The “silly mistake” is quite possibly the most mischievous and irksome of the math demons.  It is a sly beast that lurks in the deepest recesses of your mind, emerging only periodically to sully your scores in a most disturbing way.  Because of its crafty nature, it is able to lull you into the false belief that your thorough understanding of mathematic concepts will keep you safe from its clutches.  But, as I’m sure you know, “silly mistakes” afflict even the most soundly prepared students.

What exactly constitutes a “silly mistake?”  Here are some common examples for standardized tests:

  • Misreading the question (or failing to read the entire instructions)
  • Filling in the wrong bubble on your answer sheet
  • Making a slight arithmetic error
  • Incorrectly copying down the original problem
  • Turning a negative number into a positive number (or vice versa)

I don’t care who you are, what your educational background is, or where you go to school… you have been a victim of “silly mistakes” at one time or another.  The whole fiasco probably went down like this: you whizzed through an exam with utter confidence, only to receive a shocking and confusing grade. Why?  Because you missed several questions that you were sure you had answered correctly.  You glossed over some inane details that ended up costing you a slew of points despite your clear understanding of the concepts.

When it comes to standardized tests like the ACT and SAT, silly mistakes are just as costly as any deep conceptual misconstruing.  Accordingly, it is imperative that you devote substantial resources to ensure that these mistakes are weeded out.

At the end of the day, extricating these little demons comes down to a few core principles and strategies. Here are five quick tips on how to tackle these nuisances once and for all.

  1. Read Each Question Prompt Carefully – the most common source of errors is the misreading of test questions.  When time constraints are a factor, you will likely be racing the clock, pushing your reading pace to its limits.  While speedy reading is important, you must figure out where to draw the line between speed and accuracy.  My advice is to read each question prompt slowly and carefully before jumping to the answers.  If time warrants, I would take two passes through the prompt.  The more certain you are of the actual contents of the question, the far less likely you will be to make a mistake.
  2. Write Clearly And Neatly  – As you work through problems on the mathematics section, you will be writing down notes and equations as you make your calculations.  If you tend to write in a jumbled fashion, you will be setting yourself up for disaster.  You need things to flow clearly and neatly from step to step so that you are able to properly decipher the right answer.  A few tips for writing clearly are to (a) always write in straight lines, (b) progress downwards as you move forward with your work, (c) use clear handwriting, and (d) don’t write too small.  The most important factor to developing a solid habit of writing clearly and neatly is to practice.  As such, make the extra effort to keep your daily homework neat and organized.
  3. Master Time Management – as time begins to run out, you are more likely to make mistakes. Why?  Because your speed will increase along with your anxiety, making you much more error prone.  To counteract this natural tendency, make sure that your time management skills have been properly honed.  The only way to accomplish that is to include many timed practice exams before the actual test.  During the timed practice exams, keep an eye on where you are and how much time is left. The SAT math section, for example, has 54 questions that must be completed in 70 minutes.  As you are going through the test, you can see how many problems you have finished at the 17.5-minute mark.  Then, at the halfway mark, you can check your progress again.  Keep in mind that you should ideally be more than halfway through the math section at 35 minutes because the math questions increase in difficulty as you move forward.
  4. Verify The Question Number In Your Test Booklet Before Filling In Your Answer Sheet – there is nothing more frustrating than getting a question wrong because of a misplaced answer.  But the solution to this problem is quite simple.  All you need to do is get in the habit of verifying the question number each and every time.  Most kids get accustomed to deriving and answer and then filling in the next empty row of bubbles on the answer sheet.  That method can get you into trouble if you inadvertently skip a question.  To be safe, always verify the question number. 
  5. Practice, Practice, Practice – the more exams you take, the less likely you will be to misread or miscalculate something.  Every error on a practice test is a terrific learning opportunity.  Those mistakes will be etched in your brain as constant reminders of what not to do in the future.  The more of these practice tests that you rack up, the less likely you are to make mistakes on the real exam.  Moreover, getting in substantial practice will calm your nerves come test day.  Less anxiety = better overall performance.