How to Guess on the ACT or SAT

guess on act or sat test

We’ve all been there. It’s the middle of the test. You turn the page, read the next question and *record scratch* – you have no idea how to answer it. So what do you do? Should you guess on the ACT or SAT? And if so, what are the best guessing strategies?

Should You Guess on the ACT or SAT?

If you’re between guessing and leaving a question blank, you should always guess. There is no penalty for guessing on the SAT or the ACT, so you have nothing to lose – and maybe even a point to gain!

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Guessing is the Best Answer When…

Guessing should not be your go-to when taking the ACT or SAT, but sometimes it’s just necessary. If your choice is between spending too much time trying to solve a question you don’t understand and spending time on a question you actually know the answer to, it’s better to guess and move on to the question you know how to do. Here are a few situations you could encounter that would require you to guess your answer:

Reasons to Guess on the Math Section

Many students get stuck on math questions when they don’t know how to get started. If you’re drawing a blank, you may want to guess and move on. You can mark the problem to come back to later if you have time. Some other reasons you may need to guess:

  • You don’t know how to start solving the problem, maybe because:
    • You don’t recognize the type of problem
    • You can’t remember how to solve that type of problem
  • You solved the problem but your answer is not an answer choice
  • You attempted, but got stuck halfway through
  • You are running out of time to solve all the questions

Reasons to Guess on the English/Writing and Language Section

This section is similar to the math section because you have to know specific information to answer each question. You want to guess when:

  • You don’t know how to start answering the question, maybe because:
    • You don’t recognize the type of error
    • You can’t recall what you need to know to decide what is correct/incorrect 
    • You don’t even see an error
  • You’ve eliminated the choices down to two and don’t know which choice is better 
  • You are running out of time to answer all the questions

Reasons to Guess on the Reading and Science Sections

These sections always come down to time! Are you running out of time to read the passage, not understanding the passage, or spending too much time in general looking and deciding which answer to select? You want to guess when:

  • You’ve eliminated the choices down to two but don’t know which choice is better 
  • You don’t understand what the question is asking – thus you cannot eliminate any choices 
  • If you had trouble understanding the passage, then inference questions or deeper understanding questions will be harder 
  • You are tempted to re-read the passage. 
    • You can return to a specific place in the passage and read to find an answer, but if you think you have to re-read the entire passage in order to answer one question, then you should guess.   
  • You don’t understand the graph or table
  • You are running out of time to answer all the questions

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How to Guess Strategically

If you make the decision to guess, there are a few strategies you can use to make the most of your answer. Your first step: eliminate any answers you can. Next: 

Guessing Strategies for Math

  • Are you looking for a large or small number? 
  • Compare the answer choices. You can eliminate outliers and narrow your guess to answers that look alike. For example, if the choices are A) 7, B) 13, C) -13 and D) 40, a good guess would be B or C. 

Guessing Strategies for English/ Writing and Language

  • Just like with the math section, compare the answer choices. What makes them similar and different? Use this information to help you determine what the error is and how to correct it.  
  • Eliminate any choices that introduce new errors
  • The shortest answer is often the correct answer–not always, but often. If you are stuck, the shortest answer makes a good guess.

Guessing Strategies for Reading 

  • You just need to eliminate some of the answer choices.  
    • Are you looking for a specific or a general answer?
    • Should the answer be positive, or negative? For example: “The author agrees…or The author disagrees…
  • Look for questions that refer you to a specific place in the passage. These questions can often be answered without reading the entire passage.

Guessing Strategies for Science

  • You just need to eliminate some of the answer choices.  
    • Compare the answer choices and eliminate outliers. Are you looking for a large or small number? Or just whether the values are increasing or decreasing?
    • Do the answers have units? Use the units to help you locate which table/graph to use to find the answer.  
    • Are you looking for a specific or a general answer?
    • Should the answer be positive, or negative? For example: “The author agrees…or The author disagrees…
  • Does the question give you a hint about where to find the answer: in a table, on a graph, in the research summary (text)?

Additional Strategies for Guessing

The moment you realize you don’t know where to start answering a question, you need to guess and move on. If guessing and moving on saves you time to answer a question you can actually get right, it’s worth it to move quickly even if if you guess incorrectly. So when you come across a question that stumps you, go through the strategies above, make a guess, and then quickly move on.

If guessing and moving on saves you time to answer a question you can actually get right, it’s worth it to move quickly even if you guess incorrectly.

Moving On is Key

“Moving on” is a key part of the guessing process. We’ve had students get stumped by a question – especially towards the beginning of a section – and really let it haunt them for the rest of the section. They’re totally thrown off, their confidence is shaken, and they can’t let the question go! 

To avoid this, prepare yourself to guess before you take the test. Use the strategies above in your practice the week before the test, and mentally prepare yourself to guess on a few questions. Come test day, guessing will be just another one of the strategies in your test-day tool belt! 

And on test day, let the end of each section be a closed book. Don’t fret about the questions you guessed on. What’s done is done! You get a good score by being present and calm

Guess Less by Studying Smarter

Ok, but the whole goal of studying for the SAT or ACT is to guess less, right? You want to be so confident in the material that you barely need to guess at all! 

Get there with The Olive Book’s ACT and SAT study courses. Each course is online, self-paced, and covers every section of the test through practice questions, videos, and study guides. You can check it out and enroll at www.olive-book.com!

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