Strategies for Taking the ACCUPLACER - dummies

By Mark Zegarelli

The ACCUPLACER is different from tests you’re used to taking in a variety of ways that change the game and the strategies that work best. Here, these differences are explained and a few possible strategies are suggested for doing your best on the test.

Getting comfy with the CAT

In most cases, the ACCUPLACER is administered over the Internet, on a computer in an office of the community college where the student is enrolled. (Less commonly, it’s given as an on-paper test in its COMPANION format.)

The computer format provides a dimension to the ACCUPLACER that you won’t find with an on-paper test: computer-adaptive testing, or CAT for short.

Computer-adaptive testing means that the computer selects each question you see from a large pool of questions, basing its selection in part on the answers that you’ve previously given to questions. So, when you answer a question right, the computer tends to make the next question a little tougher. Conversely, when you answer a question incorrectly, the computer often gives you a question that’s a little easier. That is, the computer adapts the test specifically for you in response to your answers.

One reason for the CAT feature is that it makes cheating difficult. For example, even if you’re sitting next to your best friend taking the same test at the same time, the two of you probably won’t even receive the same first question.

But the main reason for computer-adaptive testing is that it finds out your strengths and weaknesses more quickly and effectively than a paper test. This makes sense when you think about it. It’s like the difference between answering a questionnaire on paper versus being interviewed. An interviewer can shift the focus of the next question they ask based on your answer to the last question.

The good news here is that the ACCUPLACER doesn’t have to be as long as, say, the SAT or the ACT. On the flipside, however, try not to get spooked knowing that the computer is, in a sense, grading the test as you’re taking it. Try to remember that computers aren’t sentient beings (yet!), and that the computer-adaptive feature isn’t really “grading” or “judging” you; it’s just pulling each question from a pool based upon a program written by the test designers.

And most of all, do not to dwell on what it means when you get what feels like an easy question (“Does that mean I messed up the previous question?”) versus a hard question (“Did I get the previous question right?”). More than likely, if you fall down this particular rabbit hole (or should I say CAT hole?), you’ll just distract yourself from the question you’re trying to answer.

Multiple-choice or guess

Every question on the ACCUPLACER is a multiple-choice question with four possible answers, A through D. Unlike tests that are administered on paper (like the SAT), once you see a question, you’re stuck with that question until you answer it. The computer doesn’t provide a way to leave a question blank and then come back to it later. On the bright side, you don’t lose points for choosing a wrong answer, so if you’re really and completely stuck with a question, make your best guess and move on.

Time and time again

The ACCUPLACER isn’t a timed test. Once more, with feeling: the ACCUPLACER is NOT a timed test.

acccuplacer not timed
©By Happy Together/

You can take as long as you like (within reason!) to complete each section of the ACCUPLACER. From a strategy perspective, this fact makes the ACCUPLACER virtually unique among all the tests you’ve ever taken and ever will take in your life.

How do you conquer a test that isn’t timed? How do you use this feature to your best advantage?

In a timed test, the pressure is on, and you have to work quickly to get as many right answers as you can before the clock runs out.

In contrast, a non-timed test presents a different sort of opportunity — and challenge. The opportunity is to take your time with the test. For example,

  • Read every question very carefully so you don’t “answer a question they didn’t ask.”
  • In the ACCUPLACER Reading and Writing tests, read each passage thoroughly so you really understand it.
  • In the ACCUPLACER Math tests, work each step of the problem carefully, and check your solution before clicking the answer.

The challenge here is the same as the opportunity: to take your time.

Taking a test is uncomfortable, like wading belly deep through a swamp full of snakes. The temptation is to hurry through it as quickly as possible to avoid the discomfort.

You may well prefer to blow through the ACCUPLACER at top speed, but if you do that, you’ll probably make careless mistakes on questions that, with a little time and thought, you could have answered right. And for every section of the ACCUPLACER that you fail, you’ll be spending 15 to 30 weeks in a no-credit class.

  • Take just one, or at most two, sections of the ACCUPLACER on a single day. You want to be fresh as a daisy for each section, right?
  • Before you begin a section, make sure that you’ll have at least an hour and a half to complete it. So, if the office where they give the test is getting ready to close in 45 minutes, you probably want to reschedule!
  • Take your time answering each question.
  • If you really don’t know the answer, guess! On the ACCUPLACER, there’s no penalty for guessing, so answer every question.
  • Check to make sure you selected the answer you meant before clicking the SUBMIT button. The computer interface requires you to select an answer and then submit it. As you answer each question, think of the show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and ask yourself, “Is that your final answer?”

To calculate or not to calculate?

The ACCUPLACER math tests include some questions that permit you to use a calculator, and other questions that don’t. But remember that because the ACCUPLACER is a computer-based test, you don’t need to bring a calculator to the test.

Instead, when a math question permits you to use a calculator, it will appear on the screen for you to use.

No-calculator questions

No-calculator questions usually require arithmetic that’s not too complex — the kind of calculations that you can do either mentally or by hand. The person who sits you down to do the test should provide you with some scratch paper to work on — especially for the math tests. Please feel free to ask them to provide it if they forget.

The Arithmetic Test — the first of the three math tests, covering the most basic math — typically includes only no-calculator questions. This feature makes sense, because the test makers are specifically trying to see whether you can do basic math without the help of a calculator.

Calculator questions

Apart from the Arithmetic Test, the ACCUPLACER includes two, more difficult math tests: the Quantification, Algebra, and Statistics Test (QAS) and the Advanced Algebra and Functions Test (AAF). These tests contain more difficult math than the Arithmetic Test, so they include a mix of questions that may or may not require the on-screen calculator.

Calculator questions tend to include long numbers that are difficult to calculate by hand, or may include one or more calculations (such as finding a square root) that can’t easily be done without a calculator.

When a question allows for the use of a calculator, you’ll see an icon at the top-right corner of the screen. In some cases, more than one calculator — including a graphing calculator — may be made available.