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During the years I have spent tutoring people preparing for the GMAT, I have encountered many who are well-versed in GMAT concepts and have fairly strong GMAT-related skills and who, despite their knowledge and skills, continue to answer an inordinately high percentage of GMAT questions incorrectly.
To help these students, I tend to ask them for the work they have done on 50 GMAT practice questions. An analysis of such a student’s errors often reveals that the student either made a silly mistake or created a quagmire of disorganized calculations that led to an incorrect answer. In others words, these incorrect answers came from careless errors, a major problem for some test-takers.
In my eyes, careless errors are the worst mistakes a GMAT test-taker can make, because it’s a shame not to get credit for a GMAT question that you know how to answer correctly. Careless mistakes can be maddening for people, because these students know that they are capable of earning a high GMAT score–they are smart, savvy, hard-working, motivated, knowledgeable, and skilled–yet their GMAT scores don’t reflect their abilities, at least in part, because of the careless mistakes they make.
Fortunately, careless mistakes are avoidable and can be drastically reduced or even eliminated with focus, proper strategy, and practice.
In this article, I’ll review common reasons people commit careless mistakes on the GMAT and outline steps that you can take to increase your accuracy.
Let’s begin by discussing the importance of working slowly and carefully.
Slow Down and Work More Carefully to Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
Time is a luxury that most GMAT test-takers don’t have. Between handling a demanding job, working on applications, volunteering, and spending time with family, your week can disappear in a flash.
Unfortunately, these constraints can cause people to rush through their GMAT preparation. This rushing results in careless mistakes. When you try to calculate more quickly than your mind can process, you will undoubtedly make mistakes, and of course, the way you practice for the GMAT will be reflected in the way you perform when you take the actual test.
To greatly reduce careless errors, go slowly. Take your time. Focus. It makes little sense to spend an hour rushing through 20 problems only to get 10 of them wrong. Instead, work at the fastest pace you can while approaching the problems efficiently. Focus carefully on each problem. Remember, the goal is to gain understanding and learn how to reach correct answers, not to race through a bunch of problems.
Slowing down and working more carefully while training is one of the most powerful ways to improve your accuracy on the GMAT.
Logging Your Mistakes and Working To Reduce Them Can Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
Many people preparing for the GMAT find that creating a log of the mistakes they make can help them to see more clearly what they need to do to improve their accuracy. If you decide to use such a log, each time you make a certain type of mistake, add a hash mark in your mistake log. The goal of tallying your mistakes is to become fully aware of them, and most importantly, avoid making them in the future.
One way to keep from making careless mistakes is to catch yourself before you make them. In other words, if you are aware that you tend to make a certain type of error, you can learn to recognize when you are at risk of making that type of error and be extra careful at those times. For example, if you consistently make careless mistakes on “except” problems, be aware of that fact. The word “except” should set off alarms to be extra careful.
Overall, one of the most powerful things you can do to reduce the likelihood of your making a careless error is to become aware of the types of careless errors you tend to make. Once you are aware of your patterns, you can take action to address them, you can alert yourself before you make a certain type of mistake, and you can even catch yourself in the act, averting making a mistake before it has a chance to affect your score.
Compartmentalize and Focus to Improve your Accuracy on the GMAT
It’s imperative that you be alert and focused when attempting to answer a GMAT question. Two types of behavior can negatively impact accuracy.
The first is distraction. Sometimes, a person’s mind is clearly someplace other than on the GMAT question in front of her. Perhaps she had a bad day at work or a big presentation is on the horizon. Perhaps she is worried that she didn’t answer the previous question correctly.
Keeping yourself from being distracted by such concerns requires developing the skill of compartmentalization. To compartmentalize is simply to stop yourself from thinking about anything before or after the present moment. Compartmentalization allows you to fully devote your attention to the task at hand. When you allow full immersion in whatever you are doing that moment, your accuracy will increase. Do your best to compartmentalize in practice and on test day.
The second detrimental behavior is lack of focus. A person may be focused intently on the GMAT question in front of him. However, his pen is not in sync with his mind. He may, for example, be writing a given line of a solution to a problem while his mind is already visualizing the next step in the problem. It would be great to always be three steps ahead while simultaneously completing the step you’re on successfully, but doing that is just not practical for most people. It’s difficult to be accurate if the pen and mind are out of sync.
