Test Prep

3 Hacks for Succeeding on Multiple-Choice Tests

iStock

The thing about standardized testing is that it’s intentionally, well, standard. That means it should be the same for everybody, right? In theory, yes. But we all know that no two students are exactly the same, and therefore each student will have a different approach for success on a multiple-choice test.

Your SAT prep has probably taught you that everyone works at a different pace, struggles with different questions and tends to make different mistakes. With that said, there is no one way to work through a test like the ACT or SAT. There are, however, a lot of little techniques that you can apply to help you work through these tests and improve your ACT or SAT score.


Look for Answers You Know Are Wrong

Being asked a question with only one correct answer is a little daunting, isn’t it? Not everything is as simple as 2 + 2 = 4. What if someone asks you the capital of Azerbaijan? Stating an answer to that with confidence isn’t so simple, is it?

This is one case in which spotting wrong answers can be easier than finding the right one. And that’s the beauty of multiple-choice: The writers of the test have already narrowed down the list of possible answers for you! Instead of grasping for the answer in an infinite pool of possibilities, you might only have four or five — and one of those will be correct.

So, let’s revisit our question:

What is the capital of Azerbaijan?

A. Paris

B. London

C. Baku

D. Buenos Aires

Making a selection from this list of possibilities is easier. Even if you’ve never heard of any of these, you have a 25 percent chance of picking the right one at random. Chances are, however, that you’re familiar enough with Paris and London to assume that neither one is the capital of Azerbaijan. That gives you a 50 percent chance of picking the right answer. If you’ve heard of Buenos Aires, even if you’re not entirely sure where it is, you might likewise assume that it’s not the capital of Azerbaijan. This should leave you fairly confident in selecting (C), Baku.

Choose a Letter of the Day

With strict time limits during each section of the ACT and SAT, you might not be able to make it to each and every question. Even the fastest test takers often struggle to finish in time. However, there is absolutely no penalty for guessing on either of these tests, and therefore you should never leave a question unanswered. (Did you know this is one of the most common myths about the SAT?)

So whether you run out of time or simply don’t know an answer, a tip I often give students is to choose a Letter of the Day (LOTD). While many may tell you to choose "C" whenever in doubt, the evidence shows that every answer on the ACT or SAT has an equal likelihood of being the correct answer on a given question. (In fact, on the ACT, "C" is only a choice on every other question anyway.)

I suggest choosing one letter to answer every question you when you're unsure. Any of the given choices is fine -- the key here is to remain consistent so you give yourself a better shot at grabbing a few free points on the test. If you choose your guessing letters randomly, however, it’s more likely that you’ll get fewer guesses correct than if you were to just pick one letter and go for it.

Stick to a Steady Pace

There’s plenty of information out there for pacing strategies for the ACT and tips for the SAT, but they really are that important that I will mention them again here. Take time to familiarize yourself with the structure of the ACT and SAT so you know how much time and how many questions you’ll have in each section. This way when you start, you can set aside a few minutes at the end to revisit any questions you may have skipped, using your LOTD to fill them in.

Remember that it’s unlikely that your easiest questions will be another student’s easiest questions, too. Everyone has different strengths in each of these subjects, so it’s imperative that you budget your time wisely! Remember to determine your POOD (Personal Order of Difficulty), and know the structure of the test so time doesn’t get the best of you. After all, time is your biggest enemy here, and staying on top of it will give you the head start you need on your way to a great score!

Ultimately, it’s important that you learn the actual content of the test, and books like our Cracking the ACT or Cracking the SAT can help you go about that. But putting together a specific set of test-taking skills and tactics like these can often be the key to getting the score you want.