Over the past two months, we’ve used this blog to detail a number of common weaknesses on the ACT and to discuss ways of addressing them. Today, we are going to take a wider view of multiple choice tests. The techniques and strategies that we discuss today will apply to multiple choice tests in general, particularly the ACT and SAT.

Many students initially struggle with multiple choice tests simply because it is not a format that is widely used in an academic setting. This is especially true for international students, for whom multiple choice tests are almost always completely foreign. In some ways, the differences between multiple choice tests and “normal” tests are overstated. I encourage students to think about the fact that the ACT and SAT are multiple choice tests as a positive. After all, the test writers are giving you the correct answer! It’s right there on your desk: You just need to find it! There are certainly some tricky answer choices that can lead you astray, but overall, the multiple-choice aspect should make the test easier, not harder.

Think about multiple-choice tests this way: the test writers are giving you the correct answer! It’s right there on your desk. You just need to find it!

Nonetheless, there are several important strategies for multiple choice tests that students have to be aware of. Ignoring these will lead to a score that is well below what a student should score. The first of these is making random and/or educated guesses. On the ACT and SAT, there is no guessing penalty. Your score is determined solely by the number of correct answers: the more, the better. Therefore, if you are not able to answer a question, either because it is too difficult or because you don’t have time, you need to randomly bubble in answer choices. Not doing this is the single easiest way to sabotage your own score.

Things are a little more complicated on the SAT Subject Tests. There is a penalty for incorrect answers here, but it is proportionally much smaller than the benefit you receive from answering correctly. Therefore, if you can eliminate two or three answer choices on an SAT Subject Test, you need to guess between the remaining options! Not doing so will result in leaving valuable points on the table.

The next important technique involves using the answer choices to help you answer a question that you otherwise would not be able to complete. This technique is frequently applied in the Math sections of the ACT and SAT as well as the Math Subject Tests. Let’s look at an example to illustrate this point:

(A) 0.94
(B) 1.04
(C) 1.20
(D) 1.36
(E) 1.56

First, I’ll show you the “correct” way to get this question right:

, and using the calculator for the final step,

= 1.5631

However, not all students have studied logs or even know where to get started on a problem like this. If you find yourself in this situation, try to go directly to the answer choices and plug them in to the question. See if one works. In this case, even if you didn’t know how to solve using logs, you could go through all five answer choices and see which one gave you the desire answer. For example, if I plug in answer choice A, I get . We’re looking for 1337, not 75.86, so we move on. Doing so repeatedly will show you that of all the answer choices, E gets you very close to your target. (You won’t always get an exact answer due to rounding in the answer choices.) While this technique isn’t foolproof, it’s much better than simply giving up if you’re not 100% sure how to start.

Lastly, every student needs to take advantage of process of elimination. This technique applies to all sections of the ACT, SAT, and Subject Tests, but it is particularly useful in the Reading sections of the ACT and SAT, the English section of the ACT, and the Writing and Language test of the SAT.

Don’t ask “which answer do I agree with?” Ask “how can I disagree with this answer choice?”

In many cases, the correct answer on a multiple-choice test will be hidden in vague or unremarkable language. Suppose there were a reading passage that discussed how—in the months leading up to the American Revolutionary War—Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote the Declaration of Independence together. A correct answer choice to a question about this passage might read:

“In the months preceding a conflict, two prominent men collaborated on a document.”

Notice how the answer choice has substituted vague words for specific people and events. “A conflict” replaced the American Revolutionary War; “two prominent men” replaced Thomas Jefferson and John Adams; “a document” replaced the Declaration of Independence. It’s easy to miss those equivalencies though, and on its face, this answer choice is pretty bland and uninspiring. If you find yourself in this situation, where you can’t find an answer choice that seems to answer the question, look for reasons to eliminate answer choices. Don’t ask “which answer do I agree with?” Ask “how can I disagree with this answer choice?” Usually, the one that remains at the end—the answer choice that you cannot disagree with—is the correct one.

There are many different nuances in applying these techniques to the major standardized tests. But if you are aware of these three broad strategies, you’ll ensure that your score on test day is close to your best possible score. Next time you take a practice test, be aware of these, and you should see your score increase.

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