Right GMAT answers are all alike; every wrong answer is wrong in its own way.
With apologies to both Tolstoy and MPrep instructor Ceilidh Erickson, from whom I borrowed that analogy: let’s have a chat about getting GMAT problems wrong. It’s not just about careless errors and forgotten formulas!
The Obvious Ones
The most obvious way of getting GMAT problems wrong is by not knowing something! If it’s a Sentence Correction problem, for instance, maybe you just forgot the rule about like versus as.
Luckily, this is the easiest type of error to fix. Figure out what you didn’t know and learn it! You can even head these errors off at the pass with resources like instructor Patrick Tyrrell’s GMAT Quant need-to-knows.
The other obvious type of mistake is the careless error. Let’s get a clear definition of what a careless error is. A careless error is a simple mistake that makes you miss a problem you knew how to solve. In other words, you had the right approach, and you knew everything you needed to know, but you zigged where you should have zagged. Often, a careless error involves writing or copying something incorrectly, messing up a simple math procedure, or solving for the wrong value.
Some of us are more plagued by careless errors than others (ask me how I feel about digit & decimal problems)! Reducing your careless errors to almost zero is an important part of pushing your GMAT score past the 700 level. It can be done—this article from our GRE blog describes a fantastic method.
What a Careless GMAT Error Isn’t
Careless GMAT errors can be tackled with the approach above. But, not every mistake is a careless error. If you got a problem wrong because you used the wrong approach, or because you didn’t understand what it was telling you, that wasn’t a careless error. So, what was it?
A lot of wrong answers come from flailing. You know, flailing—like what little kids do when they’re trying to learn to swim. When you go into a GMAT problem without a clear plan, and you start frantically trying out random ideas, flailing is what you’re doing.
Flailing is different from a lack of knowledge. You might very well have known all of the facts and strategies, you just didn’t use them correctly, or efficiently, or at the right point in the problem. Flailing is also different from a careless error, because when you flail, you don’t have the right approach to the problem! Your approach—not just your handwriting or your addition skills—is what needs to change.
Fix a flailing problem with a study technique called “when I see this, do this.” Every time you review a GMAT problem, break it down into two columns: what you saw in the problem (or what you were supposed to see), and what you did about it (or what you were supposed to do about it).
This article walks through an example of the “when I see this, do this” technique. (It’s from our GRE blog, but also applies to the GMAT.) If you know a lot of content, but you’re still flailing when faced with real problems, you need to get better at recognizing what to do. That’s what this study technique will help with.
You can also benefit from the technique if you didn’t flail on a problem but you simply used the wrong rule or wrong strategy. Use it to train yourself to recognize when to use different rules or strategies, or when to look out for particular mistakes.
Traps and Assumptions
A lot of getting GMAT problems wrong comes from making assumptions. Maybe you were solving a geometry problem and you assumed that a triangle was a special right triangle. Maybe you were solving a Reading Comprehension problem and you assumed that the author of the passage had a certain opinion she didn’t actually express.
Assumptions are especially dangerous on Data Sufficiency, Critical Reasoning, and Reading Comprehension problems. In general, you can’t assume anything while solving these problems, other than what’s written there in the problem.
You can sometimes spot an assumption by looking for the place where your solution became simpler than the real solution. In Verbal, you’ve found an assumption if you catch yourself thinking Oh, I guess I figured that… Whenever you make an incorrect assumption, write it down in your notes! If you’re making a lot of these, practice adding some extra skepticism to your approach.
You might also fall for a trap answer. Trap answers are wrong answers that are intentionally written to look right. It’s possible to avoid trap answers, but you need to know why you’re falling for them!
If you fall for a lot of traps, add these two columns to your error log:
“What looked good about the wrong answer?”
“Why did I eliminate the right answer?”
If you can answer both of those questions, you’ve learned two things: a reason not to pick an answer in the future, and a reason not to eliminate an answer in the future. Keep a log of these learning opportunities and review it often!
In fact, keep a log of every one of your errors, including what type of error it was. Every error is an opportunity to learn something new about the GMAT, and something new about yourself as a test taker. Treasure your errors! Why not start an error log today? 📝
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Chelsey Cooley is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GMAT prep offerings here.