The way to fix this problem is to focus intensely on your current step. In fact, watch carefully as you write. Focus on each letter, number, and variable. Extreme focus as you write gives you the opportunity to catch simple, yet score-eroding, errors. If you’re thinking one or two steps ahead, you can easily make mistakes while completing the task at hand. Keep your pen, eyes, and brain in sync at all times. Do your best to focus intently in practice and on test day.
Fuller Understanding Will Help You to Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
The better you understand the material tested on the GMAT, the more accurate you’ll become; deep knowledge is a powerful driver of accuracy.
Let’s say you are answering a probability question that involves a team that does the same type of job every day, and you have determined that the probability of the team’s completing a job on time on any day is 25/52. Let’s also say that to answer the question, you have to determine the probability of the team’s finishing on time three days in a row, but for the last calculation, rather than multiply by 25/52, which would get you to the correct answer, you for some reason start to multiply by 52/25, which process would generate a final answer of 25/52.
Here’s the thing: if you truly understand probability, before even starting to make that final calculation, you would understand that if the probability of finishing on time on any day is 25/52, the probability of finishing on time three days in a row has to be less than 25/52. So, were you to have that fact in mind as you do the math, it’s unlikely that you would make the mistake of choosing 25/52 as your answer.
The general point I’m making here is that the more you understand why you are doing what you are doing as you answer a GMAT question, the more likely you are to do it correctly. So, to reduce the probability of your making a careless error and to increase your accuracy, as you prepare for the GMAT, seek to go beyond merely learning formulas and strategies to understanding what underlies them, and to in general fully understand the conceptual basis and other aspects of what you do to arrive at answers.
Understand that Psychology Can Affect Your Accuracy on the GMAT
Psychological factors can affect your performance on the GMAT in various ways. One key psychological factor to consider is your level of self-confidence. Can someone’s level of self-confidence contribute to making careless errors? You bet it can. Here’s how.
Getting a correct answer to a GMAT question requires paying attention, organizing your work, and generally putting care into what you do, and if a person is not confident that he can hit his GMAT score goal, on some level that person may not feel like putting in the energy necessary for getting correct answers. So, perhaps without being aware that he is doing so, a person in that state of mind may not give his GMAT-related work his full, best effort, and as a result, may consistently make little mistakes.
If that description fits you in any way, understand that you can achieve anything you want to achieve and that skills you don’t currently have are skills that you can develop. It can also help to realize that people who seem to effortlessly score high on a test like the GMAT have in all likelihood worked diligently to develop their skills.
If necessary, deploy a “fake it ‘til you make it strategy.” That is, even if you are not confident about your abilities at the moment, begin telling yourself that you’re going to earn an awesome GMAT score, that you’re going to master the material that appears on the GMAT. Tell yourself that you are the queen (or king) and that you can’t lose; you have the GMAT’s number and you’re going to get medieval come test day. Getting excited about scoring well has been shown to be an effective self-fulfilling prophecy. Positive self-talk has been shown to help people perform better in all arenas of life. Imagine what you could do–would do–if you truly believed that you could not lose? Start feeling that way.
Throw Away All Fear of Failure to Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
Another psychology-related reason for careless errors is fear of failure. When a person is terrified of disappointment, many things that person does can be colored by that fear and the attitudes engendered by it.
For instance, sometimes test-takers are so afraid of not hitting their goals that they actually sabotage their own progress. One way in which this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy can manifest is via careless errors.
In other words, if you were rather afraid of the thought of not hitting your score goal, then perhaps you would find some comfort in making careless errors, for as long a you were making careless errors, you could blame your not hitting your goal on the errors. So it could be that part of the reason you allow yourself to make careless errors is to protect yourself from disappointment.
One cause of fear of disappointment is tying one’s self image or sense of self worth to one’s GMAT score; when people do this, the importance of a GMAT score becomes huge in their minds. It’s not surprising that people putting that kind of pressure on themselves would make careless errors so as to avoid disappointment.
The truth is that all a GMAT score represents is a person’s skill level at a point in time. If you adopt that outlook, then self-doubt and concerns about self-image become irrelevant. What matters is pulling as many levers as possible to drive your score as high as possible, and one of those levers is getting into the habit of being careful rather than careless in how you go about answering questions.
Check out this article for more tips on how to conquer your fears and anxieties related to the GMAT.
Develop a Correct Answer-Focused Mindset to Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
Many tests are designed in a way such that you get partial credit for showing that you at least know how to get a correct answer, and in some cases you don’t get credit unless you show the work you did to arrive at an answer.
