This is not hyperbole. I truly believe that the number one way to raise your score is to have a thorough error log. I have had a number of students who come to me after having gone through most of the Official Guide but who are still struggling to get the scores they want. When I ask, “What do you have to show for doing ALL of these problems?” the answer is often something along the lines of “I’m not sure.” That drives me bonkers! I want you to work smart, not hard.
So, how do we work smart? First, we need to change your mindset that more problems equals more skill level. If you just do problems without learning from them, you’re seriously just reinforcing bad habits. Your time spent reviewing and error logging problems should be about double what you spend actually doing the problems. To put that in practical terms, if you only have one hour to study after work, you should spend about 20 minutes doing problems (say, 10 Quant problems at a 2-minute average) and then spend the next 40 minutes reviewing the problems. I bet you don’t do that currently!! Switch that mindset.
Stacey Koprince wrote a great article about what goes in an error log and the different kinds of mistakes that people make. I’d like to give you a nitty gritty example of HOW to actually create that error log.
Creating an Error Log
Start an Excel spreadsheet (or something similar). You’ll need five columns: Question, Content Tested, What I Did Wrong, TAKEAWAY (yes, in capital letters), Re-do Date.
For the Question column: Make sure you can easily figure out where to find the question again. Simply putting “#25” would not help you find that problem again. You’d want to say something like, “CAT 3, Quant 25.”
For the Content Tested column: Write a specific description of the problem. “Overlapping Sets” is too general. Instead, you’d write, “Overlapping Sets with male and female butterflies, and blue and red butterflies.” That type of description will jog your memory more than the generic version of it.
For the What I Did Wrong column: Verbalize your error, with details! “I took a percentage of the male butterflies, but it should have been of the blue male butterflies.”
For the TAKEAWAY column: This is the key column! What are you going to remember from now on? What did you learn from your error? Perhaps: “For Overlapping Sets, I will always double-check which subgroup I am supposed to be focused on.”
For the Re-do Date column: Pick a date about two weeks in the future. If your test is coming up quickly, you can shorten the time frame. The important part is that you have a scheduled meeting with this problem. You need to make sure that you can get it right the next time!
Using the Error Log
Now that you have this beautiful spreadsheet, we need to make sure that you actually use it. I recommend using Google Drive or some sort of cloud storage for your error log, so that you can look at it on the go. Like, if you’re on the subway for 20 minutes, what a great time to review your error log! You can avoid making eye contact AND prep for the GMAT. Woo hoo!
You should review your error log twice a week. Just read it over. All those takeaways will seep into your brain. When you get to that re-do date in two weeks, you’ll have osmosed all the information you need to succeed the second time around. If you still get it wrong, then you need to refine your takeaway. What are you forgetting? What are you still missing? Put it in words on the error log and then set a new re-do date!!
If you error log literally EVERY problem you get wrong (and every problem you got right but guessed on!), your score will get better. I mean, I can’t guarantee improvement, but I can tell you that anecdotally, my students who error log get higher scores than my students who don’t. Error logging not only helps people become aware of careless errors, but it also helps them with concept recognition. By forcing yourself to verbalize what the concept was on the problem you got wrong, you get in the habit of being able to call it out for every problem you see—and that, in turn, leads to a more efficient use of your time when you’re taking the test.
And finally, while our software is AWESOME for statistically sorting what types of problems you are missing on practice CATs, sometimes the metrics don’t give us the full picture until we dig into the problem. For example, you might get a “modifiers” question wrong, but then when you go through and check the question, it turns out that you actually did the modifier split correctly but messed up a pronoun issue. So an error log makes sure that you are accurately diagnosing your weaknesses.
Now please, stop DOING problems, and start REVIEWING problems. Good luck!!
Keep Reading: Advanced Error Log
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Elaine Loh is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Los Angeles, California. She graduated from Brown University with a degree in psychology and a desire to teach others. She can’t get enough of standardized tests and has been a test prep tutor and teacher for over half her life. Check out Elaine’s upcoming GMAT courses here.