I’m not opposed to guessing on the SAT. Really I’m not. If you’re actually taking the test, find yourself stuck between two answers, and have a really strong sense that it might be one of them, I generally say to go for it. In my experience, most people have pretty decent instincts, and even if they can’t always put their finger on just why the answer is the answer, their gut instincts usually turns out to be right. In those cases, not guessing is more of a problem.
What I’m opposed to is the notion that the SAT should be treated like some sort of guessing game; that just because there are multiple answers, it shouldn’t be necessary to actually learn how to answer the questions; and that SAT prep should primarily consist of learning how to eliminate answers and play the odds, hoping that if you can get rid of a couple of answers, you’ll get lucky enough to hit the right one often enough to get you a decent score.
The problem with that approach is that it fails to recognize the relationship between question and answer. And as I’ve said before, the presence of multiple answer choices doesn’t make the right answer any less right, or the process of actually learning how to answer the questions any less necessary.
The highest scorers, the ones who score 750 and above, aren’t the best guessers — they’re the ones who know how to figure out the answers for real. In order to accept that idea in regard to Critical Reading, however, you must first accept that the answers aren’t simply a matter of opinion and that there is actually a concrete, logical process that one can employ in order to arrive at the correct one. Once you’ve done that, you’re on your way.
So what this boils down to is one very simple piece of advice: when you’re studying for the SAT and come across a question you’re unsure of how to answer, don’t guess! Stop timing yourself, forget about finishing the section, and try to work through the question.
Experiment — if one approach doesn’t work, try something else. If you’re doing reading, keep going back and forth between the passage and the question. Someone recently sent me one of the hardest CR questions I’ve ever seen, and I must have gone back and forth about twenty times, no exaggeration. No matter how frustrated I got, I kept reminding myself to stick to the process, and eventually I arrived at the answer.
One thing I have to occasionally remind my students of is that I’m not some sort of magician when it comes to the SAT. Even though I can often answer questions almost instantaneously, I’m still going through the entire process of figuring out exactly what the question is asking, going back to the text, summing up the answer in my own words, and writing it down — I’m just doing it really fast. But I almost never skip steps, and when I do, I sometimes get questions wrong (at which point I hold myself up as an example of why you should never skip steps). Occasionally, I also start from faulty premises and work through an entire question, only to discover that the answer I’ve come up with isn’t there. At that point, I start all over by reevaluating my initial assumption, and I usually make my students watch me rework the question from scratch, just to show them that sometimes there actually isn’t a shortcut.
But regardless, chances are, any form of logic you apply to the question will get you somewhere. The SAT is in part designed to test whether you can use the knowledge you do have to deduce the answers to material that is in all likelihood unfamiliar. The College Board doesn’t necessary expect you to have memorized the definition of “multifarious,” but they do expect you to be able to figure out that “multi” means “many” and make an educated guess based on that knowledge. The bottom line is that you need to practice developing the idea that the SAT isn’t about guessing. When you don’t see the answer immediately, you’re far better served by stopping and thinking the question through carefully and methodically than by leaping to guess. If you have to spend half an hour on a single question, fine. You’ll get faster eventually. All that counts is that you learn something process-related that you can apply to working through other questions in the future. Otherwise, to invoke the old cliché, you’re just spinning your wheels.