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.


ACT Adds Five New Dates

The ACT announced this week that they’ll be adding five new testing dates to the Fall 2020 lineup. These dates, shown in the list below, will be potentially available beginning the last week of July, when registration opens.

  • Saturday, September 12, 2020
  • Sunday, September 13, 2020
  • Saturday, September 19, 2020
  • Saturday, October 10, 2020
  • Saturday, October 17, 2020
  • Saturday, October 24, 2020
  • Sunday, October 25, 2020

What this means for students is more flexibility for them to take the test in the fall. For those already working through a summer program, it means several options to get a good result. For those thinking about starting test prep, this is the time!


“Test Optional” and the SAT/ACT

As part of the academic fallout from COVID-19, several test dates for the ACT and SAT were canceled. This left many students to wait until the fall to take their exams. Some colleges and universities, to help mitigate the situation, announced that they would become “test optional” schools. The headlines emphasized the term “test optional,” but news stories rarely dug into what it means for the SAT and ACT.

What does “test optional” mean?

The true significance of “test optional” schools is that students are able, if they choose, to apply without submitting test scores. However, colleges and universities–even the ones labeling themselves as “test optional”–are still considering ACT and SAT scores for admission, class placement, and merit-based aid. In fact, in a recent survey of college admission departments, over 80% of colleges feel that ACT and SAT scores are important evaluators for prospective students.

The California conundrum

Creating even more confusion was California’s decision to drop the SAT and ACT from their university system’s evaluation process. By 2024 or 2025, the state declared, California would no longer use either test for college admission. Again, headlines touted the decision as groundbreaking and game-changing, but the fine print contained the real story. As California phases out its use of the SAT and ACT, the state will be creating its own standardized test to use for students seeking admission. So they’re simply replacing one test with another of their own creation. This isn’t surprising, considering that the UC faculty recently announced that SAT and ACT scores were far more accurate predictors of college success, even for minority groups, than were students’ GPAs.

Why is a standardized test so important?

One of the major takeaways for students and parents should be a simple one: standardized tests aren’t going anywhere. With the volume of applications that arrive at a competitive school–for example, Stanford receives over 48,000 applications, while UCLA gets over 110,000 annually–colleges and universities need to have ways to work through those applications efficiently.

Student GPAs, while incredibly important, don’t tell a student’s whole story. A 4.0 at one school might not represent the same thing as a 4.0 at another. One school might have been academically rigorous, while the other might not. Test scores provide that objective benchmark schools need to couple with the rest of a student’s academic career. And when you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of applicants, being able to get a quick snapshot is vital.

What does it all mean?

The end result is that preparing for the SAT and ACT is still vitally important, even in the post-COVID world. For juniors, the summer is the absolute best time to begin working to improve your test scores and opening the doors that a good ACT or SAT can provide!


Zen and the Art of Commas

When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Borgman, introduced me to the art of commas. Before entering that class, I thought I was a good writer. When I turned in my first writing assignment that year–a biography of someone I thought of as a hero–I was excited to see what she thought of my craft. Before she handed our papers back, she began talking about one of the best essays she had received, and, as she read excerpts, I realized it was mine. 

Photo by Barry Zhou on Unsplash

I could feel my ego tangibly inflate as she lauded the writing style, the sentence variation, and the transition statements. I began to feel a bit sorry for all the other students in the class who obviously didn’t have my innate skill. Mrs. Borgman ended her string of praises with what, at the time, seemed like an innocuous phrase: “This paper had a little problem with commas, but other than that, it was great.” Then, we got the essays back. The letter at the top of the page brought my ego crashing back to earth.


And it was in that moment, as I looked at the red circles that appeared throughout the essay, that I realized I didn’t know how to use commas.

One of the biggest grammatical issues our students have to overcome when beginning the exam prep process is learning how to properly use commas–at least in the way the SAT and ACT expect. Students generally receive their last real grammatical instruction somewhere between sixth and eighth grade, so they have bad habits (“Don’t you put a comma whenever you pause?”). Fortunately, the rules are simpler than you might think, and students can master the art of commas on the ACT and SAT.

Photo by Ivan Shilov on Unsplash

Comma Usage and Extra Stuff

First, commas can be used to separate extra information in a sentence. This extra stuff can take the form of a dependent clause, an introductory phrase, or simply an extra bit of description that enhances the sentence but isn’t necessary. 

