Writing Neatly

Note: This is the fourth entry of a series on preventing careless mistakes.  To start at the beginning, scroll down to the first entry, “Preventing Careless Mistakes”.

Get in the habit of writing your work in a clear, legible, organized fashion.

Those of you who already write your work clearly and legibly can probably skip this entry. For those of you who don’t, I’m going to try as hard as I can to sell you on it. The deceptive thing about writing your work sloppily is that it works out fine most of the time, so people think it doesn’t matter. But any chaotic element you introduce into a situation necessarily increases the likelihood of an error. It’s inevitable. The effect may be small, but its cumulative effect over several problems can be significant. Suppose you have a 97% chance of completing a given problem without making a careless error if you write your work sloppily, but you could increase that probability to 99% if you write your work neatly. That’s only a difference of 2%, but small differences can add up. In the former case, you’d have about a 32% chance of making it through an entire GMAT math section without making a careless mistake. In the latter case, your likelihood increases to about 69%. That’s a significant increase. Now, this is somewhat over-simplified, but it does illustrate the potential for small differences to accumulate to something significant. If you’re serious about maximizing your GMAT score, you should always take advantage of opportunities like these.

One obvious benefit to writing your work legibly is that it will reduce arithmetic errors. If you write a 3 that looks like an 8 and you forget that it’s supposed to be a 3, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands. Best-case scenario, you waste time trying to figure out your mistake. Worst-case scenario, you get the question wrong. One thing about the GMAT that you may not know if you’re just starting your preparation is that you’re not allowed to use regular paper and pencil when you do your work. Instead, they give you a black marker and books of laminated graph paper that are commonly called noteboards. They’re not awful, but they do take some getting used to. The tip of the marker is a lot thicker than the tip of a pencil, so it is more difficult to write neatly and precisely. Some companies sell replicas of these books and markers. If you’re nervous about dealing with this on test day or if your handwriting is naturally atrocious, I would recommend buying some of these so you can practice writing legibly on them.Writing your work in an organized fashion is important because it makes it easier to check for errors. There’s nothing quite so exasperating as finishing up a lengthy calculation, discovering that your answer is not one of the choices, and then having to dig through several lines of sloppy, jumbled, randomly placed work to find your error. Make sure you have plenty of space to finish a problem when you decide where to start it on your noteboard. Don’t worry about running out of pages. Remember that you can request more noteboards if you need them.

The final benefit of writing your work neatly comes when you are taking practice tests. One of the best things you can do to improve your math score is to thoroughly analyze the mistakes you make when you practice. When I started taking practice GMAT exams years ago, I would just grab whatever paper I saw lying around to use as my scratch paper. I would use envelopes, receipts from the grocery store, whatever I saw that had any blank white space. However, if you’re trying to review your work to see where you went wrong and half of it is written on the back of your gas bill and the other half is scrawled between the nutritional information on a Subway napkin, it can be very difficult to follow. I ended up buying a notebook specifically for GMAT math problems and writing my work in a way that I could still follow it weeks later. You should do this, too.

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