I get asked about guessing on the SAT all the time. All the time. And I’ve written about guessing on this blog often enough that there’s a special label for those posts, so that you can always find them. But I wanted to give a quick tip to aspiring tutors who come to my site looking for advice (judging by the number of hits I get from Ivy League schools, there are many of you). Regardless of what the laws of probability say, you should not be dogmatic about forcing your students to guess.

Explain to your students the way the scoring system works (+1 for a correct response, -¼ for an incorrect one). Explain how random guessing, statistically, is a break even. Explain how, if a student can eliminate an answer, the odds say she should guess. But leave it at that. Because if you don’t, and she guesses, and it costs her, you’ll be Trent from Swingers. You’ll be maligned for giving good advice, because you insisted on it too strongly instead of letting your student make the final call.

There are some things you, as a tutor, should insist on. Writing out algebra instead of doing head math, for example, costs the student nothing although he may resist. This is a good fight, because when you win you’ll probably make an improvement in his score. You’re changing his habits, and causing him to do something that will at worst, make no difference, and at best, drastically reduce his careless errors.

When you have the guessing fight, you’ll often find that even if you win, you’re not making a huge score difference. That’s because guessing has a lot to do with luck. SAT guessing strategy is just a way to make it slightly more likely that a student will get lucky. Once in a while, your student might actually get unlucky and lose points. And then it won’t matter that you’re right. When you find yourself having to defend your guessing strategy to a student who is looking at a 690 instead of a 700 because of guessing, you’re in a bad fight.

I like to run this experiment with students on practice tests. And then, after we’ve done a few tests that way, I shut up about guessing and let them make their own decisions.

I always double down on 11. But I don’t make my friends do the same when the stakes are high.

Jon Siegelman says:

Hi Mike,

Everything you said makes sense. But I think there’s another reason to push students to guess, which is to teach them that, in general, they’ll benefit by taking a risk that offers a positive EV. Many people play it too close to the vest when it comes to starting a new business, changing jobs, etc.

I’ve been telling students to “guess your face off” on the SAT for 35 years, and I’ve _never_ had a complaint such as you’ve described. Perhaps it’s riskier over the internet, but I’ll take my chances. If a student complains that his score dropped by 10 points, I’ll applaud him for taking a good risk, and encourage him to do so again.

Not that I’m hard-nosed about it… 🙂

Jon Siegelman

That’s a great point, Jon. In this post (and in a few planned future posts) I’m hoping to give tutors who are just starting out a little perspective that I’ve accumulated over time. I fully expect anyone who reads this advice to take what they find useful in it, and leave the rest.

I push guessing pretty hard as well, but I’ve come across a few cases where I’ve revised my pitch based on a student’s risk aversion.

There are some lifetime habits that I try to break in my short time with a student, but because the positive EV is not all that substantial here, I prefer to spend my capital on strategies that are more likely to increase scores. As I said above, I always double down on 11. But in this game, guessing strategy is not my hill to die on.

Tanya says:

Interesting perspective on guessing. I’ve been advising that guessing on the SATs will benefit when one can eliminate two choices. There’s a lot to consider, as you have described here…

Thanks. I generally advise the same, but I’ve had to learn not to be too pushy about it. Guessing gives some people incredible anxiety.