Tips for Taking the ASVAB Arithmetic Reasoning Subtest

By Rod Powers

The U.S. military doesn’t win wars without a strategy, and you should have a set strategy for conquering the ASVAB Arithmetic Reasoning subtest. Your strategy needs to include plans to keep things going smoothly, as well as ideas of what to do if things start going wrong.

Keep track of the time

It’s time for a practice question. Ready?

You have to take a math test consisting of 30 multiple-choice questions. You have 36 minutes to complete the test. How much time do you have for each question?

  • (A)1 minute, 12 seconds

  • (B)90 seconds

  • (C)1 minute

  • (D)1 minute, 20 seconds

First, convert the minutes to seconds so you don’t have to deal with fractions or decimals: 36 × 60 = 2,160 seconds. Now, divide the total number of seconds by the number of test questions: 2,160 ÷ 30 = 72 seconds. You have 72 seconds or Choice (A), 1 minute and 12 seconds, to complete each question.

That’s not much time, considering that you have to read the question, determine what it’s asking, translate the problem into mathematical equations, solve those equations, and then answer the question. But that’s how Arithmetic Reasoning goes, at least on the paper test.

If you’re taking the paper version of the ASVAB, you’ll see a large clock clearly visible somewhere on the wall. The test proctor also posts the start time and end time of the subtest where you can easily see it. If you’re taking the computerized version of the ASVAB, the time remaining for the subtest ticks down right there on your computer screen.

Don’t spend too much time on any one question. If a question is stumping you, admit defeat, choose an answer, and move on.

Choosing an answer and checking it twice

Checking your answer to ensure it makes sense in relation to the question is always a good idea if you have time. You don’t always have time on the Arithmetic Reasoning subtest, but if you find yourself running ahead of the clock, take a few seconds extra to check your answer.

Don’t assume that just because the answer you got is one of the possible answer choices means it’s the correct answer. Those crafty test makers often use common mistakes as possible answer choices.

If you’re taking the paper version of the ASVAB, you should also leave enough time at the end of the subtest to check and make sure you’ve marked your answer sheet correctly. Make sure the answer blocks are completely filled in, and make sure you didn’t make the rookie mistake of answering the wrong question with the right answer.

Using the answer choices

If you’re stumped and just can’t seem to write equations to solve the problem, you can often answer the question by seeing which of the answer choices works. Look at the following example:

The product of two consecutive negative even integers is 24. Find the smallest number.

  • (A)–2

  • (B)–4

  • (C)–6

  • (D)–7

Correctly solving this problem involves factoring a quadratic equation. Perhaps quadratic equations aren’t your cup of tea, and you get stuck at n2 + 2n – 24 = 0. But before giving up and making a wild guess, try seeing which of the answer choices works.

  • –2: No negative even integer is larger than –2, so Choice (A) doesn’t work.

  • –4: –4 × –2 = 8, so Choice (B) doesn’t work.

  • –6: –6 × –4 = 24. Choice (C) works!

Don’t use this method unless you’re absolutely stuck. It uses up a lot of time. In essence, you’re computing the problem (up to) four times.

Here’s the proper way to solve the original problem. Let the first integer equal n. Then the next consecutive even integer is n + 2.


The answer can’t be 4, because the problem asks for a negative number. The first number (the smallest, n) is –6, which means the second number (n + 2) is –4.

Logical guessing

Sometimes nothing else works, and you just have to guess. If you’re taking the paper version of the ASVAB, you can always skip the hard questions and go back to them when you finish the other questions. If you choose to do so, remember to leave enough time to go back and answer.

There is no penalty for wrong answers on the paper version of the ASVAB. If you get the question wrong, you get zero points. If you leave the answer blank, you also get zero points. If you make a wild guess, you have at least a one in four chance of getting the answer right and getting points.

Be careful, however, of guessing a lot during the computer version. If you give a lot of wrong answers toward the end of the CAT-ASVAB, those pesky test creators will penalize you.

If you’re taking the computerized version of the ASVAB, you can’t leave the answer blank. The computer doesn’t present you with the next question until you answer the current one. Unfortunately, that means you don’t have the option of going back and giving the question another try. You have to decide whether to use more of your precious time to figure it out or guess and move on.

Sometimes you can improve your chances by eliminating obviously wrong answers. Consider the brain stumper from above:

The product of two consecutive negative even integers is 24. Find the smallest number.

  • (A)–2

  • (B)–4

  • (C)–6

  • (D)–7

Choice (A) is obviously incorrect because no number larger than –2 can be both negative and even. You can quickly see that Choice (D) is wrong because it’s an odd number, and the question is asking for a negative even number. Now, if you have to guess, you’ve just changed the odds from a one in four chance to a 50/50 chance.