Minimizing Careless GMAT Mistakes: Right Answer, Wrong Question
Stop me if this sounds familiar: You’re doing a GMAT Quant problem and you feel confident about your answer, but then you check the answer key and it turns out that you were wrong. Dismayed, you re-read the question and double-check your work, and you realize that you made a really careless mistake: you answered the wrong question. All of your equations and calculations were correct, but you answered with the value of x instead of the value of y, or the number of gallons of water in the tank rather than the amount of empty space left in the tank, or Laura’s age instead of Anna’s. It’s supremely aggravating … and it can happen to the best of us.
To illustrate this concept, I’d like to revisit one of the most infamous careless mistakes of all time: the Best Picture Award mix-up at the 2017 Academy Awards. Remember this moment?
Due to a mix-up with the envelopes containing the names of the winners in each category, La La Land was mistakenly awarded Best Picture instead of the real winner, Moonlight. When the mistake was discovered about 90 seconds later, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz announced that Moonlight was the real winner, then held up the Best Picture card to prove that this was, in fact, “not a joke.” It made for thrilling television, and it was also the result of a colossally careless mistake.
Much of the blame was rightly directed at the accountants who were responsible for handling the envelopes with the winning names. (Their firm later apologized for the error and conducted an internal investigation into the incident.) But there’s another aspect here that I didn’t see anyone point out in the aftermath, and it directly relates to preventing this kind of careless mistake on the GMAT.
Look at the Best Picture card again. It says “Moonlight” and then the names of the winning producers in big, bold letters, front and center.
But see that tiny, delicate script at the very bottom of the card, under the horizontal line? It’s difficult to read even at high resolution, but that says “Best Picture.” That’s where each card had the award category information—at the bottom, in barely-legible script.
In my opinion, that’s the main culprit. There were other contributing factors, but the big error is that whoever designed those cards chose not to clearly and prominently include the ‘goal’ on each card—the name of the category!
And that’s why the presenters, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, read the wrong thing. The envelope they were handed contained a duplicate card for Best Actress, which read “Emma Stone, La La Land” in big bold letters—Stone had just won the Best Actress Oscar moments prior. But in the heat of the moment, onstage in front of thousands of people and on live TV, they focused on “La La Land” and ignored the puzzling presence of Emma Stone’s name. In other words, they had the right answer (“Emma Stone, La La Land”) to the wrong question (“Best Actress”).
I’m willing to bet that if the card had instead read, “Best Actress: Emma Stone, La La Land,” then the situation would have played out very differently. Beatty and Dunaway would have quickly realized something was amiss and said something like, “Hold on, I think we have the wrong card here,” and then someone would have entered from backstage and given them the correct card.
But whoever designed those cards wasn’t thinking about preventing careless mistakes. They assumed that everything would go smoothly—that the right cards would be given to the right people and they would read the right names, and that no one would need to double-check the category name while onstage. But we’re human, and mistakes happen. We get tired, we get distracted, and we lose focus.
The GMAT is an especially stressful, exhausting experience, so of course it’s going to be a challenge staying focused the entire time. The test writers know this, and they write questions that are designed to prey on those lapses in concentration and lure you into responding with the right answer to the wrong question.
So when reading a question, don’t assume that two minutes later you’ll remember what you were trying to solve for—write down your goal and circle it at the same time you set up your equations.
And don’t default to using x and y every time there are two unknowns in a problem—if a problem is asking about a full price and a discounted price, use F and D. If it’s about Laura’s age and Anna’s age, use L and A.
I’ve identified one major type of careless mistake here, but there are many others—so whenever you discover that you made a careless mistake, identify what new habit you need to develop to protect yourself from making that same kind of mistake again in the future.
Key Takeaways for Preventing “Right Answer / Wrong Question” Careless GMAT Mistakes
- Always write down your goal and circle it at the same time you set up your equations, before you start solving the equations.
- Always use variables that correspond to the names in the problem.
- If you still find yourself making this type of mistake, re-read the end of the question when submitting your answer and make that part of your standard approach on every Problem Solving problem.