How to reduce carelessness on the GRE: understanding fail-safe behaviors

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Alright, so today, I want to ask you about some of the major, you know, pitfalls, major hurdles, stumbling blocks that students taking the GRE generally encounter that bring their score down.

Orion: Yeah, there are a lot of them. I would say that the most challenging aspect of the test is the time limit. If you had all the time in the world, this would be a substantially easier process for the vast majority of students. It’s not so much that you get the question right; it’s that you have to get the question right in 90 seconds or less. And it’s that kind of pressure, that sense of subjective urgency that often drives carelessness, which is a huge obstacle to student growth as well.

Davis: So let’s talk a little bit about that.

Orion: In my experience, there are really only three ways that a student can get a question wrong on the GRE. The first, for lack of a better word, is ignorance, just like you just didn’t know that concept, or you didn’t know what that word meant. We didn’t have the equation; to be honest, those are the easiest problems to solve. You just throw some knowledge at them. And bingo, you’re ready to go. You don’t even need, to be honest, a GRE prep program for knowledge-based improvement; you can Google that for free. It’s like you, you don’t need to pay somebody to tell you what the area of a trapezoid is; that’s freely available. It’s the average of the bases times the height, by the way. So that’s, you obviously need to know some things to be able to get the question right on the GRE.

The second is deviation. So deviation means that you have a technique or a strategy that you should have used on a specific problem. But for whatever reason, either you went rogue and did it yourself, or you implemented that strategy incorrectly. So deviation errors are solved with strategy. So this is where the test prep systems start to come in. We want kind of clever hacks to get to the solution as quickly and reliably as possible. And you need to, as a student, rehearse those strategies multiple times. As a former actor, I know the value of rehearsal; you can’t do something once and expect to do it perfectly. Forever after that one event, you have to do it over and over again, until on some level, you can’t not do it that way. And if you’re making deviation errors, it means that there’s kind of, you need to rehearse more, basically. So let’s say you got the knowledge-based errors and the deviation errors out of the way.

Davis: So what is left?

Orion: Well, carelessness. Carelessness means you knew the concept, you used the appropriate strategy. But you still got the question wrong, but for a reason that’s kind of unrelated to what the question seems to be asking, like, it’s because you forgot the negative sign? Or you thought it was answer choice A, but you clicked on B by mistake, the silly little errors that we’re all prone to as human beings. These are the bugbear of top percentile scores because all students will get to a point if they practice enough that the majority or even the entirety of their error variance will be due to carelessness. That’s basically my experience at this point. It’s pretty rare for a question to come my way that I don’t know how to answer; I still get questions wrong from time to time, but it’s usually because I’ve made a small lapse in my mind behavior that resulted in the wrong choice being selected. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah, yeah. So what are some of the main drivers of this of carelessness being a factor for error? For example, like you mentioned that there’s a time constraint, is it? Is it just handling the time pressure that drives you to go too fast and make errors? Is it the fact that it’s also a long test and, you know, fatigue runs in? I mean, what’s the main drivers of carelessness?

Orion: So, you have this subjective sense of urgency, which forces people to move more quickly than they’re comfortable with. And if you’re really mindful about carelessness, it occurs when we’re mentally time traveling. Most students may only be a second or two in the future, but they’re not fully in the present moment. That means they’re thinking about the next step while they’re still completing the step they’re currently on. In that second of deviation from the present moment, that’s where they do something without realizing it, negatively impacting their performance.

Over the course of the test, which is rather lengthy, about four and a half hours, students become more and more fatigued as the test progresses. Students are actually hit with the hardest problems in the last hour of the administration if everything is going according to plan, because the test is adaptive. So, we also need to work that into our prep. This is important because the vast majority of my competitors with their self-study programs just present individual questions, like, with a timer on it, and a lot of students practice just one-off individual questions. “I could do this one question, this hard question, this devilish question in 90 seconds, therefore, I’m ready to go.” Not really, in my experience. Students really shouldn’t practice with anything less than a full practice set. They should be sitting down to do 20 questions in 35 minutes if it’s a quantitative set, and that’s the smallest quantum of prep that they should be doing. Because it’s really a whole thing. You don’t have to answer all questions in 90 seconds or less.

Some questions, you won’t be able to do that; some questions are going to take three minutes, some questions are going to take 30 seconds, it all kind of averages out. And then, of course, you should be practicing in approximating the actual exam, as you get closer to stringing those sections together into longer sequences to kind of practice the mental endurance necessary to stay acute and present for longer periods of time.

