To Guess or Not to Guess?: A Comprehensive Guide to Approaching Those Questions With Answers You Can’t Quite Get…Or Answers That Leave You More Confused than Ever
At Magoosh, we aim to do everything we can to ensure that our readers walk into the ACT on test day ready to brandish that pencil and conquer any (question-form) curveball that comes their way. But stumpers are unavoidable, without the content specifics to study from ahead of time. How to deal with the unforeseen? Know what you could be in for, have a multi-pronged action plan in place, pick your battles and STAY CALM.
First, a VERY important distinction between the SAT and ACT (and one I always clarify with my students as soon as humanly possible, because it’s a biggie when it comes to raking in those extra- and necessary- points): On the ACT, you are NOT penalized for guessing.
In this test, every “non-right” earns you nothing: no credit, no penalty. A blank answer is essentially a wrong answer, and vice versa. Thus, when you have no idea where to begin to approach a question (which we hope will happen only rarely) it makes logical sense to just guess. Why not? Your 0% chance of getting that hopeless question right just jumped to 25%. This differs from the SAT, in which a wrong answer will cost you ¼ of a point whereas a blank answer will not affect your score. This adds new texture to the guessing game, as whether or not to make that guess, depending on how confident you can be in eliminating certain choices, becomes a real statistics problem. (But please don’t overthink this, ACT readers- it’s not your problem!)
Needless to say, it serves you well to always answer every question. But let’s distinguish between “random guessing” and “educated guessing.” Putting any choice can boost your probability, but with every answer choice you are confidently able to eliminate, that 25% climbs to 33% and then 50%. The odds will not always be in your favor, but let’s look at the landscape of the entire test: If you have four questions for which you don’t know the answer, but you are able to randomly guess, you statistically will have one more point in your favor. If you spend the time to eliminate answers and can do so for every question, you statistically could get two of those questions correct. You’re not cheating- you just know how to play the game the way the ACT makers want you to.
*Note: Remember that when we say “educated guess” we are referring to ruling out answer choices when you can do so within less than a minute. On each of the ACT sections, you will have less than 60 seconds per question, so if you are truly agonizing, label it a “random guess” question and move on.
Be armed and ready, Magooshers! You can gain those points without being an ACT question soothsayer (do you know what that vocab word means?)
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About Susanna Langholm
Susanna holds a BA in Education & Liberal Studies from Smith College and has spent the better part of her college and post-graduate years helping students achieve success both in and outside of the classroom. Most recently, Susanna served as the Assistant Director for a tutoring franchise catering to college-bound exam prep students, learning a thing or two about the ACT in the process. When she’s not navigating the test-taking waters for the sake of her students, Susanna can be found reading, writing on her education blog, skiing, or planning a future filled with international travel - her favorite (but most expensive) hobby.
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