or misconceptions surrounding a concept; this is what instructors do when they create incorrect choices for multiple-choice
exams. The exercise will help you to understand the material
better and avoid common pitfalls.
Take a practice test mimicking test conditions. Most standardized exams have review guides with practice exams. It
helps not only to take those exams, but to take them in conditions similar to the conditions you will see on test day. Give
yourself a quiet place without distractions, and also without the comforts of your dorm room (snacks, music, comfy
chair). A library cubicle, small unoccupied computer lab, or
a dedicated testing/study room would be perfect for taking
most practice exams. If your exam will be administered on a
computer, find out if your career services office or chemistry
department has practice tests online so that you can practice
on a computer.
Sometimes timing is a huge issue; either students rush
through the exam, thinking that they will run out of time, or
suddenly they discover that there are only 10 minutes left and
still 20 questions to go! If you practice often enough, you won’t be
caught unawares by the clock or conditions on your exam day.
Set the stage right for the big day. A good night’s sleep will
do more for your performance on exam day than cramming into
the wee hours to learn one last equation or concept. Put down
the books by dinner, relax, and get to bed early. The chance that
the one last concept you stayed up all night to master will actually be on the exam is small, but it is 100% certain that you will
need to be alert and at the top of your game to do your best.
Nerves can get in the way with multiple-choice exams differently than with other types of exams. When the answers are
already provided, it is easy to second-guess yourself, get confused with all the choices, or even make mistakes in reading the
question. Lack of sleep will only make it harder to stay focused. If
you need to travel to your exam, be sure to leave yourself lots of
time to get to the testing site so that you can relax in the building well before you have to take the test.
During the test
Read the question carefully. Don’t be so worried about getting
to the next question that you miss something easy because
you misread a sentence. Favorite question phrasings include
“all of the following except…” and “which of the following
does” or “does not.” Small details (including use of the words
“except,” “does,” and “does not”) make a big difference in the
meaning of a test question!
If possible and reasonable, determine the answer to a ques-
tion before you look at the provided answer choices. Typically
a test will include some questions where the answer is fairly
obvious and you simply need to look at the answer choices to
solve the question. These sorts of questions tend to contain
the phrases “which of the following…” or “all of the following
except…” Some problems expect you to estimate the magni-
tude of the answer, rather than do all the arithmetic, and then
pick the answer with the correct order of magnitude. But if the
question is straightforward and you are comfortable working
through the problem, then work through it. You are less likely
to be caught up in an easy mistake if you are able to approach
the choices having an answer confidently in mind.
Look at the answers carefully. This is the most common
problem I encounter when I help students prepare for exams.
Be sure to read all the answers — even when you are sure
that the first answer is correct. If you sometimes tend to
skim through the answers, then force yourself to read all the
answers carefully. So many students get caught in the trap of
missing “choice D: both A and C” or another such combination.
Consider all the answers before you commit to the one you
think is correct. Look carefully at all the choices to see if any
answers change your understanding of the problem before you
choose an answer to the question. Sometimes you can spot a
nuance and avoid choosing an obviously incorrect choice when
you examine all of the other possible answers.
Think logically about the provided answer choices if you
don’t know how to answer the question. If you don’t have
any clear idea how to solve a problem, look at the answers
and see if they spark any ideas. Do most of the answers seem
to be reduction products? Then perhaps that reagent you
don’t remember is a reducing agent. Are the units of most of
the answers in grams? Then perhaps the problem is asking
you to solve for a mass. Drawing conclusions from the types
of answers is a great way to jog your memory as to what the
question is really about. Sometimes you can look at answers
and easily eliminate one or two of the answers; for example,
you know you are solving for moles and one of the answers has
kilograms as a unit. If you can narrow the choices down to two
possibilities, it is worth taking a guess and choosing an answer,
even if you aren’t completely certain. Another technique is
to work backwards from the answer and see if you can make
any of them match the question. If you can connect one of the
answers to the question, and solve the problem that way, it
doesn’t matter if you got there back-to-front!
When in doubt, trust yourself. Some students are often so
afraid of trusting themselves to find the correct answer that
they are overwhelmed by all of the choices. Trust yourself! If you
could produce the answer on a blank page, you can recognize
it when it is hidden. If you believe you have the correct answer,
don’t overthink it, just answer the question and move on. If you
are caught between two answers, and you have a hunch that
one is correct, don’t second-guess yourself — instead, go with
your gut. Keep remembering that this is just another test; if you
know the material, you can show that you know the material, no
matter what the format of the exam. Good luck!
Michelle Boucher is an associate professor of chemistry at
Utica College. Between administering the ACS Organic
Chemistry exam as a final in her course and serving as a
mentor on the Utica College Pre-Health Professionals
Committee, she helps many students to prepare for
standardized exams every year.