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Multiple Choice Exam Tips and Strategies

A lot of students think that college entrance tests are doable because most of the items are multiple choice questions anyway. But they couldn’t be more wrong. Multiple choice tests are never necessarily less difficult than, say, identification or essay exams. With the right strategy, however, you can turn all those multiple choices to your advantage.

Multiple Choice Exams: An Analysis

Items of this type always have the correct answer as one of the choices, except where a ‘none of the above’ option is given. Only one option is correct, save for those extremely rare cases where two of the given choices are considered right. As you’ll see later on, knowing how to look at this kind of exam plays a part in strategies you can use for it.

Because each choice has to be taken at face value as a possible direct response to the item question, multiple choice exams very rarely ask analytical or interpretative questions, focusing more often on objective ones. There lies their difficulty: you’ll have to have a good grasp of definitions and fundamental facts for the exam. Bluffing and roundabout essays won’t work in multiple choice exams, though certain strategies can help.

To challenge students even more, many teachers and test makers often give two or more answer choices that are very similar to one another. But even when the makers create an exam to be straightforward, answer choices can also be ambiguous at times. This means your language and context must be more or less similar with that of the test designers.

Although countless combinations of individual answer choices exist, they can be grouped into three distinct kinds:

  • there are items where the choices look alike (shortened to CLA, for the purposes of this discussion). Items with CLA choices try to confuse you by giving a set of responses that are so similar in wording and appearance.
  • And then there are items where the choices are different (CAD). Although these seem to be on the other side of the spectrum from CLA, they have the exact same requirement: your knowing exactly what to answer.
  • Stand-out choices (SOC) do just that – stand out. In, say, a five-choice item, you are given four CLA choices and one that starkly stands out. Don’t be fooled! The unique choice is just as likely as the others to be incorrect.
  • Mix-and-match items have answer choices that are split up into two or more parts which are then mixed and matched between each choice. This can be confusing, and is usually used on questions referring to components and processes.

The four types are all subsumed under the multiple choice category, but there’s a specific way to strategically deal with each kind.

When Choices Look Alike

Say you were given a question and corresponding answer choices that looks like this:

Which presents stages of mitosis in the correct order?

a) Prophase – Metaphase – Interphase – Telophase

b) Prophase – Metaphase – Anaphase – Telophase

c) Prophase – Metaphase – Prometaphase – Telophase

d) Prophase – Metaphase – Cytokinesis – Telophase

This is clearly an item with a case of CLA, as all the choices are identical save for each one’s third stage. Even if you studied the terms related to mitosis, you’d still have trouble getting to the correct answer if you don’t know the exact process. Here’s how to make an educated guess in this case.

If you read about interphase, you’d know that it’s the preparatory stage of mitosis. But if it’s a preparatory step – that is, it occurs at the start – why does it appear as the third step? This eliminates A. Similarly, you’d know that cytokinesis is the very last step, and so D would get disqualified as well.

The term ‘prometaphase’ sounds like a portmanteau of prophase and metaphase, which in turn suggests that it’s a transitionary phase between prophase and metaphase. But since it appears after both prophase and metaphase in the choices, you can eliminate C as the right answer,  leaving you with B – the correct response.

Consider only the important parts where the differences are placed; in this case, you only have to look at the third step of each process. Since the rest of the text in the choices are identical anyway, they only serve as distractions in CLA items.

When Choices are Different

How would you deal with a multiple choice item that looked like this:

Based on the proposed timeline of evolution, which of the following structures are likeliest to develop first?

a) head

b) bones

c) opposable limbs

d) feet

This is a good example of a CAD item, as each choice is different from all the others. It might seem that knowing the exact answer to this question is the only way to deal with the item, but there’s actually another way to get points out of it.

You could start by analyzing for any possible relationships between any of the choices. In this case of a Biology question, for example, you could use your common sense to say that bones (or at least some rigid support structure) are a prerequisite for both opposable limbs and feet to emerge. With this, you could immediately eliminate C and D and thus give yourself a higher chance of getting the right answer.

