Brushing off your “careless” mistake without coming up with a solution is 1,000x dumber than your already dumb mistake.I want to talk about the psychology of why we’re so prone to brushing off careless mistakes for a moment, but if you’re impatient, click here for the action steps you can take now to fix careless errors. “I’ll be more careful” is the lazy man’s excuse. Think about it. Let’s say you just started to drive (woot woot for being 16!) and your mom tells you, “Be careful, sweetie!” Uh huh. Of course you’re going to be careful. Who gets in a car with the intention of having an accident, right? They’re called accidents for a reason – you didn’t mean for them to happen. But that’s precisely why telling yourself to be careful doesn’t make you a single ounce more careful. In fact, doing so can make you less careful because you become so focused on not committing the mistake that you end up making it anyway. True story: it was a rainy day in Los Angeles several years back, and I was driving with totally bare tire treads (really dumb). I knew I was playing with the safety gods, so I told myself, “Be extra careful and drive slowly.” I kept repeating this as I drove, as if chanting the words would magically save me. Ten minutes later, I hydroplaned straight into a concrete barrier, spun 180 degrees, and totaled my car. That’s a bit dramatic, sure, but the effects of brushing off your “careless” mistakes are no less disastrous. Like I said, they are costing you nearly 100 points. That’s why I often tell my students you don’t need to learn more math to get a much higher score. You already know how to do it. One time, I posed this question to a student: if you have 7 marbles, and 3/7th of them are red, then how many red marbles do you have? Her answer? 10! What…the…heck? How could she possibly have ended up with more red marbles than the total number of marbles she began with? It’s quite simple actually. She saw 3/7th, so she added 3 + 7, which equaled 10. She didn’t stop to consider the stupidly simple logic that if you take a portion of a total, you will always end up with less than you began with. The point of all this is twofold:
1) Don’t over-complicate things. Sometimes, the problem really is as easy as it seems. I often say the SAT is full of traps (and it is), but if you’re working on question #1, how hard is it really going to be? C’mon now. Look at the level of difficulty problem you’re working on. They generally get harder within each SAT math section.
2) Don’t just brush these “careless” mistakes off. I cannot emphasize this enough, and I’ll repeat it a million more times if that’s what it takes to help you.We all know 7 x 5 is 35, not 30…and 8 + 6 = 14, not 13. And that the opposite of negative is not odd (it’s positive). But the solution is not “be more careful.” It’s impossible to just will yourself to be more careful. You have to put systems in place to catch yourself and prevent these errors from happening in the first place. Allow me a moment to explain why it’s so easy to just brush things off. Why is it that our default response is to do the exact opposite of what we need to do to improve? It’s because life has taught us that the conceptual part is the most important part. You’ve seen this in your math class – if you demonstrate your understanding of the theory behind the calculations by showing your work, you’ll get partial credit even if you end up with the wrong answer. Not only that, but the conceptual part is the most rewarding part of the question. When it finally clicks, you feel a deep-earned satisfaction. If you make a calculation error, you feel it’s okay because you understand that. But the SAT and ACT have no mercy. They don’t care if you actually don’t know any trig or geometry, or if you just forgot to switch your calculator from radian to degree mode or that you bungled 1 + 1. To them, you’re just flat out wrong. Comprende? You got it wrong! Not a little wrong or somewhat wrong…ALL wrong. You cannot cut yourself any slack here. It’s like being in the lead of a race and tripping at the finish line. You watch in horror as your opponents speed past you to finish a race you practically had in the bag. And don’t think for a moment that you can go back and check your work, hoping to catch your error. You almost assuredly won’t. If you happen to think 10/5 = 5 in the moment like I did, you could stare at that step and go over it 3 more times and still think it’s fine. Your mind has already imprinted that flawed logic in your head, so it’s going to keep following through incorrectly. The error is glaringly obvious to everyone else, but you just can’t wrap your head around it at that moment. Better to get it right the first time around. If you must double check, use a different method of solving the question. Otherwise, re-using your original method is going to cause your brain to follow the same flawed steps and arrive at the same flawed answer.
The stupider the error, the MORE worthy it is of your heavy consideration.These are the EASY points, and if you’re not getting those, then what’s the point of getting the hard questions right? In fact, the fact that these errors are so ridiculously silly and obvious is precisely why they’re so fatal. People like to think of themselves as above such mistakes. They think, “Oh yeah, I could have gotten that. It doesn’t count.” It doesn’t count??! Just like how when you meant to bubble in D but you somehow bubbled C doesn’t count? Are you kidding me? Do you see why this is such a big problem? Everything counts.
How to Fix Careless Errors (Action Steps):
1) Humble yourself and recognize you are not above your “careless” mistakes. I’m certainly not. I’ve had my share of embarrassing moments when I recognized the sheer stupidity spewing from my mouth. If your ego is in the way, you cannot possibly implement the following crucial tip.
2) Pretend you really are dumb. I’ve noticed that the smarter students are, the more dismissive they are of careless errors. This is the kiss of death. But if you pretend you are dumb, then you will write out every step, no matter how simple. You will stop doing mental math and skipping steps that you can normally conquer with no issue 99% of the time. You will punch in 50 x 20 in your calculator, just to be sure. You will carefully label units like feet, inches, etc.
The more basic steps you do, the less likely you will fall for careless mistakes. Stupid mistakes happen because your mind is focused on the higher level logic and feels it doesn’t need to pay too much attention to the simple stuff that you’ve normally can do in your sleep.Humbling myself and subjecting myself to this embarrassingly rudimentary process is precisely how I went from 680-720 in math (despite understanding 100% of the questions) to an 800. I had almost given up after three attempts. Every time, I thought I nailed it because all the questions were easy to me. And every time, I didn’t nail it…until I finally told myself to stop being an arrogant little guy. I implemented a system of writing out all the steps. You have to ruthlessly attack these “careless” mistakes and put actual systems in place to stop them from happening. Think about WHY you made the careless mistake. “I don’t know; I just did” is totally unacceptable. Really think about why. Was it because you subtracted rather than divided? Then what are you going to do about that? Perhaps you can write out the word “divide” next time you see that step. Whatever it takes. You just need to do something, an actual step (even if it’s tedious) beyond telling yourself you’ll do better next time. Now it’s your turn. Comment below with a story of a time you made a careless mistake and what you plan to do now to banish it forever into the netherworld.