The SAT Prep Black Book

The Importance Of Details: Avoiding “Careless Errors”

“You will make all kinds of mistakes; but as long as you are generous and true, and also fierce, you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her.”
- Winston Churchill

As you go through the test-taking strategies in this Black Book, one thing will become very clear to you: at every turn, the SAT is obsessed with details in a way that high school and college courses typically are not.

The correct answer to an SAT Critical Reading question might rely on the subtle difference between the words “unique” and “rare.” A 10-word answer choice in an SAT Writing question might be right or wrong because of a single comma. An SAT Math question involving algebra and fractions might have the reciprocal and the complement of the correct answer as two of the incorrect answers. And so on.

This means that doing extremely well on the SAT isn’t just a question of knowing the proper strategies (though that’s a big part of it, of course!). It’s also a question of being almost fanatically obsessed with the tiniest details. In fact, I would say that in most cases the biggest difference between someone who scores a 650 on a section of the SAT and someone who scores an 800 is not that the 800-scorer is any smarter or any more knowledgeable, but that she is much more diligent about paying attention to details.

This strong orientation to detail is exactly the opposite of what most teachers in most high schools reward in their classes. Generally speaking, teachers are more interested in things like participation, an ability to defend your position, and a willingness to think of the big picture, especially in humanities classes. On the SAT, those things rarely come in handy. What matters on the SAT is your ability to execute relatively simple strategies over and over again on a variety of questions without missing small details that would normally go overlooked in a classroom discussion.

For this reason, the attitude that most test-takers typically have towards so-called “careless errors”—which is that they don’t matter as long as you basically understand what the question was about—is very destructive and needs to be corrected.

On the SAT, “careless errors” must be taken very seriously. In fact, I would even say that most test-takers could improve their scores by at least 50 to 100 points per section—usually more—if they would just eliminate these kinds of errors completely. But most people don’t take these small mistakes seriously, and they don’t know a reliable way to separate right answers from wrong answers anyway. So they usually end up focusing more on stuff they can memorize, which is of very little value on the test.

Why Are Careless Errors So Easy To Make On The SAT?

As always, when we try to figure out why the SAT is the way it is, we have to remember why it exists in the first place. The only reason for the SAT’s existence is that colleges and universities find the data from the test to be useful when they’re evaluating applicants. The SAT data is useful because it’s consistent, reliable, and capable of making exacting distinctions among millions of test-takers every year. This is only possible because the test questions are written according to specific rules and patterns that don’t change, and because the test uses the multiple-choice format, which limits student responses and allows the grading to be objective (at least in the sense that every answer to a multiple-choice question is graded without the inherent subjectivity of an essay-grading process).

Here’s the kicker: the multiple-choice format itself, and the SAT’s rules and patterns specifically, would be useless for the purpose of making fine, meaningful distinctions among millions of test-takers every year unless they were very, very, detailed. In other words, the College Board has to be obsessed with details because otherwise its data would be useless.

So the questions on the SAT are extremely nit-picky.

How Can We Pay Attention To Details And Avoid Careless Mistakes?

In the parts of this book that deal with specific strategies for the different types of SAT questions, you’ll notice that I always try to talk about each question as a system of ideas. Instead of just explaining how the right answer fits with the prompt, I also talk about the patterns we can see in the wrong answers, and about how the wrong answers relate to the right answer. I do this for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is that being aware of the interplay of the parts of a given question is one of the best ways to check that your answer makes sense within a larger context, which gives us a much higher level of confidence in our decisions and a greater degree of certainty that we haven’t made a mistake.

On the other hand, most of the time when people make a mistake on the test, it’s because they haven’t considered the question in its entirety. Instead, they catch a couple of phrases or concepts, make an unwarranted leap or a faulty calculation, see an answer choice that reflects their mistake, and move on without re-considering their decisions.

So please do us both a favor and take a lesson from the way I think carefully about parts of each question that most people might consider irrelevant. I do that for a reason: it’s silly to give points away for careless mistakes on such an important test.