Finding that correct answer requires a little more study on your part. Sometimes, though, the key to getting the right choice is simply finding an example that will support one answer or the other. In this case, you might want to try recalling that the development of a basic head – cephalization – occurs in groups as old as annelids, while bones emerge much, much later in evolution. This suggests that A is the correct choice.

You can rely on the uniqueness of the answer for each item to help point out a plausible answer. Once you’re able to create relationships between different, you’ll also be able to eliminate one or two choices at a time because one is subsumed under the other.

When One Item Stands Out

It cannot be stressed enough that having one answer choice distinct from the rest is never a guarantee that it’s the right one. In the following question, for example, you can’t be sure that A is the correct answer simply because it stands out.

You are in the laboratory preparing a homogeneous solution made of two different substances to a specific concentration. What would be the best course of action if you accidentally added too much solvent?

a) Add more solute

b) Add more solvent

c) Add more solute and solvent

d) Dispose of the solution and start over

To the strategy-less test taker, D is the most tempting choice because it’s the odd one out of the bunch. But if you take a few extra seconds to analyze the question and the choices, the correct answer should be fairly obvious. Since the problem is too much solvent, B and C are immediately wrong because they add even more solvent. And because adding more solute to fix the solute-solvent ratio is a valid remedy, there’s no need to resort to D.

Never settle for the odd one out just because it’s the odd one out. Use other strategies that work equally well for SOC items. When you disregard the odd one out, for example, you can use the same strategy you did for CLA. If you’re not able to get an answer that way, then chances are good that it’s really the odd choice out that’s the correct one.

When the Items are Mixed and Matched

Mix-and-match items tend to be quite confusing, not in the least because all the items are so similar to each other yet have very different meanings. Try this question, for example

Given a closed system, which pair of conditions will most likely accompany an increase in volume of the container?

a) constant pressure, constant temperature

b) constant pressure, lower temperature

c) higher pressure, lower temperature

d)                lower pressure, constant temperature

As you can see, the answer choices are split into two parts: the factor (temperature or pressure) and the change in that factor (higher, lower or constant). In order to answer this question, you’ll have to know about one of the more basic equations in Chemistry: PV = nRT. That fundamental concept will guide you toward D, the correct answer.

The important thing to remember is that all of the parts of each answer must be correct in order for the choice itself to be correct. As soon as one part is erroneous, the choice itself becomes incorrect. Don’t forget to also consider situations like the example above where the parts can go hand-in-hand with each other.

Multiple Strategies for Multiple Choices

As a test-taking strategy, guessing is simply the worst way to go about answering a multiple choice exam, even when your study time was short of optimal. Strategy-based approaches are simply the best way to attack a multiple choice test and make sure that you get as high a score as possible.

  • Eliminate choices as soon as you can. Even if you end up getting left with two choices that look equally correct, you have a higher chance of getting the right answer should you resort to guessing.

  • Look at the wording, especially for answer choices that look very similar. Little changes in tense or object can alter the meaning of the statement in a big way.

  • Question absolutes. These generalizations are rarely correct because there’s often one or two exceptions to them. When you see buzzwords like always or never, be on your guard and check to determine any counter-examples.

  • Do the easy ones first. Time pressure is very real in multiple choice exams, so don’t give too much time and effort to any one item. Besides, this is futile because many exams give equal weight to both easy and difficult items.

  • Allot time for multiple runs. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll finish all of the test questions on your first go. Split the test time up such that you leave yourself some margin to go back on all those questions you skipped the first time around.

Yes, the strategies outlined above can help you boost your score in any multiple choice exam. A good score, however, always starts with sufficient study and review prior to the test. Even if you’re familiar with all the techniques above, passing will be difficult if you don’t have a grasp on basic concepts to begin with.


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