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How to Ace Exams and Tests

Updated on June 19, 2013

About the Author

Everymom holds a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics, with a specialty in Assessment. She is also a Massachusetts Dept. of Elementary & Secondary Education Qualified MELA-O Trainer. She has worked as an Assessment Specialist for an urban school district and as an exam scorer for a national test developer. She has passed every test or exam she has ever taken.

Strategies for Multiple Choice, Short Answer and Open Response Tests

Tests and exams, especially timed tests with high stakes such as state exams (in Massachusetts, even though it is technically an untimed test, passing the 10th grade MCAS is a requirement for receiving a high school diploma, no matter how well a student does in his/her classes), the SATs, GREs, educator licensure exams, Microsoft Office Specialist certification tests, etc., make people very nervous. Many don’t perform as well at the time of the test as they do in practical application work, usually untimed, precisely because of anxiety issues. This is a normal response and a little bit of anxiety has been shown to be beneficial, as it helps individuals sharpen their focus. The following strategies for multiple choice and short answer questions will help any test-taker reduce anxiety to manageable levels, if not eliminate it altogether.

While we all would like to achieve perfect scores, the best strategy is to aim for a perfect score but be realistic and don’t get hung up on one specific question, especially on a timed test. The most important thing is to finish all the items in a test, to ensure that you meet the minimum passing score. For professional exams, in particular, this could make the difference between achieving the credential and having to take the test all over again. For example, I recently took a Microsoft Word 2010 certification exam. I would love to be able to say that I got a perfect score of 1,000. However, I got hung up on the wording of a couple of items, out of a total of 20 items. You only have a total of 50 minutes to finish the test. So, I skipped those items and kept on going. I went back to the items and completed one while only doing half of the other. In the last minute left, I simply clicked on the button that submitted that half answer. My score? 896. I definitely passed since the minimum passing score is 700. Again, I would love to have batted a thousand; but I am thrilled that I can add the credential to my résumé, without having to take the test again, paying in dollars and anxiety.


Text excerpt from "Maria Mitchell, Astronomer and Teacher"

“"The eye that directs the needle, “ astronomer Maria Mitchell observed, “will equally well bisect a star…” The eye she referred to was that of women, almost all of whom knew how to sew back when Maria Mitchell was born in 1818. However, Maria believed that women could also do much more than oversee a household. The third of ten children in a Quaker family in Massachusetts, Maria grew up in a home where learning was part of living. Most people of that era thought girls didn’t need academics. Yet Maria’s parents taught all of their children to learn just for the sheer love of knowledge.

“Her father recognized Maria’s talent for mathematics and science. He taught her celestial navigation to set ships’ clocks, and to observe the stars. Maria was just twelve when she helped her father record an eclipse. As a teen, she spent countless nights watching the sky from the roof of their home. These interests were unusual for young women of her day. Few studied the sciences or mathematics. Fewer still became physicians or researchers. But change was happening ever so slowly. During her life, Maria worked as a scientist and as a teacher to lead that change.”

How to Ace a Multiple Choice Test

The best strategy for success on a multiple choice test is simple: elimination. Most multiple choice tests offer four possible answers. Using the elimination strategy is easy: of the three or four choices you are given, eliminate as many as possible. Even if you only manage to eliminate two of four choices, you have now given yourself a 50-50 chance to get it right.

Multiple Choice Strategy #1 - Elimination

Let’s take a look at an example from a 5th grade Mid-Year Benchmark Assessment in Reading Comprehension (published by Harcourt). The directions read: “Now answer numbers 15 through 20. Base your answers on the article “Maria Mitchell, Astronomer and Teacher.” The article given in the test is about a page and a half long.

Here is the third question, number 17:

“What event led to Maria’s winning a gold medal for her work?”

f) Maria sent surveys all around the country.

g) Students at Vassar attended “dome parties.”

h) Women paid for a telescope for Maria to use at Vassar.

i) Maria discovered a comet while looking through a telescope.”

Analysis of Multiple Choice Example #1

The answer (i) is found in this excerpt from the selection:

“On October 1, 1847, Maria really made her mark in astronomy. As she watched the sky through her father’s telescope, a comet sped into her field of view. […] Fame followed Maria’s discovery, and she received a gold medal for her work.”

“As she watched the sky through her father’s telescope, a comet sped into her field of view” is the concrete answer to question 17. “…she received a gold medal for her work” is the confirmation of that answer. The other options are also bits and pieces of information from the text selection, but, while they are facts about Maria Mitchell’s life, they are, quite simply, not germane to the question being asked.

