Even if you’re well prepared for the SAT, there may be times during the test when you will have to guess. There’s no doubt that the answer to the question “Should you guess on the SAT?” is a resounding yes! So, having SAT guessing strategies in place is vital to your success on test day. We will discuss these strategies in the sections that follow.
Here are the topics we’ll cover:
- Background and Mechanics of Guessing on the SAT
- Two Types of Guessing: Educated and Random
- Educated Guessing
- Random Guessing
- The Verdict: In Some Shape or Form, You May Guess on the SAT
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
- What’s Next?
Background and Mechanics of Guessing on the SAT
Prior to 2016, the strategy for guessing on the SAT was both an art and a science. Because there was an SAT guessing penalty (a quarter of a point) for answering a question incorrectly, students had to decide ahead of time the what, where, and when of guessing. If they used flawed SAT guessing strategies, their score could suffer significantly.
In 2016, the College Board eliminated the penalty for an incorrect answer. So, guessing on the SAT is no longer as complicated as it once was. However, there is still a need for students to plan their guessing strategies ahead of time.
Before we consider particular strategies for how to guess on the SAT, let’s examine some key test mechanics.
On the SAT, you may answer questions in a section in any order. Thus, even if you guess on a question on the SAT, you may always go back, retry the question, and choose a different response, as long as the section time has not run out.
As a result, even though we might guess on a few questions, if we have some additional time at the conclusion of a section, we could focus on a few of the questions we guessed on and provide correct answers.
So, even if you guess on a question or two, it’s not unfathomable to think that you could work more on those questions before leaving a section.
TTP PRO TIP:
Even if you guess on a question, you can come back to it before the time is up on a section.
Now, let’s discuss two types of guessing: random and educated.
Two Types of Guessing: Educated and Random
You’ll likely employ different kinds of guessing on the SAT: educated guessing and random guessing. Let’s first talk about when and why we might make an educated guess on the SAT.
We make an educated guess when we have eliminated one or more answer choices but don’t have enough time or knowledge to answer the question completely.
When to Make an Educated Guess
First, I want to mention that making an educated guess is preferable to making a random guess. After all, when making an educated guess, we have already ruled out one or more answers by doing some work. On the other hand, when making a random guess, we choose from all four of the answer choices. So, we’re more likely to choose a correct answer when we make an educated guess than we are when we guess randomly.
So, the appropriate time to make an educated guess is when you have made some inroads into a problem but don’t have the time or knowledge to complete it. Hopefully, when making your educated guess, you’ve eliminated one or more possible answer choices.
TTP PRO TIP:
It’s ideal to eliminate a few answer choices before guessing.
Let’s now review an example of a situation in which it would make sense to make an educated guess.
Example of Making an Educated Guess
Consider this example of a question in Math Section 3, for which a calculator cannot be used.
Which of the following inequalities correctly arranges the fractions 6/11, 8/17, and 14/29 in descending order?
- 8/17 > 6/11 > 14/29
- 6/11 > 14/29 > 8/17
- 14/29 > 8/17 > 6/11
- 6/11 > 8/17 > 14/29
The goal is to order the fractions from greatest to least.
Because you cannot use a calculator, the calculations may be too time-consuming for the manual conversions of these three fractions to decimal form. However, by using a basic fact about fractions, we can quickly eliminate two of the four answer choices, allowing ourselves to make an educated guess.
First, we examine the three fractions. The key is to notice that the fraction 6/11 is greater than 1/2, and the other two fractions are each less than 1/2. Let’s look at how we determined these facts.
We can see that, if we had a fraction that was 5½/11, the fraction would be exactly equal to 1/2. Thus, we see that the fraction 6/11 is just a bit greater than 1/2.
Using similar logic, we see that 8½/17 would yield 1/2. So, the fraction 8/17 is just a bit less than 1/2.
And for 14/29, we see that the fraction 14½/29 is exactly equal to ½. So, 14/29 is just a bit less than 1/2.