The GMAT is not designed that way; it only cares about correct answers. Therefore, to increase your accuracy, you may have to make an adjustment in your thinking; you may have to shift your focus so that your primary concern becomes choosing correct answers. In other words, when you are preparing for the GMAT, you may have to develop a correct answer-focused mentality. Naturally, your becoming more focused on getting correct answers will result in increased accuracy.
One way to hone that focus is to practice by doing questions slowly, taking as much time as you need to get them right. You can be somewhat relaxed about the time spent per question, you can be flexible in choosing approaches for getting to answers, and you can focus on coming out with the correct answer at the end of the process of answering a question.
When you are doing practice questions, two metrics that you can keep in mind are hit rate and streak length. Both of these metrics can serve as powerful tools for improving your accuracy (as well as your number of questions correct).
Your hit rate is the percentage of questions that you answer correctly. When you are doing practice questions, keeping your hit rate in mind will keep your eye on the prize, the correct answers that will get you to your score goal. Seek to drive your hit rate as high as possible. Make it your mission, your goal, to drive up your hit rate.
Even more motivating than hit rate can be streak length. The GMAT rewards long streaks of correct answers with high scores. So, by focusing on getting correct answers in streaks and seeing how long you can make those streaks, you can practice achieving just what you need to in order to hit your GMAT score goal. In doing so, you will also be motivating yourself to focus on consistently getting correct answers to questions that you know how to answer. When you shoot for ever longer correct answer streaks, a question missed because of a careless error goes from being merely unfortunate to being the question that broke your streak!
Temporarily Reduce Your Workload to Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
Decreased accuracy can result from lack of sleep or an overworked mind. How accurate can you be after, for example, getting four hours of sleep, running five miles, and working 10 hours?
If you’re overworked when study time comes around, consider changing your schedule, even if only temporarily. Some of my busiest students have found success in getting up early to study for two hours each weekday morning before work, allowing them to make focused GMAT prep a priority. Of course, an added benefit is that this early studying can force an earlier bedtime.
The research on the importance of restful sleep is overwhelming and cannot be overstated. If you’re too tired to consistently find your way to correct answers, consider getting more sleep. Not only is adequate sleep instrumental in maintaining good health, but also it’s vital for learning. If you can’t seem to get in enough sleep, you may need to reprioritize your time.
Also, use your weekend time to do some serious studying. Get up on Saturday, go for a run or do some yoga, and eat a healthy breakfast. Then, devote three or four hours to GMAT prep when you are fresh. Of course, in the days before you take the GMAT, make getting sufficient sleep a top priority, curtailing activities if necessary.
Read More Carefully To Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
Strong reading skills will help you significantly on all sections of the GMAT. Strive to read everything carefully and methodically. Focus when you read. Make sure that you understand the main point of each sentence and the key concepts in each problem. It’s not unusual to reread math and verbal questions. If you don’t fully understand what you have just read, read it again. Your goal is to become a careful, active, and engaged reader.
Visualization can help you read more carefully. When you read, imagine that what you are reading is unfolding as if you were watching a movie. Picture what you read. Visualization will help you better assimilate and connect information.
Also, remember that in order to read more carefully, you may need to slow down. It’s hard for most people to read quickly and carefully at the same time.
Improve the Neatness of Your Handwriting and the Organization of Your Work to Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
It’s easy to make mistakes when your writing is illegible. For example, if your numeral 2 has a funny habit of morphing into the letter Z, you’re likely to make mistakes.
I want you to write confidently. This is not a small point. Fuzzy writing is a product of fuzzy thinking. It can also be a product of anxiety, or lack of interest, or hastily solving a problem, or wanting to be elsewhere. Don’t hide behind a veil of messy, disorganized writing. Fix your writing. Be confident. Tell yourself that you are going to solve the problem at hand in a neat, orderly, clear manner. Be confident that your writing can serve as an asset to your GMAT score. Let your penmanship serve as a barometer of your style, grace, knowledge, confidence, and abilities.
In addition to writing neatly, it’s important to organize your work thoughtfully. Don’t just spray your work all over your paper. Disorganized workflow is a clear sign of a disorganized mind and brain. Get organized. Get confident! Get in the habit of using well-defined regions for each question and making the steps you take clear. Don’t spread your work across the page haphazardly.
Strengthen Your Pen-and-Paper Calculation Skills to Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
Many people taking the GMAT are far removed from the days when they solved problems with a pen and paper, so they’re out of practice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen students elegantly power through a tough GMAT quant problem, only to make a multiplication, division, addition, or subtraction error. People who are rusty with a pen and paper also predictably make calculation mistakes when dividing a fraction by a fraction, subtracting a negative number, taking the square root of a number or unsquaring a variable, and subtracting a quantity, to name just a few scenarios.
