The most important tests you will ever take are presented in multiple-choice format. Your driver's exam, Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), even your voter ballot all offer numerous options. For some of these tests there is no penalty for guessing, but for others it can hurt. On the SAT, for example, you won't lose anything for leaving an answer blank, but you will if you answer incorrectly. This rule is meant to discourage students from simply crossing their fingers and filling in a bubble. Although the odds are quite low that you will receive a good score simply by guessing, they improve dramatically if you learn how to do so intelligently.
What do we mean?
Science is one of the last subjects you'd expect to actively encourage conjecture ...but it does! The term hypothesis is nothing more than a fancy Greek word for an educated guess. So, even if they walk around in nice, white lab coats and carry clipboards, even scientists occasionally make assumptions. But they do so intelligently. Just like doctors, they have a pretty good idea of the likelihood of any given outcome, which is why they always go with the best-case scenario.
When to guess on a test
As you are undoubtedly aware, most standardized tests have three or four wrong answers for every right one. Some of these questions offer no room for interpretation, no nuance. A math question, for example, is often fairly straightforward. So, if you don't know it and there's a penalty for it, don't guess! But, if you are able to eliminate at least one possible option, supposition may be the best strategy.
Identify the distracters
Incorrect multiple-choice answers are technically known as distracters. They aren't there to confuse good students, but rather to identify those that don't know the material. As a result, unprepared students are far more likely to take the bait and select a distracter, while those who have a fairly firm grasp of the subject should be able to spot these phony answers from a mile away. At the very least, they should be able to eliminate one or two of the more ludicrous answer options.
No, we aren't giving you the greenlight to guess on every answer. But if you can eliminate at least one, preferably two of the distracters, it is often pays to make a selection and move on. Remember, if you can possibly whittle your options down from one in five to one in three, you will score better on average, even if there is a penalty for guessing.
"None of the above" is often wrong
Even on standardized tests, human beings actually composed the questions and the answers. And as a general rule, people don't enjoy tricking other people. More often than not, they want to give them a fair or fighting chance to get the right answer. Therefore, the infamous "none of the above" option is seldom correct. Once again, we do not aver that this is always the case, but simply that it is a better, less risky bet. So, if you know for certain that there is at least one distracter and "none of the above" is an option, it may be a good idea to take a stab at it.
"All of the above" is often right
If the correct answer is complicated and involves several different aspects, many standardized tests will utilize partially accurate answers as distracters. They may give options such as "A and C are correct" or "B and D are correct," and then include the familiar "all of the above" option at the end. This choice isn't always or even usually right, but if you can eliminate at least one other option, it may be best to gamble. And if you can rule out two options, always roll the dice.
Should you guess C?
Unless you're a super genius who is always prepared for each and every test, you will inevitably encounter at least a few questions that leave you flummoxed. Because time is almost always an issue on multiple-choice exams
, you must choose between guessing and leaving the answer blank. While we do not endorse this advice with any degree of certainty, it is often true that the most baffling questions have C as an answer. Why is this?
These are the tough questions that are meant to stump even the most industrious of students, which often means the answer options are quite similar. When this is the case, the creators of the test have a funny habit of hiding the right answer between the distracters, since they know only the sharpest students will be able to uncover them. So, selecting C on one of these brain busters is sometimes a good strategy.
Know the material!
Any list of tips on how to ace a multiple-choice exam would obviously be incomplete without mentioning the most crucial advice of all-study! As difficult as they may be, these tests really are designed to weed out students who don't know the subject matter. After all, the right answer is always right in front of you. It's not like you have to fill in a blank or come up with something from scratch. As long as you have a good grasp of the material, it should be a breeze to fill in the right bubble most of the time. And when you don't know the correct answer for certain, use your judgment and follow our advice, when appropriate.
We would be remiss if we didn't at least discuss a few scenarios where you absolutely should not guess. As we mentioned, guessing is a sound strategy in most cases. But if you are completely clueless on a question that is really not that difficult, simple filling in C may not inure to your benefit. In fact, it may result in a lower grade or score if you apply the strategy injudiciously.