Exam Preparation: Multiple Choice Exam Strategies

Exam preparation

  • If you have already written a test in the course, use that test as a guide to what type of material to study and what style of practice questions to compose.
    • Make an appointment to see the previous test if it is not returned to you.
  • Study both major concepts and details. Pay attention to relationships, similarities, and differences between concepts.
  • Study to the point at which you are able to express concepts in your own words and apply the material, not just to the point of recognizing it.

Practice with sample questions

  • Find sample questions on previous exams, study guides, Canvas, or online sources.
  • Even better, “get inside the professor’s head” by composing your own sample multiple-choice questions throughout the semester, after each lecture and reading, and saving these questions to practice with before your test.
    • Include as wrong answers concepts that are similar to, and can be easily be confused with, the right answer.
    • Some questions should test for a thorough understanding of course concepts and others should test for knowledge of details and terminology.
    • Include questions that ask you to apply course concepts to scenarios you make up.
    • Some questions should integrate material from different parts of the course.
    • Exchange your questions with classmates to obtain a more comprehensive pool of practice questions.
  • Save some practice questions for the last couple of days before the exam and practice under timed, exam-like conditions.

Exam writing

Manage your time

  • At the beginning of the exam, divide the time you have by the number of marks on the test to figure out how much time you should spend for each mark.
    • Adjust this figure to leave somewhat more time for essay questions in mixed format exams (as these require some thinking through), for reviewing your answers, and, if applicable, for transferring your answers to a computer answer sheet.
  • If the exam is a mixed format, answer the multiple choice questions first. Information from the multiple choice questions may help you answer the essay or short answer question

Read carefully

  • Read the directions.
  • To avoid becoming confused by the list of possible answers, first, cover up the answer alternatives and read only the question stem.  Try to guess the answer.  Then read the answer alternatives carefully.
    • If your guess is there, tentatively choose it but look at other options as well in case they are also correct and there is an “all of the above” or “(a) and (b)” option.
    • If you cannot guess or if your guess is not among the possible answers, consider all choices and cross off answers that you know to be incorrect.
    • Don’t spend too much time thinking about the question if you don’t know the answer; just mark it to come back to later.
  • Don’t read too much into a question.  If a question seems simple, it probably is.
  • When reading the question stem or an answer alternative, pay attention to, and circle, key terms and words such as “not”, “always” and “unless”.
  • Watch out for closely similar words, concepts, and formulae.
  • If you are having trouble understanding the question, rephrase it in your own words, including rephrasing double negatives as a positive (e.g. Rephrase “It is not true that this alternative is not true” as “This alternative is true”).

When in doubt

  • When stuck between alternatives, read each possible answer with the question stem.
    • The answer won’t just be a correct statement in and of itself; it will be correct in combination with the question stem.
    • The answer should be grammatically correct when combined with the question stem.
  • When you come back to a difficult question you skipped the first time:
    • Read the question again carefully as you may have originally misread the question.
    • If you still don’t know the answer and are running out of time, take a guess – even a random one - unless marks are being deducted for wrong answers.  Where no marks are being deducted, don’t leave any question blank.
  • Go with your first impulse; change your answers only if you are sure they are wrong.
  • Do not get caught up in myths about multiple choice questions such as, “when in doubt, go with (c)”, or “(b) can’t be right as the last two answers were (b).”
  • If you are answering on a computer answer sheet, use a ruler to stay on the right line and periodically review to make sure you haven’t skipped a line when filling in the bubbles.

For additional information on exam preparation and writing strategies, see our Exam Preparation page.


Some suggestions in this handout were adapted from “Learning from Multiple-Choice Exams” from the University of Western Ontario’s Student Development Services web site, the Psy 100 Handbook 1994-1995, Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, Modified by Dr. K.R. Blankstein, June 15, 1998, and “Fastfacts – Multiple Choice Exams” on the University of Guelph’s Library website, which also contains a list of strategies specific to online multiple choice exams.