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Strategies for Tackling Short Answer Questions

When professors hand out exams, they like to use a variety of different formats. Some of them (such as short answer questions) rely on critical thinking skills and intuition whereas others (including multiple choice questions and fill-in-the-blanks tasks) measure your ability to memorize concepts and information associated with important dates or events. This article focuses primarily on advice for writing short answer questions but it is important to familiarize yourself with every type of question. Each variation has its own strategies that make it easier for you to succeed if utilized correctly.

Diverse Kinds of Questions

Fill In the Blanks

In this type of exercise, you are given sentences or even paragraphs and asked to fill in the missing words. In some cases, you are provided with a box containing all of the words to choose from whereas at other times you have to figure it out on your own. You should be able to understand the context of the sentences in order to answer these problems correctly.

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Word/Sentence Matching

These problems require you to match a list of words or sentences on the left side of your paper with a second list of words or sentences on the right. Sometimes you can be asked to pair up synonyms or definitions. You might also need to associate dates with events. The best strategy is obviously to choose the answers that you know first and then use the process of elimination to answer the questions that you are less certain about.


These types of questions are rather self-explanatory. You are given a statement and asked to indicate whether it is true or not. Often, such words as “always” and “never” may signify that the question is false since there are very few absolutes.

Close-Ended Questions

When answering this type of question, you are given a list of set responses from which to choose from and there is no leeway to provide alternative answers. This type of question is less applicable to exams and more likely to be given when a researcher seeks quantitative data.

Open-Ended Questions

In contrast to close-ended questions, these ones allow the respondent to answer however they wish. This allows you to offer your own personal insight on the matter. This is another type of question that is used in research, although for data of a qualitative nature.

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Multiple Choice Questions

Without a doubt, these are the most common types of test questions that professors give their students since they make grading easy. MCQ is a question or statement followed by 4 or 5 possible choices, but only one correct answer. Sometimes the test-taker will also be given the option to choose “all of the above” or “none of the above.” While some students find this type of question to be the easiest since the answer is right in front of them, professors like to get tricky by including two choices that could both literally be true, but require the student to pick the one answer that is more true.


A common type of problem given to students who are studying English as a foreign language which involves changing the structure of a word so that it makes sense in the context of the sentence. For instance, Q: “Jack felt a lot of _________.” CONFUSE; A: “Confusion.”

Find and Correct the Mistakes

For this type of question, you are given a sentence containing grammar mistakes and are asked to form the sentence properly. In some cases, the person making the test might deliberately write a sentence in the correct form, which means that the test-taker has to be able to identify sentences that are in fact mistake-free.

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Short Essay Questions

Now we have reached the main part of the article: strategies for short answer questions. If you learn how to write a short essay, it will come in handy during the entire course of your academic career since it is a relatively common type of task.

Here are some strategies that can get you on the right track with your short answer questions:

  •  Study the most important concepts from the lectures and readings

During the semester you are likely to be introduced to a lot of new terms and concepts. However, there are certain ideas that the professor will be inclined to place emphasis on. For instance, if a particular theory is regarded as one of the most important in the entire field of science (such as Pavlov’s classical conditioning), there is a good chance that you will need to discuss it in-depth. On the other hand, if a topic gets nothing more than a passing reference, it is not likely to be the subject of a short answer question.

  • Create an outline before diving into the response

Much like with an academic paper, if you sketch a rough outline of your short essay response, it will provide guidance and focus. You will be in a better position to lay out your arguments step-by-step and provide strong support for your points.

  • Do not be too brief, but do not make the response overly long either

Obviously if you do not include enough information, your answer will seem incomplete. Still, you do not want to include too much unnecessary information. As a rule of thumb, a short answer essay should be around 200 words, but should never exceed 300. You goal should be to identify around three major points and provide some thorough analysis on each as opposed to listing, say, eight major points and writing very little about them.

  • When finished, take one last look before you turn it in

When a student finishes an exam involving short answer questions, there is often temptation to rush up to the front, turn in the test, and be done with it. However, if you have some time left over, take advantage of this by proofreading your answers to make sure they are logical and are free of silly grammar and spelling mistakes. In the end, taking the time to make sure your answer looks good can really make a difference on your exam score.


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