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Process of Elimination

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Process of Elimination

Sherlock Holmes once asked Watson, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” 1

This particular saying of Sherlock’s could be problematic in real-life circumstances where options are limitless, but what about when there are only a handful of possible answers to choose from? Holmes is reminding Watson of the importance of the process of elimination, and it is an invaluable tool for answering multiple-choice questions.

Process of Elimination Meaning

Process of elimination is a strategy that rules out every incorrect or impossible answer, leaving behind only the correct answer. In the case of multiple choice questions, where there are only a few (often only four) possible answers, process of elimination is a very effective tool as it can lead you to the correct answer in a short amount of time.

Let’s say for example that you’re taking an exam and have come to a multiple choice question where several answers look correct to you. They cannot all be correct, so you have to narrow down your options, finding reasons why each could not be correct until you are left with just one possibility—the most correct answer.

One important rule to process of elimination is to never truly eliminate an answer until you have identified why it cannot be the correct response. This is so you don’t falsely rule out the true correct answer. If you aren’t sure about whether an answer can safely be eliminated, make a small note or symbol to remind yourself to come back to it after you’ve eliminated everything you confidently can.

What is a synonym for process of elimination?

Process of elimination is a means of identifying something by what it is not, rather than what it is. This manner of solving problems is also known as lateral thinking, which simply means an indirect or creative approach to problem solving.

Process of Elimination Strategies StudySmarterMultiple choice question strategies, Unsplash.

Deductive reasoning, on the other hand, is a logical approach to problem solving and uses process of elimination as a means to draw a conclusion. Deductive reasoning progresses from a general theory to a specific conclusion. That progress is made in part by process of elimination until only one possibility remains.

Importance of the Process of Elimination in Exams

Sometimes it’s easy to read a question and know the answer right away, but at other times it’s a bit trickier than that. Multiple choice answers that are wrong can be designed to look like the right answer—or similar to the correct choice except for one single detail—and this can make it difficult to quickly see the correct response.

Process of elimination can help weed out the incorrect answers so you can narrow your focus down to the correct answer, or at least the few that you are stuck between.

Even if you ultimately have to guess the correct answer, if you are able to eliminate one of four answers, you increase your chances of choosing the correct one from 25% to 33%. If you can eliminate a second incorrect answer, your chances jump up to 50%. These are much better chances than just blindly guessing.

Remember, there are different kinds of multiple-choice questions. For example, there are different ways to test reading comprehension; some questions might test your reading comprehension on a concrete (fact-based) level, while others challenge you on an implication level (what the author is implying in the passage). Still other questions test your ability to identify key elements in the passage, how parts of the passage relate to each other, or they might want you to interpret imagery and figurative language.

Process of Elimination Steps and Strategies

There are a series of steps to use in the process of elimination (assuming this is for a multiple choice question).

It’s possible to start at step one and work your way through them until you come up with the right answer, or you can always return to any steps that would be helpful in narrowing down your choices if you’re still not certain.

Process of elimination step 1: Read and re-read the question

Reading the question is of course step number one, but be sure to read it thoroughly and carefully. Reading the question several times is also recommended so you can be sure to catch every detail in the question itself.

If you skip this step, or don’t read the question thoroughly enough, you’re opening yourself up to the possibility of missing a detail within the question that could help you eliminate an answer. This mistake will cost you time, and possibly a point, which is a valuable thing on most exams.

Also be sure to carefully (re)read the passage if you are responding to multiple choice questions about a reading passage.

Process of elimination step 2: Answer it first in your mind

Before you even read the possible answers, do your best to come up with what you think the answer is. This is so you won’t be influenced by the incorrect choices. If you are confident you know the answer, the correct choice is much more likely to jump off the page when you read it.

Never underestimate your own knowledge!

Process of elimination step 3: Scan every answer option

Even after you’ve answered the question in your mind, and even if you’re confident you know the correct choice, still read all the possible answers. By doing so you may come across a detail that you’ve forgotten, or find that there is an even more appropriate response.

Process of elimination step 4: Take away wrong answers

Now you can begin to eliminate the choices you know to be wrong. As you read each possible answer, look for details that you know conflict with an accurate response to the question.

Not sure which are the wrong answers? Try these strategies to identify the answer choices that cannot possibly be correct.

Process of Elimination Meaning StudySmarterFocus on what something is not, Unsplash.

Strategy no. 1: Identify and use topic sentences in the given passage.

This strategy is only relevant for multiple choice questions that respond to a reading passage, but it can be instrumental to answering these questions accurately. Remember, a topic sentence is a sentence that sums up the main idea of the passage and it can be a gold mine of information.

For example, let’s say you’ve read a paragraph about the environmental dangers of Greek yogurt production. Look for a sentence that sums up what the author has to say about these dangers, and look for more details that could be relevant to eliminating incorrect answers to the question.

Strategy no. 2: Try plugging each answer into the question itself.

For example, if you’re asked to define a word or phrase in a passage you can try inserting each possible answer into the “blank space” where the word or phrase would go. Now eliminate the ones that don’t make sense, and you’re left with the best answer!

Strategy no. 3: Look for absolutes and modifiers.

Look for words like “always,” “never,” “none,” “all,” and any other words that communicate a black and white perspective on the subject. Answers that contain absolutes are often incorrect, because things are rarely black and white. This is not to say that the correct answer will never contain an absolute, but certainly be on the lookout and check that answer against what you know on the subject.

Also look for out-of-place modifiers—words that modify or add extra description to an element of the phrase. Reading comprehension answer choices will often include descriptive modifiers that you can use to decide if those choices are incorrect.

Which is the best choice to define the purpose of the passage? It is a

  1. careful analysis of a problematic custom.

