How To Pass A Multiple Choice Test
When You Don't Know The Answers


There is a "Peanuts" comic strip that shows a little girl sitting at her school desk, examining the test paper just handed her. "An essay test!", she exclaims, "I'm doomed! Why couldn't the teacher have given us a multiple choice test? I hate it when you have to know what you are writing about."

How much do you have to know to pass a multiple choice test? Less than you might expect! You can "psych" out any multiple choice test by means of a few common-sense rules, plus the knowledge that the persons who devised the test were (in most cases) human.

Remember that the people who construct the tests work from a few basic principles. First, they try to bury the correct answer among the alternate choice distractors, which are wrong. The first rule then is:
The correct answer tends to be the third choice if there are five alternatives and the second or third choice if there are four alternatives.

One student claims he got through college merely by choosing the third alternative answer on all his multiple choice tests!

The second rule is: An alternative answer which is much longer or shorter than the others tends to be the correct answer.

Often the examiner makes an answer very long to include possible exceptions, as for example, answer (C) in this question. "America was discovered by (A) the Canadians, (B) the Germans, (C) either an Italian sailing for Spain or the Vikings, (D) the Ukranians, (E) the Chinese." Answer (C), of course, is the most correct choice.

On the other hand, the examiner may leave off just one word from a sentence and make that word the correct alternative, as in answer (C) in this question. "Biology is the study of (A) plants, chemicals and falling bodies, (B) cells and protoplasm, (C) life, (d) numbers and their geometric applicabilities, (E) the heavens and earth." The shortest answer is correct.

The third rule is: When the term and the alternative do not make grammatical sense when read as a complete sentence, that choice is wrong. For example only answer (C) completes a grammatically complete sentence in this question. "The opposite of an optimist is a (A) optometrist, (B) reactionaries, (C) pessimist, (D) fatalists, (E) altruist."

The fourth rule is: Alternatives which include the words "all," "always," "none," or "never" tend to be wrong. The corollary of this rule is: Alternatives which include the words "most," or "some" tend to be correct.

The reason for this double rule is that very few things in life happen always or never. Your examiner will not leave himself open to such contradictions.

The fifth rule is: Look for clues in other questions. One question might be "Who invented the cotton gin?" Three questions later there might be the phrase "Whitney's cotton gin...." Hopefully bells will ring and you will go back to the other question.

The sixth rule is: If among several alternatives, two are exactly the same except for one word, one of them is usually the correct answer. This rule still leaves the examinee with a fifty-fifty choice, but at least the options are much narrower than among a whole group of alternatives. For example, answer (C) is correct in the following question: Supplementary angles are (A) two angles which are opposite each other, (B) two angles which are formed by a transversal cutting parallel lines, (C) two angles adding up to 180 degrees, (D) two angles adding up to 90 degrees." The examinee following rule number six has only to choose between answers (C) and (D).

The seventh rule is: "None of the Above" is usually the wrong answer. The examiner uses this phrase as an alternative when he cannot think of any others.

The eighth, and final rule, is: If you are sure that two alternative answers are correct and another alternative is "All of the above" that is usually the correct answer.

And a final word to the wise: Find out before the examination if it is worthwhile to guess. If the examiner says there is no penalty for guessing, answer every question. If there is a penalty for guessing, guess only when you can eliminate a few choices as being obviously wrong.

* 48 Campbell Lane, Menlo Park, CA 94025

Notes: This article was first published April 1975 in CQ Magazine at page 45. My students always found this article very helpful, but I feel compelled to point out several grammatical problems:
1. There can be only two "alternatives" from the Latin root, an alternative is one of two.
2. Saying "more correct" is poor English since "correct" (line "unique") does not admit of comparison. The author would better have said "more nearly correct."

As a further note, examiners often say there is a penalty for guessing when in truth there is none! For example, if there are five choices and one quarter (1/4) of a point is subtracted for each wrong answer, there is still no penalty for guessing--there is just no reward for guessing! (Do the mathematical analysis for yourself and you will see that this is true.)

Robert Kern Curtis - July 14, 2006