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Avoiding Silly Mistakes on the GRE

Many of us face the same problems—small calculation errors, forgetting to keep track of positive and negative numbers, rounding errors, or any number of other small things that we all need to keep track of when taking a test. Most times these errors are even more frustrating because we understand the concept, think through the problem, plan our attack, and feel confident that we are doing everything right. That’s why we call them silly mistakes—even stupid mistakes.

What’s going on here? Why does this happen when you do all the hard stuff perfectly? Well, don’t despair! With a little reflection and focus, we can eliminate these errors.

What’s the Real Issue?

First we need to diagnosis the issue. Ask yourself where the error happened. Was it at the end of the problem or at the beginning of a problem? Many times I see students make errors right at the end of the problem. They work the whole problem, set it up perfectly, and make a small addition or division error near the end! Or they forget the crucial last step to the problem! Or they mark the wrong answer!

This is a natural human tendency that you must fight. How many times have you seen a team ahead an entire game only to lose in the final seconds?  Or a runner ahead in the race who loses in the final stretch? This all comes from the same tendency: we drop our guard when we see the finish line. We relax. Our focus wanes. We rush. All of which does not help us to succeed.

Rule 1:

This brings us to our first rule: when you see the finish line, when you are nearing the end of the problem, focus even more. Don’t rush. Don’t drop your guard. When you see the finish line, take a half second to breathe and really focus on the last part of the problem. Slow yourself down.

All people make mistakes when they are tired. Pilots, train conductors, astronauts, professional athletes, and test takers are all susceptible to fatigue, which negatively affects their focus. Are you tired or well-rested when you make these errors? Have you had a power session, studying for hours and hours?

If so, take a short break to stretch, move around, and drink some water to refocus on the task at hand. We need oxygen to function properly and stretching and focused breathing is a great way to deliver a jolt of oxygen to your body.

Rule 2:

Our second rule: be mindful of your fatigue and focus. Yes, you need to think about your timing and making inferences and fractional powers, but none of this matters if you can’t focus. So always keep a running tab on your focus and exhaustion. Pay attention to your thoughts. Are they drifting from idea to idea? Do you keep reading a question without understanding anything? These are telltale signs of fatigue and a lack of focus.

During your practice, it’s easy to stop and take a five minute break to stretch and refocus. For every hour of study, I recommend a five minute break. Get up and walk around. Step outside. Let your mind drift off to somewhere else for five minutes. Then return to answering problems.

But you won’t be able to walk around in the middle of the test. So just close your eyes momentarily. This will offer a simple, easy respite from the test. Keep them closed and count to 10 or 20. Try to push all thoughts out of your mind and just focus on taking long, purposeful breaths. This will help fight off exhaustion and focus your mind. Not looking at the computer screen too is enough to provide you with a break so you can return invigorated.

The Takeaway

With these simple tools—refocus at the finish line and monitoring your focus—you’ll be able to perform at your best during your study sessions and on test day. You’ll stop making those silly errors. You’ll be more confident. And you’ll see your your scores start to inch higher and higher.


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8 Responses to Avoiding Silly Mistakes on the GRE

  1. Ishaq May 25, 2015 at 8:30 am #

    dropping guard at the sight of finish line! yup, that’s me! Thanks to Jessica for directing me here.

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin Rocci May 26, 2015 at 2:40 pm #

      Knowing yourself is half the battle—maybe more! 😀

      Glad you found the article helpful, Ishaq! 😀

  2. Fatima February 12, 2015 at 4:08 pm #

    Well, I just got my calc test back and I have lost about 20 marks over those stupid errors. Reading your article actually gave me an idea of what my problems are! rushing to finish on time or being too confident of my work. Then a little minus would ruin everything.. thanks a lot. I will be more careful in my coming tests 🙂

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin February 12, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

      Fatima! I am sorry to hear about the mistakes, but I am happy to hear that this post was able to help! 😀

      Best of luck and happy studying for your retake!

  3. gurnoor June 28, 2014 at 6:30 am #

    very effective
    a big thank you 😀

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin June 28, 2014 at 1:21 pm #

      Happy to help! 😀

  4. Anshul Goel June 21, 2014 at 7:52 am #

    “We drop our guard when we see the finish line”….very precisely explained the issue. Thanks for the tips.
    I am good at math and till school aced it. But recently while practicing for gre I noticed that I am making so many stupid blunders, adding 7 and 5 to make 13. I mean I laugh at them when I notice, but these blunders are a heavy cost which I might have to pay in the actual test. Could you suggest me some measures to curb this?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 23, 2014 at 11:40 am #

      Hi Anshul,

      Lots of mental math, and in the context of problem solving. I think our inner calculators get a little shook up when we are trying to juggle all the information we’re being bombarded with. Also, be very aware of the exact context you make mental calculations in. Sometimes, it may be nothing more than having to warm-up your neural circuitry.

      If you want to be very meticulous, you can takes not of mistakes–both careless and otherwise–that you make while prepping. Then, before a practice session, review the notes.

      Hope that helps!

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