I’m now going to transition away from using the word “stupid” for one important reason:
Making a mistake is not an indicator of character, intelligence, or potential. You’re a human taking this test. “To err is human.” So, let’s just call them “mindless mistakes” moving forward—both for the alliteration and because infusing some mindfulness into the test taking process will be among your primary antidotes to this sort of error.
Built into my discussion is the assumption that you believe you understand the concepts and logic behind the questions. Otherwise you wouldn’t consider what we are discussing to be mindless mistakes.
Chances are, your mindless mistakes are stemming from one or more of five aspects of test taking to varying degrees, in varying combinations.
Here are the five aspects of test taking to consider if you are repeatedly making mindless errors:
Technique: Something in how you take the test isn't as strong as it can be. For example, this could relate to what you are or are not writing down—from underlining, to showing your work in Math; this could relate to how you are reading (or skimming) questions or passages.
Attention: You are distracted or you lose energy as you take the test. You need to find ways to improve your ability to focus and engage with precision throughout the test. Things to consider include your physical and your mental preparation. What are you doing to clear your mind and to rest and fuel your body so that you can perform at your best? (The “Keeping Clear” chapter of Acing It! lists techniques to clear your mind.) To better acclimate yourself to focusing for an extended period, you may also want to practice working for longer uninterrupted stretches of time when doing homework. (No checking your phone or taking unscheduled breaks!)
Pacing: Out of a desire to work quickly, you may be taking shortcuts that are leading you to make mistakes. It’s possible that slowing down, working more meticulously, and guessing on questions you don't attempt will actually raise your score. You may be deliberately answering slightly fewer questions, but working with greater accuracy among the questions you attempt, plus the points from (approximately) 25% of the questions to which you randomly guess the answer, may be worth more points than the overall number of questions you are currently answering correctly working at your given pace.
Moreover, (here’s a curveball) sometimes “slowing down” and working with greater precision actually saves you time and helps you to work more quickly. Slowing down may enable you to better process the information presented to you, which in turn allows you to more easily (and quickly) identify the correct answer and eliminate wrong answers.
Even if working more slowly does initially lead to a score drop, you can trust that working with greater accuracy helps you build good habits that will become stronger in time. You can always try speeding up again once you've improved your technique and your improved technique comes more naturally to you.
Checking your answers: If you are finishing with extra time, then one way to use that time is to slow down; another is to check your work. Many students resist checking their work out of fear that they will start changing right answers to wrong answers. However, checking your work is a great way to pick up points you might have missed on your first pass through the test. Here’s your guideline for changing answers: Only change answers when you can clearly identify why the new answer choice is better than the original—otherwise go with your first instinct.
When taking practice tests, even if you aren’t finishing with time to spare, you might review your answers as an exercise after time is up, before checking the answer key, to see if you can catch any of your mistakes. The better you are at catching your mistakes and the better you understand them, the less likely you’ll be to make the same mistake in the future.
Overestimating how well you understand the material: I'm not saying this is the case. (How could I? This is a general blog post and we aren’t sitting together in person or over Skype discussing your answers to a specific practice test.) I’m just saying it's a possibility. And it’s a sign of humility and self-awareness as a test taker to acknowledge that possibility. It’s always easier to understand the material in hindsight or once you've read an explanation of it. Perhaps you actually need to better understand the concepts or logic behind the questions you are answering incorrectly so that you can more consistently apply what you know during the test. Don’t rush through your review of mistakes—even the ones we might categorize as “mindless” or… well… “stupid.”
I encourage you to consider these five aspects of test taking and how they may be affecting your mindless mistakes. What do you already do to avoid mindless mistakes while you're taking the SAT or ACT? Which of these aspects do you want to focus on moving forward? Let me know in the comments or contact me with your thoughts!
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