Last modified on 21 April 2014, at 15:41

SAT Study Guide/Part 1 - Strategies for Test-takers

What is the guessing penalty?Edit

The guessing penalty, as explained in the Introduction, is the subtraction of 1/4 of a point for each question which you answer incorrectly. However, the term guessing penalty is misleading. Consider the following situation: assume that Fred takes the SAT and randomly guesses on five questions. Because each question has five answers (excluding the ten student response math questions), probability says that he has a 1 in 5 chance of getting each question right. This means that in the 5 questions, he is likely to get one correct and 4 incorrect. He will receive 1 point for each correct answer and lose 1/4 points for each incorrect answer. Quick SAT study question: What will his raw score be? The answer is zero. This means that there really is no guessing penalty. Unless you are very unlucky (or lucky), your net score is unlikely to change noticeably if you guess randomly.

The point of all of this is that guessing is not necessarily harmful to you. Below, you will learn exactly when to guess. For now, understand that though the SAT may be graded differently than the way in which you are used to having your tests graded, it does not mean that it is a harder system. Learn to accept it now and look on the SAT as a challenge, not a necessary evil.

When should I guess?Edit

Contrary to popular belief, the idea that you should never guess, is, like the guessing penalty, completely false. There is a time to guess on the SAT. On some questions you will not have any idea what the answer is; you are likely on these questions to even be confused as to what it is asking. You should never guess on such a question. You are much more likely to get it wrong in this situation.

However, should you be able to eliminate answers, especially in the Writing and Critical Reading sections, it may be in your best interest to guess. Before guessing, ask your self a few questions:

  1. What are the chances of getting this question correct? If you can eliminate one or more answers, it is probably a good idea to guess.
  2. How sure am I of the answer? If you cannot make an educated decision about your guess, even if you can eliminate one or more answers, it may be unwise to answer the question. Guessing in the blind is never a good idea.
  3. How hard is the question? Remember, the SAT (with the exception of passage-based reading) is a powered test. Balance what you know is the probable difficulty level of a question with how sure you are of your guess.

A basic rule of thumb is if you have eliminated at least two answers and are reasonably sure of your guess, then choose an answer and move on. There's no point in worrying about it. Make your best possible choice, take a breath, and get ready for a whole new battle (that is, question).

Elimination When it's necessary to eliminate, there are two strategies: You could eliminate answers that are bias. Remember, the test makers are most likely write the test in a neutral way; You could eliminate off-the-wall options. For example, when the problem is asked for the area of a square, there's no way any signs of a pi could appear. Usually, it happens to be the numbers that have big difference with other numbers.

The Importance of TimeEdit

As in life, the second biggest enemy on the SATs is the clock; the first biggest is yourself. The test requires you to answer a certain amount of questions in a certain amount of time, and thus it is vastly advantageous for you to use your time wisely. Some of these tips are fairly obvious, but it is surprising how many people neglect to do these under the pressure of the moment.

  1. Familiarize yourself with the directions ahead of time. You can easily waste more time figuring out how to answer questions than actually answering them. Before you take the test, make sure you know the types of questions you'll face, especially since the information is readily available before you even set foot in the test room.
  2. DON'T SPEND TOO MUCH TIME ON ONE QUESTION! That is - DON'T SPEND TOO MUCH TIME ON ONE QUESTION! This has been the downfall of even the cleverest, smartest people. For every challenging, thought-provoking question there are four or five easy, quickly-answered questions following it. The SATs aren't about impressing anyone--they're all about getting points. Get as many as you can.
  3. Budget your time, especially in the first few minutes. The more questions you answer in the beginning, the more time you have to chew over more complex problems in the end.

A good strategy (especially on the Math sections, which are much quicker to digest) is to blow through the exam, burning through the easy questions and immediately skipping any question that'll make you think too hard. Then, just keep going through the questions in the next passes. This way, you'll be less likely to dwell on hard problems and you'll at least be guaranteed the easy ones.

What should I remember on exam day?Edit

Above all, remember to bring the following list of items:

  1. Your Admission Ticket
  2. Valid photo ID
  3. Two or more No. 2 sharpened pencils
  4. A calculator, preferably a graphing one (although you should make sure it is approved for use on the SAT, some graphing calculators (especially ones with a QWERTY keyboard) are not allowed)
  5. A pencil sharpener
  6. A snack (to be consumed during breaks, not during test time)

Barring these, a good testing day begins long before it actually arrives. Studying, using guides such as this one, is an essential step. Being prepared will boost your self-confidence and improve your score. Start a week before the test and get a lot of sleep. You'll find you do much better. On testing day, after that good night's sleep, make sure you eat a reasonably-sized breakfast. These tips will help give you an edge; remember what one of the first people who took the New SAT said: "It was a test of mental and physical endurance". At 3 hours and 45 minutes (officially), you will find your brain clogged down. Better to delay the clogging by following these steps than wishing you had when it happens.


Good luck!