Guessing and the ACT
We’ve said it once, but it’s important enough to bear
repetition: whenever you can’t answer a question on the ACT, you
must guess. You are not penalized for getting a question wrong,
so guessing can only help your score.
Random Guessing and Educated Guessing
There are actually two kinds of guesses: random and educated.
Random guesser Charlie Franklin will always guess C or F because
he really, really likes those letters. Using this method, Charlie
has a pretty good chance of getting about 25 percent of the questions right,
yielding a Composite Score of about 11. That’s not too shabby, considering
Charlie expended practically no intellectual energy beyond identifying
C and F as the first letters of his first and last names.
But what about educated guesser Celia? Instead
of immediately guessing on each question, she works to eliminate
answers, always getting rid of two choices for each question. She
then guesses between the remaining choices and has a 50 percent
chance of getting the correct answer. Celia will therefore get about
half of the questions on the test correct. Her Composite Score will
be about a 19, which is an average score on the ACT.
The example of these two guessers should show you that
while blind guessing can help you, educated guessing can really help
you. For example, let’s say you know the correct answer for half
of the questions and you guess randomly on the remaining half. Your
score will probably be a 22—three points higher than the score you’d
get leaving half of the answers blank. Now let’s say you know the
correct answer for half of the questions and you make educated guesses
on the remaining half, narrowing the choices to two. You can probably
score a 26 with this method, landing you in the 90th percentile
of test takers. This is a good score, and to get it you only need
to be certain of half the answers.
“Always guess” really means “always eliminate as many
answer choices as possible and then guess.”
A Note to the Timid Guesser
Some students feel that guessing is like cheating. They
believe that by guessing, they are getting points they don’t really
deserve. Such a belief might be noble, but it is also mistaken,
for two reasons.
First, educated guessing is actually a form of partial
credit on the ACT. Let’s say you’re taking the ACT and come upon
a question you can’t quite figure out. Yet while you aren’t sure
of the definite answer, you are sure that two of the answer choices can’t be
right. In other words, you can eliminate two of the four answer
choices, leaving you with a one in two chance of guessing correctly
between the remaining two answer choices. Now let’s say someone
else is taking the same test and gets to the same question. But
this person is completely flummoxed. He can’t eliminate any answer
choices. When this person guesses, he has only a one in four chance
of guessing correctly. Your extra knowledge, which allowed you to
eliminate some answer choices, gives you better odds of getting
this question right, exactly as extra knowledge should.
Second, the people who made the ACT thought very hard
about how the scoring of the test should work. When they decided
that they wouldn’t include a penalty for wrong answers, they knew
that the lack of a penalty would allow people to guess. In other
words, they built the test with the specific understanding that
people would guess on every question they couldn’t answer. The test wants you
to guess. So go ahead and do it.