To Guess or Not To Guess? SAT Version

You may have heard of the SAT’s notorious wrong-answer penalty. Get a question wrong, and not only do you not get the point, but you also lose an additional 1/4th point. It sounds cruel, but it’s really just there to make sure that random guessing can’t change your score very much.

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To illustrate: Let’s say you guess C on 10 questions. Statistically, you have a 20% chance of guessing correctly on any one question, so you should get about 2 out of the 10 correct and 8 out of the 10 wrong. Following the rules of the wrong answer penalty, that translates to:


That zero means your score didn’t change at all. Truly random guessing only raises your score if you’re extremely lucky, and can actually hurt your score.

Because of that, all SAT experts, including all tutors at Pacific Learning Academy, recommend that you leave a question blank unless you can increase your odds of guessing correctly by eliminating at least one answer choice.

For question 25, I'll have..."C."

That standard wisdom is great, but once you’ve determined that you ought to guess, how exactly should you go about doing so?

Sentence Completions:

Sometimes you’ll be faced with something like this:

(A)  Clearly wrong. Eliminate.
(B)  Word you’ve never heard before.
(C)  Is this word even English?!
(D)  Yay, I know this word!
(E)  Clearly wrong. Eliminate.

If you’re one of those students who would choose B or C here, let’s rethink your guessing strategy. D is a word you know, and since you know it, you’d know if it fits the sentence. It survived your elimination round, so it’s the right answer. After eliminating, guess the word you know instead of the word(s) you don’t know.


Here, too, bigger is not better. The SAT knows that students are often too wordy in their essays, so it tests you on how well you can trim sentences down. When you have to guess, choose the shortest choice that still sounds good.


You don’t have to guess blindly here either. Once you’ve eliminated any obviously wrong answers (remember, if you can’t eliminate, you shouldn’t be guessing anyway), keep the following guidelines in mind:

  •  Avoid the oddball. Is only one of your answers a weird-looking fraction? Probably not your answer.
  • On questions late in the section—the hard questions—avoid the “obvious” answer. It’s probably harder than that.
  • Look for wrong answer traps. For example, if a question sneaks in an hours to minutes conversion at the end, make sure you’re guessing one of the answers that looks like it’s in minutes, not hours.

Whether in Reading, Writing, or Math, don’t expect guessing skills to take the place of knowing your content. Even with these tips, you’ll make wrong guesses some, or even most, of the time. Overall, though, the right answers will outweigh the penalty from the wrong answers, and you’ll eke out a few more points. It might sound small, but even a few points can leapfrog you over thousands of your fellow students. Tutors at Pacific Learning Academy teach test taking tips like these in addition to the strategies and content necessary to do well on the SAT or ACT.

Pacific Learning Academy is a one-on-one high school offering single courses and dual enrollment, as well as full-time high school. We also offer tutoring in all subjects from 6th to 12th grade, including SAT/ACT diagnostic testing and prep, either in homes or local libraries across the Eastside (Issaquah, Sammamish, etc…). See more at www.PacificLearningAcademy.com.

April 23, 2013

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