Students taking test in classroom

5 Top Ways to Stop Making Silly Mistakes on Math Tests

Most of us have experienced the frustration of studying really hard for a math test, only to lose valuable points because of a silly mistake!

Whether you plugged in the wrong number, misread the question, or simply made a bubbling mistake on your Scantron, minor errors can cost you big on a test. They can be the difference between an A or a B on a school exam, a 690 or a 750 on the SAT, or acceptance or rejection on an admission test.

That’s why it’s important to stop silly mistakes in their tracks.

Here are 5 ways you can immediately boost your math performance by eliminating careless errors.

#1. Change your mindset.

The truth is that silly mistakes aren’t that silly. As we mentioned above, they can make a big difference in your performance. The higher the stakes for your test (state exams, SAT or ACT, high school admission test), the more important it is to earn all the points you can!

The real mistake students often make is not taking these errors seriously.

Here are some typical reactions we hear from students:

  • “Oh man, I just made a stupid mistake. I know the right answer is actually 7.”
  • “I don’t need to review that question. I just forgot to add the decimal.”
  • “I actually got a 90, not an 88. I just accidentally bubbled B instead of C.”
  • “I was rushing and misread the question. Now that I look at it again, I get it.”

And as educators, our response is generally along the lines of:

  • It doesn’t matter that you know the right answer is 7 now because you got in wrong when it counted. Why?
  • Why did you forget the decimal?
  • No, you got an 88 because your bubble sheet was all that counted. Why did you bubble it wrong?
  • Why did you rush?

It’s human to make a mistake; everyone does it! There’s no need to beat yourself up about it. However, you do want to take time to critically think about the error. Don’t blow it off or you will just keep making silly mistakes.

Also, you will never stop making mistakes by simply trying really hard not to. Again, we’re only humans. Instead, you have to create good disciplined habits that act as a safety net to catch your mistake before it costs you points.

Every time you make an avoidable mistake, take time to reflect and ask yourself “Why did I make that mistake?” Then come up with a good strategy that will prevent you from making that mistake in the future. You may have to try a few strategies until you find one that works for you, but ultimately, the best way to eliminate silly mistakes is to practice good habits that prevent or catch the mistake before you turn in the test.

Pro Tip! If you’re preparing for admission exams, review or resolve your old practice problems or tests. Try to see if there is a pattern in your careless errors. Do you consistently miss questions because you misread the question? Did you not actually solve for what it asked you to solve for? Did you input the wrong numbers in your calculator?

By locating patterns, you can learn about your current bad habits, take steps to create good habits and boost your score!

#2. Reduce the strain on your brain.

The brain is a magnificently complex and advanced organ capable of many things. But like anything else in the human body, it gets tired. And when it does, it works slower and makes more mistakes. When you’re taking a test, especially a long test, your brain is using much more energy than it is when you’re watching TV or talking to a friend.

Pencil and calculator on paperIt’s important to conserve energy, and not make your brain work harder than it has to. If you don’t, be prepared to make silly mistakes.

One of the biggest ways to save mental energy during a math test is to write everything down. When you calculate a problem in your head, it requires more focus and concentration. You’re tiring your brain – faster!

Even if you think it saves you time by doing the steps of the problem in your head, in the end it will cost you both time and points. It will cost you time because if you get confused halfway through solving the problem or want to re-check your answer, you can’t refer to the steps you’ve already taken on your paper. You have to start over, all the way from the top.

It will cost you points because you’re much less likely to catch a careless calculation error that’s in your head, than you are when you write it down.

Pro tip! Here are other key ways to keep your brain sharp and reduce errors:

Get 7-9 hours of sleep the night before a test.

Studies show lack of sleep reduces your ability to maintain focus, remember things, and multitask!

Practice problems often.

When you practice a lot of math problems, you build up mental endurance, the same way running every day builds up physical endurance.

Study mathematical concepts thoroughly.

When you only have a murky idea of how to attack a problem or the principles behind it, you will exert more high-level concentration than when you have a concept down cold.

Stay calm and carry on.

If you’re taking a test and are filled with anxiety, you might feel like it’s harder to focus on the question or remember strategies. You feel this way, because that is exactly what is happening!

High anxiety creates a chemical response in your brain that stimulates your “flight or fight” response; your brain thinks your life is in danger. So, it shuts down your memory and inhibits your higher-level thinking, so you can focus on basic things like surviving an enemy attack.

This is the worst thing that can happen to you, when your “enemy” is a test. You need memory and concentration!

Stay calm by taking a few deep breaths and skipping problems that immediately freak you out, and telling yourself positive mantras like:

  • “I can do this.”
  • “It’s just a test. It doesn’t define me.”
  • “I’m prepared and capable.”
  • “I don’t need to be perfect.”

#3. Write neatly and orderly.

Always use a good pencil and eraser and be self-disciplined about writing legibly.

