Should You Guess on the SAT?

Photo of a blackboard with a large white question mark written in chalk on it
May 18, 2022
Is There an SAT Guessing Penalty?Guess or Leave Blank on the SATHow to Guess on the SATFAQs: Guessing on the SAT

”Mary

Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/10/22

The SAT is a challenging test designed to evaluate your academic aptitude and college readiness. Admissions committees use SAT scores to help compare undergraduate applicants across the country. To perform well on the SAT, you’ll need to study consistently and be sure you have an excellent grasp of materials in math, reading, and writing. 

However, there’s always a chance the test can throw you a curveball (or a few), and you realize you honestly don’t know the answer to a question. If it happens to you, don’t panic. We’ll walk you through what you need to know about guessing on the SAT to ensure you achieve the highest score possible.

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Is There an SAT Guessing Penalty? 

There was an SAT guessing penalty for years, where students had a quarter of a point deducted for each wrong answer, and answers left blank were not counted. The penalty deterred many students from guessing on the SAT in fear their answers would be wrong, and they would, in turn, receive a lower score. In 2016, the College Board decided to do away with the SAT guessing penalty.

Guess or Leave Blank on the SAT

If you were a student taking the SAT before 2016, you would have to decide whether to guess or leave blank answers on the SAT. Because there is now no guessing penalty, it’s always in your best interest to guess. Remember, a blank answer is always “wrong," but a guessed answer always has a chance to be correct. 

Some people may believe that guessing on the SAT shows a student's lack of preparation, strategy or that they’ve given up. However, these are myths and simply untrue. 

There is nothing to be ashamed of if you need to guess on the SAT—even the most prepared test-takers may not know every answer. Many students have testing anxiety and fear their time is running out, so they take a stab at an educated guess to get through their tests quicker. A well-thought-out guess is not a white flag in surrender but an example of a student trying their best with the materials available. 

How To Guess on the SAT 

Don’t be deterred by the myth that guessing on the SAT takes no strategy. As long as you’re not flipping a coin, choosing an answer at random, or picking C every time because you heard it’s the right thing to do, you’re probably using strategy to select the correct answer. But how do you guess on the SAT in a strategic way? We’ll go over tips for each section to show you how to guess on the SAT. 

SAT Math Guessing Tips 

The SAT Math section is filled with problems you need to solve. Even if you have an excellent handle on math and formulas, there’s always a chance you’ll see a question that can trip you up. These tips can help ensure you give an educated guess if you’re stuck: 

Eliminate answers you know can’t be correct. The process of elimination is your best friend on any multiple-choice test. For math questions, check for any glaring outliers in the possible answers. These numbers may be way too high or way too low to be the correct answer. Cross them out and see what you’re left with after. If you eliminate only one answer, you’ve already boosted your chances of having the correct answer from 25% to approximately 33%. 

Work backward with your answers. If you are given a formula and are unsure if you have the right answer, you can plug in the solutions you already have and work backward. Some students use this method to check their work if they have extra time, but be sure to keep your eye on the clock if you use this method. Remember, the SAT puts your time management skills to the test, too. 

Don’t ignore visuals and diagrams. Diagrams and visuals can offer clues that some students can miss if they get too wrapped up in potential answers. If the diagram or visual is drawn to scale, you can ballpark figures such as angles, lengths, areas, and perimeters. This strategy means you may only be left with one or two answers that make the most sense. 

Don’t immediately run for the most appealing answer. If you look at a question that’s supposed to be medium or higher difficulty and you see an answer that seems obvious, it’s probably too good to be true. These questions can be common pitfalls for students, so remember to think twice before selecting your answer. 

SAT Reading Guessing Tips 

For this section of the SAT, you’ll need to read passages and answer questions about them. The reading section can get a bit tricky, but these tips can help you out if most or all answers look like they can be correct: 

Eliminate answers that you know are incorrect. If you see an option that you know for sure is incorrect, feel free to cross it out and narrow your attention to the other possibilities. Wrong answers in reading questions are typically completely unrelated to the concept or passage or use the right words but have an inverse relationship to the content. 

Make predictions to help lead you to the correct answers. If the question seems challenging, try not to look at the solutions first. Read the question and the passage, and see if you can come with your own answer before you look at the options. This strategy ensures you can immediately cross out incorrect answers, but it can also help you not get sidetracked by “attractive” answers that probably aren’t correct. Remember, the SAT is designed in part to try to trick you. 

Make sure follow-up questions make sense. In the SAT’s reading section, you’ll likely come across questions that may ask you, “Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?” or something similar. If you’re trying to guess the answer to the first or second question, ensure the answers connect in a way that makes sense. If you can’t find a connection or your answers don’t seem to work with each other, one or both of your answers may be incorrect. 

Be careful of answers that are too specific or broad. Many of the answers to reading-based questions are designed to make you think there are several correct answers. However, answers that are too specific or too broad may not be the best answer. Specific answers hone in on one part of a passage, but they may not best express the ideas of the entire reading. 

Conversely, choosing an answer that is too broad is like telling someone about a snake you saw on a walk and saying the main point of your story is about the ecosystem. Your best bet is usually the answers that lay in the middle of too broad and too specific: the SAT version of Goldilocks’ “just right.”

