Youth Canada

Tips for Multiple Choice Tests

6-04-2009 by Joshua Liu

Tips for Multiple Choice Tests

I love multiple choice tests more than any other type of tests. They’re great because you don’t even have to know the answer to have a shot at getting a question right!

Especially when it comes to courses where you are expected to know a lot of information (e.g. biology), it helps when you only need to recognize details instead of having to come up with them yourself. When you’re cramming so much information in your head the night before, it’s really useful to have possible answers right in front of you to jog your memory.

When all you have is a question and blank space, it is really easy to sometimes blank out. For example, I would find it much easier to identify the three tenets of cell theory than to write them out myself (and also have to make sure you write them in an acceptable way). Moreover, with multiple choice tests, you can’t lose marks due spelling, grammar, subjectivity, etc.

That being said, multiple choice tests can often be tricky and difficult. At the core of it, multiple choice tests rely on logic and deduction. There must always be reasons why a certain answer should be singled out among the available choices.

If you want to ace multiple choice tests, there are some things you need to know.

Understand the Question

It is crucial that you know exactly what you’re being asked. If you don’t know what the question is even asking, how will you know what type of answer to look for?

Keep in mind that even a single word can change the entire meaning of a question. You have no idea how many multiple choice questions I’ve gotten wrong simply because I didn’t see the word “not”. If you tend to forget important words like that, it often helps to underline them every time you see such a word in a question.

So take your time when reading the question. Make sure you understand it right the first time, so you don’t have to worry about making silly mistakes just because you misread something.

Realize that the answer choice you pick must answer the question. Just because an answer “sounds” good, isn’t enough of a reason to pick it. Sometimes professors like to trick students by making the correct answer the least sophisticated sounding – don’t fall into this trap! Above all else, whatever you choose must clearly answer the question being asked.

Read Every Single Answer Choice and Use Process of Elimination

It is imperative that you read every single answer choice before making your final decision. A common mistake students make is when they select the first good answer that they see – the problem is that there might be more than one possible answer, and unless you consider all of the available choices, you won’t know if there is a better answer. There is only one “best” answer (see next section), and if you don’t read all of the possible answer choices, you are often going to end up missing it.

So here’s what I personally do, and what I suggest you do. As you read each answer choice, immediately cross out any answer you know cannot be 100% true. That is, only cross out choices you are completely sure to be wrong. If you are unsure about an answer choice, leave it for now. Then go back, and consider those answer choices left remaining.

By doing this, you don’t make the mistake of overlooking the correct answer. If there is one answer choice left, then obviously select that one. But if there is more than one answer choice left after your first pass, then you will need to analyze the answer choices left over, and come up with reasons why one of those answers is better than the rest.

If after a decent amount of time, you still aren’t sure about the correct answer, then just pick any of them for the time being, mark-up that question, and move on with the intention of coming back later if time permits. The good news is that if you’re able to narrow the question down to two or three possible choices, you always have a decent shot at getting it right. Knowing this, it makes sense to just move on and work on increasing your probability of getting another question correct, instead of spending all of your time on one question where you already know you’re going to get correct 50% or so of the time.

Coin Flipping

A lot of times I narrow a question down to two or so equally good choices, and I end up just picking any of them – I’m essentially coin flipping for this question, since I have a 50/50 shot at getting it right.

Sometimes I get lucky and “coin flip” really well on tests, other times I don’t get so lucky and “coin flip” badly. Remember that your luck will even out in the long term. Realize that even the best students have to “coin flip” sometimes on tests.

Select the Best Possible Answer

Some professors or teachers will write on their test to “select the best possible answer” and some won’t, but in general, that is the motto you should follow. You’re often going to come across more than one answer that is technically true, but for some reason, one answer should be more correct than any of the other ones. When this happens, you will need to do a bit of thinking and investigating, to figure out what the difference between those few answers are and to eventually find the necessary reasons one why one is a better answer than the other.

For example, sometimes the best possible answer is the one that is more detailed. For example, an early high school chemistry quiz might ask: “What are atoms composed of?” You might get the answer choices “Atoms are composed of subatomic particles” and “Atoms are composed of subatomic particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons”. While both of these answers are technically correct, the second answer is a “better answer” because it provides more detail.

In any case, the important idea is to remember that simply because a certain answer is true does not make it the answer you should immediately select. This is a mistake students often make when they do multiple choice tests – they just look for any answer that is true, and select it. This strategy is sure to fall apart when you have tricky professors or teachers who require you to compare and contrast possible true answer choices.

