Into every life, a little testing must fall. And where you find tests, you will eventually encounter multiple-choice questions. This common question type may seem more daunting than free responses or true-or-false questions, but how can you not love a test question that includes its own answer? In addition, multiple-choice questions become much easier when you combine proper technique with a commitment to eliminating answer choices strategically.
Why is answer choice elimination so effective? Crafting really good multiple-choice questions is something an art, but test writers usually follow a predictable pattern. With four or more responses, you can usually count on a correct answer (you hope), one or two similar choices, and at least one outlier. If you cannot predict the correct answer outright, clear the field by eliminating the choices you know are definitely wrong.
IDENTIFYING INCORRECT CHOICES
Identifying the incorrect choices can be as challenging as find the correct one, especially if you fall victim to erroneous advice. Some misguided experts will advise you to always eliminate choices with universal qualifiers like always or never. Others will suggest that you pay attention to the choices for previous questions and avoid picking the same response too many times in a row. But professional test makers like College Board, ETS, or ACT, Inc are simply too skilled to be so easily outsmarted.
Instead, look for obvious distractors or fluff. Rarely will every choice be equally valid, so you usually have at least one response that can be knocked off. At the same time, feel free to cross off choices that are too similar to each other, especially if you understand how detailed questions are meant to be. For example, in contextual vocabulary questions on the SAT and ACT, only the broad meanings of words are tested; even if you can explain the fine distinctions between ‘contempt’ and ‘disdain,’ you could eliminate them both if they were choices on your test. The better you understand the test, the more likely you will be to eliminate the incorrect choices.
Another incorrect response needing to be struck from the list is the trap answer choice. No self-respecting standardized test earns its keep without employing an arsenal of traps. Every choice includes at least, but certainly not limited to, one. Your job is to identify and eliminate the traps. To do so, add knowledge of difficulty patterns to your overall understanding of the test. On easy questions, traps stand out and can be taken at face value. However, more difficult questions usually earn those ratings because more test takers answer them incorrectly, and subtle traps are what make them difficult. On these questions, steer clear of the obvious answer… it’s often the trap!
ELIMINATING INCORRECT CHOICES
Consistently clearing out the choices that are wrong improves your score in the long run by putting you in position to make educated guesses. For example, on multiple-choice questions with four responses, you have a 25% chance to randomly select the correct answer. But eliminating one wrong answer improves your odds from 1-in-4 to 1-in-3. Get rid of one more, and you have a 50/50 chance to pick the right answer. Eliminate the three incorrect responses, and you cannot help but pick the right answer!
Once you’ve decided to eliminate answer choices, do so decisively: always mark up your test, physically crossing out choices that don’t work. The act of crossing out choices improves speed and accuracy, both of which are essential when implementing what is basically an elaborate guessing strategy.
In some instances, the basic act of crossing out answers on the test itself is not even an option. Whether by bad design (e.g. computerized GRE exams) or bad behavior (e.g. teachers not letting students write on tests), test takers must find a workaround to implement strategic answer choice elimination. In these instances, use scrap paper to write out your choices horizontally or vertically and cross them out as you eliminate each in turn. For example, if the choices are lettered A through E, write out A B C D E with some space between each choice. Then draw a line through each one you rule out.
Always remember that eliminating incorrect answer choices is a secondary strategy, only to be employed when you cannot determine the correct answer directly. If you approach each multiple-choice test with a commitment to answering every question by employing your full arsenal of skills and strategies, you arrive prepared to earn your very best cores.