The SAT Prep Black Book

A Word On Guessing: Don’t.

“Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but, far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”
- Benjamin Franklin

There’s another thing I need to clear up before we even start talking about taking specific SAT questions.

If you’ve ever been given any advice at all about how to take the SAT, it probably included this little pearl:

“If you ever get stumped on a question, just try to eliminate one or two answers and then guess from the rest.”

It’s the single most popular test-taking strategy of all time. Your friends have heard it. Every test prep company uses it. Your guidance counselors might have told you about it. Even the College Board tells you to do it. And as it turns out, it’s an absolutely awful piece of advice in almost every case. Let’s take a closer look at it.

First Things First: Guessing Defined

Before we can talk about why guessing on the SAT is bad, we have to make sure we’re talking about the same thing when we use the word guessing. When we talk about guessing, we’re talking about marking an answer choice on a multiple-choice question without being certain that the answer choice is correct.

We’re NOT necessarily talking about marking an answer choice when we don’t know the meaning of every word in the question, when we don’t know what a sentence says, when we’re not sure of the grammar, when we don’t know for certain how to do the math involved, or anything like that.

Can you see the difference?  Natural test-takers encounter things they don’t know or have never heard of every time they take the SAT. It’s totally normal. In fact, in a lot of ways it’s inevitable. But if you know the test (and you will know it if you’ve studied this manual), you can still choose the correct answer choice reliably EVEN THOUGH YOU DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING IN THE QUESTION. In this case, for our purposes, you are NOT guessing—guessing only happens when you’re not sure the answer you’re marking is right. For our purposes, guessing has nothing to do with whether you understand the question you’re being asked, and everything to do with whether you’re certain the answer you mark is correct.

It’s very important that you understand this distinction before we continue the discussion; otherwise, you might think I’m telling you to give up whenever you come to a question you don’t understand fully, which is absolutely NOT what I’m telling you to do.

Now that we’ve got that straightened out, let’s talk about why people guess on the SAT in the first place.

The Argument For Guessing

The argument for guessing on the SAT relies on the way the test is designed. As you may know, you get a single raw point for every correct answer to a multiple-choice question on the SAT. You lose a fraction of a raw point for each wrong answer to a multiple-choice question. This fractional loss is set up so that if you guess randomly on every single question on the test, you should come out with a total score of 0 raw points.

How can that be?  Well, for a five-answer multiple-choice question, you’ll get a full raw point if you’re correct and you’ll lose a quarter of a raw point if you’re wrong. So if you guess randomly, in any five questions with five answers each, you should expect to get one correct answer and four incorrect answers—which would come out to a net score of 0 raw points.

The argument for guessing tries to change those odds. According to the guessing theory, if you could remove one or two answer choices from each question, and then guess randomly from what you had left, you should expect to beat the test and get a few extra raw points. The thinking works like this:  If you can remove two answer choices for each question, then you should only really be guessing from three answer choices on each five-answer question. If you guess from three answer choices, you should be right every third time (instead of only being right every fifth time, which is what you would expect if you didn’t remove any answer choices at all). But you’ll still only be penalized one-fourth of a raw point for being wrong. Over time, if you guess correctly every three tries and you’re only penalized as though you were guessing correctly every fifth time, you should come out significantly ahead.

If you’ve done other SAT prep before, you’ve probably heard this argument before. You might even be nodding in agreement. It’s simple probability, right?

Wrong.

This is an example of what you might call “over-simplified” probability. The argument for guessing on the SAT assumes at least two things that just aren’t true in real life.

The Problem With Guessing

In order for the argument for guessing to be any good, two things would have to happen:

1. You have to eliminate only incorrect answer choices.

2.       You have to guess randomly from the remaining answer choices.

Do you see why this is?

In the first place, if you eliminate the correct answer choice from the pool of possible answers you’ll consider, then how likely are you to get the question right by picking the eliminated answer?  You’re not likely to at all. In fact, you can’t do it. It’s impossible to pick an answer choice that you’ve eliminated from the guessing.

As for the second assumption, if you don’t guess randomly, then the entire argument about what “should” happen according to “probability” goes right out the window. There’s no probability involved at all if you don’t make a completely random guess. (Making a guess where you consider the validity of each answer choice isn’t random. “Random” means you don’t interfere at all. For example, flipping a penny in the air to see how many times it comes up heads is random; catching it every time before it lands and setting it down tails-up destroys the randomness by interfering with the process. That’s essentially what you’re doing if you consider whether the answer choices are any good or not.)

What Really Happens

Most of the people who employ the classic so-called “guessing” strategy are actually doing something very different from eliminating incorrect answers and then making a random, impartial guess. So what are they really doing, and why doesn’t it work?

When people who follow the guessing strategy come to a question they can’t answer, the first thing they usually do is look for an answer choice they like. Then they look to see if they can find one or two other answer choices to “eliminate.” They get rid of those, and then pick the choice they decided they liked in the first place, and (wrongly) call that a random guess. And that’s it—they’ve basically used a bad theory based on a bad argument to justify marking a wrong answer in the vast majority of cases. And, as a result, they lose raw points left and right. They’d be much better off just leaving those questions blank.

