One expectation students have when taking standardized tests is that they will run into at least some questions that are unfamiliar or difficult.

It could be a multiple choice reading or comprehension question where any of the answers seem as likely as the others, or a math problem where the student’s solution doesn’t correspond to the answer choices. With particularly difficult questions, a student may not even know where to begin.

Having an effective strategy for these kinds of questions is essential for getting the best possible score on the test. One reason is related to pacing the test so that enough time can be spent on all or the majority of the questions. Teachers and tutors often suggest only spending a consistent, short amount of time on each question before moving on to the next.

Another common rule of thumb is to temporarily skip difficult questions, move on to questions that are more straightforward, and then to return to the difficult ones with the remaining time. Often this is good advice, because otherwise a student may use too much time on questions they are uncertain to answer correctly at the expense of ones they have a better understanding of.

Another consideration relates to points. Test takers do best to answer as many questions as possible correctly, including making educated guesses where necessary, so long as the final result is the highest score possible. Determining when to answer or skip a question, however, must also take into account the effects of points lost.

The scoring policy for the pre-2016 SAT up to present has been 1 point gained for correct answers, 1/4 of a point lost for incorrect answers, and no effect for questions left blank. This policy can make determining whether to answer uncertain questions difficult, especially in consideration of time restraints for the test as a whole. Some students choose to skip at least some questions where no answer seems more likely than the others – at least until they have time to get a better understanding of the question.

One change that will come with the 2016 Redesigned SAT is that points will not be deducted for questions answered incorrectly. This policy, also known as rights only scoring, makes deciding when to answer questions more straightforward. One test taking approach is to attempt to answer every question correctly – while taking into consideration pacing to give sufficient time to each question.

Even with this new scoring policy, however, it remains best for students to answer all questions in the most informed way possible, and to avoid making completely random guesses, even for difficult questions.

Some tips to use where useful:

  • Determine what a question is asking and the possible ways to find the solution.
  • Determine what sources of information will be used, such as graphs or writing samples. Remember that any provided information source will usually be a component of finding the answer.
  • Attempt to solve a question before looking at answer choices, and then compare if the answer is close to one of the choices, rather than read the choices first.
  • Try solving questions in more than one way to help narrow down answer choices.
  • Work backwards to test each answer choice with the question to see if it appears to be a possible answer, for example in a math questions that allow answers to be plugged into equations.
  • If a question remains difficult, try breaking it down into parts and understanding each of them one by one.
  • Remember pacing, and skip a question and return to it later as necessary.

These tips should be taken into consideration along with any other test taking strategies that work for you personally or that have been discussed with your teacher or tutor. Some sources on test taking tips have also previously written about trends for SAT questions, such as that answers that are positive are more likely to be correct than answers that are negative, and answers that are more informative are more likely to be correct than terse answers. It may be useful to keep these trends in mind if they continue to hold for the 2016 SAT, but they are not a guarantee that should be a basis for guessing effectively.

In general, the best strategy for guessing effectively is to use as much information as possible so as to increase the probability of selecting a correct answer. In other words, students should try to make as much progress as possible to understand questions before answering, and remember to stick to a good test pace.


Socrato is a website for scoring and performance reports for standardized admissions test preparation. Socrato reports are available for the SAT, ACT, PSAT, SSAT, HSPT, and many more tests. You can learn more or try for free at Featured image credit: Andres Nieto Porras

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