Multiple choice exams

Perhaps the most common type of exam, many students need to take Multiple Choice Question (MCQ) tests. The following tips and ideas are aimed at giving you a range of practical strategies you can implement in practice and in MCQ exams.

Read the instructions carefully

Note any conditions. For example:

  • whether you will lose marks for incorrect answers
  • how many answers you can/should give (often one, but sometimes more)
  • how many answer options you will choose from (often 4, but can be more)
  • the nature of the answer process (e.g. choose one only; match one part to another part; possibly add a justification)
  • whether you can review and edit answers before submitting

Consider the time you have

Work out how much time you have relative to the number of questions.

For example, a 1-hour exam with 30 questions means you have 2 minutes average to spend on each question. You will answer some questions more quickly than others, so you do have more time to spend on the harder ones.

Tip: Be your own timekeeper. Some online exams may not have a timer on the screen or may have the timer displayed at the top of the screen. To make sure you don’t spend 10 minutes stuck on one question, set the timer on your phone and place it next to you. That way you know how much time you’ve got left and don’t have to keep scrolling up the page to check the ‘remaining time’.

Read through the whole exam first

If you are able to look through the exam, get an overview of the topics covered and the questions asked. Make a mental note of which section to start in. If the exam restricts you to single sections, have a look through the questions in that section.

Tip: start with the questions you find easiest or are most confident in. This allows you to get some questions answered quickly and means you won’t miss them if you are running out of time at the end.

Read the questions carefully

Take note of any words which give you direction or a clue as to the possible answer.

  • Negative phrasing – you need to look for answers that don’t agree with the stem. For example, ‘Of the following which is NOT an example of intrinsic motivation?’
  • Modifying language – words such as always, never, only, no, all, some, most correct, closest. Options that don’t comply with the phrasing can probably be eliminated. For example, if ‘always’ is used then any answer that doesn’t agree with that absolute position will be wrong.
  • Grammar: question stem to answers – if the question stem is the first part of a sentence and the answer options complete the sentence, any options which grammatically don’t fit the stem can be eliminated.

Read the questions before text or graphic elements

If the questions are accompanied by text to read or graphs/tables to analyse, read the questions first. This lets you be aware of what parts of the text or graphics are most important as you engage with them.

Consider the answer choices carefully

Some strategies for choosing answers:

  • Try covering the answers, then read the question and see if you can answer yourself; if that answer's there it's probably the right one. However, read every answer before making your final choice. You may feel you have the answer, but it may not be the most correct one.
  • Eliminate clearly incorrect answers and focus on the remaining choices.
  • Look for odd ‘outlier’ answers.  E.g. a) softly  b) gently  c) slowly  d) suddenly – d) is probably not right.
  • Select the ‘best’ answer. Often two or more choices are correct, but one answer will always be more correct than the others. It may not be the only correct answer, but it is the best answer.
  • Look for detailed answers. Correct answers often (not always) have more information than others.

Tip: If you can’t decide which is the most correct option between two similar answers, rephrase each answer in your mind. You can do this by adding ‘because’ to the end of the answer, then stating any theories, concepts or evidence you’ve learned about during semester that supports the answer.

Do final checks

If you can manage it, leave some time at the end of the exam to go back to check your answers.

Check you have:

  • answered every question: Always provide an answer. Most MCQ tests do not penalise* for incorrect answers, so an answer is always better than a blank. If you don’t know the answer, have a guess; in a 4-choice MCQ, you have a 25% chance of being correct. (* if you are penalised for incorrect answers, then this strategy may not work)
  • chosen the correct answer: make sure you have selected the answer you meant to choose.
  • complied with the question requirement: if it asks for 2 answers, you have chosen 2.

Pre-exam practice

Practising MCQ questions is a great idea. Try these strategies:

  • Doing practice under exam conditions is important. Time your practice under similar conditions to your exam and try it by yourself without help.
  • Practice in real time. If you have an exam scheduled for 8am, you can train your brain to be alert at this time by starting practice exams at 8am. Similarly, if you know you exam is at 2.30, do your practice then.
  • Study for and complete practice exams in different areas of your accommodation; this can help you find a comfortable spot that helps you focus.
  • To gain actual practice tests, see if there are any past tests at the UniMelb Library site or you may be supplied with past tests by your tutor. If neither of these are options, generate some questions and swap with a study partner.  This will help you engage more deeply with the content.

Final tip

The great thing about MCQ tests is that you know the answer is there somewhere! You just have to find it. Using these techniques will increase your chances of doing exactly that!

Explore all resources

Two people looking over study materials

Looking for one-on-one advice?

Get tailored advice from an Academic Skills adviser by booking an individual appointment, or get quick advice from one of our Academic Writing Tutors in our online drop-in sessions.

Get one-on-one advice