If you’ve ever chalked up a math error to “carelessness”(and let’s be honest—you have) then this post is for you. So often do I see students blame their mistakes on “carelessness,” in fact, that the poor word has lost its meaning in an SAT context. This post is an effort to restore its dignity.

Carelessness, in my experience, can mean one (or more than one) of the following:

  • Misreading the question
  • Misbubbling the answer
  • Arithmetic or simple algebra errors
  • Self-delusion

To avoid misreading the question, always give the question one final read before you bubble your answer to make sure you found the answer the test is actually asking for.

To avoid misbubbling, bubble sedulously, and then double check your bubbling. You should check once as you’re bubbling, and then if you have time at the end of a section, go back through and make sure your answer sheet reflects the answers you’ve circled in your test booklet. This, by the way, is one great reason to actually use bubble sheets when you take practice tests. Because everyone misbubbles once in a great while, and if it happens to you during a practice test, you’ll be that much more likely to be careful on the real thing.

As anyone who’s ever taken a math test knows, it’s very difficult to avoid the occasional arithmetic or algebra error. Sometimes, the mind meanders. It’s also, unfortunately, very difficult to catch an error when you go back and look over your work. You can be staring right at 10 ÷ 5 = 5, but if you just wrote it 2 minutes earlier, you might not see what’s wrong with it. So to avoid bungling your simple calculations, do the following:

  • Check simple arithmetic on your calculator. I know you’ve done 6 × 7 in your head a million times correctly. Just make sure.
  • Try to do as many problems as you can multiple ways. If you arrive at the same answer with algebra as you did by plugging in, you can be doubly sure you’re right. Of course, you’ll need to find a healthy, comfortable balance here between caution and speed. Pro-tip: it’s usually not a good idea to sacrifice accuracy for speed. Favor caution.

As for self-delusion, this is the toughest one to fix, because it’s denial of a problem. Many students brush off every question they miss: “Oh, that was easy. Careless mistake!” This is a natural reaction—a good solution can look really obvious once it’s laid out in front of you, especially by a good teacher.

But if this sounds like you, know that you do yourself a disservice when you assume that, since a solution is obvious once someone else shows you how to do it, a similar solution will be obvious to you next time you see a similar question. By characterizing a mistake as “careless,” you tell yourself you don’t need to learn anything new about questions like the one you missed. And if that’s not true, then that question type will keep forcing you to make “careless” errors until you address your underlying knowledge gap. It’s OK not to know how to do something, and admitting that you need to learn is the first step towards doing so.

To be safe, try never to characterize a mistake as “careless” unless you’ve got a demonstrable history of cutting through similar questions like butter. Don’t even let the word “careless” enter your vocabulary until you’ve done 4 or 5 practice tests.