Five Tips for Preventing Careless Errors on the SAT & ACT

By Evan Wessler on Nov 29, 2017

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 Learning, 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!

Five Great Tips for Shortening Your College [and School] Essays

By Evan Wessler on Nov 7, 2017

College essays impose word limits to which students struggle to conform. Indeed, it’s difficult to tell a compelling story, analyze a life-changing event, or express one’s preference for a given college or university in under 300 words. There are, however, several ways to achieve writing that is concise and direct, yet still powerful. Read on to learn how!

To illustrate ways to pare down your writing, we’ll use less efficient examples of the first sentence of this blog post:

College essays impose word limits to which students struggle to conform.

1. Eliminate redundancy. Sometimes, we forget that certain words provide context sufficient for the reader’s comprehension, eliminating the need for further explanation. Here’s an example.

College essays impose word limits to which students struggle to conform when writing their essays.

The part highlighted in red is unnecessary; because the start of the sentence refers to essays’ word limits and the fact that students struggle with them, we already have enough context to understand that the students experience difficulty when writing their college essays. Deleting this redundant phrase subtracts four words from the count. This may not seem like a lot, but if you’ve included one redundancy, you’ve probably included many more: start eliminating instances of needless repetition and detail, and you’ll find your word count dropping significantly!

2. Take it easy on the modifiers and qualifiers. To avoid generalizing or committing to an idea, or in efforts to better describe what we’re explaining, we use modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) and qualifiers––words that slightly alter the meaning of a sentence. Used properly, these words can add nuance and help convey a message accurately. Much of the time, though, they are simply unnecessary. Here’s an example.

College essays sometimes impose difficult word limits to which many students often struggle to conform.

In a pinch, you can eliminate the highlighted words without drastically changing the message. In this context, words like sometimes and often are weak––the reader won’t miss them. The use of many is unnecessary, because we’re already talking about students in general. Likewise, difficult is redundant: the latter part of the sentence already implies difficulty by making it clear that students struggle with the word limits.

Again, we gain four words on our count. If ten sentences in your essay feature this sort of verbosity, this can get you forty words back!

To get better at spotting extraneous words, read a sentence you’d like to shorten and ask yourself: what am I really trying to say? Write down the first thing that comes to mind as quickly as possible. Does your sentence achieve the message, or does it shroud the point in fluff?

3. Combine sentences by combining messages. Narratives involve moving from the general to the specific. When we talk to one another, we separate ideas liberally, using new sentences to build up to the important idea. When applied to writing, this habit can vastly inflate word counts. Here’s an example.

College essays impose word limits to which students struggle to conform. I am one of these many students, and regularly experience this difficulty. (23 words)

In an essay lacking word limits, this wouldn’t be top priority for whittling. But when every word counts, editing couplets like this is imperative. What’s the gist? It’s that “I” struggle with word limits just as much as other students do. We can convey the same message in many fewer words by combining the ideas of the two sentences like so.

Like many students, I struggle to conform to college essay word limits. (12 words)

This gets us eleven words back. Multiply this by five or six instances, and you’ve recovered an entire paragraph’s worth of words.

4. Don’t abuse prepositional phrases. Here’s your obvious fact of the day: prepositional phrases contain prepositions, or what I call linking words. The most common prepositions are of, to, for, by, from, in, and on. Sometimes, it’s difficult, impractical, or awkward to avoid prepositional phrases. For example, take the first clause of this paragraph:

Here’s your obvious fact of the day. (7 words)

The green highlighted bit is a prepositional phrase. If we alter it to eliminate the preposition, we obtain the following.

Here’s your day’s obvious fact. (5 words)

While we’ve gained back two words by using possession, the sentence now sounds awkward. The small benefit to the word count is not worth the oddness that results from losing the prepositional phrase. But there are plenty of instances in which reworking prepositional phrases is the right move.

Students struggle to conform to imposed word limits of college essays.

In isolation, the awkwardness is obvious. Believe it or not, I’ve read hundreds of essays that contain ten or more instances of this type of error. Check your essays for this misstep: you’re sure to find it at least a few times.

5. Eliminate everything that doesn’t contribute to the point. This is tough, because you’ve probably been trained to provide descriptive detail, expand on ideas, and provide copious context. All of this, however, will work against your ability to stay under a word limit. Here’s an example.

Everyone has to write college essays; it’s just a fact of life. College essays impose word limits to which many students struggle to conform. In fact, I’m the same way, and it’s not just college essays that I have a tough time with: all of my essays tend to be long. (46 words)

Here, the repetition and extra detail don’t improve the writing; instead, they make it tedious and consume valuable space. Once again, the best way to avoid or improve sentences like this one is to ask yourself directly for the main idea. Why not say something like this instead?

Like many students, I struggle to conform to essay word limits. (11 words)

Or, in case you want to cite college essays and other essays specifically, something like this might work.

Like many students, I struggle to conform to the word limits of both college essays and school essays. (17 words)

Either way, you’ve saved a huge number of words.

Of course, achieving clear, concise writing requires hard work: your first draft will be full of redundancies, unimportant information, awkward phrases, and unnecessary qualifiers. This is normal, even for experienced writers. The idea is to aggressively trim the gristle from the meat of your essay. By addressing the five points above while you edit, you’ll be well on your way!