Every challenge tests more than expected at first glance. The path to fame as a performer, for example, demands talent, but also hustle, charisma, and connections. Success in sports also stems not just from physical conditioning and mastery of a dedicated skill set but also a slew of professional and psychological qualities that separate champions from the rest.
Standardized exams are no exception to this rule. Of course you need to master the content and strategies that lead to maximum points on every section of a given test. Of course you also need to learn the structure of the exam inside-out so you can perfect your time management plan and test day routine. Of course you even need to give serious thought to what kind of snacks, clothes, watch, calculator, and even pencils you might bring to a given exam. But do you really need to pay attention to little things like how you bubble in answer choices?
ABSOLUTELY. The reality of standardized testing is that you are not given points based on what you know. Instead, you are awarded points based on which answer choices you select and bubble in on your answer sheet. Such exams are administered widely and scored industrially, which for paper-and-pencil tests means running Scantron sheets through optical scanners. Thus, your score depends in part on your skill and accuracy at bubbling in answer choices. Fun!
To ensure that you ace this part of the test, follow some simple rules. For example, only mark only one answer for each question and be sure to bubble the choice for a question in its correct row. If you erase, do so completely as incomplete erasures may be scored as intended answers; if you double-bubble, you are marked wrong even if one of your choices are correct.
You’ll always want to use a classic wooden #2 pencil on standardized tests because the optical scanners employed to grade tests are calibrated for those marks. If you want to get really specific, slightly dull pencils fill in bubbles more quickly than very sharp ones. Also make sure you fill each bubble darkly and completely, avoiding any stray marks on your answer sheet:
Another factor that confounds every test taker is timing. As far as bubbling answers is concerned, you must fill in every answer before time is called, as continuing to write after a section has ended will surely have your test invalidated. Here, as in every other aspect of test taking, we can weigh various options with an eye towards optimization:
1. Answer each question in your test booklet, then fill in the matching bubble on your test grid.
2. Answer a page of questions in your test booklet, then fill in the matching bubbles on your test grid.
3. Answer all of the questions in a section in your test booklet, then fill in the matching bubbles on your test grid.
While all of these options seem similar, they are not all equal. For example, option #3 is an awful idea! Imagine how many test takers run out of time at the end of a section, and then consider what their scores would look like if they never bubbled their answers in. Always bubble as you go, either question by question or page by page. Note that you should always mark your responses in your test booklet as well!
Somehow, being scored on how well or poorly you can fill in bubbles doesn’t seem fair. But success in any endeavor depends on execution, on excelling at all of the large and small aspects a task demands. When you really look at it, bubbling in your answer choices should be the least of your worries on test day and surely the easiest part of taking a high stakes test. Plus, you’ll be able to leverage advanced answer elimination strategies. Bubble like a prop to make the most of your test day efforts.