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Multiple-choice questions

multiple choice testStudents commonly assume that multiple-choice tests are easier than essay tests. This is because the correct answer is guaranteed to be among the possible responses and students can score points with a lucky guess. Also, since multiple choice exams usually contain many more questions than essay exams, each question has a lower point value and offers less risk.

Despite these factors, multiple-choice tests can be very tricky! Sometimes they only require basic recognition, vocabulary, and knowledge-check questions. More often though, they will require you to compute, apply a concept to new situations, and think critically.

When faced with multiple-choice tests, consider that:

  • Because multiple-choice tests contain many questions, they force students to be familiar with a much broader range of materials.
  • You have to know the course material very well to answer these types of questions. Multiple-choice tests require greater familiarity with details such as specific dates, names, or vocabulary than most essay exams do.
  • Since the answer is being given to you, these questions have to be difficult. You are usually not recalling in the case of a multiple-choice test; you are recognizing it, applying it, and making connections. If you are familiar enough with the material, you should be able to recognize the answer.

Below are some tips to consider when writing multiple-choice exams:

Allot your time

  • Plan how you will use allotted time: divide the time by the number of questions.
  • Try to finish a bit early so that you have time to review.

First, cover the answers and read the question

  • When answering a multiple-choice question, cover up the alternatives and answer the question on your own; then look at the list.
    • Before reading the answer alternatives, attempt your own answer. 
    • If the question does not seem to provide sufficient information about what is being asked, then glance over the alternatives to get a better idea.

Then, read the question and answer options in full

  • You might get excited because the answer seems obvious, but remember to read all of the options, especially with multiple choice. Sometimes, “all of the above” is correct. Or A and C are both correct and that is an option.

Look for clues

  • As you read the question, underline key words in the stem that provide clues for how to answer the question. Underlining key words helps ensure that you understand what is being asked
    • Look for words like only, never, every, none, always, and so on. These words help you make the best possible selection amongst the alternatives.
    • Some multiple-choice questions will contain a lot more information than is necessary. Here, you have to figure out the necessary information to actually solve the question.
    • Convert negative phrasings of the question to positive ones. For instance, a question that asks "which of the following is not true?" could simply be rephrased as "which of the following is false?"

Ignore patterns

  • For multiple-choice questions, you might have five Cs in a row. That doesn’t mean one of your answers is wrong. Stick with analyzing the question and pick the best answer. Don’t pick option A just because it hasn’t been picked in a while; that means nothing!

Answer the question

  • After you have made your answer, test each possible answer to ensure you didn't accidentally miss something.
    • Use a systematic process of elimination by putting a star/ asterisk (*) beside the answer if you think is correct, an "X" if you feel it is not the right one, and a "?" if you are unsure.

Take a guess (unless there are penalties)

  • Unless points are being deducted for getting the answer wrong, always take a guess.
    • If you really don’t know the answer and will not be penalized, go with your gut instinct.
    • However, try not to only focus on your instincts. Sometimes, your instincts say it is one answer just because you recognize a term or phrase. It is more important to break down the question and be analytical when making a choice.
    • Also, see if something later in the exam cues you to the answer for an earlier question.

Strategies to help with guessing

  • View the situation as a problem in probabilities.
    • If there are five answer alternatives from which to choose, your chances of guessing the correct answer alternative are one in five or 20 per cent. But if you can eliminate even just one answer alternative as being clearly wrong, your chances now of guessing the correct answer alternative have risen to one in four or 25 per cent
    • Elimination of additional answer alternatives further increases your chances of guessing the correct answer. So if you must guess, then guess, but do so from among as small a number of answer alternatives as possible.
  • If you must guess, consider if the style of an answer option is different from all the others; this may disqualify the answer or may single it out as correct.
  • When guessing, look at the grammar of the question stem and see if it is in agreement with the grammar of the potential answers. If the answer calls for completing a sentence, eliminate the answers that do not form grammatically correct sentences.
    • If a question uses “a” but an answer starts with a vowel, that could be a hint that the answer is incorrect.
  • Think about when you learned the material in the stem. If an alternative is not from the area or topic of the question but comes from some other part of the course, this may disqualify it.
    • In other words, if you know that the question is referring to content you remember discussing in week 2, but one of the answer options is from week 8 of the course, you can narrow that down.
  • If two answers are similar except for one or two words, this may indicate that one of these two options is correct.
  • If two answers have similar sounding or looking words (for example, intermediate and intermittent), this may indicate that one of these two options is correct.
  • If two quantities are almost the same, this may indicate that one of these two options is correct.
    • Note: These are not guaranteed to lead you to the correct answer, but they can be helpful strategies if you need to guess.

Stay in control

  • We are not in control of the design of the questions but we can get back in control. Ignore everyone else and concentrate on your own technique. If your test is not open-book, it can be helpful to write down a few jot notes on points that you have trouble remembering before you start answering questions.

Let it go and move on

  • If a question has made you feel frustrated or upset, try to let it go. Don’t let one question ruin your chances of getting other answers right, especially if all of the questions are worth the same amount.
  • If you get caught up on a question, mark it down on a scrap piece of paper and then move on to the next question and return to it after you have answered all the other questions. Don’t waste too much time on one single question.

Follow the rules

  • Unless stated otherwise, be sure to complete quizzes, tests, and exams independently, even if they are online. Remember, it is academic misconduct to work collaboratively on a test or assignment that is meant to be completed independently!


Ellis, David B. (2006), Becoming a Master Student. Fourth Canadian Edition ed. Rapid City.
Frederiks, Anita, Kate Derrington, and Cristy Bartlett. (20 January 2021). Types of Exams. In N. Anderson and W. Hargreaves (Eds.), Academic Success. University of Southern Queensland. Accessed at: