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Don’t Fear Mistakes

One of the consistent things I hear from students involves mistakes. For some reason, students don’t want to make them. They avoid doing practice tests or even doing practice problems until they’ve covered all the basics or watched all the lesson videos or read all the introductory explanations.

Nothing is more detrimental. Well, I suppose I am being hyperbolic; drinking bleach is more detrimental than avoiding mistakes. The point, though, is that avoiding practice problems to avoid mistakes is a nefarious mindset.

I’d like to free your mind and allow you to release your preconceived notions of mistakes. Follow me on a journey through mistakes.

Mistakes are the Seeds of Learning

No one ever learns without making mistakes. There is no other way to learn. We have to fail before we can succeed and so when you avoid mistakes, you avoid learning. At some point, the word “mistake” became a pejorative—a detriment to us all.

The goal with your GMAT prep is to weed out weakness. The first step in this process is finding your weaknesses. As much as reading about concepts may help, only by diving in and answering questions will you truly know your GMAT weaknesses. You will make mistakes and you will miss questions, revealing areas where you need to focus. Awesome!

Keep track of these mistakes. Track your errors systematically. Spend more time understanding your mistakes than actually answering questions. This is the work of learning. You have to commit to approaching your errors head on and really break down the reasons you made the mistake.

So Many Types of Mistakes

The smart student knows that mistakes come in many sizes and flavors. Some mistakes are a true lack of knowledge, usually with material never seen before. Other mistakes are due to fatigue and lack of focus. Mistakes come from silly errors or rushing at the end of the question. Mistakes appear when we do things out of order or lose track of what we are asked to do.

When the mistake happens, diagnosis the type of mistake and react appropriately. As you go through this process, you’ll realize that mistakes are not all the terrible. They occur for numerous reasons, and there are numerous appropriate actions to take that correct the mistake. Sometimes you will need to actually learn a new concept, but other times, you’ll need to re-read the question before choosing an answer choice.

You Aren’t the Mistake

A mistake is not a reflection of your personality, character, or ability. Mistakes have nothing to do with your knowledge or intelligence. One of the worst things that teachers and parents do is praise a child when they do something right— “You are so smart!” Or conversely, criticize the child when they make a mistake— “Why did you do that? That wasn’t smart!” When really, as parents and teachers, we need to praise or criticize the action. As Salman Khan says, we need to create a learning mindset in children—and in adults—that rewards struggling and making mistakes.

A mistake, a moment of struggle, stretches and grows your brain. It creates new connections that make you smarter. These connection deepen and grow most when we make mistakes, not when we do things right. So praise yourself for mistakes, for struggling through a problem. Your actions of struggling are smart. That’s intelligence. A student is not smart or wrong. A student’s actions are either smart or not, and none of that has to do with the student.


Don’t wait to do practice problems. Start early and attempt problems that you haven’t seen before or think will be too hard. In doing so, you’ll challenge yourself beyond your normal limits, grow the neural connections in your brain, and ultimately, learn!

Embrace your mistakes! Fear your fear of making them. Only this will allow you to truly improve.


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6 Responses to Don’t Fear Mistakes

  1. Mary Beth July 5, 2016 at 2:58 pm #

    That’s it, no more putting off my first practice GRE! Thanks, Kevin for the tips. I particularly appreciate the “you are not the mistake” reassurance. Starting a mistake log now.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 7, 2016 at 10:05 am #

      You can do this, Mary Beth! 🙂

  2. Marie September 23, 2014 at 7:43 pm #

    Sigh…just when I think that I’m ready to give up I read your article. Thank you for recognizing it’s okay to make mistakes! Now back to practice problems!

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin September 23, 2014 at 9:11 pm #

      Hurray, Marie! I am so happy that I was able to motivate you and keep you studying! Mistakes are the best thing that can happen when you are learning! Happy Studying!

      • Manish September 26, 2014 at 9:32 pm #

        Woah great article Kevin! Just wanted to ask a quick question. Although you have underscored on how mistakes help you in the GMAT Prep, could you also tell us on how to learn from mistakes you make in math section? For ex. i note down EVERY mistake i make on the math section on a note pad at the end of each section,i have this huge pile of mistakes which i kinda overwhelming…any alternatives you would suggest? thanx

        • Kevin Rocci
          Kevin October 1, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

          Glad you liked it Manish! 😀

          And an excellent follow up! 😀 It’s great that you are making note of your mistakes. Here’s what I recommend: Write down the question number, the source, question type, and concept tested. Then write down answers to the following questions:

          * Why you missed the question?
          * Why your answer is wrong?
          * Why the correct answer is correct?
          * What will you do to avoid this next time around?

          By asking these questions and responding, you will be proactively attacking these errors. You’ll be able to classify the errors too. Sometimes you miss a problem due to a “silly” mistake or from misreading the question. Sometimes you miss a problem because you truly don’t understand a concept. You would approach these errors differently.

          Return to your error log often. Review your mistakes and errors before you take a practice test. You want your common mistakes and errors present in your mind when you sit to take a test so that you can consciously avoid them. If you do this enough, by the time you sit for the actual test, you will be aware of your common errors and be prepared to avoid them.

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