Multiple Choice Strategy #2 - Making Inferences

Most questions on multiple choice tests are concrete, but some require making inferences (reading between the lines and making a logical best guess about something, such as how a character feels). The elimination strategy, while not completely foolproof, is still a test-taker’s best bet.

Let’s take a look at another question from the same test, based on the same reading selection: “Based on the article, what was unusual about Maria’s desire to study and teach astronomy?

f) Most women preferred biology.

g) Most women were housekeepers.

h) Most people thought learning was unimportant.

i) Most people feared scientific ideas.”

While this seems to be a fact-based type of question, it still requires making a bit of an inference. You need to go back to the text (you can read the first two paragraphs, where the answer to number 15 can be found, in the capsule at the right here) and scan for the information, then reach your own logical conclusion in order to eliminate some of the answer choices.

Analysis of Multiple Choice Example #2

Let’s analyze the choices, based on the text. Is there anything in the text that supports choice f)? No. The text does not actually say that most women of Maria’s day preferred biology. In fact, it says that “few” women studied the sciences and we know that biology is a science. Looking at option g), is there anything in the text that actually says that most women were housekeepers? Not really, though the text does say that most women in her day knew how to sew and that Maria believed women could do more than “manage a household.” How about options h) and I)? Does the text explicitly or implicitly state that “learning was unimportant” or that “most people feared” science? Definitely not. In fact, the text leads us to believe that most people thought learning was unimportant specifically for women, but that it was important for men. And it doesn’t say anything about fearing scientific ideas. Hmmm. We have just eliminated all of the options, so that means we have to revisit one, in view of the question asking specifically about Maria’s choice being unusual. Logically, based on our general knowledge of the role of women before the 20th century, on the text’s implications (from the sentence “Maria believed that women could also do much more than oversee a household”) and on our process of elimination, the MOST LIKELY correct answer MUST be option g): “Most women were housekeepers.”

Making inferences is difficult because the test-taker is not privy to the assumptions that the test item writer is making about things like general background knowledge of cultural norms. But using a process of elimination greatly increases the test-taker’s chances of choosing the correct answer.

How to Answer Short Answer or Open Response Questions Strategy #1: Count the elements in the direction line.

The trick to answering short answer, or open response, type questions is to read the directions carefully and count required elements. While some questions’ direction lines are fairly straightforward – such as, “How is the conflict in this story resolved? Use details and information from the story to support your answer.” – other direction lines give a set-up or explanation and then multiple steps. You must ALWAYS answer all parts of the question for full marks. For example, an educator licensure exam might formulate a question regarding adolescent development like this: “In Document 53, Mr. X’s students were having trouble working in groups after the school assembly on Tuesday. Give two examples of how the students displayed normal adolescent behavior. Explain each of your answers based on accepted theories of normal adolescent growth and development.”

Short Answer/Open Response Strategy #1, Part A

1. Identify and count the elements (parts) of a question, from the direction line.

2. Scan any reference text given to you in the direction line.

How to Identify and Answer Direction Line Element 1

The first part of this direction line gives the reference material, Document 53; this tells the test-taker where to find the examples requested. Then, the direction line states “give two examples of…normal adolescent behavior.” That means the test-taker must scan Document 53 for examples of student behavior (NOT the teacher’s behavior, NOT classroom management techniques, NOT group work techniques and DEFINITELY NOT the test-taker’s opinion of what the teacher could have/should have done or the test-taker’s philosophy of education or of the behavior of today’s teens in general). In the Answer Space on the exam, you should therefore put two lines, labelled A) and B), like this:



You should then scan the reference material to find the two examples and write them in, for example, as below:

A) Students complained about having to work after the Assembly.

B) Two students asked to change groups.

Simply listing the two examples straight from the reference text, in complete sentences, and with A) and B) labels helps you measure completion of the direction line; this answer (depending, of course, on what the actual –rather than my fictional - Document 53 states as a scenario) satisfies the requirement to “give two examples of student behavior.” But, you aren’t finished answering this question yet! The directions go on: “Explain each of your answers…” This means that you MUST give two separate explanations, if you want full marks.

Short Answer/Open Response Strategy #1, Part B

1. When a direction line says "Explain your answer," make sure to give a short, direct explanation - NOT your opinion, what the teacher should/could have done, etc.

2. Give as many explanations as the direction line requires. If the directions are to "explain each answer" and the first part asks for two, make sure you give TWO, SEPARATE explanations!

How to Identify and Answer Direction Line Element #2

You can make sure that the exam scorer knows you are complying with this second direction line by giving your second part a title, like “Explanations.” But you don’t need to. You do need to reason through your explanation, since it must be based on accepted (again, NOT your personal opinion!) theories of normal adolescent development.

