Guessing Strategies for ISEE Math

The best-case scenario for any test is knowing how to do every problem. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. So what do you do when you’re faced with a problem you don’t understand and you truly have no idea how to even begin?

Here is a strategy that will increase the odds that you get a question right when you know nothing about the content of the question and can’t eliminate any answer choices.

The key to this strategy is knowing one important fact about ISEE math questions: the answer choices are put in order from least to greatest (or occasionally greatest to least), whenever that is possible. For instance, if the possible answers are 3, 7, 11, and 14, these will always be ordered the same way:

A) 3
B) 7
C) 11
D) 14

You will never see:

A) 11
B) 7
C) 14
D) 3

This strategy hinges on that fact. Test writers aim to make every question as difficult as possible, so every answer choice represents a possible miscalculation or error that a student might make. It turns out that it’s very difficult to write a question with good wrong answer choices that are all higher than the correct answer, or wrong answer choices that are all lower than the correct answer.

For instance, let’s consider a very simple problem: 3+2.

As the test writer, you want to write some wrong answers that represent errors a student might make. Maybe the student accidentally subtracts instead of adding: 3 – 2 = 1. Maybe the student miscalculates when counting on their fingers and ends up one off: 4. Maybe the student accidentally multiplies instead of adding: 3 x 2 = 6.

Now you have your four answer-choices: the correct answer, 5, and the three wrong choices, 1, 4, and 6. Notice that two of these are smaller than the correct answer, and one is larger.

Putting the choices in order and placing the question first, the whole problem would read:

What is 3+2?

A) 1
B) 4
C) 5
D) 6

You may have guessed the strategy by now. On any math question (that you have no idea about) with answer choices that are all numbers, pick one of the middle choices, B or C. It’s statistically more likely that one of these will be the right answer.

You may have questions about this. It doesn’t seem quite right – there will probably be an approximately equal number of answers for each letter, right? Absolutely! So where do those extra As and Ds come in?

Not all of the math questions have answer choices that are all just numbers. Some of them will have algebraic expressions, like “2x+3”, or lists of numbers, like “-3, 7, 5, 2”. For all of these questions, test writers have to make up for the preponderance of questions with answer choices B and C. These questions are more likely to have correct answer choices be A or D, to balance the other questions.

If you hit a problem you have no clue on where the answer choices are not just numbers, pick A or D – it’s statistically more likely that one of those will be the right answer.

And that’s our strategy for you today! Happy testing!


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