Because the ACT has no penalty for guessing, you should always guess on the ACT if you don’t know the answer. After all, leaving a question blank and guessing are functionally the same.
This article will focus less on the technical aspects of whether it’s beneficial to guess on the ACT and more on strategies for guessing that might lead you to the right answer. After reading this guide, you should be able to score some additional lucky points on the ACT!
Strategy 1: Eliminate Answer Choices Before Guessing
The number one rule of guessing on the ACT is try to minimize your guessing.
The first thing you should do when you come across a question that (at least partially) stumps you is to use the process of elimination. The more choices you can cross off, the better your chances of getting the question right will be.
Don’t guess blindly just because you think you don’t know the answer; rather, read all the answer choices. Sometimes a question that seems difficult will be less so after you review the options you are given. When it comes down to it, the ACT only tests basic academic skills. Even if a question appears to ask about an unfamiliar subject, you might be able to solve it using simple logic.
If you can only find one answer choice that's clearly incorrect, you'll still have a better shot at guessing the right answer from the remaining three choices, so don't be afraid—go for it!
Strategy 2: Pick a Guessing Letter Before the Test
What if you really, really can’t eliminate any answers? On these ACT questions, it's best to pick the same letter answer choice every time. In truth, you have a higher likelihood of getting questions right by guessing the same letter every time than by skipping around.
But why? The reason is twofold. For one, using a guessing letter saves you time and ensures a random guess. If you've already decided you're going to go with a certain letter regardless of the question, you can preserve randomness and count on the law of averages to give you around one question correct out of every four guesses.
If you skip around with your guesses, you're probably not guessing randomly, which means you're more likely to fall prey to the ACT's traps. The test will try to trick you with answer choices that seem more likely to be correct at first glance but are purposely placed there to ensnare unwitting students. If you don't pick a guessing letter beforehand, you're more likely to fall prey to these appealing but incorrect answers by making a guess that's not truly random.
Pick one A through D letter (A, B, C, or D) and one F through J letter (F, G, H, or J) at random before the ACT, and stick to it for all of your guesses. You can also plan to guess those letters on questions for which you've eliminated one or more answer choices (provided the guessing letters don't correspond with the choices you've already eliminated).
BUBBLESSSS! The bubbles! Your bubbles. That you should always fill in on the ACT. (Please tell me you've all seen Finding Nemo.)
Strategy 3: Move On and Guess Later
Many students make the mistake of lingering on questions they don’t know, causing them to lose time that would be better spent on easier questions. If you really don’t know the correct answer, don’t waste your time dwelling on the question.
But what's considered "wasting your time"? The ACT has pretty narrow time constraints. Here's a chart with an overview of the time limits on each section of the test:
|# of Questions
|Time per Question
On English, you get around 36 seconds to answer each question, so you should be able to figure out a strategy within the first 10 seconds or you need to skip it. By contrast, with Math, you get a minute on average for each question. If you haven't figured out a strategy to answer a question in the first 30 seconds of looking at it, move on to the next one.
Reading and Science each give you around 53 seconds to answer each question, so for both sections 20 seconds or less per question is a good rule of thumb.
Most of the time, you won't have to time yourself to realize when you're momentarily stumped. If you've read a question thoroughly and still feel unsure about how to solve it, skip it for now. At the end, you can come back to all the questions you skipped and see whether you're able to eliminate any answer choices before guessing.
Overall, you really shouldn't be afraid of guessing on the ACT. I know all you perfectionists out there will be biting your nails at the possibility of guessing incorrectly (high school me certainly would be!). But don't sweat it. There’s nothing more you can do in that moment on the test to ensure that you choose the correct answer. If you get it wrong, you won’t lose points anyway!
Strategy 4: Check Your Bubbles Before the Section Ends
Another important point to emphasize is that you should always recheck your answer sheet the last minute of a section to make sure all the bubbles are filled in. As I have said, no penalty for guessing means lots and lots of bubbling.
Start training yourself to make dark marks in small circles, my friends, because you're going to want to fill in every bubble in sight on the ACT (not really every bubble ... I got carried away).
Seriously, though, there's no reason to ever leave an ACT question blank! Don't cheat yourself by forgetting to answer a question you previously skipped in a section. For every four bubbles you leave blank, you miss out on one potential extra point on average, which can sometimes raise your score by a whole composite point. Most other students will be doing this, too. If you don't, you are essentially putting yourself at a disadvantage!
Strategy 5: Plan by Considering Your Target ACT Score
If you know your target ACT score, you can use this goal to help yourself feel a little more comfortable about guessing (or push yourself to find a solution to a question you're having trouble with).
Here's an example of an official ACT scoring chart. This chart indicates how raw ACT scores (i.e., the number of questions you answered correctly on a section) generally convert into final scaled scores in the 1-36 range (I say "generally" as these scores translate differently on each ACT):
You can use this chart to figure out what your raw score needs to be in order to arrive at your target scaled score for a particular ACT section. Then, you'll know how many questions you can afford to answer incorrectly in each section.
This is an easy way to take the stress out of guessing. If you already feel confident on enough ACT questions to reach your target score, the questions you aren't sure about are just potential bonus points.
Also, if you find yourself guessing a lot on ACT practice tests and it's preventing you from reaching your target score, make sure you mark every question you guessed on (even if you got it right). This way, you can come back to it later and work on understanding the correct answer.
Summary: The Best ACT Guessing Strategies
To sum up, guessing on the ACT can be extremely beneficial. There are no point penalties on the test, so any (wrong) guesses you make won't count against you.
Once again, here are the five ACT guessing strategies covered above:
- Always guess on the ACT! Fill in every bubble. There's no penalty, so just go for it.
- Eliminate wrong answers—always try to get rid of as many answer choices as possible before making your guess.
- Pick guessing letters (one for A, B, C, and D; and one for F, G, H, and J) before you take the ACT to use as your go-tos for blind guessing.
- Don’t spend too much time on questions that stump you.
- Be aware of your target ACT score when guessing so you have a clearer idea as to how many questions you can afford to get wrong.
Check out our article on how to get a 36 on ACT Reading, where we discuss in more detail how to eliminate wrong answer choices for this tricky section.
You should also take a look at the best way to review your mistakes on the ACT. Hopefully you are doing some practice tests before you take the actual exam so you can target your weaknesses and avoid having to guess too much!
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.