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When You Guess, Beware of Your Hunches

Beware of your first hunch on a difficult SAT question.

When You Guess, Beware of Your Hunches

You know that whenever you can make a quick guess on a question to avoid leaving it blank, you should take the shot. The key word here is quick; you can always afford to guess, but you can never afford to waste time.

So, how should you guess? Let's be clear about something: guessing does not mean selecting a choice at random. But it also doesn't mean selecting the choice that seems to be right. Guessing means selecting the choice that has the greatest chance of being right, regardless of whether that choice "looks right" or "looks wrong."

Another adage that needs to be added to our growing list of "world's worst SAT advice" is this: when in doubt, go with your first hunch. In real life that advice has some merit. On the SAT, however, only rarely should you go with your first hunch when you're in doubt.

Think about it. When are you most likely to be in doubt, on the easy questions, the medium ones, or the hard ones? The hard questions, right? Okay—and make sure you understand this point—the reason a multiple-choice question is hard is that everybody's first hunch on it is wrong. If everybody's first hunch on a hard question were correct, it would be an easy question, not a hard one.

Here's the problem: everybody's first hunch on a question tends to be the same one or two choices. In other words, everybody always goes for the same, popular choices on questions. On easy questions, those choices are correct (see The SAT: Types of Questions and Answers). But on hard questions, those hunches have to be wrong—not might be wrong, have to be wrong.

Now, sometimes you'll find yourself stuck on an easy question. It happens. Then you should trust your hunch; after all, it's an easy question. In fact, we could define easy questions as those on which everybody's first hunch—the most popular choice—is usually right.

Medium questions are a bit trickier in this regard. The answer won't be too easy, but it won't be too hard, either. So rely on your hunches on medium questions with caution.

On hard questions, those on which you're most likely to be in doubt, your first hunches are extremely suspect. The only exception to doubting your first hunch would be if you are consistently scoring in the 700 range or above on the reading, writing, or math tests. Once you're scoring near or above 700, you can begin to rely on your hunches on difficult questions—so long as those hunches don't point toward a popular answer choice, one that you know would appeal to many students.

In the coming chapters I'll show you how to apply this principle on the different question types you'll encounter on the SAT. Incidentally, the best guess on any given question is not always right, but it's always the way to go. When you're in doubt you have to play the odds. If I asked you which team was more likely to win a game, Team A (first place in the league) or Team B (last place in the league), obviously Team A would be more likely to win. Would Team A always beat Team B? Of course not—even though in any given match-up, you'd always expect Team A to beat Team B.

The same is true on the SAT. Easy questions have easy, popular answers; hard questions have hard, unpopular answers. If you're not sure on a question, that's the way to guess.

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