SAT Writing Guessing Tips 

Unfortunately, there aren’t too many ways to “hack” through this section, and learning all grammar rules is in your best interest to do well. However, there are a few ways you can make guessing a little easier. If you don’t know where to turn, pull out some of these guessing strategies: 

Eliminate answers that you know are wrong. Like the other sections, you should always cross out answers you know are wrong. For example, if you see word choices in your A, B, C, and D options that all seem appropriate except for one, it’s probably incorrect. The SAT usually won’t make the answer that obvious for you. 

Concise answers are often correct. Concision is the cornerstone of well-written English. If you look at your options and see one long answer with flowery language that seems over the top, there’s a good chance it’s not the correct one. 

Read the sentence in your head using each option. If there are some gaps in your grammar knowledge or you’re drawing a blank, try to input each option and read them in your head. Many native English speakers can intuit what feels right in a sentence. Does something feel off when you read it with each answer's punctuation or word choices? If so, you can probably identify the wrong answers, leading you to the right one. 

General Guessing Tips 

Besides eliminating blatantly wrong answers, you should remember it’s okay to skip a question and come back if you’re struggling with it. Time management is critical on the SAT, so make sure you don’t spend too long fretting over one question and miss out on the opportunity to answer those you’ll know right off the bat. 

Remember that the 2016 change to the SAT means it’s better to guess a question than leave it blank. If you’re running out of time and still have holes in your answer key, give each of those questions your best shot. It’s better to guess and be wrong than never to guess at all. 

FAQs: Guessing on the SAT

1. Is “C” always the best answer? 

This is a piece of advice that’s persisted for a while, but your best answer is always your educated guess. Whether or not the answer happens to be “C” doesn’t mean much. 

2. How do I avoid running out of time on the SAT? 

Time management is crucial to scoring well on the SAT. If you want to avoid running out of time, don’t feel bad to skip a question here and there and come back to them later if you’re spending too much time trying to figure them out. Based on your time limit and the number of questions in each section, this is how long you should ideally be spending on each question: 

EB Reading: You have 62 minutes to complete 52 questions. You should be spending an average of 70 seconds on each question. 

EB Writing: You have 35 minutes to complete 44 questions, meaning you should be spending an average of 45 seconds answering each question. 

Math: Combining the non-calculator and calculator sections, you have 80 minutes to do 58 questions. This means you should be spending 80 t0 90 seconds on average answering each one. 

3. How should I prepare for the math section? 

Good preparation for the math sections means you understand and memorize all the formulas you’ll need to use. You must also understand which formulas to use based on the question. Remember to not rely on your calculator too much in the stage where it's permitted—it can even slow you down. 

Overall, be sure to take practice tests, improve your calculation speed, and avoid making careless mistakes in your calculations. 

4. How should I prepare for the EBR section? 

Following a strategy that works best for you can help you ace the SAT’s reading section. You can underline or circle information you think is essential in your first read-through, try to come up with your own answer to the questions before you look at your options, or you can look at the answers first and then read the passage. Finding out what works best for you can be a matter of trial and error, so make sure you have a strategy in place before test day.

You may want to save the main idea questions after completing the rest of the questions because you’ll better understand the material. An overlooked tip is to brush up on your reading skills and ensure you’re absorbing the words on the page. 

5. How should I prepare for the EBW section? 

There’s not a lot of ways to wiggle around knowing all your grammar rules and conventions: these types of questions come up a lot in this section. Ensure you understand parallelisms, where you need to put a comma, and subject-verb agreements (the SAT will especially try to trip you up on the latter). 

6. What’s a good SAT score? 

A “good” SAT score is subjective to each test-taker. A good score depends on your target score and the colleges on your list. Colleges often realize class profile data detailing the SAT score range of accepted students. It’s in your best interest to ensure your scores fall on the higher end of that range to give yourself the best chance of acceptance. 

7. Can I retake the SAT if I don’t like my score? 

As long as you scheduled your first SAT with enough time to retake before applying to colleges, there’s no reason you shouldn’t retake the test. The College Board recommends that students take the SAT twice: “High school juniors should take it for the first time in the spring, and then retest in the fall of their senior year. If you don’t reach your target score by then, consider taking the SAT a third time in the fall of senior year.” 

8. What else can I do to boost my SAT scores? 

You don’t have to do all of your SAT prep alone. Consider seeking an SAT tutor’s help: they can support you through your SAT study journey by constructing a study plan, saving you time and money, and making sure you work smart, not just hard. With a tutor’s help, you can feel empowered knowing you have the tools to ace the SAT with a comprehensive strategy and content knowledge. 

Conclusion 

Taking the SAT is a big step on your way to college. The test is relatively tricky, so you’ll need to spend an adequate amount of time preparing to do well. However, even the most prepared students can stumble across questions that leave them unsure. 

Remember, there’s no SAT guessing penalty anymore. You should always answer all questions, even if you need to take a guess. Educated guessing gives you the best chance of achieving a higher SAT score when you get stuck. With the advice outlined above, you can feel empowered knowing you have the tools to be a superstar guesser. 

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