Taking the ASVAB Test: Paper or Computerized?

By Rod Powers

Many versions of the ASVAB exist (although you probably won’t get a choice of which one to take), but they primarily boil down to two basic differences: the paper version and the computerized version. Each version has advantages and disadvantages.

If you’re taking the ASVAB as part of the student program in high school, or if you’re already in the military and are retaking the ASVAB to qualify to retrain into a different job, you may take the paper version.

If you’re taking the ASVAB to enlist in the military, you’ll take the enlistment ASVAB. This version is available in paper format and via computer. There’s a great chance that you’ll take the computerized version (CAT-ASVAB), because to save time and money, the recruiting services often send applicants to the nearest Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) for testing, medical examination, and enlistment (one-stop shopping). MEPS only uses the computerized version, so you know you won’t take the paper version if you’re scheduled to take the ASVAB at MEPS.

If you have your heart set on taking the test in paper format, ask your recruiter whether a Mobile Examination Test (MET) site is nearby. Roughly 685 MET sites are located throughout the United States.

The advantages and disadvantages of the paper version

Modern technology isn’t always better. Taking the pencil-and-paper version of the ASVAB can provide you with certain advantages:

  • You can skip questions that you don’t know the answer to and come back to them later. This option can help when you’re racing against the clock and want to get as many answers right as possible. You can change an answer on the subtest you’re currently working on, but you can’t change an answer on a subtest after the time for that subtest has expired.
  • You may not make any marks in the exam booklet; however, you may make notes on your scratch paper. If you skip a question, you can lightly circle the item number on your answer sheet to remind yourself to go back to it. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you can mentally cross off the answers that seem unlikely or wrong to you and then guess based on the remaining answers. Be sure to erase any stray marks you make on your answer sheet.

Killing trees isn’t the only disadvantage of the paper-based test. Other drawbacks include the following:

  • Harder questions are randomly intermingled with easier questions. This means you can find yourself spending too much time trying to figure out the answer to a question that’s too hard for you and may miss answering some easier questions at the end of the subtest, thereby lowering your overall score.
  • The paper answer sheets are scored by using an optical mark scanning machine. The machine has a conniption when it comes across an incompletely filled-in answer circle or a stray pencil mark and will often stubbornly refuse to give you credit, even if you answered correctly.
  • Getting your scores may seem like it takes forever. The timeline varies; however, your recruiter will have access to your score no later than 72 hours (3 days) after you finish the test (not counting days the MEPS doesn’t work, such as weekend days or holidays).

The pros and cons of the computerized test

The computerized version of the ASVAB, called computerized-adaptive testing, or CAT-ASVAB, contains questions similar to the ones on the paper version, but the questions are presented in a different order. The CAT-ASVAB adapts the questions it offers you based on your level of proficiency (that’s why it’s called adaptive). Translation: The first test item is of average difficulty. If you answer this question correctly, the next question will be more difficult. If you answer it incorrectly, the computer will give you an easier question. By contrast, on the paper ASVAB, hard and easy questions are presented randomly.

The CAT-ASVAB also has significantly fewer questions than the pencil-and-paper version of the test, although the questions tend to be a bit harder, which tends to result in the same scores (level of knowledge).

Military recruiters have noted that among applicants who’ve taken both the paper-based and computerized versions of the ASVAB, many applicants tend to score slightly higher on the computerized version of the test.

You don’t have to be a computer guru to appreciate the advantages of the computerized version of the ASVAB:

  • It’s impossible to record your answer in the wrong space on the answer sheet. Questions and possible answers are presented on the screen, and you press the key that corresponds to your answer choice before moving on to the next question. Often, only the A, B, C, and D keys are activated when you take the test.
  • The difficulty of the test items presented depends on whether you answered the previous question correctly. On the two math subtests of the ASVAB, harder questions are worth more points than easier questions, so this method helps maximize your AFQT score.
  • You get your scores right away. The computer automatically calculates and prints your standard scores for each subtest and your line scores for each service branch. This machine is a pretty smart cookie — it also calculates your AFQT percentile score on the spot. You usually know whether you qualify for military enlistment on the same day you take the test and, if so, which jobs you qualify for.

On the downside, you can’t skip questions or change your answers after you enter them on the CAT-ASVAB. Instead of being able to go through and immediately answer all the questions you’re sure of, you have to answer each question as it comes. This can make it difficult to judge how much time to spend on a difficult question before guessing and moving on. Also, if you have a few minutes at the end of the test, you can’t go back and make sure you marked the correct answer to each question.