It can be hard to know when to guess on the SAT, especially since the recent overhaul has changed for the test is scored. But the truth is more straightforward than you might expect! Read on to find out whether you should guess on the SAT and what you can do to maximize the number of correct answers you end up with from guessing.
Should You Guess on the New SAT?
The SAT used to have a guessing penalty of a quarter of a point per incorrect answer. This made the question of whether you should guess on the test much more complex. Depending on how many answers you could eliminate, it might have been a good or bad idea to guess within the remaining choices. Guessing incorrectly on four questions would lead to a loss of a full point in your raw score whereas if you left them blank, you wouldn’t have any points subtracted.
With the new version of the test, this guessing penalty is gone! This means that the answer to the question in the heading of this section is yes. You should answer every multiple-choice question on the new SAT, even if you have to guess. If you get all of them wrong (which is unlikely), you won’t be any worse off than if you didn’t bother to answer.
This will come as a relief to many students, but you should still be cautious about guessing unless you’re almost out of time and are forced to fill in random bubbles. Don’t resort to blind guessing too quickly when you get frustrated with a question just because you know you won’t lose points; you’ll end up selling yourself short. The next section will give you strategies for smart guessing on each part of the test.
Blind guesses: usually not the best option.
Strategies for Making Educated Guesses
Here are some strategies that will help you to avoid guessing randomly and increase your likelihood of choosing the right answer.
#1: Listen to Logic
The SAT Reading section includes challenging passages that come from real scientific and historical writings. This means that the answers to questions about details in the passage should align with your ideas of what makes sense for the topic. Here's an example of a question that asks about an adapted excerpt from Elizabeth Cady Stanton's address to a Women's Suffrage Convention in 1869:
If you're trying to guess on this question, you can eliminate some answers even if you only know the bare minimum about the content of the passage and US history as a whole.
Choice A doesn't really make sense because the problem that Stanton is fighting against is long-term control of society by men. She probably wouldn't argue that "the control of society by men" was a recent development at all.
Choice B also seems incorrect for larger reasons. It's unlikely that anyone would claim that the spread of war and injustice was a recent historical development at that time in history.
Choice C doesn't make sense because women, not men, had traditionally dominated domestic life. This was especially true at the time that Stanton was speaking.
Choice D is the answer that seems most plausible if we look at the question logically. Only recently had women begun to be appreciated as human beings on an equal intellectual footing with men (although still to a limited degree obviously, since we didn't get the right to vote until 1920...sigh).
This strategy only works for some questions, but it shows how you can sometimes guess without reading the passage and still come up with a likely answer. Keep your wits about you. If something doesn't make logical sense to you, you should listen to that feeling.
#2: Use “Find the Evidence” Questions
An interesting development for the Reading section on the new SAT is the introduction of “find the evidence” questions. These questions will ask you to choose a quote from the passage that best supports your answer to the previous reading question. Although this could be dangerous because getting one wrong might also mean getting the other wrong, it might actually help to ground you in your decision about the most valid answer to the original question.
Here’s a pair of questions from a new SAT practice test that illustrates my point. For context, in the passage Akira is a young Japanese man who is meeting a woman named Chie to ask for her daughter Naomi's hand in marriage before he accepts a job in America.
Let’s say you aren’t sure about the answer to question 9. You think there are a couple of different possibilities, and none of the answers seems totally out of the question. You can check the evidence listed in question 10 for hints that might give away the answer to question 9. One of those lines must provide direct evidence for the answer.
The lines for each choice in question 10 read:
A. “I don’t want to trouble you.”
B. “Normally I would approach you more properly, but I’ve received word of a position. I’ve an opportunity to go to America, as a dentist for Seattle’s Japanese community.”
C. “Depending on your response, I may stay in Japan.”
D. “I see I’ve startled you.”
Now, let's look back at question 9 and evaluate the choices. There’s nothing about the speaker’s parents in the evidence, so we can cross off A. There’s also nothing about Akira's fears of Naomi’s rejection, so B is a no-go as well. There is clearly some evidence for C in choice B on question 10, so we can keep that one. There doesn’t seem to be clear evidence for D either; although the statement is true, it’s not the reason the speaker feels this is a matter of urgency, and it’s not explicitly mentioned in the quotes for Question 10.