  2. detailed depiction of a grave encounter.

  3. definitive response to a question.

  4. cheerful recounting of an event.

There is a modifier (in italics) in each of the choices that you can use to eliminate any choices that are not in line with the passage.

Strategy no. 4: Remove outliers.

Similar to eliminating absolutes, you can look for answers with extreme or unrelated information to rule out. These are called outliers because they contain details that are far different from the actual correct answer.

Multiple choice responses often contain at least one outlier and two or three very similar answers, meant to challenge the student to examine them very closely for their differences. By identifying and eliminating the outliers, you're able to spend more time deciding between those answer choices that require a closer look.

Process of elimination step 5: Select best answer

After following the above steps, you should have been able to eliminate at least one, if not several answer choices. If you are still stuck between two or more choices, and you’ve exhausted every means of elimination, you should simply select what you believe to be the best answer.

If you still don’t know the answer, skip that multiple choice question and come back to it. You might gather more information from other questions in the section that will help you determine the correct answer.

Process of Elimination Example

Below is an example of process of elimination in action to narrow down the answer choices to the correct one. This question supposes you’ve read a designated passage from Emmeline Pankhurst’s speech, “Freedom or Die”2 prior to answering the question.

In the opening paragraph of the passage, the author contrasts a hypothetical situation to her own in order to...

  1. Illustrate the double standards in politics between men and women

  2. Explain why women never use methods of revolution

  3. Emphasize the invaluable influence of women on democratic culture in the United States

  4. Highlight that women’s rights have declined in the twentieth century

In order to answer this question, we’ll need to go back to the paragraph mentioned to gather context and information about this part of the passage.

After reading all the possible answers, we can safely eliminate option 2 due to its use of the absolute “never.” This is simply not in line with the information in the passage.

We can also safely eliminate option 3 because the modifier “invaluable” in relation to women’s influence on democratic culture doesn’t represent what she’s communicating in this part of the speech.

We can also eliminate option 4 because it is an outlier—there is no mention of the decline of women’s rights in the twentieth century and so this is unrelated information.

That leaves behind only option 1 as a possible solution, and it is a fitting response after a close reading of the passage!

Process of Elimination - Key Takeaways

  • Process of elimination is a strategy that rules out every incorrect or impossible answer, leaving behind only the correct answer.
  • Process of elimination can help weed out the incorrect answers so you can narrow your focus down to the correct answer, or at least the few that you are stuck between.
  • Some possible reasons to eliminate an answer would be that it is an outlier, contains an absolute, and/ or doesn't "fit" when you plug it in.
  • If it comes to guessing, removing incorrect answer choices increases your chances of guessing the correct answer.
  • Process of elimination is a form of lateral thinking.

1. Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Sign of the Four,” 1890.

2. Emmeline Erskine, “Freedom or Die,” 1913.

Frequently Asked Questions about Process of Elimination

Process of elimination is a strategy that rules out every incorrect or impossible answer, leaving behind only the correct answer.

The process of elimination is important because it can help weed out the incorrect answers so you can narrow your focus down to the correct answer, or at least the few that you are stuck between. 

An example of process of elimination is if you know the answer to a question involves a character that is a young woman, you can start by eliminating any answers that refer to a man, or older woman. 

The different strategies in process of elimination are

  • Identify and use topic sentences to find information to rule out wrong answers
  • Try plugging each answer into the question
  • Look for out-of-place absolutes and modifiers
  • Remove outliers

There is no exact synonym for process of elimination, but it is a form of lateral thinking and is used in deductive reasoning. 

Final Process of Elimination Quiz


Finish the following statement: 

Writing questions ask you to read like _____.

Show answer


a writer

Show question


True or False:

When reading a stimulus passage, one does not need to do anything but read.

Show answer


False. One should also mark key passages, annotate, and write their thoughts on the writer's choices.

Show question


True or False:

One should read the background information of a stimulus passage for context.

Show answer


True! Background information can help with understanding the writer's meaning and wording.

Show question


About how long should one spend on each multiple choice question? 

Show answer


One minute

Show question


The writer wants to add a sentence at the beginning of paragraph 3 to contrast the main idea of paragraph 2. Which of the following choices best accomplishes this goal? 

What type of writing question is this?

Show answer



Show question


FIll in the blank with the missing step to the process of elimination:

1: Read and re-read the question

3. Scan every answer option

4. Take away wrong answers

5. Select best answer

Show answer


Answer it first in your mind

Show question


Which of the following best describes an absolute?

Show answer


A word that communicates something is 100 percent, without exception

Show question


What is the danger of not reading every answer choice in a multiple choice question?

Show answer


It's possible you could miss an even better response than the one you've selected.

Show question


_____________ is a logical approach that uses process of elimination to draw a conclusion.

Show answer


Deductive reasoning

Show question


Why is it a good idea to answer a multiple choice question in your mind first?

Show answer


So you won't be influenced by incorrect choices

Show question


How can you use topic sentences to answer multiple choice questions that test reading comprehension?

Show answer


Use topic sentences to find context and important details about the passage.

Show question


If you have to guess on a multiple choice question, but you're able to eliminate one of the four answer possibilities, what are your chances of guessing correctly?

Show answer



Show question


________ is an answer choice with extreme or unrelated information, and is a choice that you can safely eliminate. 

Show answer


An outlier

Show question


What should you do if you've tried the steps in the process of elimination and still don't know the correct answer?

Show answer


Skip the question and come back to it before your time is up, or take your best guess.

Show question


Which multiple choice strategy inserts each answer choice into the sentence or problem to see which makes the most sence?

Show answer


Plug it in

Show question


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