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Leveraging what you know

Test takers' minds often go blank when they are confronted with alphabet soup. Suppose that you're confronted by this mind-numbing question:

1. Which treaty did away with most of the trade restrictions among the United States, Canada, and Mexico?



(C) The Gulf of Tonkin resolution



In a question like this, take a deep breath and start eliminating answers you know aren't correct: The NBA is that league with hoops, tall guys, and 3-point plays. Because you don't play basketball with trade restrictions, choice (B) is wrong. If you can eliminate only that one wrong answer, you've improved the odds: You have one chance in four of guessing correctly on the remaining four choices, just by pure chance. Guess this way 80 times, and you'll pick up 20 points on average just by eliminating one bad response.

The odds get better if you can eliminate three bad multiple-choice answers. With random chance, you would pick up an average of 40 points on 80 questions if you can narrow each question down to two choices. Suppose that, in addition to eliminating the NBA answer, you have a strong suspicion that the Gulf of Tonkin is a long way from the United States, Canada, or Mexico, so you eliminate answer (C). And don't these three nations make up North America? With that information to go on, you may conjure up the North American Free Trade Agreement — also known as NAFTA — from the misty outlands of your mind.

Avoiding word traps

Make sure that you read each question carefully, twice, before you grab one of the five answer choices. In sports, juking is when you fake out an opponent by dodging in the opposite direction from where he thinks you're going. Juking is a favorite strategy of test writers. If you don't study their moves carefully from a safe distance before you move in to grab an answer choice, you may well find yourself headed in the wrong direction.

Questions meant to juke you typically contain the words EXCEPT, NOT, or LEAST. Notice that these words are in capital letters. They're printed this way to give you a fighting chance to see them even if you're in a hurry. Juking words change the direction of the question.

EXCEPT questions

Take a close look at the following sample question:

1. All these important foods came to Europe from discoveries in the New World EXCEPT

(A) chocolate

(B) corn

(C) tomatoes

(D) coffee

(E) potatoes

So you're blowing by at the rate of a question every 40 seconds; you see the terms foods, Europe, and New World, and you think, "Oh, boy. I know — it's got to be tomatoes, because how did the Italians make pizza without tomatoes before they discovered the New World?" Or you think, "It's chocolate for sure, because I remember wondering how Europeans even bothered to keep living in a pre-New World era without chocolate."

This question has too many good answers — and that's the Tip-off that you're the target of an attempted juke. Perhaps you were going so fast that you didn't see the word EXCEPT, even though it's in brazen capital letters. Even if you miss EXCEPT, all is not lost. If you read all the choices and don't just swallow the first bit of bait set out to trap you, you'll begin to notice that a lot of the answers seem to fit a little too well. Suspiciously, all but one of the answers look like they could work. Look back at the question, and you find the juke in all caps.


Read the whole question and all the answers. Twice. Repeat the capitalized word to yourself as you read the possible answers.

NOT questions

In addition to the EXCEPT trick, you need to watch out for questions with NOT in them. You can save yourself from disaster by reading carefully. Read the question twice, so you definitely see the giant NOT. Say "NOT" to yourself as you read the possible answers twice. Consider this example:

1. Which of the following was NOT included in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787?

(A) procedures for organizing territory and state governments

(B) a ban on slavery

(C) guaranteed religious freedom

(D) the right to a jury trial

(E) specific reservations for American Indians

Like EXCEPT, NOT is hoping you're reading too fast to notice it lurking there in capital letters. NOT is banking on your seeing just the phrase "Northwest Ordinance of 1787," glancing down at the answers, seeing one of the attractive first four answers (A) through (D), and patting yourself on the back as you rush your wrong answer to the Scantron sheet.

But how do you know which of the five answers is the right one? Here are some things to consider:

- You know the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was written by the same guys who brought you the American Revolution. Therefore, it should contain Declaration of Independence issues such as jury trials, answer (D) and religious freedom, answer (C).

- Setting up state governments, answer (A), is a noncontroversial housekeeping matter; it had to be there.

- Slavery, answer (B), certainly was controversial, but — clue — you know the Northwest ended up without slaves, so that had to be included.

- Perhaps the least-noble reason for the Revolution was to let the new Americans settle on American Indian lands the British government had declared off limits. It wouldn't make sense to set aside specific reservations when the American Indians were still fighting to have no settlers at all. So the most "NOT" answer is (E). This is it.


When you scan a list of possible answers, especially in EXCEPT, NOT, and LEAST questions, look for the most extreme outlier to be the answer you want. The most extreme choices tend to be right when it comes to answering negatively phrased juke questions. They go beyond the list presented and just don't quite fit in.

LEAST questions

The final juke word to look out for is LEAST. You're sailing along normally, looking for the best match between the key word in the question and those tricky multiple choices when you come upon a LEAST. Take a big pause. LEAST switches up the meaning, so now you're looking for the worst match. Check out this example.

1 Which of the following was the LEAST important reason Andrew Jackson was popular with American voters in the 1820s and 1830s?

(A) opposed the Bank of the United States

(B) stood up to nullification

(C) dressed like a frontiersman

(D) supported more democracy for the common man

(E) won the Battle of New Orleans

You don't have to worry about one of these answers being false. Because this is a LEAST question, they're all at least partly true. Dressing like a frontiersman seems to be pretty trivial, even in a symbolic field like politics. The 1820s and 1830s had no TV and few pictures anyway, so not many people could have seen Jackson. Choice (C), dressed like a frontiersman, is the LEAST reason and your best answer.

Strong words (absolutes)

In addition to EXCEPT, NOT, and LEAST, watch out for strong words like complete, always, never, only, all, every, and none. Because history almost always has exceptions, strong words that seem to cover the whole story are often the sign of a wrong answer. Take a look at the following example:

1. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 because

(A) the only reason he wanted to win the Civil War was to abolish slavery

(B) Lincoln always sided with the abolitionists

(C) the Emancipation Proclamation completely freed the slaves

(D) emancipation made political and moral sense in 1863

(E) Lincoln never made a political decision when he could make a moral one

The strong words in (A), (B), (C), and (E) mark them for extinction from your answer choices. Lincoln said he wanted to preserve the Union, whether it meant freeing all the slaves or freeing none of the slaves. Although Lincoln certainly was personally opposed to slavery, he put being president of a united America before the cause of abolition. The Emancipation Proclamation freed only slaves in rebel states. Lincoln was a great and honest person, but he wouldn't have won the presidential election if he weren't also an experienced politician. Answer (D) is correct.

Strong words don't always indicate an answer should be eliminated. They are your friends when the test writers try to juke you with one of those tricky EXCEPT, NOT, or LEAST questions. Here's a different take on the Emancipation Proclamation question:

1 Which of the following causes is NOT a part of the reason Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in the Emancipation Proclamation?

(A) The North had better news from the battlefield.

(B) Lincoln always sided with the abolitionists.

(C) Freeing the slaves had popular support in the North.

(D) Lincoln was personally opposed to slavery.

(E) Fleeing slaves may weaken Southern war efforts.

In this version, the very word always that made choice (B) wrong in the first question makes it right in the tricky NOT question.

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