Universal Rules for Visual Exams

Hello again readers, this post describes one of the main methods your student can use to beat any visual type question on a gifted and talented exam. If you are here reading this then you probably are preparing a student to take a test such as the CogAT, OLSAT or NNAT2 (or NNAT3 depending on your State!).

Let’s say you’ve gotten a practice exam such as the kind we sell in book form or one of our apps. Your student / child gets along fine with the math and verbal parts but has trouble with the visuals (the non-verbal questions).

Introduction to Universal Rules

One thing you can do to really help out is to teach them about what we call “universal rules”. What is a universal rule? It is a rule that applies everywhere. In our universe light travels at 299,792,458 meters per second and gravity on earth is 9.8 meters per second squared. Identify where universal rules are broken is a great indicator on how to solve the problem at hand.

Let’s take a silly sidebar for example: If we have four objects on earth: a ball, a rock, a pencil and a cell phone. We throw them out the window of a plane and ask the Student which object broke the universal rule. We then show video of the ball, rock and pencil falling to the ground, but the cell phone is floating in the air (breaking our gravity rules!). The student would easily pick the cell phone out from the crowd. Now apply this same idea to your visual questions.

The first step is to imagine that each question is a universe all on its own. And this universe has universal rules. The student uses their cognitive abilities to identify what the universal rules are. Here are some examples of universal rules:

  • All shapes are blue
  • All shapes rotate to the right
  • All shapes are blue but circles are red

As we go later on in the grade level we expect more out of the identification of rules:

All shapes are blue, except when rotated to the right, shapes pointing right are green

All shapes have another shape inside of them that has one more edge than the outer shape (as in a triangle will have a square inside of it)

Once you have your rules down you look to see where the rules have been broken. Or flip that sentence around and we can also say once you have your rules down you can see which answers have broken the rules and use the elimination method to find the right answer. Enough text let’s look at some real examples. These questions come from our CogAT, OLSAT, and NNAT2 Practice exams. (Find our full-length exam books here)

This question comes from our CogAT Practice exam for grade 2. This style is called a figure matrix. The top left image transforms into the top right image and you are to determine how the bottom left image will transform into the bottom right image. First step? Define our universal rules for the world. Looks like from left to right the arrow will lose its blue color and the two circles will disappear and be replaced by a blue square. Looking at the bottom left we see the circles in the same place as above. We can also say that the position of the circles matter and perhaps also say the position of the square in the top right also matters.

Simply stated the universal rules:

  • The shape between the circles will lose its color and move down. (see the arrow)
  • The circles will disappear and be replaced by a blue square.

Which answers follow the universal rules?

  • Answer A does not, the diamond will have lost its color just as the arrow did.
  • Answer B does, we see a colorless diamond at the bottom and a blue square at the top
  • Answer C does not, both shapes are colorless
  • Answer D does not, it has a circle

Answer B is the one that best follows the universal rules that we identified.

Let’s do another one: This is a question from our NNAT 2 practice exam. This type of question is called Patterns, Reasoning by Analogy. In this one you look at the pattern going across rows and down the columns and determine what goes in the bottom right box. Unlike the transform question above these are meant to follow a pattern.

Step One, define the universal rules. Looking at these hearts I see all hearts point downward. I see each column has a picture of one heart, a picture of two hearts and a picture of three hearts. I see each row has the same, a picture of one heart, a picture of two hearts and a picture of three hearts.

Our universal rules stated as such:

  • Each row and column have pictures of one, two and three hearts.
  • Each heart is pointed down

Look at the third row. It has a three heart and a one heart picture. It is missing its two-heart picture. Look at the third column. Same story, a three heart and one heart and missing two hearts. Our answer is the picture with two hearts pointing downward.

Last example before we wrap it up: Saving the best for last, this is an example from our OLSAT practice exam for grade 2. The instructions are easy. Pick the picture that doesn’t belong to the group of five pictures.

What universal rules do you see?

  • Each image has a blue circle.
  • Each image has three blue boxes

Those are true universal rules but not enough to answer the question of which doesn’t belong. Looking at the nature of those blue boxes 4 of 5 images are in something of an L shape while the far-left image is in a diagonal. If we add the universal rule ‘Blue boxes are in an L shape’ then the far-left image doesn’t belong.


To apply universal rules first define what the rules are and then check your answers to see if they fit or break the rules. I hope this post is another good tool for your kit. It is really useful for just about any type of visual exam. If these tips are helpful then read on with our post titled: For Practice Tests It’s the Struggle That Matters