5 Tricks to Avoid Silly Mistakes in Maths Exams

My tutor once told me, "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!"

Project Team

Project Team

Team of Academic Advisors

How do I reduce silly mistakes in exams? I know the content, but I keep losing marks for silly errors :(

When doing maths exams, you’re probably very stressed, and stressed people can do silly things.

For example, misinterpreting the question entirely, copying equations down wrong, forgetting the “+C” after solving an (otherwise perfectly executed) indefinite integral…the list goes on.

If this sounds like you, don’t worry! The above question, was submitted into our Slack discussion forum - #hsc-and-beyond, where students can ask questions anonymously, and get advice from our team of Tutors, and even their peers.

We’ve compiled some of their advice to create this article.

1. Keep a notebook for mistakes 📝

Hayley Yong – Co-Head of Junior Maths

Keep track of what kinds of mistakes you’re making, then review them periodically. For example, do you:

  • Forget to flip the inequality sign after multiplying both sides by a negative number?

  • Forget to write “by assumption” in an Induction proof?

  • Forget to write units after finishing an area question?

Writing down your mistakes forces you to process and reflect on them. This then makes it easier to remember for next time.

For example, what worked for me is writing down in my notes or a post-it note “remember to multiply everything in the brackets!!” ‍

2. Slow and steady wins the race 🐢

Carol Shi – 2U Maths Tutor

I used to make so many silly mistakes! I found that what helped was going slow and checking my work as I go.

I would re-read every single line of working out 2 times at least after I wrote it down. I found this was more helpful than checking my work at the end of the exam because sometimes you have 2 minutes left of the exam and you go “ah, I’m not bothered…”

Another thing is that a lot of people make silly mistakes by not reading the question properly, so I used to go back to read the question again after I’ve solved it, just to make sure all my initial conditions were correct and I have definitely answered the question properly. It might seem like this takes a lot of time but it’s probably the same amount of time as if you went back at the end and checked :) ‍

3. Grind practice questions and watch out for traps 👀‍

Leticia Liao – Head of Programs

I asked my Project 4U Maths tutor Alec the same question and he phrased it as the following:

“Preventing careless mistakes is actually about doing SO many past paper questions that you know exactly where could go wrong or where the question is trying to trick you”.

It’s also about how attentive and focused you are when you are doing a question, and this is also why having enough sleep is important!

PS: If you want to fix your sleep schedule, check out our guide here.

So whenever you make a careless mistake again, instead of blaming yourself for once again being “sooo stoopid 🙄”, try:

  • Reflecting on why a question tricked you (once again)

  • Making a plan on how to expose yourself to as many past paper questions/ question types as possible

  • Noting down your mistakes (in a notebook or a Google doc) so you can review them right before your next exam, as Hayley said.

As my Chemistry tutor Shirin would say, “Fool me once, shame on you; Fool me twice, shame on me.” Don’t let the same trap get you twice!!

4. Hone your time management skills

Dexter Gillett - Maths Tutor

Time management is an essential exam technique like eating your vegetables; often ignored but tremendously useful. The better your time management skills, the less likely you’ll be rushing and panicking, meaning you’re less likely to make silly mistakes. It also frees up time to check over your work at the end!

It’s something I never used to think mattered but ended up using in the HSC to great effect. The main tips I would give would be to:

  • Write a checklist for the amount of time you want to dedicate to each section at the start of the exam (e.g. 20 min MCQ, 60 min Q11-13, 60 min Q14-16). This ensures you stay on track and don’t fall behind on time!

  • If you get stuck on a hard question, note it down and come back later. It’s important to realize that time on over-focusing on one question means less time for future questions. If you can’t solve a question for more than 2 minutes, you can always come back. 

  • Practice with timed mock exams to simulate real exam conditions. This can help you get a feel for the pacing required and identify any sections where you might need to speed up or slow down.

So eat your vegetables and practice some time management!

5. Don’t skip steps 🤨

Lakshya Rao - Maths Tutor

When you skip steps in your working out, you’re trying to accomplish too much too quickly, which increases the chances of making silly mistakes. Sure, you might save 1-2 seconds by doing something in your head, but there’s always a risk of doing it wrong, especially when you’re feeling stressed. It’s better to take those extra 1-2 seconds and write things out fully, and guarantee that it’s correct.

Read More:

Maximise Your Chances Of Coming First At School

Trial any Project Academy course for 3 weeks.

NSW's Top 1% Tutors

Unlimited Tutorials

NSW's Most Effective Courses

Access to Project's iPad

Access to Exclusive Resources

Access to Project's Study Space