You must spend time perfecting the art of solving problems with a pen and paper. It’s a shame to get through the tough logical component of a question just to make a calculation mistake. The more you hone your ability to solve problems by hand, the less frequently you’ll make careless mistakes.
Consider Doing Less Math in Your Head to Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
Performing mental math can be a path to making a mistake. So, in some instances, calculating in your head may be a bad move. By working on paper, you may more easily keep track of what you are doing to find an answer. Of course, even if you are working on paper, much of what is integral to getting the correct answer will still be going on in your mind, and so practicing using your mind is also important for improving your accuracy.
Be More Cognizant of Units Changes to Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
Many GMAT quant problems contain unit conversions. For example, a rate may be presented in miles per hour, but the answers are given in miles per minute. Look out for unit conversions in GMAT quant problems. It’s easy to choose an answer that looks correct and is only incorrect because it is based on the wrong units. It would be wise to expect problems to contain changes in units. If you’re looking out for these changes, you’ll be less likely to miss them.
Be Aware of “Except” Problems to Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
Some questions read, “All of the following would weaken the argument, except…” or “n is divisible by all of the following, except…” Pay close attention to the specific language given in the question. It stinks to do all of the work properly, only to forget that the question was asking for “all of the following, except…”
Make Sure You Are Answering the Right Question to Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
Many GMAT quant questions will provide you with the opportunity to answer the wrong question. Imagine a complicated word problem involving two Shiba Inus, Blaze and Molly. What if you carefully and elegantly solve for Molly’s age, which happens to be an answer choice, but the question is actually asking for Blaze’s age? Don’t think you’d ever do this? Answering the wrong question occurs more often than you may think.
After you’ve solved a GMAT quant question, before you choose an answer, confirm that you’re actually answering the question being asked.
Pay Attention to Restrictive Information To Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
Quite often, particularly in data sufficiency questions, restrictive information is provided in the stem. For example, we may be told that “k is an integer” or that “0 < m < 1.” Pay close attention to such information. In the heat of solving a problem, it’s easy to forget about a small but crucial piece of information that will change the outcome. Sometimes, writing this information down can help it stick in your mind.
Stop Using Technology and Start Using Your Mind and Brain to Improve Your Accuracy on the GMAT
Most of you readers are in your 20s and 30s. Many in this age group, myself included, have become overly reliant on technology. The good news is that if this reliance on technology has been a culprit in your diminishing cognitive skills, the solution is simple. Stop using technology for everyday problems that could be solved in your head!
At dinner, don’t use your smartphone to calculate the tip. Learn how to do this fifth grade math, or at least apply simple rules for estimating. At a shop, reckon a 20 percent off sale price in your head. You’ll be amazed by how easy these calculations become after a little practice.
Don’t rely on your word processing software to catch and fix your myriad grammar mistakes. Instead, learn the correct rules, and then carefully edit your work.
When you’re cooking your significant other a gourmet meal, don’t use the internet to convert ounces to grams or to calculate one-half of three-fourths of a cup. Learn to do these things in your head.
Stop relying on search engines as your proxy memory. Instead, engrain into your memory key facts such as the formulas for the area of a circle or the volume of solid.
When someone gives you a telephone number, try remembering it without typing it into your phone. Later in the day, transfer the number to your contacts. With a little practice, you can remember a 10-digit number accurately.
Know your multiplication tables! If necessary, buy a pack of multiplication flashcards and review the entire deck. Once you can run through the deck effortlessly, with 100 percent accuracy, go over it again.
Of course, you should never pull out a calculator to help you answer GMAT quant practice questions. You won’t have one for that section of the test; so don’t use one during practice. Force yourself to learn to complete the problems accurately by hand.
As a rule, use your mind and brain. Train yourself each day to become better at the simple stuff. The more you rely on yourself, rather than the tools available to you, the more accurate and efficient you’ll become.
The Bottom Line
In many cases, people miss five or more questions in the two main sections of the GMAT by making silly little mistakes. Five or ten more right answers can mean 50 to 100 more points in a GMAT total score; in other words, a person’s degree of accuracy can have a huge effect on the person’s GMAT performance. Don’t let careless errors hold you back from hitting your GMAT score goal. Implement some of these simple tips, and watch your accuracy, and your score, increase.