Five Tips for Preventing Careless Errors on the SAT and ACT

A great article by Evan Wessler from our partner Method Test Prep.

Each year, basic errors cost students thousands of points on the SAT and ACT. How do you prevent errors? Read on to find out.

Mistakes are Costly

You probably know that the SAT and ACT test content knowledge, problem solving skills, and reading comprehension. But did you know that both exams also measure attention to detail? Are you aware that students can lose just as many points due to careless reading, sloppy calculation, and false assumptions as they can lose due to lack of actual knowledge or ability? If this surprises you, consider that we live in a world of detail. Changing a single word in a sentence or a single value in a mathematical expression can drastically affect the meaning of something we’re reading or the solution to a problem we’re trying to solve. The SAT and ACT are no different.

This means that each year, basic errors cost students thousands of points on the SAT and ACT. Of course, all students eventually make mistakes––they’re human, after all. Some students, however, do so more regularly than average, and suffer the consequences. Why? At Method Test Prep, we believe the problem is rooted in a systemic flaw in their approach to test-taking.

Preventing Careless Errors

The good news, then, is that we can address the problem proactively. Here are five tips for preventing yourself from making mistakes on the SAT, ACT, and other exams.

1. Write things down. The brain’s short term memory and capacity for critical thinking are remarkable, but limited. This is especially so when you’re stressed by time limitations, as you most certainly will be on the SAT and ACT. You cannot lean on your brain to store and process all of the information perfectly and simultaneously. This is why it’s imperative to write down the steps in a calculation,  take a note or two for each paragraph you read, and underline words that indicate certain question types. When you write things down, abstract thoughts become concrete realities; this makes words and numbers much easier to process. You may think that writing things down wastes precious time; in reality, you’ll usually save time by getting things on the page, which will help prevent you from second-guessing and thinking in frustrating circles.

2. Let the answer choices confirm your answer––not the other way around. When you encounter a problem with formulaic answers––that is, answers that must fit a formula or standard format––write down the proper form first, and then find the choice that matches it. Here’s a perfect example from an SAT sample test.

Students who know how circle formulas work know that the form must look like x2 – (y – 4)2 = r2. However, many students will misread the signs and choose either ‘B’ or ‘D’, simply because they did not pay close enough attention to the signs in the parentheses. This might seem unlikely, but trust me: it isn’t. By first writing down what you expect the answer to be, you can eliminate answer choices that don’t match what you wrote down, staving off this particular type of careless error.

3. Physically cross out choices that are out of consideration. Imagine the following conversation between a tutor (T) and his or her student (S) while reviewing practice exam results.

T: It looks like you answered ‘B’ for number 5. How did you get there?

S: What? I circled ‘C’ on my paper.

T: Hmm. Your answer sheet shows you bubbled in ‘B’.

S: Oh man…..

I have this very conversation with at least one student per week. If you don’t want to become the student in this scenario,  physically cross out answer choices you’re eliminating in your test booklet. It’ll help you from making bubbling mistakes on your answer sheet.

4. Compare the current line of your calculations to the previous line. When manipulating an equation or performing a calculation under time pressure, students can make all sorts of small but significant careless errors. Here’s an example.

To solve for 2x, the student added 3 to the right side of the equation instead of subtracting 3. Of course, the incorrect answer that arose from this process is right there in the choices. To prevent this error, the student could have compared his/her final step to the previous one, and considered, “how did I move that 3?” At this point, it’s more likely that the student would realize the error, and instead of selecting the wrong answer, would then subtract 3 to arrive at choice ‘C’. (By the way, the answers you’d obtain by solving for x alone are also in the choices; these are there for students who don’t read carefully and assume they’re always solving for the variable itself, and not for some other expression.)

5. Read on. On many ACT and SAT Reading passages, little details are explained over several sentences. Students tend to be careless with their reading, cutting the reading short and thereby missing important points that affect the correct answers to the questions that accompany the passages. Here’s an example.

Students who read just the first half of the paragraph are likely to pick choice ‘A’, because they’ve been careless about their reading. Only students who adjust their approach to get the full story will see that ‘B’ is actually the correct answer, because a reference later in the paragraph shows that the completion of the roadway occurred in the next decade. The moral: keep reading until you’re sure you’ve got the full idea. You never know what small but crucial details will be hiding in the passage!

The Takeaway

Due to the way the ACT and SAT are scaled, errors can pile up very quickly. Thus, preventing careless mistakes should be one of your top prep priorities. If you integrate the habits discussed above into your prep, you’ll minimize these errors and see the benefits to your scores immediately!

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