How To Minimize Careless Errors When Taking The GMAT

Remember those times when you were sure you got the answer right, only to find out that you got it wrong? For a moment, you even think that there must be a mistake in the answer key. Then, you take a look at the problem again, you check your work, and you say, I can’t believe I did that! You knew exactly how to do this problem and you should have gotten it right, but you made a careless mistake.

What’s a Careless Error?

By definition, a careless mistake occurs when we did actually know all of the necessary info and we did actually possess all of the necessary skills, but we made a mistake anyway. We all make careless mistakes (yes, even the experts!); over 3.5 hours, it’s not reasonable to assume that we can completely avoid making careless mistakes. Our goal is to learn how to minimize careless mistakes as much as possible.

How Can We Minimize Careless Errors?

Isn’t the whole point of a careless error that we don’t know when we’re going to make them? They just happen randomly and we can’t control that!

Actually, that’s a little bit true, but not entirely. It is the case that you should always expect to have a few careless errors here and there; as I said, we’re human and we’re never going to get rid of them completely. We can, though, learn to reduce the number of careless errors we make.

A lot of times, careless errors are due to one of two things: (1) some bad habit that actually increases the chances that we’ll make a mistake, or (2) our own natural weaknesses.

Here’s an example of the former: I’m working on a rate problem that talks about Car A and Car B; I go all the way through the problem and do everything perfectly except I pick the answer corresponding to Car A’s time when they asked me for Car B’s time. Argh!

So, what’s my bad habit here? (By the way, I used to make this mistake myself!) I didn’t make sure that I knew what I was solving for. I would dive in, and do this long complicated problem, and by the time I got to the end, I’d forgotten what I was solving for, and I didn’t go back and check at the end. I also noticed that I was more likely to make this mistake when I set up the problem such that I was solving for the wrong thing first. You can solve for either Car A’s time first, and then use that to find Car B’s time, or vice versa. If they asked me about Car B and I solved for Car B’s time first, I rarely made that mistake, but if I solved for Car A’s time first watch out.

So I developed several different good habits to put in the place of my various bad habits. First, I got into the habit of skipping several blank lines on my scrap paper and then writing B time = ______? and drawing a circle around it. Then, I’d go back up, do my work, and run into a reminder that I wanted to solve for B.

I also built the habit of solving directly for what I wanted. On any problem with multiple variables, I could solve for one of the other ones first, but if they want x, why should I solve for y first unless I absolutely have to? Now, while I’m setting up the problem, I always look first to see whether I can set up the problem to solve directly for x.

Finally, when I’m done with the problem and ready to pick my answer, I’ve built a habit to glance at the question stem on the screen “ just to make sure that I really did solve for the right thing.

So, what did I do here? First, I figured out what specific mistake I was making and why I was making it. Then, I instituted three new habits that would minimize the chances of making the same mistake in future. Incidentally, one of those habits (solving directly for what is asked) also saves me time! (Note: you don’t necessarily need to set up multiple new habits; often, just one new habit will suffice.)

Figure Out Why

The key to minimizing careless errors: you must figure out why you made the mistake you made. Don’t just yell at yourself and then move on. There is some reason (or reasons!) why “ and if you can figure them out, then you can also figure out what new habits will help you to minimize those same kinds of errors in future.

Here’s an example of the second type, a natural weakness; this is a common error that I see among my students all the time.

You’re solving this equation:

x – 1 = -20

x = -21

And then you continue on through the problem. Except that x doesn’t equal -21 it equals -19. We have to add 1 to both sides of the equation, and adding 1 results in a larger number. -19 is larger than -20, but people go the other direction because negative numbers are weird and can cause us to make mistakes. If you notice that you make this same kind of mistake multiple times, you’ve got to do something about it.

So what do we do here? Remember when you first learned how to do algebra? We were taught to write +1 under each side of the equation:

x – 1 = -20

+1    +1

x = -19

Then, as we got better at algebra, we were able to stop writing that step out. If you find, however, that you’re prone to that particular error, make it a habit to write that step out every time.

Note that I said if you’re prone to that particular error. If you make that error once in 6 months, then you don’t need to start writing out +1 (or whatever it is) every time “ you can consider that a random error. But if you make that error a few times over the course of a month, then start writing out this kind of work because you know that you’re at risk of making this kind of error.

I gave math examples above, but this whole process works just as well for verbal—and, again, the key is figuring out why you made a particular error. If you realize that you tend to make mistakes on harder sentence correction questions because you pick what sounds good, then you’re going to have to train yourself NOT to pick based just on what sounds good. It’s okay to think, Hmm, B doesn’t sound as good as A. But then ask yourself why. If you can point to one specific reason why B actually is bad, then you can cross it off confidently. (Note that this is different from Oh, B is definitely wrong. If you think that, then you’ve likely noticed at least one specific reason why B is actually wrong even if you haven’t articulated that reason clearly, so go ahead and cross off B. If, on the other hand, your thought is more along the lines of Hmm, I don’t like B so much, then take the extra step to ask yourself why.)

