How to Wisely Guess on the SAT, ACT

on April 17, 2017

It is always worthwhile to guess on admissions tests if you don’t know the answer even when there is a penalty for guessing wrong. The penalty for guessing, however, didn’t yield an advantage. Becasue there is no explicit penalty for guessing on the SAT, it is clear that test-takers should always guess if they don’t know the answer. But, using smart strategies to guide your guessing can improve your test scores.


Students should answer all of the questions on college admissions tests. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you can guess and return to it later. Don’t get bogged down on the hard questions. Use these strategies to make an educated guess as to the answer. Circle the question in the question booklet so you can quickly identify the questions where you guess.


Sometimes, it is easier to identify wrong answers than to calculate correct answers. It is challenging for test designers to write three good wrong answers. If you can eliminate one or more wrong answer choices, you can improve your odds of guessing the correct answer.


These strategies that can increase the odds of your guessing the correct answer:

  1. Read all of the answers. Sometimes the answer choices give you a clue as to the correct answer. You might be able to recognize the error associated with each of the wrong answers, thereby identifying a hint concerning the correct answer. Rereading the question and answers can give you a fresh perspective, helping you identify the answers that don’t seem to fit.
  2. Use a sanity check. If an answer does not seem to make logical sense, eliminate it. Eliminate all obviously wrong answers.
  3. Identify inconsistencies. When several questions relate to the same passage of text, look at later questions to get a hint concerning the correct and incorrect answers to earlier questions. The later questions may build in assumptions based on the correct answer to an earlier question. These assumptions can help identify the answer to the earlier question.
  4. Choose the shortest answer. Often, the correct answer is the clearest answer. Incorrect answers tend to be longer and more complicated.
  5. Draw a diagram. Thinking about a problem visually might help eliminate wrong answers and identify correct answers. For example, assign each aspect of the question to a different property of real world objects, such as color, texture and shape, and then translate the answers according to the same mapping.
  6. Leverage existing diagrams. While diagrams for math problems may not be drawn to scale and may be slightly off, they may be accurate enough to help identify answers that do not make sense. For example, the diagram might show an obtuse angle, which will help eliminate answers that involve an acute angle.
  7. Test each answer. Especially with math problems, sometimes it is easier to try each answer than to derive the answer from scratch.
  8. Choose answers with special meaning. According to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything. So, if all else fails, choose an answer that has some sort of special meaning. Question-writers sometimes start with an answer and write a question to fit the answer.
  9. Beware of repetition. If a number appears in both the question and an answer, eliminate that answer as it is less likely to be the correct answer. Also, the presence of the number in the question may prime you to pick that answer among the available answers, so you are less likely to guess completely randomly when there is a repeated number.
  10. Eliminate extreme answers that involve words like “always” and “never”. Extreme and emphatic answers are more likely to be incorrect than correct. Similarly, if a question asks for the smallest or greatest number, eliminate the smallest and greatest answers, since test designers rarely let the correct answer be the highest or lowest answer among the answer choices.

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