When I majored in Psychology in college, I told friends that my motivation was a deep curiosity about the mysteries of human behavior and cognition. But, if I’m being honest, I also liked how most of our grades were based on multiple-choice tests! Multiple-choice tests are, in many cases, easier than alternative question types and quicker than essays. They are also a cinch to score. No wonder the lives of students and aspiring professionals are filled with multiple-choice challenges.
From the perspective of a test-taker, the chief beauty of a multiple-choice question lies in the correct answer embedded within the choices. Everyone gets a chance to select the credited response. You can dramatically improve your odds, however, by applying some powerful strategies for the manifold multiple choice questions you’ll encounter in life:
KNOW THE COST OF FAILURE
Start by understanding the scoring scheme of the test you are taking. On some exams, an incorrect answer levies a penalty to the raw score, usually calibrated to negate the benefits of random guessing. If the test you are taking includes a wrong-answer penalty, only answer questions when you can either identify the correct choice or eliminate choices you know are wrong. Otherwise, omit and move on.
On the other hand, tests like the current iterations of the SAT & ACT include no penalty for wrong answers. In these cases, you should never leave a question blank.
READ THE QUESTION CAREFULLY
This strategy should go without saying, but we say it every chance we get anyway. It’s that important. Many multiple-choice tests compensate for embedding the correct answers by ratcheting up the difficulty with ambiguous or misleading questions. If you do not understand what a question is really asking, your chances of answering correctly are low.
PREDICT BEFORE YOU CHOOSE
Many test takers default to a “guess and check” or “plug and chug” response to multiple choice questions, working through each response until they strike gold. What a waste of time! Think about how you solve a typical math problem; few of us look at every possible answer choice and work backwards. Instead, we work forward to solve.
In almost every exam instance, you are better off answering a question before looking at the choices. Once you have an answer, find the response that matches it. This is doubly important for test takers who struggle with timing. Always going to the answer choices first wastes tons of time. Answering proactively and working efficiently creates more time for later questions where you actually do need to try every answer choice.
All in all, multiple-choice questions can seem like obstacles, but usually include–at least, for strategic test takers–ample opportunity within their design. Tips like these, along with advanced choice elimination strategies, ensure that you will be able to use the multiple-choice format to your advantage on test day.