Thus, we know that 6/11 is the only fraction of the three that is greater than 1/2, and so it is the greatest. Consequently, we can quickly eliminate answer choices A and C.
At this point, even if we don’t have time to finish the problem by converting 8/17 and 14/29 into decimal form or finding a common denominator, we can make an educated guess, choosing B or D. So, by eliminating A and C, we have doubled the probability of choosing the right answer from 25% to 50%.
If you were to convert the two fractions 8/17 and 14/29 into decimal form, using long division, you would find that 14/29 is about 0.4828, and 8/17 is about 0.471. Thus, the correct answer is choice B.
Next, let’s discuss how having a sense of your strong and weak areas will help with your guessing strategy on the SAT.
It’s Important to Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
The better you know your strong and weak areas, the better prepared you’ll be to decide when to guess on the SAT. For example, let’s say graphing functions is a weak area for you, and during one of the math sections, you see a graphing functions question. Knowing that graphing functions is a weak area, you could give the problem 30 to 45 seconds. Then, unless for some reason you see how to answer the question, you could guess after attempting to eliminate at least one answer choice.
Had you not known that graphing functions was a weak area, you might have spent 2+ minutes on a question that you likely would not answer correctly. Not a good use of your time, right?
TTP PRO TIP:
Use knowledge of your strong and weak areas strategically when guessing on the SAT.
We’ve seen that it can make sense to guess if you see a question in a weaker area. At the same time, it can also make sense to guess when a question is in a stronger area. Let’s discuss how this could be the case.
It’s OK to Guess and Move On From a “Doable” Question
Imagine the following scenario. You are in the middle of your SAT, and you see a question that brings a smile to your face. In other words, you see a question that you know you have in the bag. However, 1 minute and 30 seconds into the question, something does not click. So, while every bone in your body says to stick around to figure it out, trust me, the correct move is to guess and move on! If you have time at the end of the section, come back to that question. Otherwise, live to fight another day.
If you stubbornly spend additional time on redoing the entire question, you might put yourself irretrievably behind in the section timing. It is better to guess and move on. Then, if there is any time left after you have answered all questions in the section, you can go back to the question and try it again. It is better to sacrifice one question so that you can finish all questions in the section.
TTP PRO TIP:
There will be questions that you know you should correctly answer but for some reason cannot. In those cases, guess and move on.
Next, let’s discuss random guessing.
Random guessing occurs when you are either running out of time at the end of a section or have no idea what a question is asking. So, a random guess is just that — completely random!
Random Guessing to Catch Up on Time
Talk with any SAT test-taker, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear that the test-taker struggles with timing on the exam. You may also hear about the strategy of blindly guessing on questions to avoid falling too far behind on the clock.
However, that tactic is not one that I recommend employing, and here’s why. When you blindly guess without looking at a question, you are potentially giving up on a question that is in your wheelhouse. So, if you want to catch up on time, then at a bare minimum, follow the strategy mentioned earlier involving your weak topics. In other words, if you are behind on the clock and encounter a question from one of your weaker topics, then take a guess.
TTP PRO TIP:
If you are trying to catch up on time, guess on questions you know you are weak in.
You Can Quickly Answer Certain Questions to Catch Up on Time
Remember, not all questions on the SAT take the 1:45 average that we need to shoot for. In fact, some questions can be answered in as little as 10 or 20 seconds. You can take advantage of those questions to catch up on time.
Consider the following example:
If x + 1 = 9, then what is the value of x2 + 2x + 1?
This question takes no more than 10 to 20 seconds to answer if you recall the algebra fact that (x + 1)2 = x2 + 2x + 1. By simple substitution, we see that since (x + 1) = 9, (x + 1)2 = 81. You could save more than a minute by noticing this.
If you did not recognize this basic algebra fact, then you might need nearly the entire 1 minute and 45 seconds to answer the question.
You would first have to calculate the value of x. Since x + 1 = 9, x = 8.
