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Identifying Wrong Answers on the TOEFL

Process of Elimination

Sometimes you may have to answer a question by process of elimination — that is, by finding the incorrect answers and getting rid of them, then choosing among the remaining answers. Even if you eliminate just one answer choice, you dramatically increase the probability that you will guess the correct answer. In this post we’ll look at two common types of wrong answers.

Fluff answers

Many questions contain an answer choice that simply makes no sense based on the text. These answers, which I call fluff, are the easiest to recognize and eliminate. Take, for example, this excerpt from a reading comprehension practice question about the Industrial Revolution (from page 105 of the Official Guide).

“Workers were united in resenting the industrial system and their loss of status, but they were divided by ethnic and racial antagonisms, gender, conflicting religious perspectives, occupational differences, political party loyalties, and disagreements over tactics. For them, the factory and industrialism were not agents of opportunity but reminders of their loss of independence and a measure of control over their lives.”

The word “them” in the passage refers to

  1. workers
  2. political party loyalties
  3. disagreements over tactics
  4. agents of opportunity

We should immediately be suspicious of the last choice because it shows up after “them” in the text. That doesn’t mean it is wrong, but it is less common for a reference to be after a pronoun than it is to be before a pronoun. And if we plug in “agents of opportunity” to the passage, we have a very strange sentence: For agents of opportunity, the factory and industrialism were not agents of opportunity.

This is a fluff answer because it can be eliminated with very little understanding of the text. If you were to guess at this point, you would have raised your probability of guessing the correct answer from 25% to 33%–not bad.

False friends

One of the nastier tricks test-writers use when coming up with answer choices is to choose answer choices that use keywords from the text to confuse you. Here’s an example from the same passage we just looked at.

“”Before 1815 manufacturing in the United States had been done in homes or shops by skilled artisans. As master craftworkers, they imparted the knowledge of their trades to apprentices and journeymen. In addition, women often worked in their homes part-time, making finished articles from raw material supplied by merchant capitalists. After 1815 this older form of manufacturing began to give way to factories with machinery tended by unskilled or semiskilled laborers. Cheap transportation networks, the rise of cities, and the availability of capital and credit all stimulated the shift to factory production.”

Which of the following can be inferred from the passage about articles manufactured before 1815?

  1. They were generally produced by women.
  2. They were generally produced in shops rather than in homes.
  3. They were produced with more concern for quality than for speed of production.
  4. They were produced mostly in large cities with extensive transportation networks.

False friends mean you should be extra careful when you see answer choices that seem to have been stated in the passage. The hurried reader might see “in shops rather than in homes” and remember that this phrase is very close to a phrase from the passage. But when we look at the passage, it says that manufacturing was done in “shops” or “homes,” not “rather than” in homes. When we compare those tempting keywords to the text, we find the problem.

The same is true of D. The passage does indeed talk about large cities and transportation networks, but not in reference to life before 1815. In fact, the shift was toward large cities and transportation networks, so before 1815 the opposite must have been true. You can eliminate both B and D by this method, and now your odds of guessing the correct answer with no further effort are 50%.

You’ll find yourself eliminating wrong answers often on the TOEFL. Any time you are not certain of an answer, it is an important step toward making the best decision you can.

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4 Responses to Identifying Wrong Answers on the TOEFL

  1. Armand Milieu February 25, 2015 at 5:25 am #

    “We should immediately be suspicious of the first choice because it shows up after “them” in the text.”

    However, since you are referring to D, said line should read:

    “We should immediately be suspicious of the last choice because it shows up after “them” in the text.”

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas February 27, 2015 at 3:44 pm #

      You’re right! I fixed it. 🙂 Thank you for pointing that out!

  2. Diana March 21, 2017 at 7:45 pm #

    which answer is correct ? A?

    • David Recine
      David Recine March 21, 2017 at 10:41 pm #

      For the first question in this post, the correct answer is (A). For the second question, the correct answer is (C).


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