A Strategy for Multiple-Choice Questions on the CPA Exam

By Kenneth W. Boyd

A certain percentage of each test on the CPA exam consists of multiple-choice questions. When developing a strategy for answering multiple-choice questions effectively, you start with an overview of how the questions are structured and then move on to an approach to answer each question.

The structure of a multiple-choice question

Multiple-choice questions are written according to a specific structure. Test writers refer to a question as an item. Each item has these components:

  • Stem: The question stem contains the details you need to answer the question (such as numbers and facts) and the question itself. Each stem also includes information that isn’t needed. You need to sift through the information to determine what’s needed and what isn’t.

  • Distractors: Each question contains distractors, which are incorrect answer choices.

  • Correct answer choice: A question must contain one correct answer choice. Keep in mind the correct answer choice may have more than one correct statement in that answer choice. These questions usually provide letters and roman numerals, which allow you to choose multiple statements in your answer choice. For example “A. I and II” would mean that I and II are both correct statements for answer choice A.

Traits of a well-written question

The AICPA provides test-item writers with a set of guidelines for writing effective questions. Take a look at this list of guidelines. Understanding how test questions are created can help you answer them correctly:

  • Everything needed to answer the question should be provided in the stem. A test taker should be able to answer the question correctly without referring to the answer choices. You may experience this on the exam. You read a question and come up with the answer before reading the answer choices. Do read all the answer choices — that’s a way of confirming that the answer that came to you is correct.

  • The item should provide an answer choice that is clearly the best answer. In other words, the test taker should be able to choose an answer that is better than all the others. That distinction should be clear to the test taker who knows the content of the question.

  • Each item needs to have a standard that is used to determine the correct answer. Although the standard may not be stated in the question, all test items must be supported by a specific source. Generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) is a common standard used to support a correct answer choice.

  • Answer choices should avoid absolute modifiers, such as always, never, only, none, and every. Most standards have exceptions, so test-item writers should avoid using absolute modifiers in answer choices.

  • The test-item writer should avoid giving away the correct answer based on how answer choices are written. Each answer choice should be of the same approximate length. Also, each distractor (incorrect choice) should be plausible.

  • The language used to write the question stem and all answer choices should be at a sixth-grade reading level. The test-item writer should write in a way that is clear and concise.

Answering a multiple-choice question

Here’s a thought process you can use to answer multiple-choice questions:

  1. Read the last sentence of the question stem first.

    A typical stem lists facts, figures, and other information and then asks the question. You may find two to three sentences of information before you get to the question. Read the last sentence first so you know what data to look for in the stem — that way, you can decide what kind of information is important.

  2. Write the answer choice letters (or roman numerals) on a noteboard.

    For each multiple-choice question, write the letters “A, B, C, D” on your noteboard. If the answer choice uses roman numerals, jot those down. That way, as you work through the question, you can cross out incorrect choices.

  3. Read the rest of the stem and write down the data you need to answer the question.

    Jotting down the required data separates information you need from the unneeded data in the stem, adding clarity to your work. When you review your answer choices, you can quickly refer to the data you wrote on your noteboard to verify your answer.

  4. Use the needed data to work out the answer to the question.

    Do the calculation on your noteboard.

  5. Review and eliminate incorrect answer choices.

    Now that you have your answer, you can start to eliminate incorrect answer choices. Cross out the letter or number of the incorrect choice on the noteboard (see Step 2). Crossing out incorrect answers reduces your likelihood of making a mental error.

    When you have the correct answer, click on the answer on your computer screen. When you review your answers, you can look at the noteboard for a reminder of how you eliminated answer choices.

    Test-item writers try to avoid using absolute modifiers, such as “always” and “never,” in the answer choices. However, sometimes those words do slip into test items. If you see the use of those words, pay close attention. It may be a red flag that the answer choice is incorrect.

An alternative strategy for answering multiple-choice questions involves looking at answer choices to get to the correct answer quickly. After you perform the first three steps but before you do the calculations to answer the question, you look at the answer choices.

Some of the information in the answer choice may jog your memory, which may help you solve the question faster than if you’d tried to come up with the information on your own. Say you know the answer has to do with accounts receivable, but you can’t recall the name of the report a CPA would need.

You read the choices and see that one choice mentions an aging of receivables report. That was the type of report you needed to remember — see whether that choice might be your correct answer.

Read the answer choices only after you’ve read the last sentence of the question stem and then read the entire stem to pull out important information. Some test-takers read the answer choices first, before doing anything else. Because only one of the answer choices is correct, reading answer choices without knowing what’s being asked can confuse you. Read the stem first.