We can conclude that the answers to these questions are C and B respectively. If you use "find the evidence" questions wisely, you can go from taking a blind guess on two questions to feeling relatively confident in your answers to both.
Crap, this question reminded me that I really should go to the dentist. Or even get to the point where I have an adult dentist (a dentist that treats adults, that is. My dentist isn't a child, I just happen to like putting Play-Doh in my teeth and pretending it's real fillings).
#3: Choose the Shortest Answer
In the Writing section, the right answer is usually the one that's the most clear and straightforward. If you can’t decide between a couple of different choices and they both seem like they could be correct, pick the one that has the least number of words in it. Here’s an example:
Typically, the ice sheet begins to show evidence of thawing in late summer. This follows several weeks of higher temperatures.
In this case, A is the correct answer because it allows for a combination of the two sentences without including any superfluous or repetitive words. This doesn’t work for every question, but if you have to resort to guessing, it’s a good rule of thumb to follow.
#4: Read Back Your Options Again
This may seem obvious, but if you’ve narrowed down your choices to a couple of options, it doesn’t hurt to read them back to yourself again in the context of the passage. Even if you don’t know the grammar rules, reading things back in your head may clue you into answers that feel “off.” If you read a sentence like this under non-test conditions, would it sound right? Or would you think it was weird?
There’s a tendency to twist perception to feed doubts you have about eliminating odd-sounding choices because of the pressure involved on the SAT. If you make an effort to be more objective and think of the question apart from the stressful context of the test, incorrect choices may become obvious.
Don't get it twisted.
#5: Plug It In
If you think you’ll have to resort to guessing on a math problem that involves solving an equation, and you aren’t too short on time, you can try plugging in all the possible answers. You have a good chance of answering correctly if you do this, even if you had no idea how to solve the problem originally. This is a case where putting in just a little extra effort into your guess can reap some serious rewards.
#6: Use the Visuals
The math section includes many diagrams that illustrate the scenario described in the problem. If you’re not sure how to solve a math problem, and it has an accompanying visual element, you should make a logical guess based on the visual. Here’s an example (from a sample practice test for the new SAT) of what I mean:
By looking at the diagram, you can tell that there’s only one answer that makes sense even if you don't know how to solve the question. Angle 2 is clearly larger than a right angle, so it must have an angle measurement greater than 90 degrees. This means that the first three answers are all too small to be a good fit based on what we can see in the diagram. The answer has to be D, 145 degrees!
Extra-Special Bonus Section: Guessing on Non-Multiple Choice Questions
There's also no penalty for incorrect answers on grid-in Math questions. You either get one point for a correct answer or no points for a blank or incorrect answer. Guess if you think you might have a shot at the right answer. Even if you don't feel confident, you have nothing to lose.
I want to emphasize what makes these questions different from multiple choice on the guessing front. The grid-ins are the only questions where you shouldn't guess if you have absolutely no idea what the answer is. It’s a waste of time to fill in those bubbles at random because the chances of getting the correct answer that way are astronomically low.
It's like rolling dice, but with way more sides than the number that regular dice have.
You should answer every multiple choice question on the SAT because there’s no guessing penalty! However, you also need to be meticulous in your guessing strategy so that you’re not just filling in bubbles at random. If you want your guessing success rate to be higher than it would be through pure chance, you should follow the tips I’ve given you in this article.
1. Eliminate choices without direct evidence
2. Use find the evidence questions as anchors
3. Choose the shortest answer
4. Read the choices back to yourself objectively
5. Plug in the answer choice
6. Use the visuals
Special Note on Grid-Ins
Guess if you think you might know it, leave it blank if you have no clue!
With a little bit of extra thought on the new SAT, you can turn your blind guesses into answers that make you feel pretty confident.
If you're not sure how to prepare for the new SAT, check out this article for some study tips!
Since the new SAT is out of 1600 instead of 2400, you might not have a good idea of what your target score should be. Find out how to calculate a good goal for yourself here.
It's possible that the ACT will be a better standardized testing choice for you than the new SAT. Learn more about which test aligns more favorably with your strengths and weaknesses.
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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.