Written Exam Strategies

30 March 2020
Chief Brent Collins, President, www.FirePrep.com

Written Exam Strategies 

The first thing to do is to make sure that you are marking the right answer to the right question.  I know this sounds simple, but many candidates do not pay attention to this important detail.  All it takes is skipping one question and not skipping the corresponding number on the answer sheet, to cost you the examination.  Every five questions or so, it is a good idea to take a look at the number in the test booklet and the number on your answer key to insure they match.  Also pay strict attention to whether the answer key numbers are vertical or horizontal.  You don't want to find out that you have been answering the questions on the wrong numbers.

Sometimes examiners will put the hardest questions at the beginning of the test to get you rattled.  Don’t spend a minute or two trying to figure out an answer.  If you come across a question during the examination that you find difficult and you are spending too much time on it, skip over the question and leave a mark on your answer key.  Do not mark in the area where you will be answering; mark to the left of the number so that you know to come back to this number. 

Always read all the choices before you select an answer.  Don't make the mistake of falling into a trap when the most appealing wrong answer comes before the correct choice.  Read all the choices! 

If you’ve narrowed your choices down to 2 (for example, C and D) but you aren’t sure which answer is correct, don’t spend a whole lot of time on it.  Mark those choices in your test booklet – not your answer key.  That way, when you come back to that question when you’ve completed the exam, you can concentrate your time on just those two choices. 

Check the time during the examination.  For example, if there is a 200-question test and a three-hour time limit, you should be on question 100 with 1-1/2 hours left.  You should check the remaining time every 10-15 minutes to ensure you are on an appropriate time frame. 

Be sure to pay attention to correct wording of the questions.  For example…According to the above paragraph, all of the following are correct except…. It could also say, according to the above paragraph, all of the following are incorrect except.  You need to pay key attention to how the questions are worded.

Your first "hunch" is usually correct.  Many of us have a first impression, choose an answer, and then, upon reflection, go back and change the answer.  A "feeling" that a particular alternative is right has some basis.  It is simply that your brain made rapid connections.  You came to an immediate conclusion based on your stored knowledge and your experience.  The fact that you did not go through the logical steps of arriving at the correct solution does not indicate that your choice is wrong.  Research studies have proven that these first impressions are probably correct.

Do not change answers unless you are absolutely positive.  More than 41% of changed answers are changed from right to wrong; another 34% change their answers from wrong to wrong; only 24% of changed answers were wrong to right.  Bottom line – the only time you should change an answer is if you are absolutely positive or if you have miskeyed an answer (for example, you intended to mark "C" and you inadvertently marked "B").  Give serious thought and work out your answer before you change it.

Don’t be afraid to guess at an answer.  Most firefighter examinations are scored based on the number of correct answers.  On most examinations, there is no penalty for a wrong answer.  If you have three minutes remaining on the examination and 15 questions to answer, try to answer as many as possible, but if time does not allow, at least put an answer down for every question.

Rules for making an educated guess - to be used only as a last resort.  Your chances of choosing the correct answers to questions you are not sure of will be significantly increased if you obey the following rules:

  • Frequently, the most comprehensive answer is the best choice. For example, if two alternatives seem reasonable but one answer is more detailed, extends the first, or is more comprehensive, then this answer may be the best choice.
  • Don't reconsider answer choices that you have eliminated.
  • Be aware of key words that give you clues to the correct answer.
  • If two choices have conflicting meanings, one of them is probably the correct answer. If two choices are very close in meaning, probably neither is correct.
  • If all else fails, and you have to make an outright guess at more than one question, guess the same lettered choice for each such question. The odds are that you will pick up some valuable points.

If you have an exam where you are given a booklet to memorize and are allowed 30 minutes to study that booklet, sometimes testers will put those questions at the end of the book so by the time you get to them, you’ve forgotten some of what you memorized.  Find those questions first, answer them, and then go back to the start of the exam. 

When you hand in the test, you need to be able to tell yourself – This is the best I can possibly do.  To feel that way, you need to go back and double check your answers if you have time.  Remember what I just said about changing answers – keep that in the back of your mind.    

One question can truly mean the difference between finishing 20 on the list and finishing 100.  The competition can be that close at times, especially in bigger departments where there can be thousands of applicants.

Nobody cares who gets done first.  Don’t try to get done first so that you are the big man/woman on campus because you finished first.  Chances are you don’t know anyone at the exam and they don’t know you or care if you finished first. 

Good luck in your pursuit of the greatest job on the face of the earth!  Remember – luck goes to the prepared!