when you've finished this page you will be able to...
practice your MCQ exam answering technique
Good preparation is only half the battle in an MCQ exam, and technique is equally important. MCQs can be deliberately tricky, with the aim of sorting the 'wheat from the chaff'. You may get the feeling that the examiners are trying to trip you up - this is because they are, and you need to be wise to their strategies.
To this end, we've complied another list of tips, this time to help you perfect your MCQ answering technique:
- Most importantly, READ the questions. Careless reading results in needless - and potentially costly - mistakes. If you miss the word 'not' in the stem (which of these is not a symptom of...) you could end up with a score of - 5 for just one question!
- Pace yourself and don't spend too long on one question.
- If you don't know the answer, move on and return to the question at the end.
- If you leave a question, be extremely careful to leave the corresponding answer box blank: if you put the wrong answer in the wrong box, you'll get all the questions wrong!
- Trust your instincts: your initial answer (or guess) is most likely to be right.
- An educated guess or an attempt to deduce the right answer is often better than leaving it blank. The student BMJ recommends always answering at least 90% of the questions in an MCQ exam (see 'analysing your score for more information on this).
- Be on the lookout for double negatives (not uncommon, not infrequently both mean often).
- Answers that contain words like always and never are less likely to be correct (there are very few certainties in medicine). Statements that contain sometimes, may or might are more likely to be correct.
- Beware of the word typically; this means 'usually'. There might be an option given that's correct, but rare - this is not 'typical'.
- Other 'intermediate' words include characteristically, mostly and sometimes, but how should you interpret these intermediate words? We've made some suggestions...
Recommended Further Reading
All, always, invariably, characteristically: 100%
Usual, mostly, very frequently: >75%
Often, common, frequently: 50-75%
Sometimes, occasionally: 25-50%
Rarely, very occasionally: <5%
None, never: 0%
- Longer, more specific answers are more likely to be correct (that's more likely, not definitely).
- Beware also of completion statements containing more than one piece of information - make sure both bits are correct.
- Answers containing numbers (25% of patients experience...) are most likely to either be correct, or completely wrong. If you know that a symptom is very common, then 25% is likely to be wrong, but if you now that roughly 1 in 4 patients will display this symptom it's likely to be correct. Be wary of very precise figures - 19.3% of patients... they are unlikely to be correct.
- Leave time at the end of the exam to check for glaring errors - but don't go changing answers you're not sure about, remember, your first guess is most likely to be right.
Activity: How to answer MCQs - allow at least 1 hour
In this activity, you discover how to develop your MCQ answering technique.
1. Find a set of MCQs to answer; these could be past exam papers or questions from a revision book.
2. Find 3 pens - each with different coloured ink (coloured pencils would be fine too).
3. Create exam conditions: find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed and set yourself a time limit - 40-60 minutes per 100 questions is realistic.
4. When you're ready to begin, choose a pen and make a 'first pass' through your questions, answering the questions you are confident about.
5. After completing the first pass, choose a different pen, and make a second pass through the questions you have not yet answered. This time attempt to deduce the answers through a process of elimination or educated guessing.
6. Leave out all the questions that you still don't understand, or if you really have no idea what the answer could be.
7. Take your last pen, and make a third and final pass through the questions. Choose a method you'll use to answer the remaining questions: guessing (educated, or not), or perhaps a process of deduction.
8. When you've completed the paper, move on to the section below and analyse your score.