Can You Beat a Multiple Choice Test?

Most standardized tests today are some form of multiple-choice, and for good reason. Multiple-choice tests are easy to create on a computer and can be automatically scored in seconds. Contrast that with short essay answers that require human involvement, and it’s easy to see why so many tests today ask you to choose A, B, C, or D (and sometimes E) to demonstrate your understanding of the topic or material. 

While many test takers don’t like these types of tests, they do offer some advantages to the test taker. For one thing, wrong answers are rarely penalized in a multiple-choice test, so there is never any downside to guessing. But that’s not the best news for test takers. Multiple-choice tests have some inherent weaknesses as a testing tool. By understanding those weaknesses, you can take advantage of them and get a better-than-expected score. 

Of course, there’s no substitute for knowing the material, but with the right test-taking techniques and understanding the limitations of the format, you can score well even in sections where you’re a little weaker. 

We’ve broken this post into two sections. First, we’ll share some test taking techniques that will improve your score. Then, we’ll share some data on these tests which will further improve your chances of success. 

One final note before we begin. The techniques in this post don’t cover math multiple-choice tests. We will share tips for beating multiple-choice tests for math and other types of tests in a future post.  

Beating the Multiple-Choice Test

Before taking your test, it’s always a good idea to take a practice test. This will help you get comfortable with the test style while giving you a good sense of how much time you have for each question. 

Once you have the test in front of you, the first thing you should do is read quickly through the entire test and answer the easy ones first. Be sure to read each question carefully before choosing your answer. If the question asks for the worst option, for example, and you choose the best option, your answer will be wrong. 

This approach will help reduce your anxiety on the test, as you can feel confident that you aced the easy questions and now it’s time to get to work. Success on the test rests on your performance on the questions that you skipped. 

None of these methods are foolproof, but following these techniques will improve the likelihood of picking the right answer when you are unsure how to respond. 

Mine the Test for Answers

Oftentimes when writing a test, one question contains the answer to a different question. Since you’ve read through the entire test, as you go back through the questions that you skipped, pause for a moment to think if the test has given away the answer to the question you are stuck on. Even if there isn’t anything blatant, you may find some hints that can lead you to the right answer. 

Eliminate Obvious Wrong Answers

Test writers frequently include several obvious wrong answers. As a first step, you should eliminate the obvious wrong answers, and focus your efforts on the answers that may be correct. 

Find Similar Answers

When you’re looking at four answers and two of them are similar to each other but not similar to the other answers, in all likelihood one of those two options is the right answer. The one exception to this rule is when two answers use synonyms and are saying the same thing. Since both answers have the same meaning, and only one answer is correct, you can safely assume that neither of these is the right choice. 

Benchmark the Answers

Sometimes all four answers may be true and seem correct. In those instances, you usually need to find the one that is the best answer. Start with Answer A and compare it to B. Pick the one that seems more plausible, and that becomes your benchmarked response. Then compare the more plausible answer to C. Take the more plausible answer and compare it with D (and then E in a five-choice test). When you’ve completed your comparisons, you will have the right answer. 

Number of Appearances

Sometimes you’ll get questions with multiple pieces of data that appear in the answers, with the same data appearing in more than one answer. Items that appear most often are more likely to be the right answer. 

For example:

Which answer choice below only contains dairy items?

  • A. Hamburger, milk, Pepsi, apple
  • B. Butter, yogurt, milk, wine
  • C. Yogurt, milk, cream cheese, tomato
  • D. Yogurt, butter, milk, cream cheese

If you count how many times each item appears and add them together, you will almost always get the right response

  • Hamburger – 1 
  • Milk – 4
  • Pepsi – 1
  • Apple – 1
  • Butter – 2
  • Yogurt – 3
  • Wine – 1
  • Cream cheese – 2
  • Tomato – 1 

Next, we add them together. 

  • A. Hamburger, Milk, Pepsi, Apple 1 + 4 + 1 + 1 = 7
  • B. Butter, Yogurt, Milk, Wine 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 = 10
  • C. Yogurt, Milk, Cream Cheese, tomato 3+ 4 + 2 + 1 =10
  • D. Yogurt, Butter, Milk, Cream Cheese 3 + 2 + 4 + 2 = 11 

D is the correct response. This works because test writers try to tempt test takers with choices that seem legitimate, so they include correct answers in every line. 

Another example of this technique is the following:

Name the event and year that triggered the Great Depression:

  • A. Stock Market Crash, 1929
  • B. World War I, 1929
  • C. Stock Market Crash, 1939
  • D. Killing of Archbishop Ferdinand, 1914

In this example, if we count the elements we get

  • Stock market Crash – 2
  • 1929 – 2
  • World War I – 1
  • 1939 – 1
  • Archbishop Ferdinand – 1
  • 1914 – 1 

Next, we add them together. 

  • A. Stock Market Crash, 1929 2 + 2 =4
  • B. World War I, 1929 1 + 2 = 3
  • C. Stock Market Crash, 1939 2 + 1 = 3
  • D. Killing of Archbishop Ferdinand, 1914 1 + 1 = 2

In this case, the correct answer is A, which also has the highest total.

The Data Behind Tests

In 2014, William Poundstone published Rock Breaks Scissors: A Practical Guide to Outguessing and Outwitting Almost Everybody. In it, he offered several data-based observations about multiple-choice tests. Again, knowledge is your best tool when taking a test, but when you reach questions that you don’t know the answer to, following these tips can swing the results in your favor. 

  1. Choose the longest answer. Your test writer needs to make sure the answer is indisputable, which often means including some qualifying language. 
  2. Choose All or None of the Above – It is the correct answer more than half the time
  3. In a 3-choice question, A, B, and C are used equally. In a 4-choice test, B is slightly higher as the right answer. In a 5-choice test, E is the most likely answer and C is the least likely answer.
  4. True is correct more often than False.

Give Yourself the Edge to Succeed

Knowing the material is always the best path to success but understanding how multiple-choice tests work can give you the edge you need to ace it. If you have a test coming up, check out the courses we offer.