Contrary to popular belief, there is no “guessing penalty” on the SAT. There is, however, a penalty for wrong answers – and the whole point of that penalty is to help ensure that students who guess randomly won’t improve their scores as a result.

The wrong answer penalty works as follows. For every correct answer, you get one point. And if you leave a question blank, there’s no penalty (zero points deducted). But for every wrong answer, you get a fraction of a point deducted:

• For most “normal” SAT questions, a wrong answer costs you ¼-point.
• A wrong answer on a Qualitative Comparison type question costs you ?-point.
• A wrong answer on a Student-Produced Response, or “grid-in” type math question costs you nothing – zero points off. (That’s because the odds of a random guess being correct on a grid-in is something like 1/14400.)

So what does this have to do with guessing? It’s about playing the odds. Clearly, the SAT is rigged to penalize blind guessing, where the respondent has no clue what the right answer is. However, the more incorrect answer options a test-taker can eliminate, the more likely that a “guess” response will actually be correct.

I love this fake SAT question that illustrates how the SAT “guessing penalty” works:

You are taking a test. On a particular question, though, there has been a printing error. The question wasn’t printed at all! But the five answers have been printed. One of the five answers is right, but you don’t know which one. If you randomly guess and pick an answer, what’s the probability you’ll choose the “right” answer?

Of course, a 1-in-5 chance is a 20% chance of guessing correctly. That’s (theoretically) one right guess and four wrong guesses out of each five random guesses. You lose ¼-point for each wrong answer, so “four wrongs cancel out one right” – and the net effect of random guessing is zero.

But if a student can rule out at least one answer choice on a question as definitely not correct, it’s probably worth it to guess, in terms of maximizing one’s overall score. One right answer minus three wrong answers equals ¼-point in the guesser’s favor.

Be sure to clarify with kids that guessing intelligently is like getting a form of “partial credit” – it’s not “cheating” in any way and there’s no reason not to do it. Over the course of the test, this kind of “power guessing” will enable a student to outperform the wrong answer penalty and improve his or her score.

On grid-in math questions, it’s not worth the time it takes to bubble in a random answer. But there’s also no penalty against your score for entering an answer that you’re unsure of, so advise kids to “go for it.”

Of course, how much guessing a student is doing reflects how well s/he has mastered the material. It’s important for students to pace themselves and keep moving, avoiding spending too much time on difficult questions. Most students will score their best if they focus on getting as many questions right as possible; by answering the easiest questions first, skipping questions they’re unsure of and circling back to them later.

As time runs out, suggest that kids leave a few minutes for guessing if they need it. Remind them to take slow, deep breaths and not panic in the “guessing round.” This will help to eliminate careless errors. Revisiting questions can also often lead to fresh insights (and correct answers). But remind them to beware “second-guessing” answers they made the first time through, unless it’s clear they misconstrued the question.

Finally, here’s a tip to weight guesses that reflects the nature of standardized test questions: Answers that are positive are more likely to be correct than answers that are negative. Answers that are more informative are more likely to be correct than terse answers.

Do you have any guess-taking tips or experiences to share? What do you tell students about guessing on the SAT?

Featured image courtesy of Colin_K.