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Why Do Careless Errors Happen to Careful Students?

When preparing for a college admissions test – or any test, for that matter – your first priority is to learn the material that you will be tested on, but the best way to boost your score can be to focus on what you already know. When looking back over a practice section or a mock test, most students want to look at the problems that they don’t understand and learn how to do them. You have to ask yourself, though, which would be easier: to learn how to do the very difficult question that you don’t understand, or to fix the small mistake in the problem that you already know how to do?

Commonly called “careless errors” by teachers and tutors alike, these mistakes can mean that your test score is not an accurate assessment of what you really know, and getting a lower score on a test than what you are really capable of is always frustrating. However, that name is misleading; it implies that a student either doesn’t care enough about the test or doesn’t care to put forth their best effort. This is almost never the case! On the contrary, many so-called careless errors come from trying to do too much, not doing too little.

To understand the source of these mistakes, you have to take a peek inside your brain and look at what is happening while you are taking a difficult test. There is an incredible amount of information, of many different types, that you have to manage over the course of a test, and your brain is constantly trying to juggle and prioritize them so that you are thinking about whatever is most important at the time. Most of the time this process happens outside your awareness, and your attention shifts rapidly from one thing to the next as you deal with each successive item. But by being aware of where your attention is at any given moment, you can stop careless errors before they start.

The highest level of attention – which sounds like the best, but isn’t – is what I call “Hey, look! A squirrel.” This is the highest level of attention because it is the furthest away from what is down on the page in front of you. Sometimes when you are taking a test, you get distracted, and that’s OK. When you are looking out the window at the local wildlife, you are not going to get any questions right, but you are not going to get any questions wrong either. Sometimes your brain needs a rest from extended concentration. So if you find yourself staring off into the distance from time to time, just enjoy a brief moment of relaxation and then get back to work. Ahh, that was nice.

The middle level of attention is called “Taking the Test.” Again, this sounds like a good thing, but it can actually mean big trouble. Paying attention to taking the test means things like checking the clock, figuring out how much time is left, counting how many problems are left, assessing how many you think you have missed so far, nagging doubts about a previous answer, and other things that are guaranteed not to help you find the answer to the question you are working on right now.

This is where the problems begin. If you are thinking about last night’s movie or tomorrow’s game, then you know you are distracted and any work you do while distracted will have to be carefully examined. If, on the other hand, you are thinking about something that is clearly relevant to the test, it might never occur to you that “How much time do I have left?” is just as distracting a question as “what did I have for dinner last night?”

The lowest level of attention – which, as you may have guessed, is where you want to be – is called “The Step That I Am Doing Right Now.” When you are answering a test question, focus on one step at a time. The smaller and simpler the step, the greater the temptation to focus on more important things while you complete it on autopilot. But if you change a minus to a plus because you are already thinking about the next step before the current one is complete, you will find that that step becomes very important indeed.

So if you are losing out on points that are rightfully yours due to errors of execution, start paying attention to your attention. Keep track of how your focus shifts as you move through a test, and if you find yourself thinking about anything except the current step in the current problem, hit the reset button and look back over whatever you were just working on!


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