Guessing and the SAT II U.S. History
Should you guess on the SAT II U.S. History? We’ll begin
to answer this question by posing a question of our own:
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is holding
five cards, numbered 1–5. Without telling you, he has selected one
of the numbers as the “correct” card. If you pick a single card,
what is the probability that you will choose the “correct” card?
The answer, of course, is 1 in 5. But the answer is only
important if you recognize that this question precisely describes
the situation you’re in when you blindly guess on any SAT II U.S.
History question—you have a 1 in 5 chance of getting the question
right. If you were to blindly guess on ten questions in a row, you
would (according to probability) get two questions right and eight
- 2 right answers gets you 2 raw points
- 8 wrong answers gets you
= –2 raw points
Those ten answers, therefore, net you a total of zero
points. ETS designed the scoring system in such a way that random
guessing is pointless. They want to ensure you have to think.
Suppose you’re faced with this question:
Washington was born in the year
You probably don’t know in what year George Washington
was born (and you won’t need to know such a minor fact for the SAT
II test). But you do know that Washington was not born
in 1977. Once you’ve eliminated “1977” as a possible answer, you
have four remaining choices. Is it worth it to guess? Yes. Probability
states that if you are guessing between four choices you will get
one question right for every three you get wrong. For that one correct
answer you’ll get 1 point, and for the three incorrect answers you’ll
lose a total of 3/
4 of a point.
The math indicates that if you can eliminate one answer,
the odds of guessing are in your favor: you become more likely to
gain points than to lose points.
The rule for guessing on the SAT II U.S. History, therefore,
is simple: if you can eliminate even one answer choice on
a question, you should definitely guess.
If You’re Stumped
If you cannot eliminate even one answer choice and find
yourself staring at a certain question with mounting panic, throw
a circle around that nasty question and move on. Return to it later
if you have time. Remember, answering a hard question correctly
doesn’t earn you any more points than answering an easy question
correctly. You want to be sure to hit every question you can answer
instead of running out of time by fixating on the really tough questions.
While taking five minutes to solve a particularly difficult question
might strike you as a moral victory when you’re taking
the test, you possibly could have used that same time to answer
six other questions that would have vastly increased your score.
Instead of getting bogged down on individual questions, you will
do better if you learn to skip and leave for later the very difficult
questions that either you can’t answer or that will take an extremely long
time to figure out.