Circle Your Answer on the Question Sheet

Whenever I choose an answer for a question, I make sure to not only bubble my answer on the answer sheet (e.g. a Scantron card), but I also make sure to circle the correct answer on my question sheet. There are a few important reasons why I do this.

First, it lets me quickly check at the end of the test if I bubbled my answers correctly. All I do is compare the answers I circled to answers I bubbled in, just to make sure that I didn’t accidentally bubble in the wrong answer – this happens to everyone at some point, and if you don’t circle the answer on your question sheet, it’s hard to catch these silly mistakes.

Secondly, when I am double checking my answers, it helps that I can double check my answers right on the question sheet without having to go back and forth with the answer sheet. When it comes to tests, it’s important to spend your time wisely.

Thirdly, professors let you take the question sheets with you after the test. Having my answers circled lets me know what mark I should expect, and therefore, whether or not I need to make an appointment to see my answer sheet when I get an unexpected mark back.

Finally, when you are using your previous test to prepare for your exam, it helps to not have to do all the grunt work again when reviewing the questions and answers. Seeing your old test notes and even just the correct answer can help jog your memory of how you solved the question. Moreover, some professors actually re-use similar questions on the test, and it can sometimes help to have an easy way to memorize some of them in advance.

What About Tests that Penalize me for a Wrong Answer?

The only time I’ve ever gotten penalized for a wrong answer on a multiple choice test has been on those high school mathematics or science contests. This has never happened to me on a university test (and I doubt it ever happens), but I figure I might as well comment on this issue just in case it happens to anyone.

In these types of tests, what normally happens is that you get say 1 mark for a correct answer, 0 marks for leaving it blank, and -0.5 marks for getting it wrong. The idea here is to prevent students from getting rewarded for outright guesses. Clearly then, if you are very sure of your answer, you should obviously select it and not worry about getting it wrong.

The only time when you should consider leaving an answer blank is if you’re not sure. At this point, it is important to look at the mathematics of the situation, and see what your neutral point is in terms of when it’s worth taking a guess at the question. Let me show you with an example.

Let’s use my above mentioned test format where you get 1 mark for a correct answer, 0 marks for a blank answer, and -0.5 marks for a wrong answer. Also, let’s assume there are four possible answer choices (e.g. A, B, C, D).

If we completely guess for a question, we have a ¼ chance of getting it right and a ¾ chance of getting it wrong. Therefore, for a complete guess, our expectation in the long term for a single question is: (1/4)(1 mark) + (3/4)(-0. 5 marks) = (0.25 marks) + (-0.375) marks = -0.125 marks. That is, whenever you randomly guess on this test, you lose on average -0.125 marks. So in this specific test format, it is always better to leave a question blank if you have no idea what the answer could be.

But what if we were able to narrow it down to 3 choices and then guess? In that case, we have a 1/3 chance of getting it right and a 2/3 chance of getting it wrong – much better odds. Let’s look at what our expectation would be: (1/3)(1 mark) + (2/3)(-0. 5 marks) = 0 marks. This is our neutral point. What I mean by this is that when we have narrowed it down to 3 choices, it doesn’t matter whether we guess or leave it blank, since our long term expectation for both cases is getting a 0 on the question.

What this does mean is that we should always guess when we’ve narrowed it down to 2 choices, since our expectation would be positive (you can try the math to prove it yourself).

So whenever you are in this situation, make sure you figure out the neutral point for your test, and then decide whether a question is worth guessing on.

Don’t Get Stuck on a Question

I mentioned this briefly before, but as my final word on this topic, I feel it is important to say it again. Each question is worth the same, so getting a hard question right is just as important as getting an easy question right.

Particularly for multiple choice tests, never forget that your goal should be to get as many questions right as possible.

The preceding article is cross-posted from MedHopeful.com - a blog with entertainment and advice for budding physicians.


JOSHUA LIU is currently a Biomedical Sciences student at York University. He is the founder of SMARTS: the Youth Science Foundation Canada's national youth science network, which connects over 300 young people and 200 schools today. He also currently sits on Shad International's Board of Directors. Joshua has spoken as a presenter, panelist, and keynote at numerous student conferences. He was named as one of Canada's "Top 20 Under 20" in 2005, and is a recipient of the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership.

For more articles like this one, check out Joshua's blog at MedHopeful.com