SAT Prep First Instinct

Should You Go With Your First Instinct To Take Guesses In SAT Math?

Today I would like to discuss a piece of test taking advice that is often given in error. This piece of advice is to “go with your first instinct.” Many people will tell you that after choosing an answer, you shouldn’t go back and change that answer because your first instinct is usually correct. When it comes to the SAT we need to scrutinize this advice very carefully.

VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: Do not mistake understanding for instinct. If you actually have some understanding of the problem, you can use that to help choose your answer. This is very different from what I am describing here.

Now, going with your first instinct only makes sense for about one third of the SAT math questions. Roughly speaking, on any math section the first third of the questions is easy, the second third medium, and the last third hard.

Let’s look at the 20 question section in detail. In this case, roughly speaking we have that numbers 1 through 5 are easy, 6 through 10 are medium, and 11 through 15 are hard. Also numbers 16 and 17 are easy, 18 is medium, and 19 and 20 are hard.

Basically you should go with your instinct on questions 1 through 5, 16 and 17, but not on the rest of the questions.

In fact, for 11 through 15, 19 and 20 you are better off going AGAINST your instinct. In other words, if you have no idea how to do number 19, but your instinct is telling you that the answer is B, then you should actually eliminate choice B and take a guess from the remaining four choices. This is one example of using the technique of Quasi-elimination.

Going against your instinct may sound like a crazy strategy, but if you understand how the SAT is made, it actually makes perfect sense.

The College Board uses data from previous SATs to determine where test questions are placed on future SAT. If a question is answered correctly by most students it becomes an easy question on a future SAT and it gets placed in the first third of a math section. If a question is answered incorrectly by most students, it becomes a hard question and it gets placed in the last third of a math section.

So a question became number 19 because most students got a very similar question wrong on a previous SAT. Many of these students used their instinct to get a wrong answer. They were tricked. This is why your instinct will fail most of the time on these hard questions. On the medium questions your instinct will fail some of the time – enough that it shouldn’t be used.

Best of luck,

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Dr. Steve
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