The ACT has no penalty for guessing. This means that you should ALWAYS GUESS on the ACT if you don’t know the answer, since 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 and more on strategies for guessing that could lead you to the correct answer. After reading this guide, you should be able to score some additional lucky points on the ACT.
Strategy #1: Always Try to Eliminate Answer Choices Before Guessing
The number one rule of guessing is...try to minimize guessing. The first thing you should do when you come across a question that (at least partially) stumps you is to use process of elimination on the answer choices. The more choices you can cross off, the better your chances at answering correctly.
Don’t guess blindly just because you think you don’t know the answer after reading a question. 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 use simple logic to find the answer.
Even if you can only find one answer choice that is clearly incorrect, you have a better shot at guessing correctly from the remaining three choices.
Strategy #2: Pick One "Guessing Letter" Before the Test
What if you really, really can’t eliminate any answers? On these questions it is best to pick the same letter answer choice every time. You have a better likelihood of getting some questions right by guessing the same letter every time than by skipping around.
Why? For a couple of reasons. It saves you time and it ensures a random guess. If you have already decided you're going to pick a certain letter regardless of the question, you can preserve randomness and count on the law of averages to give you one question correct out of every four guesses.
If you skip around, you're probably not guessing randomly, which means you're more likely to fall prey to the ACT's traps. The ACT will try to trick you with answer choices that seem more likely to be correct at first glance but are purposefully 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 and one F through J letter at random before the test, and stick to it for all of your guesses. You can also plan to guess those letters on questions where you have eliminated one or more answers (provided the letters don't correspond with the eliminated choices).
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 which answer is better, don’t waste your time dwelling on the question.
What's considered "wasting your time"? The ACT has pretty narrow time constraints for each section.
For 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.
For English, you get around 30 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.
Reading and Science each give you around 50 seconds to answer each question, so for those sections 20 seconds or less is a good rule of thumb.
Most of the time you won't have to time yourself to realize when you are momentarily stumped. Basically, if you have read the question throughly and still feel unsure of how to go about finding a solution, skip it for now. At the end, you can come back to all the questions you skipped and see if you're able to eliminate any answer choices before guessing.
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). Don't sweat it. There’s nothing more you can do in that moment on the test to ensure that you chose the correct answer. If you get it wrong, you won’t lose points anyways!
Strategy #4: Check Your Bubbles Before the Section Ends
Another important point to emphasize is that you should always recheck your answer sheet in the last minute of a section to make sure all the bubbles are filled in. As I have said, no penalty for guessing means XTREME bubbling.
Start training yourself to make dark marks in small circles my friends, because you're gonna want to fill in every bubble in sight on the ACT (not really every bubble...I got carried away).
Seriously though, there is no reason to EVER leave any questions blank! Don't cheat yourself by forgetting you skipped one earlier in a section. For every 4 bubbles you leave blank, you miss out on 1 potential extra point on average, which can sometimes raise your score by a whole composite point. Most other students will be doing this, so if you don't, you're putting yourself at a disadvantage.
Strategy #5: Plan by Considering Your Target Score
If you know your target ACT score, you can use that information to help yourself feel a little more comfortable about guessing (or push yourself to find a solution to a question you are having trouble with). Take a look at our guide for figuring out your target ACT score if you don't know yours yet. Here's a chart that converts raw ACT scores to final scaled scores in the 1-36 range.
You can use this chart to figure out what your raw score needs to be in order to arrive at your target scaled score. 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 questions to reach your target score, the questions you aren't sure about are just potential bonus points.
Also, if you find yourself guessing on practice tests, and it's preventing you from reaching your target score, make sure you mark every question where you guessed (even if you got it right). That way you can come back to it later and work on understanding the correct answer.
Summary of Guessing Strategies
ALWAYS GUESS on the ACT! Fill in every bubble. There is no penalty.
Eliminate wrong answers - always try to get rid of as many choices as possible before making your guess.
Pick letters at the beginning of the test that will be your go-tos for blind guessing.
Don’t spend too much time on questions that stump you.
Be aware of your target score when guessing.
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.
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 real exam so you can target your weak spots and avoid guessing!
Here are some free practice tests to get you started!
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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.