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Writing multiple‑choice exams

Raise your odds of picking the correct answer with our handy 8-step approach

- April 3, 2014

Make sure it's an educated guess. (Alberto G. photo via Flickr under Creative Commons licence)
Make sure it's an educated guess. (Alberto G. photo via Flickr under Creative Commons licence)

No matter how much studying you do, there’s often that heart-clutching feeling when you’re presented with the exam. The fact that you’re given more than one option as an answer in multiple-choice exams should be more comforting than it is. But it doesn’t have to be so stressful.

Once you’ve read the directions and questions carefully, it’s time to apply a step-by-step approach to improve your success rate. Jessica Chubb, the coordinator of Studying for Success, has offered her top 8 steps for writing multiple-choice exams. Remember: this strategy only works if you’ve studied, so make sure you hit the books well before your exam.

1. Cover up the alternatives

You’re more likely to choose the correct answer if you’ve thought through the question without being distracted by the information presented in the alternative answers.

2. Read and process the question

Underline key words and terms. Ask yourself, “What is this question really asking?” Key words often appear in the form of qualifiers, words that alter a sentence (e.g. always, usually, equal, most, good, bad, is, is not, etc.). They serve as limiting terms by giving a statement a specific meaning that may reduce the likelihood that it’s correct. Noticing negatives, such as no, not, none, never and prefixes such as ‘il’, ‘un’, ‘im’ (as in illogical, uninterested, impatient) is also important because they can reverse the meaning of the statement.

3. Predict an answer

By predicting the answer before you look at the alternatives you’re less likely to be swayed by one with closely related but incorrect concepts or applications. Even if you can’t predict a correct answer, you may be able to identify closely related concepts that are likely to surface in alternative answers.

4. Process each alternative

Read each alternative answer for meaning, not just to recognize familiar terms or phrases. Determine which one best answers the question.

5. Identify the correct response

Now you’re ready to mark the correct alternative on your answer sheet. Choose the correct answer and move on to the next question.

If you’re still stumped and can’t decide on an answer, try these addition steps.

6. Reread the question

Was there anything you missed? Try rephrasing the question in your own words to get a better understanding of what it’s asking.

7. Eliminate wrong answers

If two options still look equally appealing, compare each to the question and make sure that the one you choose answers what is asked, or is the best fit (e.g. it doesn’t need additional information to be correct).

8. Guess

If you’re still unsure, and there’s no penalty for wrong answers, guess. With all of the question processing you’ve done, at least you’ll be making an educated guess! If you aren’t sure that you’ve made the correct choice, put a big question mark beside the question and move on to the next one. Don’t get bogged down on one question. If there’s enough time after you’ve finished the exam, go back to any problematic questions you’ve flagged and try again.

Visit the Student Academic Success Services site for information on study workshops and making an appointment with a study skills coach.


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