In my nearly 15 years of tutoring the GRE, I’ve had a lot of students make significant increases in their scores. I’ve also sometimes had students who haven’t reached their score goals, sometimes even despite weeks of prep. So what sets the first type of student apart from the second? It’s not about how smart they are or how long they study. Instead, it’s all about how well they turn every question into a learning opportunity. And one of the best ways to do that is to use a GRE error log to track your mistakes and determine how to avoid them in the future.
It’s not enough to just do lots of GRE problems. A careful review of your mistakes, which includes the use of an error log, is the best way to make sure you’re raising your score.
In this post, you’ll learn what an error log is, why it’s great, and how to use one. I’ll also share with you the error log template that I use with my students.
What is an error log?
An error log is a systematic way of keeping track of any mistakes you make while studying for the GRE. But it’s not beating yourself up or making yourself feel discouraged. Instead, it’s about figuring out exactly where your mistakes are so that you can learn from each one. The goal is to learn how to avoid the mistake in the future.
An error log is not an exercise in negativity. It’s an exercise in growth.
You can use it on any GRE practice you do, whether that’s official Power Prep tests or questions in whatever prep book you are using.
You’ve got options for creating your error log: pen and paper, Google Doc, or spreadsheet. But whatever you choose, I do recommend that you find a dedicated place to keep your error log instead of just writing notes on whatever piece of paper you have handy at the time. You’ll need to be able to review it later, so keep it all in one place.
Want a premade GRE error log you can use starting now? Sign up here to get the error log I use with my students. I’ll send you a Google Sheets error log template so that you can get started logging your mistakes immediately.
Benefits of an error log
Do any of these sound like you?
- You do some practice problems, check your answers, get annoyed that you didn’t do better, then stop studying for the day.
- When you’re doing sentence equivalence or text completion questions, you add words to a list, but you never seem to be actually getting better at them.
- Or you read through an explanation for a question you missed, say “oh, that makes sense” or “ugh, that was my second choice.” Then you move on to the next question.
- You keep making careless errors on math questions.
- Or you just get overwhelmed with the math in general and have almost resigned yourself to accepting a low quant score.
I often see my students get overwhelmed while studying for the GRE. It’s easy to think the answer is to do more and more work. But really, the opposite is usually true.
If you rush through the review process, here are the risks you are taking:
- Being too surface-level with your review and missing chances to master the underlying skills from the questions you’re missing.
- Missed opportunities to reinforce math concepts you still may not be applying consistently.
- Not noticing patterns in the mistakes you’re making, which means you won’t know where you should focus your attention.
How to your use Error Log
Now that you’ve (hopefully!!) signed up to get your own copy of my error log, here’s how to use it.
Tip 1: Keep track of which questions you are reviewing
Include which practice test/book you are using, which question number you missed, and what type of question it was. Add page numbers if you are using a prep book.
This is useful if you ever want to go back later to retry questions to see if you can tackle them now. For example, say you’ve been studying geometry formulas. You may want to test yourself by going back through some old geometry questions on your error log. It can be a great confidence boost to see how much better you do on the exact questions that gave you trouble before.
Labeling your error log entries by question type (like quantitative comparison, sentence equivalence, reading comp, etc.) can help you find big picture patterns in your mistakes. For example, you might think that quantitative comparison questions are what’s holding you back in quant, but you might notice from your error log that actually select-all-that-apply math questions are a much bigger deal for you.
Tip 2: Include both “why I missed it” and “what I learned”
Like I said before, the point of your error log is not to beat yourself up. You don’t want to just dwell on what you didn’t know or didn’t notice. Instead, you want to think about what specific actions you can take to avoid a similar mistake in the future.
Here are some examples:
|Why I missed it||What I should do differently|
|Didn’t understand how to simplify the exponents in the question||Review exponent rules; there may be lots of steps, so just look first for the easiest place to start – the easiest place to apply an exponent rule.|
|Didn’t catch on that the main idea of the passage was how the critics were wrong in their interpretation of the artist. I thought it was just about the artist.||Look for phrases that signal the author’s opinion. That is usually related to the main idea.|
The “what I should do differently” column will sometimes force you to really think. Make sure you’re not using the column to write down why the right answer is right. That’s not exactly the same as what you should do differently next time. Instead, try to think about how you could have prevented the mistake you made. Then think about what you could do the next time you see a similar question to make sure you get it right.
Tip 3: Be specific but not TOO specific
You want to strike a balance between being specific enough in your error log to be useful, but not so specific that your takeaway doesn’t apply to other questions. A good rule of thumb is that your “What I should do differently” takeaway should be something you can actually use in the future.
Here are some examples of good and bad “what I should do differently” statements:
|Too Broad||Don’t make careless mistakes in math!!!!|
|Too Narrow||3*2 = 6, not 5 (Duh)|
|Just Right||Slow down just a bit on the math. Don’t do things in my head, and do a split second double-check after each step just to make sure I didn’t make a careless mistake.|
Or for the verbal:
|Too Broad||Study more vocabulary!!!|
|Too Narrow||Prodigal = wastefully extravagant|
|Just Right||Make sure to eliminate as many answers as possible from the words I know. Use word roots or positive/negative charge if possible. Think about where I might have heard a word before (like “the prodigal son”)|
Tip 4: Review your error log regularly
As your error log grows longer, you’ll want to make sure you’re going back to review it on occasion. Otherwise, it’s too easy to just forget the things you learned when you were studying a month ago.
When you go back over your error log, look for these things:
- Any math or vocabulary content you are still fuzzy on
- Question types that tend to show up a lot
- Mistakes that tend to show up a lot (scan through the “why I missed it” column)
- Takeaways that tend to show up a lot (scan through the “what I should do differently” column)
All of these can be very helpful. But maybe the last one is the one to pay special attention to. If you’ve been telling yourself for a month on your GRE error log that you just need to “slow down!!” or “make sure you’re finding all the keywords in the sentence,” but that same recommendation makes its way onto your error log week after week, you want to ask yourself whether you are really following your recommendation.
If you’re looking for more support, I offer both private tutoring and a cost-effective guided self-study program for students. Not sure what would be the best option? Schedule a FREE consultation call with me here.
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