By Rod Powers

Approach the ASVAB as you one day hope to approach your training. The military has a saying: “If you’re on time, you’re late.” You hear this tenet more than once in basic training. If you’re taking the ASVAB for the purposes of joining the military, then you’re likely taking the test at a Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) and your recruiter has probably arranged your transportation.

Arrive prepared

Your recruiter should brief you about what to expect and, in some cases, may even drive you to the MEPS herself. In other cases, depending on how far you live from the closest MEPS, you may be provided with public transportation. In any case, you want to make sure you’re on time and ready:

  • Eat a light meal before the test (breakfast or lunch, depending on the test time). You’ll be better able to think when you have some food in your stomach. However, don’t eat too much. You don’t want to be drowsy during the test. Also, don’t drink too much water. The test proctors will allow you to use the restroom if you need to, but with certain rules.

  • If possible, arrange to arrive at the test site a little early, find a quiet place, and do a ten-minute power-study to get your brain turned on and tuned up.

  • Bring only the paperwork your recruiter gave you and a photo ID. Don’t bring a calculator, your MP3 player, a backpack, or a sack full of munchies to the testing site. You won’t be allowed to have them with you. The same goes for your cellphone.

  • Keep in mind that the MEPS is owned and operated by the military, so it doesn’t have much of a sense of humor when it comes to dress codes. Dress conservatively. Don’t wear clothes with holes in them or profanity written on them. Make sure your underwear isn’t showing. Leave your hat at home because, under the military civilian dress code, you can’t wear hats indoors.

Read the directions

Although this instruction may seem obvious, you can sometimes misread the directions when you’re in a hurry, and that won’t help you get the right answer. Each subtest has a paragraph or two describing what the subtest covers and giving instructions on how to answer the questions.

Understand the question

Take special care to read the questions correctly. Most questions ask something like, “Which of the following equals 6?” But sometimes a question may ask, “Which of the following does not equal 6?” You can easily skip right over the not when you’re reading and get the question wrong.

You also have to understand the terms being used. When a math problem asks you to find the product of two numbers, be sure you know what finding the product means. (It means you have to multiply the two numbers.) If you add the two numbers together, you arrive at the wrong answer (and that wrong answer will likely be one of the answer choices).

Review all the answer options

Often, people read a question, decide on the answer, glance at the answer options, choose the option that agrees with their answer, mark the answer, and then move on.

Although this approach usually works, it can sometimes lead you astray. On the ASVAB, you’re usually supposed to choose the answer that’s “most correct.” (Now and then, you actually need to do the opposite and choose the answer that’s “least correct.”) Sometimes several answers are reasonably correct, but only one of them is “most correct.”

If you don’t stop to read and review all the answers, you may not choose the one that’s “most correct.” Or, after reviewing all the answer options, you may realize that you hastily decided upon an incorrect answer because you misread it.

When in doubt, guess. On the paper ASVAB, guessing is okay. If you choose the correct answer, that’s the equivalent of +1 (or more, depending on how the question is weighted). If you don’t answer a question, that’s the equivalent of 0.

If you guess on a question and get the question wrong, that’s also the equivalent of 0, not –1. (No penalties here!) But if you guess correctly, that’s +1 (or more). So you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by guessing if you take the paper version.

However, if you are taking the CAT-ASVAB and time is running short, try to read and legitimately answer the questions instead of filling in random guesses for the remaining items. The CAT-ASVAB applies a relatively large penalty when you provide several incorrect answers toward the end of a subtest.

But here are some general rules for guessing:

  • Often, an answer that includes the word always, all, everyone, never, none, or no one is incorrect.

  • If two choices are very similar in meaning, neither of them is probably the correct choice.

  • If two answer options contradict each other, one of them is usually correct.

  • The longer the answer, the better the chances that it’s the correct answer. The test makers have to get all those qualifiers in there to make sure that it’s the correct answer and you can’t find an example to contradict it. If you see phrases like in many cases or frequently, that’s usually a clue that the test makers are trying to make the answer “most correct.”

  • Don’t eliminate an answer based on how frequently it appears.

  • If all else fails, trust your instincts. Often, your first instinct is the correct answer.

    The Air Force Senior NCO Academy conducted an in-depth study of several Air Force multiple-choice test results taken over several years. It found that when students changed answers on their answer sheets, they changed from a right to a wrong answer more than 72 percent of the time! The students’ first instinct was the correct one.