. Whatever you choose to do, if you’re a rising junior, the time is now to begin studying for the SAT!