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How do I avoid making silly errors/mistakes and stay focused?

Many students think of several types of mistakes when they hear the words "silly mistake." If any of the following sound familiar to you, read on and we'll teach you a bit about how to avoid them:

  • Making small calculation errors
  • Forgetting to keep track of positive or negative numbers
  • Rounding errors
  • Forgetting to look out for FOIL or order of operations
  • Other small details

Most times these errors are even more frustrating because you understood the concept, you thought through the problem and planned your attack, and you felt confident that you were doing everything right. Hence we call them silly mistakes, even stupid mistakes.

Do not despair! With a little reflection and focus, we can eliminate these errors.

The important thing to remember is that these mistakes are only stupid or silly mistakes if you don't learn from them! Keeping track of these mistakes is the first step to stopping yourself from making them again. Because of this, using an error log is one of the best things you can do. For every silly mistake you make, make an entry in your log (a small notebook, Word document, spreadsheet, or whatever works best for you!) with the following information:

  • What type of question was this? Quant, verbal? What concepts were tested?
  • What was the small mistake you made?
  • Did the small mistake you made trick you into choosing the wrong answer choice? 
  • Have you made this mistake before? 

Once you've finished writing these down, take a moment to think about the problem a little more in depth. 

For one, 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. This is a natural human tendency that we have to fight. How many times have we seen a team winning an entire game only to lose in the final minutes 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. We drop our focus. We rush. All of which does not help us to succeed.

So the 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. Know that everyone has the tendency to slack off near the end. Don't be that person.

Second, are you tired when you make these errors? Have you had a power session of studying? If so, taking a short break to stretch, move around, and drink water might be all that you need to refocus. Obviously you won't be able to take a stretch break in the middle of the test, but you should absolutely do so during your study periods. For every hour of study, let your mind drift off to somewhere else for 5 minute. Then return to answering problems.

As for test day, closing your eyes momentarily can offer a nice break. 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 to fight off any exhaustion.

I would also recommend reading the following blog post about how to stay focused during the test. Some of these tips can be applied to your study time as well:

http://magoosh.com/gre/2011/how-to-stay-focused-on-the-gre-both-old-and-new/

So, in summary, here's what to keep in mind:

  1. It's only a stupid mistake if you don't learn from it!
  2. Rest your brain, and stretch your legs when you do!
  3. Focus on a basic pattern such as breathing or your heart rate to get rid of extra distractions.

Additionally, here's some other basic ideas to incorporate into your study routine and paradigm that will help you to learn more about how you focus and learn best:

  • Pick your favorite study spot: pick a place that fits your favorite noise levels and where you can focus on work being work. Many students have found that a place resembling a testing center helps, and you should also ensure that you think of that place as the place where you get your studying work done
  • Don't multitask: several studies have shown that multi-taskers consistently underperform their peers in terms of memory capacity and attention span. Don't shoot yourself in the foot by taking on too many things at once!
  • Get a good night's sleep: by getting a good night's sleep, you'll drastically improve your memory and retention of what you're learning and working on. This is a super simple and easy way to improve your test performance in general!

I hope that you find these tips useful. Good luck with your studies and stay diligent!

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