When we discuss ways to score your best on tests like the SAT and ACT, we often address content areas like reading, writing, and vocabulary. But we also know that much of the challenge of a test lies in its fiendish structure. When tacking standardized tests, you’ve got to maximize precious resources like time, energy, and anxiety over the span of many hours. But if you really want to prep right, you should take a little time to understand the classic question format: multiple choice.
Multiple choice questions may seem simple and efficient on the surface, but all those tempting half-right choices can induce high levels of skepticism and doubt. Every tester at one time or another has grappled with that eternal, existential dilemma: should I stick with my first choice or should I change it?
Unsurprisingly, researchers have explored this very issue and come up with a confident answer:
Most people believe that they should avoid changing their answer when taking multiple-choice tests. Virtually all research on this topic, however, suggests that this strategy is ill-founded: most answer changes are from incorrect to correct, and people who change their answers usually improve their test scores.
The accumulated evidence on this topic is strong and applies to all manner of test formats, whether multiple choice or true-and-false, timed or untimed, paper-and-pencil or computer. Yet, many test takers feel reluctant to change their answers and especially regretful when their changes lead to lost points. Recognizing this phenomenon, called the First Instinct Fallacy, is the first step to overcoming it.
Of course, effective test strategy is more complicated than simply committing to always changing your answers when you second guess yourself. Over the years, I’ve met students who consistently switched to the right answers, but others who followed their gut instincts to lower scores. The best approach to making the right choice when second-guessing yourself on a test is to practice and measure your responses.
In terms of SAT & ACT prep, we recommend high quality practice tests as an opportunity to measure your instincts and outcomes. When you take your next test and want to change your answer, take note of what choice you made and go back to evaluate the outcome. Do this enough and you’ll not only overcome the First Instinct Fallacy, but you’ll know exactly what to do when doubt creeps in on test day!