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General Knowledge 101 - What to observe when you have no idea what the answer might be  

Filipe Sant'Anna
Noble Member Team Member IMAT

Hello, we're getting ever so close to the test date, and a lot of people have come to ask me about how to prepare to general knowledge questions.

The short answer is: there is no way.

The long answer however is: there is no practical means of trying to predict and prepare yourself for the general knowledge section, but Cambridge Assessment itself published an interesting document , aptly named Preparation Guide, that cover some of the aspects that are usually present in general knowledge questions that should at least help when facing questions for which you are not sure of the answer.

Here's what the relevant section says:

Section 1: General Knowledge and Logical Reasoning

Section 1: General Knowledge and Logical Reasoning
Section 1 will assess general knowledge and the thinking skills (i.e. logical reasoning) that students must possess in order to succeed in a course of study at the highest level. Such skills are basic to any academic studies, which often require students to solve novel problems, or consider arguments put forward to justify a conclusion, or to promote or defend a particular point of view.

General Knowledge

General Knowledge questions may address a range of cultural topics, including aspects of literary, historical, philosophical, social and political culture.
These questions are not based on any specific part of school curricula; rather their aim is to test the candidates’ interest and knowledge in a wide variety of fields. Candidates with a keen extra-curricular interest in current events and that regularly keep up to date with national and international news will be better prepared to answer this type of questions.
With general knowledge questions candidates may often know the correct answer, however they may sometimes be unsure and may be tempted to give up and move on to other questions.
There are actually some useful strategies that can be adopted to maximise your chances to correctly identify the right answer, as illustrated by the following examples.


‘Dubliners’ is a collection of short stories written by which author?

  1. J. Joyce
  2. F. O’Brien
  3. I. Svevo
  4. F. Kafka
  5. J-P. Sartre

The correct answer is A. This is a typical literary-based general knowledge question.
In the event that the candidate was not already familiar with the literary work in question, it is still possible to try to respond through a process of logical elimination. It is common knowledge that Dublin is in Ireland and therefore it can be safely assumed that the author is Irish. Therefore, the authors with surnames indicating other nationalities can be automatically eliminated, namely answers C, D and E. Now the candidate has narrowed the choice between A and B and has much better chances of answering correctly. Answer B is a "distractor" because it is a typical Irish surname, but one that does not correspond to the author of the work in question. This example illustrates how the student, in case of not knowing immediately the correct answer, can still benefit from a process of elimination using their logical reasoning skills. This approach can lead to correctly responding to a greater number of questions.


Which country was governed by the Taliban’s theocratic regime from 1996 to 2001?

  1. Afghanistan
  2. Iran
  3. Iraq
  4. Saudi Arabia
  5. Syria

The correct answer is A. This is a typical current affairs/recent history based general knowledge question.
This type of question aims to ascertain whether or not students follow recent events and are well-informed on major national and international affairs in the contemporary world. Those candidates who do not actively follow international news and are not keen readers of good quality newspapers and magazines will clearly be at a disadvantage.


Which of the following city-monument pair is wrong?

  1. Stockholm – Pont du Gard
  2. Rome – Theatre of Marcellus
  3. Athens – Erechtheion
  4. Istanbul – Hagia Sophia
  5. Split – Diocletian’s Palace

The correct answer is A. This is an interdisciplinary general knowledge question based on geographical as well as historical knowledge.
This example can also be solved by using logical reasoning skills – and linguistic skills and intuition, in this case – if the candidate does not know the correct answer immediately.
A possible logical method to arrive at the solution is to first identify the correct matches by recognising the linguistic characteristics of the monuments’ names, even if the candidate does not know those specific monuments in particular. Therefore, answers B, C and D can be safely eliminated at the start. Answer E can be misleading and very attractive because the candidate might not know where Split is (i.e. Croatia) or because he/she might not know that this geographical area was heavily settled by Romans, hence the name “Diocletian”. However, the correct resolution of the question hinges on the recognition that "Pont du Gard" is a typical French name and, therefore, it is not an extremely likely name for a monument in Stockholm, capital of Sweden.
The application of logic skills and linguistic abilities is often successful in solving interdisciplinary general knowledge questions.


