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Is My First Guess Usually Correct?

Last week, ETS had an exciting press release about student performance, something that often gets overlooked amidst a flurry of news reports on more b-schools are accepting the GRE. The news had to do with something that plagues each test taker: Is my first guess usually correct?

In my history teaching, nobody has ever had a clear cut answer—though many of my SAT students have vociferously asserted that the first answer is always correct, and changing has resulted in wrong answers. (To counter this logic, I remind them—without much success—that they tend to remember those instances in which they get the question wrong, and not those instance in which changing their answer resulted in a correct answer). Even teachers have been divided on the issue, and I’ve had several animated discussions on the issue.

Well, ETS—the behemoth when it comes to availability of testing data—has released conclusive results: your first answer is usually wrong. I wish I had the exact data—though I can say the difference between keeping your answer and changing it was whopping.

What, you ask? Why can’t I just link the article? Well, strangely ETS has suddenly made the link unavailable. Unfortunately all that seems to be available now are other blogs and press releases talking about it. The actual data doesn’t seem to show up anywhere. You can check out those blogs here:

On the GRE, changing answers helps
Second Guessing Could Boost GRE Scores
Your First Instinct May Not Always Be Correct on Multiple-choice Questions

Two questions: where’s the original data? And, perhaps more relevantly, is the following: if it is true what ETS says, then how should that affect how I prep?

There are a couple of answers to the first question. It can simply be an innocuous web glitch. The flipside is the more sinister: they don’t want us to know, and realized this too late. Sure, that smacks of raw conspiracy theory-age, but I’ll humor this side of the argument for a moment. If it is indeed true, that not going with your first answer can boost your score, and thus the same would hold true for most students taking the GRE, then suddenly the scores on the GRE are going to go up—so much for the standardized model that ETS has so carefully engineered.

This could all be kooky thinking on my part, and the original link can very well be restored in the next few days. But if not…well, there may be more than an iota of truth to what I’m saying.

Most importantly, though, how should you prep, and what should you do test day? Well, remember that changing your answer all the time won’t be right. The reason that ETS found the results they did, at least my working hypothesis, is that students tend to be attracted to the first answer choice without really thinking about what they’ve read. In other words, that first answer choice tends to be the “attractive distracter” that the test writers hope students will pick. The second answer tends to come as a result of more deliberation—students thinking over the passage or paragraph a little more closely, or checking their work on math a little more thoroughly.

Pay attention to this when you prep. Remember to think about—and provide defense—for the answer that you’ve chosen. What you should not do is become complacent and think, “Hey, that Chris guy said my second choice is probably right, so I’m going to go with that one.”

Finally, by taking a lot of mock tests, you should develop a sense of how your logic helps—or hinders—you. And learn ways to not dive into the answer choices and be attracted by a wrong answer. Over time, you may realize that, at least for you, your first answer tends to be about as correct as your second answer. The point is the ETS finding applies to hundreds of thousands of students (again, the exact number escapes me because of ETS’s “skullduggery”); the way you test may be idiosyncratic.

Once, you’ve learned your style, whatever you do, don’t revert to a pat approach come test day, and remember that just because you’ve thought about an answer choice more makes it correct. Your answer should always be based on your reasoning, no matter what ETS says—or, in this case, says and then unsays.


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2 Responses to Is My First Guess Usually Correct?

  1. TM July 9, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    Chris, when I was prepping for the MCAT using Kaplan, their software would report when you changed an answer on a practice question. When I looked at all my changed answers, I found that I had a nearly 1:1 instance of changing my answer wrongly to changing my answer rightly.

    Upon closer examination, I found that changing answers wrongly came down to spotty attention or low confidence on a particular question stem, and not forming the answer in my mind before consulting the answer choices. Every question that I did not ready closely (and thus felt shaky about), caused me to second guess myself. Every time I failed to “predict the answers” I opened myself to the risk of deceiving answer choices.

    The rule that one should always or never go with their first choice is best left to the individual. As an engineering exercise (and perhaps a data collection tool for your own press release), have a “first-answer” tracker added to the Magoosh Review platform. That way people can individually assess their likelihood of picking the right answer the first time, and in which circumstances.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 10, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

      Hi Thomas,

      That is an amazing feature! And I like how your experience echos what I suggested in the blog: each person is different so figure out if changing your answer works for or against you.

      That is also a feature that Magoosh should add in the future. I’ll run it by our developer and see what he thinks :).

      Thanks again!

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