The lizard basking on a rock in the warm sun was startled by the sound of approaching motorcycles.

This sentence, for example, has a bit of extra information that can be separated off with commas. What might that extra information be?

The lizard, basking on a rock in the warm sun, was startled by the sound of approaching motorcycles. 

As you can see, the extra stuff was “basking on a rock in the warm sun.” If we took that phrase out of the sentence, what remains (“The lizard was startled by the sound of approaching motorcycles”) would be a viable sentence. While the fact that the lizard was sunning itself is interesting, we don’t need that phrase to make a good sentence. Hence, extra stuff.

Photo by Victor Kwashie on Unsplash

This also applies to introductory phrases.

When I was a boy, my parents took me to Disney World.

Here, the introductory phrase “When I was a boy” is the extra stuff. Without it, the remaining sentence, “my parents took me to Disney World,” works on its own.

Grammatical FANBOYS

The second type of comma usage on the SAT and ACT involves FANBOYS. I once asked a student if he knew what the FANBOYS were.

“People who are really into something,” he replied.

True, but not what I was going for. FANBOYS is an acronym for the conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. When a comma appears before a FANBOYS–unless it’s in a list, which we’ll get to in a second–it indicates the separation of two complete sentences.

The festival lasted for two hours, and we stayed until the end.

Here are two full sentences separated by a comma+FANBOYS. “The festival lasted for two hours” and “we stayed until the end” would both be complete sentences on their own, so the comma+FANBOYS is appropriate and correct. 

A loaf of bread, a gallon of milk…

Finally, commas on the SAT and ACT can be used to separate items in a list. 

Erin went to the store and bought milk, butter, and bread. 

In a list of more than two elements, we separate those elements with commas. And for those who dislike (or even know about) the Oxford comma, both tests use it, though they generally don’t test specifically on its usage.

Photo by Valentin Salja on Unsplash

With a bit of practice, commas can become almost second nature. Mrs. Borgman pounded us with comma usage that year in eighth grade, but most students aren’t fortunate enough to have had a tough grammar teacher in school. Fortunately, the Huntington exam prep program can be a great way to not only prepare students for the punctuation they will see on standardized tests but also give them a valuable refresh of all the vital grammar rules they’ll need in their academic writing.


Test Anxiety and the SAT/ACT

As you know from Preventing Test Anxiety During Final Exams, test anxiety is a leading scholastic impairment in students. This is likely due to the crushing pressure students find themselves under to succeed. Test anxiety becomes an even bigger concern during times of high stress. Taking the SAT and the ACT certainly counts as one of these times.

For many students, these college entrance exams will determine the next four years of their lives. They are not to be underestimated. And they therefore come with a lot of emotional baggage. Extreme emotions can be detrimental to tests scores, so managing them comes with practice.

SAT/ACT Test Prep

Test prep will be the biggest contributor to increased tests scores if you choose the correct method. Nowadays, there are several options. Some students prefer an online experience where they can study from anywhere. Others, like those who use Huntington Learning Center’s Exam Prep programs prefer a one-on-one learning experience.

Either way, finding a program that fits your mode of learning will significantly improve your chances of scoring in higher percentiles. If you feel confident in your studying, your test anxiety will lessen.

Know the Test

When I was a senior, I went into the SAT completely unaware of what the test actually looked like. I didn’t know what the testing conditions were. I didn’t even know how long the test would take. Because of this lack of information, I scored lower than I wanted.

Before you take your test, talk to your guidance counselor about your exam. Ask all the questions you need to. Ask for a practice test. Do some research. Knowing the test will help you prepare for the big day. And preparation is key to eliminating test anxiety.

Practice in School

Practice makes perfect. We know this to be true. Well maybe not the perfect part, but practice make preparedness for sure. When you have tests in school, start setting personal timers to practice time management. Incorporate testing strategies like elimination with multiple choice questions.

There is no such thing as being over prepared. Start practicing the nuanced skills needed to achieve success on your SAT or ACT now. Don’t know what these nuances are? Do your research. Call Huntington at (208) 331-9020 and schedule exam prep sessions with a tutor today. These knowledgeable teachers will help you better understand what you can expect.  

Test anxiety doesn’t have to limit your success. If you plan for your test, know what to expect, and practice testing strategies you can achieve the scores you need to attend your dream school.