The World Heritage Convention, adopted by UNESCO in 1972, aims to identify and maintain a list of sites that may be considered:

  1. of exceptional cultural or natural importance
  2. of outstanding economic value
  3. to be characterized by a lasting peace
  4. to be conventionally suitable for human settlement
  5. to have exploitable energy resources


The correct answer is A. This is an example of a question based on culture and politics. In this case, the question is about the nature of a world organisation.
Even if the candidate does not have direct knowledge of this topic, the candidate should be able to immediately disassociate the term “heritage” with any answer relating to economy and finance, thus eliminating immediately answers B and E. By the same logic of elimination, C can be de discarded because peace does not relate to “heritage” in any way, leaving only two plausible options and increasing the chances of answering correctly.
Overall, general knowledge questions can cover topics ranging from authors and books to famous personalities, current affairs, history or inventions, world geography and much more. The aim is to test the students’ knowledge of the wider world and their ability to apply logical reasoning in different contexts. The best way to prepare for such questions is to read widely, across a range of different subjects and maintain an awareness of current affairs.

So, as you can see, there are indeed some questions that require us to simply know things, such as current events. But others can be solved or at least narrowed down by logic alone. A key point I'd like to stress is this part here:

Answer B is a "distractor" because it is a typical Irish surname

Observe than that it is done on purpose and that you should be aware of this tactic. If you're unsure in some question and something is really trying to catch your attention to it's similarity to the question topic, take a moment to consider that it might really just be there to bait you into marking the wrong option.

Though I can't say that I've seen this in many past papers, we do have some exemples from the 2019 test:

Exemples from the 2019 exam

Which one of the following composed the opera Madama Butterfly?
Giacomo Puccini
Richard Wagner
Georges Bizet
Gioachino Rossini
Giuseppe Verdi

Rossini was present to try to confuse you with Puccini, due to the similar sounding name.

Which one of the following countries did NOT adopt the coins and banknotes of the Euro as its currency on 1 January 2002?

Here Finland was trying to distract candidates, if they could only remember that adoption isn't as widespread across Northern or Eastern European countries.

Which one of these events in world history happened most recently?
The building of the Taj Mahal
The crowning of Charlemagne
The October Revolution in the Russian Empire
The Taiping Rebellion in China
The fall of the Western Roman Empire

Here the Taiping Rebellion intended to confuse candidates with limited history of eastern events. They could remember the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and mistake them with the rebellion from the 1850's.

Which one of the following literary works does NOT originate in the corresponding country?
The Divine Comedy – Italy
Oedipus Rex – Greece
The Poems of Rumi – China
Don Quixote – Spain
The Tale of Genji – Japan

Again, most of these pieces are very well known, except for the Asian ones (this seems to be a recurring theme), but Genji here is the distractor, but Rumi isn't a Chinese name, so some knowledge of the cultures and languages would come to the rescue.

That is not to say that every time there will be a distractor, nor that they are always the most attention grabbing like the original Cambridge James Joyce example, but it might be useful to be aware that it is a possibility.

At the end of the day it doesn't change the fact that this section cannot be prepared for, but attention, careful deliberation and sometimes knowing when not to take a bait or skip might earn you or at least save you a few points. I suggest that you at the very least read the General Knowledge questions at the beginning of the test, even if you don't know the answers. It may be enough for your brain to refresh some forgotten knowledge you've come across along the years. Just give them a glance, see what they talk about, answer any that you're more certain and come back to them once you've finished you test. It may be that nothing changes about your memory, but it can also happen that something sparks back there and you are able to score some precious 1.5, or 3 points.

The other remarks and examples surely can be applied to more questions throughout the years, and it is worth bringing them to mind when facing a particularly alien question that may be providing you with some clues in regards of where to shoot to. If it can help you narrow things down from 5 to 3 or 2, it may be enough for you to consider a guess.

But in general, don't count on points from the General Knowledge for your passing grade. If you're truly relying on those questions to pass, you're only giving yourself a looser knot to hang yourself in, as even with these pointers, the questions revolve around luck of knowing some trivial fact over anything else, and you shouldn't be feeling bad if you don't know every piece of curiosity there is about the world.

Need help in any questions?
Tag me and I'll try my best to answer it as clearly as possible.

Topic starter Posted : 07/09/2020 11:54 pm