Short answer questions are ruining my life

Short answer questions are ruining my life

The short answer style exam question is one of most common types of questions in both reading and listening exams. This is because it is a good way to test different skills including:

  • recognising keywords
  • skimming
  • scanning
  • recognising paraphrases
  • understanding the meaning of questions
  • understanding the meaning of texts

At REW, you need to get good at this question type to pass your exams, so let’s look at two common challenges and suggestions for how to improve! We'll focus on short answer questions in reading, but you can apply a lot of the suggestions to listening as well.

Common challenge #1

I get answers wrong (even when I understand the text)!

Do you often feel like you understand the reading texts but get a low score? Do you get more answers wrong than you expected to? Unfortunately, even if you have the right answer, it will be wrong if it’s not written in the correct way! Read on if this sounds like you.


Do two things: let the questions help you by using them as clues, and answer them in the way you're directed to, which means making sure your answer is the correct form and length. We'll look at these suggestions in more detail with the following seven tips. 

Let the questions help you.

Use your knowledge of vocabulary

As you probably know, certain words are commonly used to signal important information or change. Use this knowledge to your advantage, and pay careful attention when you see these types of words in a question or in the text - they'll help you distinguish between the real answers and information that looks like the answer but is not. Examples include:

knowledge of vocabulary

Look for synonyms/paraphrases of each part of the question

Answers in a text will often be in words that are different from what’s in a question. In fact, often when you find words from the question in the text, it will not be the answer! So, expect to find paraphrases of the question rather than the same words, and make sure you find equivalents for each part of the information from the question. Let’s look at a couple of examples:


Let verb tenses and time phrases point you in the right direction.

Different verb tenses and time phrases are used constantly in academic English because information must be given directly and explicitly. This means that a little detective work using them can often reveal correct answers in the text.

verb tense
Answer the question precisely

Use the right word forms / grammatical structures in your answers

The question tells you how it wants you to answer. Ignore this at your own risk! See some common examples in the table below.

word forms example

Follow instructions precisely

Use only the number of words or numbers you’re instructed to. For example, in IELTS, a common instruction is ‘No more than three words and/or a number’, which means if you write four words, the answer is wrong (even if you have the correct information!). One, two, or three words would all be fine.

If there is no limit, then theoretically  you can write as many words as you like. However, in reality ‘short answer’ always means that the best answer will be a short, concise answer with only the precise information the question asks for. In other words, if you write a long answer, it’s probably not as clear as it should be. 

Answer all parts of the question

It’s also important to include the correct amount of information. Some short answer questions require more than one piece of information. For example, ‘What types of...?’ is a question that would need more than one answer. However, the reverse is also true; you will lose marks if you have added unnecessary information to correct answers.

Your answer must make sense

Sometimes your answer will be just one word or a phrase; short answers rarely (if ever!) need to be a complete sentence. As long as your answer responds to the question directly and clearly and makes grammatical sense, that’s great! If you have trouble doing this, do some practice on word forms or sentence structure. Software programs like Tense Buster or Study Skills Success (see City Library information), grammar books and apps, RMIT Learning Lab links, or the Study Support Teachers can help with this.

useful grammar books and apps

Grammar books and apps like the one shown are useful (Image via

Common challenge #2

I run out of time!

Do you spend time wondering what some words mean? Do you worry about each word you don’t know? Maybe you spend time reading and trying to understand every word. These are all wasting your precious time! If this sounds like you, these last three tips should help.


Only read what you need to find the answers

In other words, don’t read everything! You should only be skimming at the beginning to get an overview and feel for the text, then scanning to find answers after you've read the questions.

skimming example

Text from earlier blog post 'Teacher I'm Worried About Repeating!'

As the picture above shows, skimming means you read the first sentence then go quickly through each paragraph, noticing main ideas, any adverbs, adjectives or links that signal a change in direction in the text, and key terms (words that are about the main topic or synonyms that get used often in the paragraph).

Conversely, scanning is like being a detective looking for clues - use your eye to quickly find words that signal the answer is near then look around there more carefully for the answer itself.

Skip over words you don’t know

They usually aren’t important. If they are, you can guess what they mean by using the context around the word. You're being tested on your reading comprehension ability, and although this involves a minimum amount of vocabulary knowledge, ultimately you can work out a lot of reading questions by thinking carefully even if you don't understand all the words. If you really struggle to understand most vocabulary, Read our article on improving academic vocabulary and start practising!

Try to focus on understanding meaning, not individual words

This is an important reading skill in any situation. While individual words definitely help you find specific information, you have to understand what you're reading before you can understand details or find answers to questions.

Practice makes perfect (enough)!

At the end of the day, you need to do extra practice to improve at any skill. Get it from your teachers or from online. If you want to perform well under pressure, add a time limit similar to what you might experience in the exam you're preparing for. When you're done, take your time analysing why you got answers wrong to figure out how you can improve, and be grateful for your mistakes! As polyglot Steve Kaufmann says, "if you are not making mistakes, you are not trying hard enough to use the language."

rmit student

Get good at short answer questions so you can join this girl at university!

In the worst case scenario when you have no idea what the answer is, make a guess using your common sense. In most exams, you don't lose marks for wrong answers. However, hopefully, you can follow our tips and turn short answer questions into a strength of yours - then people will be asking you for advice!

Learn more about studying with RMIT Training and RMIT University

Want to learn more about the pathways programs available? RMIT Training offers Academic English or Foundation Studies pathway programs.

24 July 2021


  • Academic
  • Study English
  • Writing
  • Study

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