Careless Mistakes on the GRE: Go Slow to Go Fast

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - Careless Mistakes on the GRE: Go Slow to Go Fast by Chelsey Cooley

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It’s okay to make mistakes on the GRE. You can miss plenty of problems and still get a great score. However, it matters why you make those mistakes. Miss a problem because you don’t know how to solve it? That’s totally okay (as long as you don’t waste too much time). Miss a problem because you added two and three and got six? That’s a problem, and here’s how to fix it: stop trying to go fast.

Here’s a story about something that actually happened to me. Every year, we folks at Manhattan Prep have a huge conference in New York. We get together and spend a couple of days brainstorming, sharing our knowledge, and getting to know one another. There’s also always a talent show. And because we’re the world’s biggest nerds—we take standardized tests for fun—the talents on display can be pretty nerdy.

I like solving Rubik’s cubes. And you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m not the only person at Manhattan Prep with that talent. So at this year’s talent show, another MPrep instructor and I decided to get on stage and race to solve a Rubik’s cube the fastest.

We started with a practice round before the talent show. I won. I’m not the fastest Rubik’s cube solver out there, but I can hold my own! But I only won the practice round by a few seconds. It could have easily gone the other way. And I can be a pretty competitive person. So, a few hours later, on stage in front of the entire company, the only thought in my head was this one:

If I want to win this, I need to go as fast as I can.

You can probably guess what happened next. I started solving the Rubik’s cube, turning the faces as quickly as I possibly could. Everything went well for about twenty seconds. Then I made a careless mistake. I turned the front of the cube to the right when I should’ve turned it to the left and totally scrambled the part of it that I’d just been solving. I looked down at the cube, and it looked totally unfamiliar. I couldn’t even figure out where I’d gone wrong. I’d have to go back half a dozen steps in order to fix it.

I was able to recover, but not quickly enough. Despite working the Rubik’s cube as quickly as I possibly could, I lost the contest by a good ten or fifteen seconds. My careless error had cost me the victory.

Familiar story? Well, it turns out that it’s familiar to Rubik’s cubers. It’s actually such a common story, that a piece of advice often given to new competitors is this:

Go slow to go fast.

I first heard that advice from a book about competitive Rubik’s cubing: Cracking the Cube: Going Slow to Go Fast and Other Unexpected Turns in the World of Competitive Rubik’s Cube Solving, by Ian Scheffler. In this book, Scheffler describes his struggle to become a competitive Rubik’s cube solver. As it turns out, people who are very fast at solving the Rubik’s cube—think fifteen seconds or less—won’t recommend that you try to turn the cube faster. They know that trying to move your fingers more quickly will only make you freeze up and make mistakes. They’ll actually tell you to slow down as you turn the cube. And they’ll tell you to make up for lost time by practicing something called lookahead.

Lookahead, in Rubik’s cube parlance, is the art of deciding on your next move before you’ve even finished the current one. A Rubik’s cuber with good lookahead can proceed seamlessly from one move to the next, without having to pause to think about it. It doesn’t matter whether she executes each of those moves slowly. In fact, by slowing down a bit and doing each move carefully, she avoids careless mistakes that can cost her time.  

How does a competitive Rubik’s cuber manage to solve the cube so quickly, then? For one, she chooses the right moves. A competitive Rubik’s cuber is often able to solve a Rubik’s cube in only 50 moves. I might need twice that many. She also doesn’t pause between moves to think. World-class Rubik’s cubers will sometimes practice with a ticking metronome, trying to turn the cube to the beat without ever pausing. This trains them to work fluidly and avoid long, awkward pauses.

Okay, let’s get back to what we’re really talking about: the GRE. Cracking the GRE has a surprising amount in common with solving a Rubik’s cube quickly. If you try to go fast, you will make careless mistakes on the GRE. If your math speed is holding you up, the solution is not to force yourself to read faster and write faster. The solution is to practice math drills (we recommend the drills at Khan Academy) until speed starts to come naturally. And the solution is to work smoothly, not quickly. Use the ‘when I see this, do this’ study method to train yourself to recognize the steps to take. Review every problem you do, looking for the most efficient way to solve it. Try thinking a few steps ahead as you solve the problem: where are you going next? Why are you solving this equation, and what will you do with the solution once you find it?

It seems counterintuitive, but sometimes you really do have to go slow in order to go fast. Keep that in the back of your mind as you solve Quant problems. What you’ll find is that you may take a few more seconds on some problems. However, the time you save by avoiding careless mistakes on the GRE, and by working more fluidly and confidently, will more than make up for it. ?


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Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor 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 170Q/170V on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.

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