Keep Track of Careless Errors

Start a file on your computer, or keep a notebook handy when you’re studying, and jot down the careless errors that you make. Periodically, go back over the list and look for patterns: the same or similar types of errors. If something just happens once, that’s okay. But if there’s any kind of pattern, then start asking yourself why and what you can do to minimize the chances of repeating that pattern in future.

If you haven’t been doing this in the past, take an hour sometime in this next week to run back through the problems you’ve studied over the past week (or however far back you can go while still remembering what errors you made and why you made them). Jump-start your log using these recent problems and then make a habit of continuing to pay attention to such errors in future!

Last But Not Least…

Sure, we all get a little upset when we make any kind of error. But after that first moment of irritation, realize something: you just found an opportunity to get better. You want to find these careless mistakes (and any other kinds of mistakes) while you’re still studying so that you can prevent them from happening during the real test! If you aren’t finding careless errors while you study, then something’s wrong – because I guarantee you that you’re making them. And, if you’re finding them but not doing anything about them, then you’re losing opportunities to improve. So be a little bit glad when you make a careless mistake, because you know that you’re now going to take steps to avoid losing points in that way in future!

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4. Namrata Valecha February 28, 2013 at 10:04 am

Dear Stacey,

I am relatively new to the GMAT preperation. I came across the link to this article while going through a website on GMAT preperations. My question is out of order given the thread, however it would be of great help if you could answer the same for me. I am absolutely petrified of co-ordinte geometry, I tend to go blank when it comes to co-ordinate geometry problems, I have tried to solve every question on the manhayyan guide and the officil guide 10 and 12 as well as quantitative review, I still tend to get extremely confused with the chapter.

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7. Stacey Koprince November 18, 2012 at 1:08 am

Hi, all, thanks for your feedback – I’m glad that you found the article helpful! Juan, I agree that these lessons can sometimes apply in life as well.

8. Juan November 16, 2012 at 5:56 am

Thanks a lot for this wonderful article, it applies to many things in life and allow us to get better in many topics, a life experience. I love what you said about the opportunity to get better from the mistakes, it’s absolutely true!

9. Tahir November 15, 2012 at 7:56 pm

Hello Stacy,

I started to do what you suggested in this article about a month ago for RC questions especially and I found so many careless mistakes. Now I am very conscience of the way I do these questions. Thank you very much. Your articles have really shaped my study process!

10. Varun November 4, 2012 at 7:26 am

Hi Stacey,

This article has proven to be very helpful. In fact, IMHO, not only will it help those who’ve started working on their mock tests but also those who are under going last minute preparations.
The latter set of people may not have the time to work on their mistakes/habit, but an understanding of the “error-making” pattern might help them be alert or double-check their answers during the actual test.

11. Kamlesh October 24, 2012 at 3:33 pm

Hi Stacey,

Thank you for making me CAREFUL by this article. Still working hard on minimizing the Careless errors. On an average 6 to 9 (in both QT and Verbal) are my careless errors happened so far. I will practice more on this to avoid.
Anyways, once again thank you.

12. Stacey Koprince October 24, 2012 at 1:41 pm

I’m glad that you’re aware now. A week is not a ton of time, but the really important question is this: are your practice test scores at your desired level? If you haven’t taken a practice test in the past week, or if you did but it was under non-official conditions, then take a full practice test under 100% official conditions ASAP. If the score is at or above the level you want, then do work on careless errors for the next week, but then go ahead and take your real test.

If, on the other hand, your score is below what you want, then you may need more than a week. There’s a lot you can do to lift your score just by minimizing careless mistakes – but if you’re making a lot of these mistakes, then that will take time.

Note: you can pay only \$50 to postpone your test date as long as you do so more than 7 days in advance of the test day.

13. DanceAddict October 24, 2012 at 10:24 am

Hi Stacey !

Thanks for this wonderful post ! As always your articles are a treasure !! I realized that I make quite a few careless mistakes especially in the Quants section. I get 14 questions wrong out of which 7 – 9 are due to careless mistakes. I actually have made note of the mistakes I committed but by reading your post I understand I will have to develop a habit to correct these mistakes. I have my exam in a week. Will it still be possible for me to address all the issues. I make really silly mistakes in multiplication but it happens time and again, I tend to overlook details or I read the question wrong. But when I try to concentrate and spend time reading the question carefully, I lose time and I am not able to complete the section. So as usual it is a compromise between speed and accuracy !! And my careless reading / computational mistakes really cost me !

Once again, Thanks for all your wonderful articles ! It has helped me come a long way !!