Should I Guess On The SAT?

Should I Guess On The SAT

If you ask five different people the question “Should I guess on the SAT?” you might get five different answers. But do not fret; there is actually a correct answer to this question!

Should I Guess On The SAT?

Yes. But there is a bit of nuance, so keep reading.

Why?

The reason you should guess on the SAT is that, statistically speaking, you are likely to gain points whenever you eliminate one or more of the choices. Let’s see why.

A correct answer is worth 1 point and an incorrect answer costs you 0.25 points. Here is a typical set of answer choices for an SAT question.

A. I’m right. I’m worth 1 point.
B. I’m wrong. I’m worth -0.25 points.
C. I’m wrong. I’m worth -0.25 points.
D. I’m wrong. I’m worth -0.25 points.
E. I’m wrong. I’m worth -0.25 points.

If you guess randomly from among these five choices, you have a 20% (1 in 5) chance of earning 1 point and an 80% (4 in 5) chance of losing 0.25 points. On average, you would expect to earn 0 points, or in other words, to break even. The calculation is shown below.

0.2×(1)+0.8×(-0.25) = 0 points

Now suppose you eliminate one of the incorrect answers.

A. I’m right. I’m worth 1 point.
B. I’m wrong. I’m worth -0.25 points.
C. I’m wrong. I’m worth -0.25 points.
D. I’m wrong. I’m worth -0.25 points.
E. I’m wrong. I’m worth -0.25 points.

If you guess randomly now, you have a 25% chance of earning 1 point and a 75% chance of losing 0.25 points. Now you would expect to earn 0.0625 points, as shown below.

0.25×(1)+0.75×(-0.25) = 0.0625 points

That may not sound like a lot, but the fact that it’s positive means that you’ll gain points.

Here is a summary of the expected outcomes for guessing as a function of number of choices eliminated (you know what a function is, right?).

0 choices eliminated: break even (0 points expected)
1 choice eliminated: gain 0.0625 points
2 choices eliminated: gain 0.1667 points
3 choices eliminated: gain 0.375 points

So, mathematically speaking, you should guess on the SAT whenever you eliminate one or more choices. And, contrary to popular opinion, even if you guess without eliminating choices, you won’t actually lose points on average; you will merely break even.

When Should I Guess On The SAT?

Going beyond the calculations, it helps to know which problem types are most conducive to guessing. Problem types have been ranked below from most conducive to least conducive.

  1. Vocab
  2. Reading Passages
  3. Grammar
  4. Math: Multiple Choice
  5. Math: Grid-in*

*Note that math grid-in problems do not have a guessing penalty.

Beware of trap answers while making your guess. Trap answers are ones that may sound good or that seem plausible, but are in fact preying on your misconceptions. These kind of traps are more common on difficult questions, so be alert.

Keep in mind that the calculations above only apply if you are guessing randomly; trap answers introduce bias that will reduce your chances of guessing correctly. A safe strategy for guessing on difficult questions is to guess only if you can eliminate two choices.

How Do I Guess On The SAT?

Vocab

Vocab questions are easy to guess on because chances are, you’re going to know the meaning of at least one of the words in the answer choices. Decide whether the words you know fit within the context of the sentence, then eliminate any that don’t.

Reading Passages

Most reading passage questions are easy to guess on because there is usually at least one choice that is unrelated or that doesn’t answer the question. But be on high alert for trap answers; they are most common among reading passage questions. Also, the difficulty of reading passage questions varies unpredictably (unlike, say, math questions, which progress from easy to difficult). So you can’t assume that the first question is an easy one and is therefore unlikely to contain trap answers.

Grammar

Most people “guess” on virtually every grammar question, in the sense that they make decisions based on what “sounds right” or what “sounds wrong.” We always push our students to learn the actual grammar rules so they don’t have to merely guess. You should push yourself to this same level of grammatical excellence and take the guessing out of your SAT grammar strategy.

Whether you take the time to learn all the grammar rules or not, be especially careful about guessing “No Error” when you can’t find any errors. Since there may be an error that you aren’t aware of, a wiser strategy is to eliminate choices that you know for sure are grammatically correct, then guess randomly among the remaining choices. But keep in mind that “No Error” is the correct answer about 20% of the time. You have to be careful not to “invent” errors as well; if you are confident that “No Error” is correct, don’t be afraid to choose it. (You are starting to see what I meant by “nuance,” aren’t you.)

Math Multiple Choice

For math questions, in most cases you either know how to solve the problem or you don’t. So guessing is not a great option for math questions, and I usually discourage students from doing so.

In rare cases, the context of a problem can be used to eliminate choices. But it can be time consuming to eliminate choices in this way, and in most cases you are better off spending your time either solving other problems or trying to actually solve the problem at hand.

Math Grid-Ins

For math grid-in questions, you do not lose any points for incorrect answers. So theoretically, you should guess on all of the ones you don’t know. The problem is that the chances of you guessing correctly are minute and hardly worth the time. However, if you can partially solve a problem and then make an educated guess, it doesn’t hurt to bubble it in.

SAT Guessing Strategy Summary

In summary, it pays off to guess on the SAT if you can eliminate one or more choices. A strategy of guessing in these cases will surely help you gain points in the Reading and Writing/Grammar sections of the SAT. Your ability to eliminate choices in the Math sections will be rather limited, but it will still pay off to guess if you can eliminate at least one choice.

Lastly, be sure to watch out for trap answers while making your guesses. Remember that they are most common in difficult questions.

To take your SAT preparation to the next level, check out our SAT prep classes or search for an SAT tutor near you.


About Jared R

Jared, founder of The Knowledge Roundtable, is passionate about the advancement of knowledge. He has a B.S. in astronomy and physics from UMass and an MBA in Advanced Financial Analytics, also from UMass. He has a day job as a Big Data Analyst in Boston. He has over 500 hours of tutoring experience in everything from algebra to writing. He taught our SAT prep group courses for two years in NH, and before that developed educational content for math, stats, and finance textbooks for two years. His teaching style is hands-on with a focus on problem-solving and critical thinking.

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