10 Strategies for Answering Multiple Choice Questions on the ACT and SAT

Hand completing a multiple choice exam

Multiple choice questions appear on almost every type of assessment. They are not written with the intention of trying to trick you or to make to you feel intellectually inadequate. They’re just an easy way to measure how much you’ve learned.

We’ve got 10 strategies for handling multiple choice questions that can benefit you on test day. Follow these tips to make sure you get the best possible score on your next ACT or SAT exam.

1. Read carefully.

Know ahead of time what the directions for each type of question will be on the test. This will help you save time that should be spent answering the questions themselves. Read all of the questions carefully. Be on the lookout for emphasized words such as not or except, and for absolute words such as always or never. Last but not least, make sure you answer what the question is asking for, especially wordy questions and multi-step questions. It’s great that you solved correctly for x, but make sure the question isn’t asking for x + 5.

2. Read through the answer choices before attempting to answer the question.

This is especially helpful on more difficult questions. At first glance, some questions may seem complex, but just seeing the style of the answer choices may give you an idea on how to start finding a solution for the correct answer. And be sure to read through all the answer choices. The correct answer may be the last one!

3. When in doubt, guess.

Answer every single test question. On the new SAT, there is no longer a penalty for answering questions incorrectly, so your score will not be affected negatively by guessing. In most cases, you have a 20-25% chance of answering the question correctly when guessing.

4. Eliminate obviously incorrect choices.

Incorrect answer choices may take the form of outliers – answers that don’t look similar to, or match the format of, other answer choices. For example, if three answer choices are negative and one is positive, chances are that the positive choice is incorrect. When you know that one or two answer choices are definitely incorrect, cross them off immediately in the test booklet. Having to answer a question with only two or three possible choices is more manageable than a question with four or five choices.

5. Feel free to write all over the test booklet.

Nothing you write on or inside the actual test booklet is scored. So it won’t hurt to write quick notes, calculations, diagrams, or any other visual aid that may help you determine your answer.

6. Mark up diagrams in the test booklet.

Writing given information or any deducible information directly on a diagram, figure, or chart provides an extra visual aid that can help you answer a question. Feel free to draw your own diagrams or charts directly in the booklet for questions that don’t provide them.

7. Pace yourself.

Know beforehand the average amount of time you will have to answer each question. Periodically look at your watch or a clock throughout the test to help pace yourself. You can circle or mark any questions you skip or guess on directly in the test booklet and then go back to these at the end, time permitting. Also, be on the lookout for similar questions that may appear before or after questions you skip. These can provide hints, or trigger your memory on a method or procedure needed to solve the questions you skipped.

8. Substitute numbers to solve math questions.

You can solve certain multiple choice math questions by picking an answer choice or other number, substituting that into a given equation, and seeing if the end result works. Substituting numbers can also be helpful when trying to identify counterexamples – a useful tactic for determining the correct answer by process of elimination.

9. Break questions down into smaller, simpler parts.

This is a useful strategy for handling complicated questions. If you need to find the cost of 1,500 units of something, first try finding the cost of 1 unit of that thing.

10. Don’t expect to find patterns in the answer choices.

The ACT and SAT are designed to have answer choices randomly distributed, with no one answer choice appearing significantly more than any other. Don’t try to invent patterns in your head the day you take the test!