[T]he SAT is a test designed such that you aren’t rewarded for guessing. If you answer a question correctly you earn 1 point; if you leave it blank you lose nothing. However, if you answer incorrectly, you lose one quarter of a point. Obviously you have a lot to gain by getting an answer correct and so many students use guessing strategies to be successful on the test. Some students have a rule of thumb that if they can eliminate two of the five choices, they’ll guess, because theoretically they have a statistical chance of 1/3 of getting it right. If they guess on 9 questions and get 3 right (which pure statistics tell us they would), that would mean they gain 3 points, lose 1.5 (6 x .25), and net 1.5 (which actually ends up rounding up to a net of 2).This is a woman who consistently scores in the vicinity of 800 on all 3 sections of the SAT, and she doesn't guess.
Sounds great, right?
So how come I’m not an avid fan of guessing? How come it’s not one of my primary strategies for my students both in private tutoring and in Outsmarting the SAT? Am I doing them a disservice by not advocating the practice for everyone?
I don’t believe so, and this is why:
A student guessing on a standardized test is not a true random guesser and ETS knows it.
Say I’m working on a sentence completion question and I have confidently eliminated two answer choices, so I’m left with three words: histrionic, cataclysmic, and hierarchical. First, let me point out that the folks reading this post have a better chance of making a statistically random guess than someone who has read a sentence directly related to one of these words. However, even without seeing the question, we’re still not going to be completely random–I may choose the word histrionic because I’m a teenager and my dad uses it to describe me (and though I’ve never bothered to ask him what he means, it may be “a sign”), or I may ignore it because it looks like the word history and I don’t think that’s related to the sentence I’ve just read.
While a student working through the test may not be as long-winded in his rationale for choosing or ignoring a particular word, sometimes a mere “oh yes, I’ve heard that before” can sway a student. Or, if the last two answers were C, a student will usually not select C as his guess (when really the pattern of answers is completely irrelevant.) I honestly believe that ETS knows exactly what they’re doing when they include words that look like one thing and mean another or words that are more ubiquitous than others. They make true random guessing that much more difficult.
The definition of educated guessing is that one makes a guess informed by additional factual information. In these circumstances it is often very difficult for a student to sort through facts and his gut feelings. For some students this is a great boon: they’re the kids whose instincts are usually right on, and after plenty of connoisseurship of their own propensity to guess correctly, I advise them to go right ahead and do so.
And then there’s me. I am the The Worst Guesser On Earth. I categorically do not, no way, no how, ever guess on the SAT. Why? Well ignoring that I usually don’t need to, on the rare occasion that I’m caught without a clue, I guess wrong. It’s like a hex. I don’t know why this is the case, but evidently my own biases and “educated guesses” are way off track.
Educated Guessing, Statistics, and Strategy for the SAT
January 9, 2010
I've stopped doing any guessing myself.
Not on reading, not on writing, not on math. If I don't know the answer, I leave it blank.
Outsmarting the SAT