“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” -Thomas Edison, speaking about mistakes.

If you study for the GMAT for any appreciable amount of time (and you should) you’ll make mistakes. And that’s a good thing. People love to track their study progress with all kinds of metrics: percent correct, time per question, hours spent, problems completed – but in the end the only numbers that matter are the numbers on your official score report. So whether you were 10 for 10 on your homework or 0 for 20, whether you took less than 2 minutes per problem or spent almost an hour trying to figure it out, the key “metric” to your study sessions should be “what did I learn from this?”. And you can learn a lot from the mistakes you made, whether they’re silly (“I forgot to convert hours to minutes”) or confusing (“why does it matter that health care quality improved in the last three decades?”). You just need to know which questions to ask about the questions you missed. And there are four questions you should ask yourself any time you miss a problem:

1) Why was the right answer right?

This one comes pretty naturally to people – there was a right answer, you didn’t see it, and you want to know how to see it in the future. But don’t just take the back-of-the-book’s word for it – ask yourself in your own words and logic why that answer was right. One of the most common study mistakes people make is that they accept the written solution as “THE” way to solve the problem, but don’t internalize how they’d do it themselves or how they’d apply that particular problem’s steps (first you factor the common term, then you combine like terms within parentheses…) to a bigger strategy (“When I see exponents with addition and subtraction, I usually have to factor so that I can apply the exponent rules that require multiplication.”)

So instead of just reading the steps that the book or forum post took to get that problem right, ask yourself strategically how you’d get a similar problem like that right in the future.

2) Why was my answer wrong?

This is where you can really start to learn from your mistakes – what did you do/see/think that led you into a wrong answer. Did you make a careless math error? Did you eliminate the right answer too quickly because it didn’t seem “perfect”? Did your answer look great in terms of subject-verb agreement but actually contain a tense error you weren’t aware of? Was it “probably true” but not “definitely true”? With a standardized, multiple choice test, most wrong answers are created carefully to elicit common mistakes, so you should see your wrong answers as a blueprint for the types of mistakes you may well make in the future. Where did you go wrong?

3) Why was my wrong answer tempting?

This is first question that not nearly enough students ask themselves. The GMAT is a master of misdirection, of methods to get you focusing on the wrong thing or feeling uncomfortable with the right answer or falling in love with the wrong one. Your answers to this question might include:

-Answer choice B just seemed so obvious that I didn’t really do the math – I dove straight for the bait.

-I solved for x but the question wanted y, and I was so happy to be done “doing math” that I stopped too early.

-Answer choice D was just like I’d write that sentence and the others didn’t feel right, so I totally missed the pronoun error in D.

-I didn’t consider negative numbers so I thought this was sufficient.

-I know in my heart that B is true, but there wasn’t enough evidence in the answer choice to support it…they baited me into picking something that was close but just not there.

4) Why didn’t I like the right answer?

This is another huge question that not enough people ask (or that they don’t ask frequently enough). For the previous question, the GMAT is “selling the wrong answer” and usually that’s paired with this one – “hiding the right answer” by making it look irrelevant or awkward. Your answers might include:

-Statement 2 didn’t really seem relevant at all so I didn’t spend any time considering how I might use it…but I guess if the units have to be positive integers I could have just used trial and error.

-I hated the sentence structure of answer choice A so much that I immediately eliminated it and never even considered the verb tenses.

-The first few words of this CR answer choice seemed way out of scope, so I eliminated without reading the whole thing.

-It seemed almost like a double-negative so I never really understood the answer choice.

And here’s the really big takeaway – people often get so caught up in learning rules, facts, formulas, etc. that they don’t realize that they have to learn “the test” and “themselves”. The mistakes you make in practice are perfect opportunities to see what kinds of mistakes you’ll make on the test. Sometimes it’s because you just didn’t know the rule or couldn’t finish the math, but often it’s because the test used your tendencies – assumptions, hasty mistakes, etc. – against you. Ask yourself all four of these questions – and especially #s 3 and 4, which people rarely do – and you’ll be a much more well-rounded test-taker when test day comes and mistakes actually do count against you.

Are you studying for the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By Brian Galvin