Next, you would have to substitute x = 8 into the quadratic expression x2 + 2x + 1:
x2 + 2x + 1 = 82 + (2)(8) + 1 = 64 + 16 + 1 = 81.
In either case, the correct answer is D.
As we can see, by knowing your math facts, you can quickly answer questions to catch up on time instead of just randomly guessing on questions in order to catch up.
Next, let’s discuss a scenario in which randomly guessing is completely acceptable.
Random Guessing When You Really Don’t Know the Answer
Even if you are relatively well prepared for the SAT, there may still be questions that you are unable to answer. So, it’s OK to take a random guess if you’re completely stumped by a question.
For example, let’s say you encountered the following question and were completely stumped by it since you hadn’t ever learned how radian measure works.
What is the equivalent of 72° in radians?
- 2 ϖ/5
- 3 ϖ/5
To convert 72˚ to radians, we can create the following proportion:
ϖ radians / 180 degrees = x radians / 72 degrees
We can now remove the units and cross-multiply to solve for x:
72ϖ = 180x
72ϖ / 180 = x
2ϖ / 5 = x
If you know nothing about radian measure, there is no point in stressing over this question. Just pick an answer, bubble it in, and move on.
TTP PRO TIP:
On a question you have little shot of correctly answering, take a random guess and move on.
The next tip deals with your progress through any SAT section.
Answer Each Question as You Encounter It, Even If Guessing Randomly
As we’ve already mentioned, you can move around within a given section. Therefore, you can guess on a question and review it later, time permitting.
So, let’s say you are currently cruising through an SAT test section, but on question five, you are stumped. Well, don’t just skip the question. Instead, make an educated guess, bubble it in, and then move on. (Make sure to mark the question on your test booklet, in case you have time to come back to it.) Remember, no points are deducted for a wrong answer, so always make a guess! I mean, wouldn’t you rather have a 25 percent chance of a correct answer than no chance?
TTP PRO TIP:
No points are deducted for incorrect answers, so do not leave any question blank.
Finally, let’s discuss randomly guessing at the end of a section.
Take Random Guesses If You’re About to Run Out of Time
If you’ve ever taken the SAT, you may have found yourself with three questions left but only 30 seconds to answer.
In such a scenario, it’s fine to take some random guesses to ensure that you have answered all questions before time runs out.
As we’ve already stated, you have no shot at getting points for skipped questions. So, it makes sense to guess on the remaining questions because you’ll at least have a shot at getting those problems correct.
TTP PRO TIP:
Don’t leave questions unanswered at the end of any SAT sections.
The Verdict: In Some Shape or Form, You May Guess on the SAT
Whether you like it or not, guessing may be part of your test-day experience. Therefore, it’s wise to have a guessing strategy mapped out, so you have a good idea of when to make educated or random guesses.
For example, make sure you are aware of your weak and strong areas, so you can be strategic when taking a guess. In other words, guess on questions involving your weak topics, and avoid guessing on questions covering your strong topics.
If you can follow a great study plan and have your guessing strategies in place, you should be in a great spot come test day.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Do You Lose Points for Wrong Answers on the SAT?
There is no SAT penalty for guessing incorrectly on the SAT. Your verbal and math SAT scores are based on the number of questions you correctly answered. Thus, you should never leave a question blank, even if you have had to randomly guess on it.
How Many Questions Can You Guess On and Still Get a Good SAT Score?
There are too many factors bearing on this issue for there to be a straightforward answer to this question. Your best strategy is to be so competent with your SAT prep that guessing plays an insignificant role during your exam!
What Is the Best Letter to Guess on the SAT?
There is no most common correct letter choice on the SAT. If you randomly guess on a question, no matter which answer you choose, you have a 25% chance of getting the question correct.
Smart test-takers have many tools in their arsenal, including the knowledge of when and how to use guessing to their advantage. However, nothing beats having a strong foundation in all math and verbal topics, so that guessing is a minimal part of test day.
To help you get that strong foundation, you may want to read this article about how to improve your SAT score.