What is a guess?
When you answer a question with anything less that 100% certainty, you are guessing. Of course, it could be an educated guess, a smart guess, but a guess nevertheless. Now, one could guess on any type of question. However, logically guess work is most relevant for multiple choice questions. Technically, you could guess on direct answer type questions (CAT, GRE, GATE have a few such questions) as well. Just that the probability of a random guess being correct on a question without any options is very slim.
What is not a guess?
The method you use to reach the answer has nothing to do with whether you’re guessing. Even if you reach the answer by plugging in answer choices, eliminating all incorrect choices, or any obscure method. As long as you are able to say with conviction that one choice is correct, you are not guessing.
“Why should I care?”
- On tests with negative marking, and the option to skip questions, the benefit of knowing your guess work is pretty self evident.
- In case there is no negative marking in a test, feel free to guess.
- There are tests in which you have to answer a question to move on to the next one (GMAT, for example). On such tests, you would have to answer each question, irrespective of whether you are sure or you’re guessing.
So, in the second and third case, you would guess on the test if you’re unsure. So, you might wonder why we discuss this in such detail.
Simply because what we are discussing here is not what to do while you’re taking your test on the D-day. We are discussing how guess work might slip through the cracks without our realizing, and as a result we are unable to maximise our potential score while preparing.
Tracking guess work
Just realising that you are guessing is more than half the battle won. So, it is essential that you start tracking your guess work. Here I discuss two ways of doing this, and my recommended way.
If you are planning to take the GMAT or the GRE, be sure to check out the courses offered by The Economist. They have set up a brilliantly interactive portal. In the context of this article, they also ask users to select how sure they are of each answer while answering. For each answer they ask you of how sure you are (in terms of percentage) – from 0% to 100% at intervals of 20.
(p.s.: I have used screenshots to explain my point. All rights are reserved with The Economist)
They handle the first step expertly – of helping you realize how sure you are of an answer. I think, however, they missed a trick by not taking it one step further – analysing your guesswork.
Moreover, as you may have noticed, I define a guess differently than what The Economist does in their online courses. The way I term it, any question you answer with less that 100% surety is a guess.
So, what I suggest is the following:
Instead of maintaining a percentage, maintain a simple yes/ no field for every question you answer, and ask yourself while attempting a question:
“Am I guessing?”
And put a ‘Y’ in the field if you are less than 100% sure, put an ‘N’ (or leave it blank) if you are not. Simple.
This is the way we handle guess work on our testcafe.co portal as well.
Later on examine how many guesses you actually made, how many were right, how many wrong. Of course, no computer can tell you whether you have made a guess. It is for you to realise, and record. So, this much additional effort is required from your end. The results are amazing though.
Often times while practicing, we realise in questions we got wrong when had guessed, however, many a times we do not even realise (or recall) that even a few of the questions we got right were guessed.
Once you start systematically recording this information, you’d track your guess work, and with enough data you can even try and find trends. Trends could be in the form of:
- Modules: Do you guess on questions from a particular concept quite often?
- Type of questions: Do you guess on type of questions? (e.g. Data sufficiency, word problems, reading comprehension)
- Position of questions: Do you guess on questions towards the end of the section/ test?
Depending on when you find yourself guessing the most, go back and tackle the root cause.
Smart guessing is a great way to try to make the most of questions you are unsure of. So, let me be very clear, the objective of this article is not to stop you from guessing. The objective is to help you reduce the number of questions on which you need to guess. On the rest, guess away, or skip based on the dynamics of your particular test.
You may also to go through my article on decoding the science of test taking.