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Has this happened to you? You’re reviewing a practice test, and you look at a question you got wrong. “That was just a stupid mistake,” you say, “I should have gotten that one right. I’ll get it next time.”
That’s not a big deal; we all make stupid mistakes sometimes—momentary brain lapses, skipping steps, or just writing down the wrong thing when we knew the right answer. The problem is that unlike in high school, when your teacher might have given you partial credit, on the GMAT there’s no distinction between almost right and completely wrong! You understood the question, solved it all correctly, but then just clicked the wrong answer? Too bad, that’s still a wrong answer.
Careless errors are the #1 cause of score drops on the GMAT! They cause you to miss easier questions, hurting your score a lot more than not know how to solve the harder ones. The biggest mistake that GMAT students make when studying is not tracking errors from the very beginning.
If you want to improve your score on the GMAT, it’s not enough just to know which problems you got wrong. You need to know why you got them wrong. Think about it this way—if you were just learning to play baseball, and every time you got up to the plate you swung and missed, you wouldn’t just say, “Oh well, my mistake, I missed it.” You’d want to analyze exactly why you were missing it. Did you swing too early? Too late? Above or below the ball? Is your batting stance wrong?
You need to apply that same analysis to your “misses” on the GMAT. Because trust me, those dumb mistakes are not as random as they seem! Sure, sometimes you’ll get a fluke like “why did I say 11 — 4 was 8? Obviously I know how to subtract!” That’s probably not a mistake that you’re likely to repeat. But I’m willing to bet that some of your careless mistakes are actually habitual.
As I said, we all make mistakes, but we’re all prone to different patterns of mistakes. The only way to know which mistakes you’re prone to is to track your errors! (Full disclosure: my #1 stupid mistake is forgetting to flip the sign with inequalities. But I didn’t know this until I started tracking and noticed a pattern!)
How to Track—the Error Log
In order to track patterns, you need to record every mistake you’ve made while studying for the GMAT. Sure, this adds extra work, and it seems really tedious, but it’s really important! Your practice exams and GMAT Navigator can track what you’ve gotten right and wrong, but only you can figure out why.
Keep an Error Log to record these mistakes. You can do it by hand, but I prefer a spreadsheet so that I can sort it by problem type (Data Sufficiency or Problem Solving) or by topic (ratios, probability, divisibility, etc.).
What to track:
- Problem Type (DS, PS, SC, CR, or RC)
- Topic (polygons, modifiers, assumption, etc)
- Problem # and source (OG, practice test, strategy guide)—this is important to track so you can revisit the problem later
- What kind of error—careless or conceptual?
- Describe the error in detail.
It’s important to distinguish between careless and conceptual mistakes, because they require different fixes. Be specific about the mistake—it’s not enough just to say “oh, that was just a stupid mistake.” What kind of stupid mistake was it? Or, “I didn’t understand.” What didn’t you understand? What should you have seen/connected?
- Conceptual mistakes:
- didn’t understand what the question was asking
- didn’t rephrase the right way (or thoroughly enough)
- didn’t know/remember the rules
- mixed up rules or applied the wrong rule/formula
- Careless mistakes:
- read too quickly/misread the question
- solved for the wrong variable/question
- made an arithmetic error (got the wrong sum, product, etc.)
- performed the wrong operation (multiplied instead of divided)
- misread your own handwriting
- skipped a step
- got it right, but clicked the wrong bubble
If you start tracking from the very beginning, you’ll start to notice patterns before they become bad habits!
Once you’ve identified a recurring mistake, do drill sets to practice employing good skills in that problem area. If, for example, you skip steps in algebraic translations and end up with the wrong answer, practice solving a few dozen equations by writing out every single step. It seems elementary, but you won’t make those mistakes again.
Remember, practice, practice, practice makes perfect! 📝
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Céilidh Erickson is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Boston, MA. When she tells people that her name is pronounced “kay-lee,” she often gets puzzled looks. Céilidh is a graduate of Princeton University and a master’s candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Tutoring was always the job that brought her the greatest joy and challenge, so she decided to make it her full-time job. Check out Céilidh’s upcoming GMAT courses (she scored a 760, so you’re in great hands).