Davis: Alright. Yeah. No, that makes sense. So, you’re talking about, as a means of practical solution to the carelessness problem, is that you want to bake into the way that you study for it, building that endurance and doing whole sets at once. Are there any while you’re doing the actual problems, while you’re in there, what other practical solutions, you know, does the student need to be aware of to avoid careless mistakes?

Orion: Yep, great question. So, carelessness is usually the result of unconscious behavior patterns. And as a psychologist, I can tell you that unconscious behavior is one of the hardest things to alter, primarily because we’re unconscious about it. So the first step to alleviating carelessness is to make the unconscious conscious. And so, I highly recommend that every student start to create an error log, where you’re tracking why you’re getting questions wrong. First, categorize them as either ignorance, deviation, or carelessness. And then, for any careless errors, try to give it as specific a label as possible. This could be like, “I misread the question,” “I did the mental math wrong in my head,” “I clicked the wrong button,” no matter how small and insignificant it appears, give it a name. And track that over time. You probably know this, but it’s really hard for human beings to be random. We’re bad at that. When we try to be random, we actually start to exhibit patterns that we’re not even aware of yet. It’s all habits.

Davis: Exactly.

Orion: So in the beginning, it may feel like your carelessness is random, like it could happen at any moment on any question. But as you collect data over time, what my experience will lead me to believe is that the vast majority of your carelessness will occur in just like three to five different ways. And you’re not aware of that yet, because it’s probably still unconscious. So as you collect that data and see, “Wow, 80% of my carelessness is due to misreading the question, per se,” great, there are specific things that you can do to mitigate that particular example of carelessness. And those behaviors, I call fail-safes. Fail-safes are small; they should only take a second or two to do at most, objective behavior.

Davis: So what does that mean?

Orion: Objective behavior means that I, from the outside, should be able to tell whether or not you’re doing it. “I’m just going to be more careful” is not an objective behavior. Or “I’ll remember that next time” is not an objective behavior; you actually have to do something different for it to be objective. And what you’re doing should have prevented that carelessness on the previous question if it had been implemented at that time. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah, that makes sense. So, putting into place systems, you know, step-by-step systems, when you encounter a question, to avoid making the careless mistakes that you said objectively, anyone could see. Is he doing those? Is he checking off each item on the list to make sure that he’s not being careless, as opposed to just, you know, something in the air? Like, “I’m just going to focus harder.”

Orion: Yeah, because that doesn’t work. As a psychologist, if that worked, I would be out of a job, basically, you know. So, that’s exactly right. And these should be idiosyncratic. These fail-safes should emerge out of the data that each student collects for himself or herself. So there’s no like one-size-fits-all solution here. It may be in a future episode we’ll talk about common fail-safes for specific types of carelessness. But an individual student can make a mistake in any different way, but won’t that his or her patterns of carelessness will be embedded in his or her unconscious behavior.

So the first step is to make the unconscious conscious by collecting data, and seeing kind of how they cluster into clumps, basically, and then to create objective behaviors called fail-safes that address and mitigate the recurrence of those particular issues. And if you can do that, that’s really the difference between, let’s say, somebody who’s scoring around a 162, and somebody who’s scoring a 167 and above. What was the percent difference there? 160 to 162 is probably around the 80th percentile, and a 167 is around the 90th percentile. The difference between 80th and 90th percentile students is not their knowledge; they know the same things.

It’s usually how careful and consistent they are in the execution of their strategies. And it really has to do with consistency over hundreds of repetitions. The fact is that the difference between the 80th percentile and 90th percentile scores in quant are probably like two questions out of 100. So if you have those habits in place, and the habits to avoid carelessness become the new unconscious systems that you’re putting in place, then you can get those two questions right.

Hopefully, I don’t think that for most students, they’ll have enough experience and repetition to make those fail-safes unconscious. Keep them. So the idea is to actually keep them in the forefront of your mind. If you remember to use the fail-safes, then it should solve the carelessness problem. And so you just do those fail-safes on every problem for the rest of your GRE career, whether you think you need to or not. And it should mitigate the carelessness. If it doesn’t, you’ve got to fiddle with the knobs and find the behaviors that do.

Davis: Oh, that’s awesome.

Thanks so much. And thanks, everybody for tuning in. We’ll be back next week for another bite sized episode of Jerry bytes. If you have a topic you’d like to discuss on a future episode, let us know it’s stellar gr And if you’re interested in either GRE prep or grad school consulting, check us out at stellar Talk to you soon.

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