Strategies for Taking Multiple Choice Tests I Wish I knew earlier

Taking multiple choice tests is a part of everyone’s career and not many people know that there are hacks to improve your scores. If you have the right strategy your odds of passing the exam increase dramatically.

So what is the best strategy for taking multiple choice tests? There are several steps that increase your chances of success.

  •  Find out exactly what the question format is before the test e.g. if multiple answers are possible, true-false questions, how many questions there are, how much time you have etc.
  •  Go through the test once and answer the questions you know 100%
  •  Read through the test again and answer what you can deduct from other questions or eliminating wrong answers
  •  Review all questions a third time and guess (in most cases) what you don’t know

Let’s dig deeper into the strategy. Below you will find a detailed list of what you need to know beforehand and how to deal with tricky questions.

1. Find out everything you can about the questions before the exam

The better you know what to expect the calmer your exam will be. If you research the question details you can prepare a much better strategy. Here is a list of items you need to find out before planning a strategy and going to the test.

  1. How many questions are on the test? This is important to know so you can calculate how much time you have for each question. There are tests that have more questions than you can possibly answer in the given time (on purpose). These so-called speed tests measure primarily processing speed rather than knowledge. Usually, you have a reasonable amount of time for each question and you need to calculate how much that is. 
  2. How much time do you have? This together with the number of questions gives you the time per question. Good exam preparation software (like the one I created) lets you practice exams by setting a time limit per questions. This helps you to simulate stress and you can try how you do under pressure.
  3. What is the passing rate? The passing rate in a critical thing to know. I experienced a wide range between 55% (TOGAF) up to 90% (Chinese drivers license). In the rare case that you cannot find out a good estimate is 70%. Why do you need to know this before? Because most likely certain question categories have a different influence on the result.
  4. How many questions will you see from each question category? This is absolutely crucial information to have. When I think about my TOGAF exam one of the 5 categories was already worth about 45% of the score. So I made sure I was well prepared especially in that category. Even if I had to guess all the rest I would most likely pass the test. So find out what the important categories of your exam are that you can prepare an adequate study plan and focus on key areas.
  5. Are all of the questions counting for the result? This might sound like an odd question but e.g. the famous Project Management exam (PMP) has 200 questions but only 175 are taken into account for the resulting score. 25 questions are used for fine-tuning the exam. Why is this important? I usually recommend that while going through the questions and answering the ones you know for sure to count these so you get a feeling of how close you are to pass (or even have passed already) to be calmer and confident for the difficult questions. In this particular case when there is no way of telling which questions are counted this is pointless.
  6. Is the test computerized or on paper? Except for the Chinese Level 1 Exam all other tests I have done were computerized. This is relevant because for a paper-based exam you need to find out additional things like how to mark a correct question (Even most of these tests are analyzed by a computer so if you make a tickmark instead of filling out a circle the machine might not recognize your answer)
  7. What type of questions can appear on the test? There are many different types of questions and your preparation strategy depends on it. Further down I will give a detailed overview of what you can expect in different exams.
  8. Is the test split into sections? This also sounds like a strange question but I experienced on my Ethical Hacker exam that the test was split into sections. Once I had completed a section I was not able to go back. This was shocking because my strategy was not prepared for this (I passed anyway but not being aware of this raised my anxiety level)
  9. Do you get penalty points for not answering a question? This is important to know for the questions you have absolutely no clue how to answer and whether you should guess an answer or not. If there are no penalty points of course guessing is always the best choice. But if there are you need to find out how many penalty points you get and how many answers there are so you can use statistics to calculate what is better. As a rule of thumb if the question has 1 correct out of 4 it is better to guess, with 5 answers chances are equal and if multiple answers can be correct you should definitely not guess.
  10. Are audio/video/images included in the questions? You need to know this to be able to better prepare training questions that are close to the real test. This can be a real advantage because preparing images, charts or other visual test material requires you to totally understand the subject. If you can use a graphic to illustrate a certain point and then create practice questions from it with correct and wrong answers you have mastered the subject. So this is probably good advice anyway whether the real test has this type of questions or not. In my exam preparation material, I always offer additional training questions for advanced learning which are optional but highly appreciated by my students. 

2. Know the type of exam questions

True/False Questions – The only two answers are true and false so you have a 50% chance of getting it right. The best way to answer this type of question is to assume it is true. Then go through it word by word and see if there is one statement in the questions that is false. For a true-false question to be true everything must be true. If the question contains strong qualifiers like always or never they are more likely to be false. If they include mild qualifiers like many, often or sometimes they are more likely to be true.

Multiple Choice Questions – This is the most common question type with 1 question and 3 to 5 (or more) answers from which 1 is correct. There are quite some strategies on how to answer those which I explain below in the tricky question section.

Multiple Answer Questions – This is the same as multiple choice questions except that more than one up to all answers can be correct. I have never encountered a test where no answer was correct. The rules for picking the right answers explained in the tricky questions apply here as well. Keep in mind that if the exam has penalty points for wrong answers for this kind of questions the chances you guess the right combination are tiny. So don’t even try.

Choose the best answer – While this is an advice for all questions with multiple answers some explicitly ask you to pick the best answer so you know that more than 1 answer is correct. Sometimes like in the TOGAF exam you will still get points for the second best choice just not enough to master the test with only second options. 

Correlation Questions – Correlation questions or sometimes called assignment questions have the same amount of question items and answers. You need to find all the matching pairs. This type of questions is often found in more complex exams (like the Chinese language test). They are easier to answer because once you start assigning pairs as soon as you come across a mismatch you know you need to review previous assignments and trial and error usually brings you the correct result.

