In the last post, I discussed the coursework required to be able to take the real estate salesperson license in California. In this post, I'll talk about preparing to take the test itself. Luckily, taking multiple choice tests is a bit of a specialty of mine.
I spent wayyyy too long in formal education. I've earned an associates degree, four majors as an undergrad, and a master's degree. I spent twelve years teaching high school psychology, which also included a whole lotta test writing and diving into the mind games that are possible with multiple choice tests. In short, I've spent years taking, writing, and administering multiple choice tests. All of that experience gives me the tools to plan and execute a study routine that assures success with minimal effort.
The first step is to understand the nature of the test itself. The test consists of 150 multiple choice questions, each with four possible answers. It's in electronic format and you can go back to review questions already answered. You're given three and a half hours to complete the test. A score of 70% is required to pass. It's qualifying in nature, so it doesn't matter how high you score over 70%. Finally, there is no penalty for guessing.
Given this information, we can begin the planning process. The time limit is extremely generous with 84 seconds for each question. When we take practice tests, we can measure the average time it takes us to answer each question, which will give us an idea of how long it will take us to answer all 150 questions. With the extra time, we can review any question we may not have been 100% confident in our answer.
This is a very good thing. Because the test writers, based on everything I've read, do not intentionally try to mislead you, some questions can be used as memory retrieval cues for other questions. For example, you may have forgotten what 'Mello-Roos' means, but the answer in another question gives you a hint that it's a type of special assessment.
Since we know the entire test is multiple choice, has four possible answers, and has no guessing penalty, we can plan even more. We have a 25% chance of guessing the right answer without even reading the question. If we can eliminate one of the possible answers, our odds increase to 33%. Eliminate two and our odds increase to 50%. When we take practice tests, we can get in the habit of eliminating answers we know are incorrect to increase the odds of guessing.
Understanding the Psychology of Test Writing
Test writing is an interesting endeavor. Any decent test taker will attempt to write questions in a way that assesses the test-takers' knowledge while making the test seem as random as possible. In other words, they want to make sure you're not just learning patterns. Of course, it's impossible for humans to do this; we always fall into patterns. Lucky for us, we all kind of fall into the same patterns.
When I used to be a full-time teacher, I LOVED writing multiple choice tests because my students (all were college-bound juniors and seniors) were very experienced test-takers. They knew the game. Without studying, most of them could pass tests based entirely on their knowledge of taking multiple choice tests. My goal as a test writer was to use their knowledge to trip them up. And I was really good at tripping them up. Here are a few common rules they had learned:
- Choose the longest answer. The longest answer is often correct because it contains qualifiers that are needed to explain why the answer is the most correct.
- Answers incongruent with the other answers can be eliminated. Often, one of the four answers will seem out of place compared to the other three. That question can be eliminated.
- All or none of the above are usually right about half of the time. The presence of an 'all of the above' or 'none of the above' usually indicates it's either the right answer or it was thrown in to break up the pattern of 'alls' or 'nones' always being the right answer. The result - a shift in probability. Also, if one of the other three answers does not meet the criteria of the absolute answer, the absolute answer is not the right answer.
- Sometimes grammar can be used to eliminate a possible answer. This is just a quirk in human psychology. The test writer focuses more on the right answer than the wrong answers, and may occasionally mess up the grammar in one of the wrong answers.
- When you encounter look-alike answers, one is almost always correct. Two similar answers almost always means one of them is correct.
- When you encounter two answers that are opposites of each other, one is usually correct. Same deal as the above tip.
- If an answer says the same thing as another, it's wrong. If there's only one possible answer (like on the real estate test), two answers that say the same thing have to be wrong and can be eliminated.
- Always avoid absolutes. Most of the time. Terms like 'never' or 'always' usually means an answer is wrong. There may be an exception on the real estate test, especially when dealing with legal questions.
- Extreme answers are usually wrong. This usually pertains to math questions. If one answer is wayyyy out of the range of the others, t's almost always wrong.
- All of these tips are just guidelines. There are always going to be exceptions, but these rules almost always result in a higher probability of answering questions correctly.
How, What, and When to Study
All of the tips given above are ways to hack the test itself, but the real key is actually knowing the material. Since the real estate test is qualifying and really just a hurdle meant to weed out really unqualified agents because most will lear skills under the tutleage of an experienced agent, committing all the test material to permanent memory is unnecessary. You just need to remember the material long enough to pass the test. With that in mind, I recommend the following strategy:
Take as many practice tests as possible.
Kaplan's three textbooks contain practice questions at the end of each chapter. Between the three books, there are hundreds of possible questions to practice. More tests and questions can be found by Googling 'California real estate practice test' and 'real estate practice test.' The former will return results specific to California; the latter will return results related to the industry in general. Together, you should be able to find thousands of practice tests.
If those aren't sufficient, there are quite a few options to purchase test banks. Kaplan offers one, as does most study, testing, and tutoring companies.
Okay, so what's the best way to go about studying? I recommend diving the study time into four to eight 15 minute blocks each day, then repeat this for four weeks. This is preferable to studying in huge blocks of time because it eliminates what is known as the serial position effect. This effect causes us to remember the beginning and end of something, but forget all the stuff in the middle. That's why so many people never remember the middle lines of the Start Spangled Banner.
Where you study is also important due to an effect known as 'state-dependent learning.' Our brains have an uncanny ability to recall information in the same conditions we memorized the memory, which includes both our external environment and our internal state. This means we want the study conditions to be a close to the test conditions as possible. You'll likely be taking the test sitting upright at a computer in a quiet room lit with fluorescent lights. You won't be able to eat or drink. Based on that, every one of your study sessions should match these conditions as closely as possible.
Following all of these tips will put you in an excellent position to ace the test. Well, pass it with that minimum 70%, anyway. In the next post, I'll discuss the actual taking of the test, including how to reduce the anxiety and set yourself up for success.