27 November 2011

Not all guesses are created equal

A lot of test-prep discussions seem to center on guessing: when to do it, when not to do it, and how many answer choices you should eliminate before trying to do it.

Interestingly, though, no one ever seems to discuss just what it means to guess. I think that this is largely because most people assume that the term is self-evident: a “guess” is what you take what you take when you’ve eliminated at least one or two option(s) but have absolutely no idea what the real answer is and don’t want to leave a question blank.

What largely gets overlooked in these discussion, however, is the fact that there are different kinds of guessing, and they are not at all alike. In general, I find that there are three major types of guesses, and I want to discuss each one in turn:

1) Wild guesses

2) “Gut feeling” guesses

3) Educated Guesses

Wild Guesses

I’m going to come right out and say that I’m not a big fan of this type of guessing, no matter how many answer choices you’ve eliminated. Not simply because I’m a cautious person when it comes to test-taking (although anyone who’s seen me work through an SAT Critical Reading section will testify that I don’t *ever* pick an answer without double-checking that it’s actually backed up by something in the text) but because also because from what I’ve observed, most wild guesses tend to be wrong — even when you’re down to two answers.

Repeated wild guessing on questions you really don’t know how to answer has the potential to drag your score down a whole lot. Especially if you’re trying to top 750 or even 700, you need to be very careful about answering questions you don’t really know the answer to (and if you have the chops to pull above a 700, you shouldn’t see more than a question or two per test that fall into that category anyway).

The other reason that I dislike wild guessing is that doing it habitually, especially for a relatively high scorer, reinforces the idea that the SAT CR is fundamentally a guessing game. It isn’t, and treating it that way can get you in a lot of trouble.

“Gut Feeling” Guesses

Interestingly enough, I find that these guesses tend to almost always be right, and more often than not I have to convince people that it’s ok to make them! In fact, I feel as if I have the “trust your instinct” conversation at least once every tutoring session. That’s totally understandable. “Gut feeling” guesses are scary because they don’t seem to be based on anything, and no one wants to ruin their score by going on a feeling. But usually people get questions wrong because they don’t trust their instincts, not because they do!

Here’s the thing: these guesses are usually based on something, even if it can’t be put into words. If you’re generally a strong reader, it’s perfectly possible to grasp in some corner of your mind what’s fundamentally going on in a passage but lack the vocabulary to put it explicitly into words. That glimmer of understanding is usually enough to get you the right answer.

For example, even if you’ve never actually learned that many words with anglo-saxon roots tend to sound clearly negative or positive, you can probably guess that “dolt” is something negative. If you have a decent ear for language, you can probably intuit that it’s bad, whether or not you know how you did so.

From what I’ve seen, the most effective way to know whether this kind of guessing will actually be effective is to take a bunch of tests and practice doing it. It can be incredibly scary to trust yourself at first, especially if you’re not 100% sure of the answer, but if you take a bunch of practice tests and consistently get questions right because you trusted your instincts, you’ll start to feel more comfortable.

If, on the other hand, you discover that your instincts tend to lead you in the wrong direction, you can learn to deal accordingly. In any case, you NEED to test this out beforehand; you can’t just wing it when you get to the real test.

Educated Guesses 

Even more often that “gut feeling” guesses, this kind of guess usually ends up being correct — in large part because the SAT is test of logical conjecture, designed so that you can reason your way through the questions. In general, my rule is that if you’ve arrived at any answer by employing some sort of logical process (provided that it isn’t too farfetched), you should go ahead and pick it because it’s probably right.

There are a couple of different ways in which this type of guess can manifest itself, the first being simple process of elimination. If you can conclusively discard four answers, the remaining one must be correct. Even if you don’t know why the right answer is the right answer, you can still pick it with a fair degree of confidence.

In addition, on sentence completions, you can choose an answer that includes unfamiliar words based on your knowledge of roots. So even if you don’t know what “multifarious” and “polymath” mean, you know they probably go along with the idea of diversity or many of something. As I’ve said before, the SAT isn’t just based on how many words you can memorize — it’s also based on how you can use your knowledge about language to put words together (or take them apart). If you can relate an unfamiliar word to French or Latin or Spanish, you might not get the exact meaning, but you’ll probably get it close enough to answer the question. Furthermore, understanding how the SAT is constructed can also go a long way toward helping you make these kinds of guesses. Knowing, for example, that the correct answer to many passage-based questions will essentially be a rephrasing of the passage’s main point can help you identify the likely answer — even if you can’t find the necessary evidence to back it up and/or don’t 100% understand what the question is asking. Granted you still have to nail the main point, but provided you can do that, you’ll almost certainly be right.

This is also where the question of “implied authorship” comes into play — the idea that the writers of the test have their own set of biases to which correct answers tend to conform. That means that extreme answers are usually wrong; women and minorities are portrayed positively (and tone questions relating to them typically have positive answers); and challenging conventional wisdom, especially when it comes to science, is a good thing. Knowing that the right answers tend to slant this way does not guarantee that you’ll get a question correct, but it can significantly up your chances.

So to sum up, if you’re about to take a wild guess just for the sake of not leaving a question blank, you might want to think twice; but if you have good reason for picking the answer you’re picking, you should probably go for it.

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