Why Guessing Fails On The SAT

There’s a reason it’s almost impossible to satisfy the two assumptions of the guessing strategy. The SAT is intentionally written so that incorrect answer choices seem like correct answer choices to people who don’t know how to answer the questions. In other words, the very thing that keeps you from understanding a question in the first place is also the thing that will probably keep you from (1) eliminating only wrong answers, and (2) making an impartial guess from the remaining choices.

What does all this mean?  On the SAT, in order to use the classical “guessing” strategy effectively, you basically have to be wrong about why you’re wrong. Or, to put it another (equally silly) way, you have to be unlucky in a lucky way. Which is just as nonsensically difficult as it sounds like it is, which is why this ‘strategy’ doesn’t help most people very much.

(Here’s a coincidence that borders on conspiracy: as I previously noted, the College Board endorses the traditional guessing strategy described above. And the College Board is also the group that writes SAT questions so that incorrect answer choices look like correct ones—which makes good guessing almost impossible. Hmmmm . . .)

What You Should Do Instead

So if you don’t use the guessing strategy, what should you do instead?  Simple. When you come to a question and you can’t figure out the answer, skip it. Don’t think about it—just do it. Remember, the only real alternative is to put down a wrong answer and lose points.

It takes discipline to leave a question blank on an important test like the SAT. But you have to do it sometimes. If you really can’t figure out the answer, there’s no better choice than skipping the question.

I’ll repeat this again to make sure it’s crystal-clear: If you can’t figure out an answer, skip the question. That’s all.

Proof That Guessing Is Bad

If you’re like most people, you probably don’t believe me when I say that SAT guessing is a bad idea. You’ve probably been told by almost everyone you know that you should eliminate the incorrect answer choices and guess from the remaining choices whenever you get stumped on the SAT. And the argument in support of guessing seems fairly seductive and clever, to be sure—until you examine the two things it relies on, at which point the argument falls apart for most people.

How else can I support what I’m saying?  There are two ways. The first way is by pointing out that high-scorers (99th percentile and above) pretty much never rely on the traditional guessing approach. Find some and ask them.

But the second way to prove that guessing is a bad idea is much better, and much more relevant to you as an individual. Just take a sample test from the College Board publication The Official SAT Study Guide, and make a note on your answer sheet every time you mark an answer you’re not sure of. Then, when you add up your score, calculate it first with all the questions included, and then compare that result to the score you would have received if you had omitted the questions where you weren’t sure of the answers. You will almost certainly find that your score is higher when you omit the questions you guessed on.

If this is NOT what you find, there are two possible reasons. It might be that you’re one of the few people on Earth who actually guesses well using the classical strategy, in which case you should count yourself lucky and write a thank-you letter to the College Board. The more likely explanation is that you’re still scoring lower than you want to, and you haven’t spent enough time with the processes and strategies in this book for them to make a difference in your score—you haven’t spent enough time to develop a real sense of certainty about when you’re right and when you’re guessing. As you’ll see, the higher your score goes, the less guessing you’ll find that you do. People simply don’t guess their way into a top score on the SAT.

The Origins Of Traditional Guessing

So if the traditional guessing strategy is such a flawed idea, where did it come from?  Good question. There are two probable explanations.

First, major test prep companies need a piece of fall-back advice they can give to their students, and this must seem like a pretty good one. With this one strategy, even a person who had learned nothing at all from an 8-week class could feel empowered to tackle any SAT question and stand a decent chance of improving his score. And since the major test prep companies write their own practice questions, they can construct those questions so that certain answer choices are obviously incorrect—which isn’t how real SAT questions are written, but who’ll ever notice?

Second, the College Board itself must have a stake in perpetuating the traditional guessing approach. It’s been a part of their official advice for years now. But let’s think for a moment—in 2004 and 2005, the College Board came under heavy fire for the SAT and made several large-scale changes to the old version of the test. They cut out whole question types, added an entire section, changed the essay instrument from the old SAT Writing II essay, and added new content to the Math section, among other things. They did these things mostly because some colleges and universities complained about the old test design and what it showed (or didn’t show) about a student’s abilities. Now, we can be pretty sure that if there had been a problem with students guessing their way to higher scores, the College Board would have addressed the situation during its latest major overhaul. They didn’t. If the College Board knew about the guessing strategy, and if that strategy worked so well, why didn’t they change the test to make it impossible?  And while we’re at it, why do they keep telling people to use it?  I’ll leave the answers up to you.

Conclusion

Guessing on the SAT is almost certainly a losing proposition for you. Test it out and see for yourself. The best thing to do when you come to a question you can’t answer is to skip it. I know it’s hard, but it sure beats losing points!

(For more on knowing when to skip an answer, see the article called “No Two Ways About It” in this manual.)

Remember that “guessing” only refers to the act of marking an answer when you’re not sure that the answer is correct. On the SAT, there are ways to know your answer is correct even when you don’t completely understand the question. Marking an answer choice in that situation isn’t guessing—it’s smart, natural test-taking!