Believe it or not, one of the most important strategies you need for your SAT is guessing. The way they score the SAT has a lot to do with it, including dictating when you shouldn’t guess. This is one of the most common SAT mistakes students make.
How your SAT score is tallied
Before they create your scaled scores (the 200-800 scales), the SAT grading machines count your answers and create raw scores using these proportions:
Correct answer: +1 point
Incorrect answer: -.25 points
Unanswered question: 0 points
Why are incorrect answers weighted like that? If you answered (A) on five questions in a row for no good reason, there’s a pretty good chance you’d have one correct answer and four incorrect ones, since the answers are evenly distributed from (A) to (E). That one positive point would be canceled out by the four wrong answers. That’s only so reliable with a sample of just five questions, but if you did that on your entire test, you can bet you’d come out very close to 0 points for your raw score.
So then, guessing on the SAT is pointless, right? Not true.
You can usually make an educated guess.
Imagine you’ve only got a couple of minutes left in a section, and there are three questions that you starred and skipped after working on for a couple minutes. Instead of laboring over that last question in the section that you’re having trouble making heads or tails of, go back to those three that you gave up on and eliminate any answer choices you’re pretty sure can’t be right. Or better yet, any time you’re stuck on a question, make an educated guess, star the number, and move on, then come back and try to figure out a clear answer if you have time.
If you can cross off just one answer choice for sure, than you should definitely answer the question. As long as you’ve got it narrowed down, just go with your gut. On average, you’ll be getting points for each educated guess you make. Then, if you still have time, go back to that last question in the section and see if you can work it out.
Always answer grid-in questions.
You’ll see one or two batches of grid-in questions with no multiple choice answers on your SAT, and those are an exception to the score calculations above. Since there are a gazillion possible wrong answers, punishing by a quarter-point just doesn’t have the same balancing effect, so there’s no punishment at all. That means that even if you really can’t get to an answer that you’re confident in, you should just choose something that seems possible. And if you don’t even have the time to read the questions, answer “1” for each. It’s about the fastest thing to write in and is a (relatively) common answer, so why not?
Omitting should be your last resort on your SAT—before you give up on a question, there’s one more trick up your sleeve and that’s guessing on the SAT.
Of course, if you’re absolutely horrified at the thought of your uncertainties potentially working against you, considering the SAT vs ACT is probably a good bet. Wrong questions don’t count against you on the ACT and you don’t have to worry about schools not knowing how to read those strange ACT scores, since they’re used to SAT-ACT score conversions. That of course, might be considered an extreme route to take. 🙂
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About Lucas Fink
Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.
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