Fill in the gaps – This is usually a sentence where words are missing which you will find in a list below the question and you need to fill them into the gaps. If these types of questions which you also often find on language exams are not designed well, putting answers in the wrong gaps either make no sense or are grammatically incorrect.

Free text questions – Question where you need to type in the answers are the ones where you need to pay attention to the right answer and the right spelling. 

3. Get into the right state of mind

Getting into the right state of mind is essential especially if you suffer from test anxiety (If you don’t know you can take the test here). Being nervous or calm during the exam can decide if you are successful or fail even if you are prepared perfectly. Here are a few techniques that can help you to get into the right state of mind right before the test begins:

Recall previous successes

To get a positive mindset close your eyes and try to recall a moment of success in your life (preferably another exam you passed but any personal success will do). Remember the moment of victory, how it felt, how happy you were and what this meant for your life. Try to relive this moment, this has the effect that you enter the test room with the feeling of a winner. To have a set of situations to choose from it is important that you always celebrate your successes and take a moment after an exam to enjoy the deep feeling of achievement.

Meditate and breathe

Try to learn some breathing and meditation techniques. You don’t need to be an expert or take out your Yoga mat in the waiting room. There are some simple exercises that have a calming effect. Just use the same strategies I recommend in my article about how meditation can help you to study.

Make yourself aware that failing wouldn’t matter

Anxiety is mostly fueled by the expectation to fail. But what does really happen when you would fail the exam? In most cases, the answer is: Nothing. Yes, you will have to take it again, study more, pay again and probably be embarrassed but all these things are nothing more but an inconvenience right? A valuable technique I often use is “Fear setting” by Tim Ferris. You basically create lists of what would happen if you fail, what you could do to prevent it and or what you can do when it happens. This clears your mind of the “What-if-game” because now you have a written plan of what to do in the worst case scenario.

4. Answering simple questions first

The first walkthrough is what I call the motivational run. Go through all the questions one by one. If you don’t know the answer immediately by just reading the question skip it. Only pick an option if you are a 100% sure you can make the correct choice. Either count in your head or what I do make a stroke on a piece of paper for every question you get right. In most of the exams, I was either very close or sometimes already above the passing mark. This was certainly not because the questions were all so easy but because my preparation was good. This is an incredible confidence boost for the rest of the test.

You can easily calculate that even if you were guessing the rest you would most likely pass by getting another 25% of the remaining questions right (I explain that in step 3 – the guessing part). When you are through with the first run you can calculate how much time you have for each of the tricky questions. Now follow the tips below to solve as many as possible.

5. Finding answers to tricky exam questions

In general, it is good advice to read the question carefully and try to answer it in your mind without reading the answers. This avoids a common mistake to pick the first answer that sounds good enough. 

Exam taking tips
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Look for the best answers. Often many answers look correct, compare these and choose the best option.

For tricky questions, there are some tips and tricks to eliminate wrong answers. 

  1. Look for an inconsistent grammar of question and answers
  2. Are some answers shorter or longer than others?
  3. Do all answers use a similar language (like they were taken from a textbook vs created by a different person)
  4. Are some of the answers similar and probably just worded differently?
  5. When the answers contain “All of the above” see if one of the answers is correct and the pick “All of the above”
  6. When the answers contain “none of the above” eliminating one answer is enough
  7. Are there answers that sound totally unfamiliar and despite all you learning you have never heard of it
  8. Are all answers plausible, check if the could be true
  9. When an answer contains the words like always or never you just need to find 1 counterexample to eliminate this option

6. Doing a final review

Go through all questions again if there is enough time, See if the information you gathered from other questions might change your answer, even on the ones you seemed to know for sure. If you have questions left without any answer you need to make a decision whether to guess or not. As said above, when there is no penalty of course guessing increases your chances. 

So here are some tips to make an educated guess though the following tricks are more seen from a psychological standpoint of the test creator rather than from a logical one.

  • If there is a negative and a positive option the positive one is more likely to be correct
  • When the answers have a range of number eliminate the lowest and highest and go for one of the middle values
  • If you have absolutely no clue any answer has equal choices, why it is not C like advised on many websites you can find below in the related questions. 
  • Even if you have no clue there is still one improvement you can make while guessing. Choose a letter and stick to it. Answer all the remaining question with the same option to avoid introducing more randomness into an already random system.

I am quite surprised about all the possibilities above you have to influence the outcome of a multiple choice test. Even though I used many of those tips during my exams I still found some new hacks I will definitely try on my next test. So good luck to you with this new set of multiple choice tools. 

Related Questions

What are the most common answers on a multiple choice test? You might have heard the fact that if you don’t know the answer choose option C because it has the highest chances of being correct. But is that really true? Back then when tests were created by hand all the answers might not have been evenly randomized. Nowadays where computers create the random order of questions and answers and the distribution of A, B, C, D will be almost even. Your chance that C is right on a question with four options from which 1 is correct is always 25% (like it is for picking any other letter). So the answer to what is the most common answer is none (or all).

What are the benefits of multiple choice questions? Multiple choice questions can be used for a variety of testing situation from simply measuring recall, application, analysis, and evaluation. This question type is more reliable like for example true/false questions that are more prone to guessing. Furthermore, because the answers are given, they are better suited to test a broader spectrum of topics than essays.

What is a stem in a multiple choice question? A multiple choice question contains several parts. A problem that is referred to as the stem is usually presented in form of a question. Then a list of solutions is offered which are called alternatives. The correct answer is the best alternative and the remaining are called distractors.

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