For example A), one explanation could be: “This shows normal development because adolescents like to challenge authority.” If you remember specific theories and their exponents clearly, you should add this information to support your statement. However, you will likely receive credit even for such a short answer. For example B), you MUST give a different reason, to make sure that the person scoring your exam can definitely give you the points (scoring does NOT depend on the person scoring but on the criteria given by the exam agency, the state, etc. on their scoring rubrics); a different reason, based on accepted theories of adolescent development, could be: “Students might want to change groups because they probably want to be with their friends; social groups are very important to teenagers.” Please note: YOU NEED the second sentence to get the point because that is the “accepted theory of adolescent development” on which your first sentence “they probably want to be with their friends” rests.

How to Make a M-E-A-L of your Answer

My Thesis: What is your answer to the question, based on your informed (by the text) opinion?

Evidence: Find direct proof of your statement/opinion/thesis in the text (direct quote).

Analysis: Use your own words to say how the quote you chose supports or proves your thesis.

Link back: Use slightly different words to re-state your thesis, as a concluding sentence.

(Repeat steps E and A as often as necessary to make or reinforce your thesis, your point.)

Short Answer/Open Response Strategy #2: Make a M-E-A-L

You’re probably shaking your head, saying, “What?!” This is a strategy that works best for the first type of short answer or open response question, the kind that seems straightforward, like this one, taken from the Spring 2007 Grade 8, English Language Arts/Reading Comprehension MCAS: “Describe how the author characterizes Julius and Stanley in the excerpt. Support your answer with relevant and specific information from the excerpt.”

M-E-A-L is an acronym and a strategy that I learned in a Professional Development seminar offered by the Boston Public Schools, for whom I was a high school teacher (I’ve taught English Language Arts, English as a Second Language and Spanish). This strategy was created by Joanne Rogers and her ELA teachers at Charlestown High School and was later shared with the rest of the district.

"M" Is for "My Thesis"

My Thesis: write your idea or opinion that answers the question given (in our example, what do you think the author wants us, the readers, to think about Julius, as a person? What do you think the author want us, the readers, to think about Stanley, as a person?

"E" Is for Evidence

Evidence: what is the evidence, or proof, that you find in the text for the idea or opinion you stated in My Thesis, above? Find just ONE direct quote. For the example given above, that’s ONE direct quote about Julius AND ONE direct quote about Stanley.

"A" Is for Analysis

Analysis: now analyze the direct quote you used above, always in light of the question. That is, how does the direct quote you chose showor illustrate Julius’ character, as you stated in your opinion/idea statement? How does the other direct quote you chose show Stanley’s personality or character, as you stated in your idea/opinion statement?

"L" Is for Link Back

Link back to My Thesis: this is your concluding sentence; link it back, using slightly different words, to your idea/opinion as stated in My Thesis.

If you have space on your answer page, and time, you can add more evidence and analysis (but, remember, do NOT add evidence without providing the analysis!). Evidence and analysis go together to comply with the “support your answer with relevant and specific information from the [text]” direction.

A Strategic Approach Improves Exam and Test Scores

To optimize your time on a multiple choice test or exam, read the directions and each item carefully, then proceed to eliminate as many of the answer options you are given as possible. Sometimes, you will need to refer back to a text and leap to a conclusion (make an inference); just remember to apply logic to your guess, so it becomes an educated guess, or good inference! Short answer, or open response, questions require careful attention to how many parts, or elements, a direction line has, and ALWAYS, make sure you give evidence for your answer. Apply these strategies to your next texts (combined, of course, with actually studying your course materials!), and you will see definite improvement in your scores!


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  • everymom profile image

    Anahi Pari-di-Monriva 4 years ago from Massachusetts

    Thank you for stopping by, reading, and - especially - for commenting, Michael Ely!

  • michael ely profile image

    michael ely 4 years ago from Scotland

    Great article everymom. A lot of information you've put in here.

  • everymom profile image

    Anahi Pari-di-Monriva 5 years ago from Massachusetts

    Thanks so much! If they use any of the strategies, please ask them to let me (and you - us!) know how they did! And if they have any additional strategies that work for them, please share with me (every teacher is really a collector - of things (manipulatives, books, posters, etc. to use in the classroom) and techniques/strategies). Thanks for reading and sharing! :-)

  • Abby Campbell profile image

    Abby Campbell 5 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

    Definitely a useful hub! Thank you for sharing, and I'm passing this on to my two daughters in college. ;)