How to tackle multiple choice questions on aptitude tests?

In a nutshell: By any means necessary!

Multiple choice questions (MCQs) are the base for pretty much all aptitude based tests. It is always the question stem and the answer choices together that form an aptitude test question. So, just reading the question stem, figuring out the right answer, and then searching for the answer among the answer choices would never be an ideal starting point.

Here I discuss a few simple strategies that would help you in attempting MCQs on aptitude based tests:

1.Convert the question into its simplest form: Practice to read and understand the questions correctly. The language can be a bit tricky at times with some keywords to watch out for. These change completely what is actually being asked in the question.

Simplify question to a form that is easier to understand, and answer

For example, say at the end of a reading comprehension passage you have a question that begins with a statement that says “All of the following are possible EXCEPT”. Now, if you do not pay attention to what exactly is being asked here you’d end up selecting a wrong option — with confidence, I might add. The best way to avoid such mistakes is to simplify the question (e.g. In this case the question could become: “Which of the following is not possible”).

E.g. Q. “Following are the classical features of Temple Architecture in India, EXCEPT”

Simplest form: Which of the following is not a classical feature of Temple Architecture in India?

Or, you can explain the question to yourself in this way:
Eliminate all the choices that are classical features of Temple Architecture in India.

Note: It is easy to get confused with/ forget about a negative (not) in the question. So, it is a good idea to reminded yourself at each step of what exactly the question is asking for.

2. Ask the question while looking at each answer choice: To be sure you are answering the exact question that’s been asked, you should ask yourself the question (in its most simplified form) before reading each option and then checking whether the option answers the question. This avoids confusion, and helps maintain focus.

Repeating the question in simplest form with each answer choice helps avoid question, and maintain concentration

E.g. In strengthen critical reasoning questions, I ask the question:

Does this strengthen the conclusion that __________(the conclusion the correct option is supposed to strengthen)” while reading each answer choice.

While you ask the question each time, ensure that the answer choice does not go beyond the scope of what has been asked in the question, and covers everything that the question asks.

3. Make sure you understand and answer the complete question

Along with the above tip, while selecting an answer choice ask yourself: does this answer choice answer the complete question?

  1. Ensure you answer exactly what is asked.
  2. Ensure you answer all that is asked.
  3. Ensure the selected answer choice does not go beyond what is asked.

This is a very useful tip especially in Reading Comprehension and passage based questions in verbal sections. Also check the other extreme: does the answer choice go beyond what has been asked in the question? If so, the answer choice cannot be correct.

4. Figure out characteristics that the right answer needs to have

While going through the question, try to pick out key characteristics that the right answer needs to have.

Finding out characteristics would help you avoid calculation mistakes, and rule out options

Some examples:

  • The right answer has to be in plural form, and past tense
  • The right answer has to be positive, odd and lower than 100

These would help you with answer choices in the next step.

E.g. Let us look at this past CAT question:

Raju goes out to gamble and loses 1/3rd of his money in the first hour. He then wins Rs. 100 in the second hour and loses 1/3rd of his money in the third hour. He then wins Rs. 200 and realizes that he has exactly what he had in the beginning. How much money did Raju have in the beginning?

  1. 250
  2. 360
  3. 100
  4. 480

On reading the first line of the question itself, it should be very clear that the right answer has to be a multiple of 3.

Along with figuring out characteristics based on the question, also try to figure out common/ opposing characteristics of answer choices. This would help you eliminate choices and even find the correct answer at times.

5. Eliminate incorrect answer choices: Based on your understanding of the question, and the characteristics that the correct answer needs to have, you can eliminate options that do not satisfy those characteristics. Eliminating incorrect choices can lead you to the right answer, or at the very least improve your chances of getting the answer right.

You can either try to figure out the right answer or eliminate the incorrect options to reach the right one

Let us consider the about example again: Based on the property that the amount Raju had initially has to be a multiple of 3, we can eliminate 2 answer choices that are not multiples of 3 (250 and 100). Even if you do not know what to do next, you have eliminated 2 out of 3 incorrect choices, and now have a 50% chance of getting the answer correct.

6. Plug-in answer choices: A very useful technique in quant section is plugging in answer choices whenever feasible.

In the Raju example again, let us just follow the trail with the two remaining answer choices: 360 and 480.

  1. 360–⅓ 360 = 240
  2. 240 + 100 = 340
  3. 340–⅓ 340 → 340 is not divisible by 3. Thus, 360 cannot be the answer. This would already tell you that the remaining option is the correct choice. However, to be sure (might have made a calculation mistake somewhere) let us plug in the remaining answer choice now:
  4. 480–⅓ 480 = 320
  5. 320 + 100 = 420
  6. 420–⅓ 420 = 280
  7. 280 + 200 = 480

It fits. So, 480 is the correct choice.

7. Find the odd one out: Let us try this weird exercise: If there were a question here, what would be the correct answer?

  1. Beaten
  2. Victorious
  3. Over-powered
  4. Defeated
  5. Lost

What do you think would be the correct answer to the exercise above? Clearly, 4 options are very close in meaning to each other while 1 is an antonym. So, if I were to select 1 correct answer choice, I would select the odd-one-out: Victorious.

Odd one out — a good bet on aptitude tests, at least

Finding odd ones out would not necessarily lead you to the answer every time. It would, however, help give you directions that would help you eliminate incorrect answer choices, and find the right answer.

8. Ballpark: Many a times of these aptitude tests, the answer choices are quite far apart. What this means is that you do not need to perform the exact calculations, and a rough estimate could help you reach the answer.

Estimating values and comparing answer choices work really well with questions with spread-out answer choices

Also, this strategy of ball-parking is very useful in geometry. Many a times π can be approximated to 3 to reach the answer with a faster approach.

The choices given after questions change the whole game. It is not the question in isolation, rather the question and the answer choices clubbed together that decide the difficulty of a question. A seemingly simple question could have very close and confusing answer choices; and an apparently difficult question could have distinct and polarized answer choices completely changing the difficulty of the question. So, it is very important to go in on your test day with a practiced and honed strategy for tackling MCQ’s and using the answer choices to your advantage.

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Anish Passi

Anish Passi is the founder of Test Cafe. With 99th percentiles in both the GMAT (760/ 800) and CAT (99.55 percentile), Anish has a keen understanding of how aptitude tests work. He has shared his conceptual and test taking expertise with students for over a decade, and has helped them master their tests, and shape their careers.
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