Avoiding Silly Misteaks on the GMAT

In this article, we’ll examine some strategies for avoiding careless mistakes on the GMAT. My primary focus will be on minimizing errors in the Quantitative section of the test, but some of the strategies can be applied to the Verbal section as well.  

Now, before we examine these strategies, I should point out that some of them can be time consuming. So, before you consider implementing any of them, you should first confirm that you are, indeed, prone to making silly mistakes.

The “Silly Mistakes” Story

For some students, the Silly Mistakes story is something they tell themselves to cope with less-than-ideal test scores. After all, it’s much easier on the ego to convince yourself that you made silly mistakes than to recognize that you may have some gaps in your knowledge. So, let’s be clear about what constitutes a silly mistake.

Silly Mistakes - Defined 

We’ll begin with mistakes that can't be classified as “silly.”

Using complex algebra to solve a word problem in 3 minutes when you could have plugged in the answer choices and completed the question in 1 minute is not a silly mistake. The problem is that you failed to consider a different/better/faster approach.

Not knowing where to begin on a complicated geometry question is not a silly mistake; it’s an indication that you need to go back and review the rules and strategies for solving geometry questions.  

Failing to check the answer choices and use general approximation to quickly answer a question is not a silly mistake, and forgetting that most probability questions can be solved using either probability rules or counting techniques is not a silly mistake.

All of the above examples are indications that you do not yet possess the tools necessary to answer those questions.

Silly mistakes are a different matter. These are instances in which you possess all of the necessary skills to solve a question, yet something went wrong nonetheless.

A silly mistake is when:

  • you multiply 3x2 by 2x3 and get 5x6, even though you know the Exponent Laws backwards and forwards.
  • your sloppy writing causes a 7 to mysteriously turn into a 1.
  • you forget that a question is an EXCEPT question.
  • you fail to notice crucial information such as “x is an integer” or “w < 0.”
  • you calculate Pat’s current age when the question asked for the Pat’s age 5 years from now.

Aside: What kind of maniac asks, “How old will you be in 5 years?” Well, it turns out that the GMAT test-makers ask this kind of question. . . . just to see if you’re paying attention.

So, if you are, indeed, prone to making silly mistakes, consider the following advice.


First off, try to make a conscious decision to stop referring to yourself as someone who makes silly mistakes. I’ve met a lot people who practically brag about making careless errors, and this negative mindset can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, be the person who strives to minimize silly mistakes rather the person who dwells on them.  

The remaining strategies are based on the types of mistakes that you’re prone to making. The two primary types are:

1)    Reading errors

2)    Computation errors

The strategies that you employ will depend on the type of error.

Minimizing ReadingErrors

Readingerrors are mistakes resulting from sloppy reading and/or poor retention. If you typically make a lot of reading errors, then consider the following tips.

To begin, keep a record of the types of reading errors you make. Some common types are:

  • Failing to notice restrictions on numbers. Examples: “x is positive” or “k is an even integer.”
  • Answering the wrong question. Example: you calculated the time in hours, but the question asked for the time in minutes.
  • Forgetting that a question is an “EXCEPT” question. 

Once you become keenly aware of the types of reading errors you typically make, you’ll be able to spot the potential for silly mistakes before they occur. This step alone may be enough to prevent most reading errors.

Now, if you employ the above strategy and the reading errors persist, then there are other approaches to consider. Just keep in mind that these strategies have the potential to be very time consuming.

An obvious strategy for students who make frequent reading errors is to slow down and carefully read…every…single…word.

The next tip is to fully engage in what you’re reading. All too often, under the pressure of a formal test, students lose focus, and their minds wander. So, be sure to use some of the strategies you use when engaging in Reading Comprehension passages. For example, feign interest (Fantastic! A question about ratios!!), or visualize the given information.

Aside: more engagement tips can be found in the following video: gmatprepnow.com/module/gmat-reading-comprehension?id=1123)

Another strategy to consider is to record key information. For example, if you’re prone to answering the wrong question, then you may want to write down the required task. So, if the question asks you to calculate the diameter of a circle, use your noteboard to write “diameter = ?” so that you don’t carelessly calculate the radius.

Finally, if you’re still making reading errors on a regular basis, you may need to read the question (or passage) twice. Another option is to read the problem, answer the question, and then reread the question before entering your answer. Time consuming, yes. But, this approach may be necessary to improve your score.

Okay, so those are some tips that may help you minimize reading errors. Now let’s examine some tips to help you minimize computation errors.

Minimizing Computation Errors

Computation errors are errors that yield an incorrect answer even though you possess all of the skills needed to answer the question correctly.

As with reading errors, you can minimize computation errors by first recording the types of computation errors you typically make. Some common types include:

  • Brain fart. Example: concluding that 7 times 9 equals 56 . . . oops.
  • Too many mental calculations. Example: solving the equation 5x – 7 = 1 – 3x in your head and incorrectly concluding that x=4 . . . oops.
  • Messy writing. Example: writing 7/2 as part of a calculation and later reading it as 1/2 . . . oops.

Once you’ve identified the types of computation errors that you typically make, you can spot their potential a mile away. The remedies for computation errors are pretty straightforward. To prevent brain farts, take your timeand consider performing some calculations twice. To prevent errors resulting from too many mental calculations, use your noteboard more often. And to minimize messy writing errors . . . improve your penmanship.

With a little work and some common sense, you should be able to reduce the frequency of silly mistakes and get a GMAT score that actually reflects your abilities.

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