You don’t want to lose points because you misread your own handwriting! You also don’t want to lose points because you didn’t fully erase a wrong number. These are the types of silly mistakes that can only be fixed by practicing good habits.

Organize your work, so you can quickly refer back to it. This way, you won’t need to waste time figuring out the steps you initially took. Write each step taken directly above the previous step, so that if you need to refer back, you can quickly understand how you arrived at your answer and catch any mistakes made.

If you are using scratch paper, rather than haphazardly writing your work in any available white space, use it wisely. Always write the question number you are working on, complete your calculations, and then draw a neat box around that work, so you can easily see which work is going with which question.

This will prevent you from filling your scratch paper with so much work from so many different questions that you don’t know which calculations match which questions.

Pro Tip!

Do this:

Not this:

#4. Read the question carefully.

This tip may seem obvious, but so many silly mistakes come from not actually answering the question!

For example:

In the above SAT question, I might automatically solve for x, and pick the answer A) 2.

But that’s not answering the question! It asked for the value of 8x, so the answer is C) 16.

If you find yourself making this type of mistake often, make yourself always box or underline key words in the question to ensure that you are actually answering the question. In the above example, you would underline value of 8x to remind yourself you are solving for 8x, not x.

Lastly, after you solve, check one more time before moving on that you have answered the actual question.

Remember, good habits are the key to catching or preventing silly mistakes.

Here is another math question example from the SSAT, a high school admission exam:

In this lengthier word problem, it’s even more important to read carefully, and box/underline important ideas:

If I don’t read carefully, I might make the silly error of picking E) 6, because I didn’t pay attention to the part of the question that told me there must be at least one official in each of the 4 limos. Or I might pick A) 2 because I thought after 4 officials each went into 4 limos, the other remaining 2 officials also had to split up.

But that’s not what the problem states! I only need at least one in each limo, so the highest number would be B) 3 because the remaining 2 officials could get into the same limo.

Here is another example from a 5th grade level New Jersey state exam:

March ate 0.45 of a pizza. What fraction of the pizza did she eat? Write your answer in its most reduced form.

If we don’t pay careful attention, we might miss that it asked us to give our answer in its most reduced form. So if we answer 45/100, we will get this answer wrong. We have to divide by 5 to get the correct answer: 9/20. 

Make sure you look at the form and units the question requires the answer to be in.

No matter the exam or the difficulty level, you have to read a question carefully if you want to avoid silly mistakes.

Pro Tip! When you are preparing for high school admissions or the SAT or ACT, you might become accustomed to seeing the same types of problems over and over again. So when you take a test, you might skim the question and feel like you know what it’s asking.

Don’t! Make yourself slow down. You never know when a math problem features an unexpected twist that affects your answer.

5. Always re-check your work.

This advice is probably the one you’ve heard the most because it works! If you are self-disciplined enough to double-check your work, you will catch your own silly mistakes before you turn in the test.

Some students may feel like they don’t have the time to do this, but if you follow tips #2, #3, and #4, checking your work becomes much easier. You can quickly check your neatly written, well-organized calculations, and double check that you have answered the question, didn’t confuse any units, decimal points, or negative signs, or make any simple calculation mistakes.

Pro-tip! For more advanced students, be on the look out for misleading answer choices.

These are especially common in the SAT or ACT, SSAT or ISEE admissions tests, or math competition tests. These tests often have answer choices that are designed to trick you. The first step to avoiding them is to be aware that they are there. Review old practice problems and try to pick out the answer choices that are trying to take advantage of a silly mistake. If you can become adept at spotting these traps while studying, you’ll be more likely to spot them on a test!

Here’s an example from a middle level ISEE admission test:

To solve this problem, I simply need to input the values for B, P, and S and solve for A:

A = 2(12) + (16)(3)

A= 24 + 48

A = 72

The answer is A) 72. However, look at the other answers, and try to catch the silly mistake the test is hoping you’ll make. For example B) 62 is hoping that when you add 24 + 48, you’ll forget to carry the 1, and get 62. C) 43 is hoping that instead of multiplying P and S (16 x 3 = 48), you’ll mistakenly add them instead (16 + 3 = 19), which when you then add to 24 will get you 43.

The more you can identify trap answers, the more you will eliminate these simple calculation mistakes.

Taking the next step

By practicing these good habits, you can eliminate silly mistakes and boost your score!

For more expert help, check out our math courses for every age group:

  • Grades 1 -10: Math Lab – A one-on-one program that creates top performers in the classroom.
  • Grades 4-7: MAPC – Competition math team for students who love math and want to compete.
  • Grades 5-8: H.S. and Middle School Admissions – Ace the SSAT, ISEE, HSPT, or BCA admissions test.
  • Grades 7-8: CTY – Earn a qualifying score on the SAT for Johns Hopkins’ elite Center for Talented youth program.
  • Grades: 9-12: College Test Prep – Earn top scores on the SAT, ACT, SAT Subject, or AP tests.

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