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Studying for the GMAT: Learning from Your Mistakes

Many students want to get a GMAT score above 700, a top 10% score, which is truly excellent.  Many people want excellent results but are not necessarily ready to commit to everything that excellence involves.  The philosopher Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  I would add that excellence is a collection of habits, a lofty and demanding set of habits for which not every student has the patience or stamina.  If you are studying for the GMAT with half-hearted interest, not enough enthusiasm to embrace much beyond the bare minimum, then it begs the question: why are you taking the GMAT at all?  But, if you are approaching studying for the GMAT with boundless energy, ambition, and determination, then excellence is well within your reach.  Excellence comes from the heart.


Learning from mistakes

One of the habits of excellence is to get the most out of any mistake.  This is an extremely mature attitude.  Children and teenagers aren’t always able to be so positive: these younger folks sometimes interpret a mistake on something academic as a personal criticism, thinking, “There’s something wrong with me.”  For those who are mature enough to untangle their self-image from the various ups & downs of right & wrong answers on the GMAT, another perspective becomes available: we can use our mistake very productively by learning from them.

If a student were really determined to learn from her mistakes, what might she do?  Well, certainly the official explanations might be helpful, but the first thing I’ll advise is not to make an immediate mad dash to the OE as soon as you get something wrong.  During review, always take time first to look intently at the question itself, the question you just got wrong: did you misread it? did you overlook some information? were you uncertain about something?  Always try to find your own mistake before looking at official explanations.

OK, once you have reviewed the incorrect problem on your own, by all means, look at the OE.  The question, though, is how should you go through the OE?  Some folks simply glance at the OE and think, “Oh, that’s what I was supposed to do.  OK, I get that.”—and then they’re done!!  As a general rule, if you invest less time & energy into the OE than you invested in the original problem, you probably are not getting everything you could!  First of all, beware of labelling more than a very small number of your mistakes as “careless.”  The very word “careless” means “lacking care, not careful,” and brushing over the OE quickly might be even more careless than what the student did in the problem.  The excellent student cares very deeply about learning and understanding each little detail.  The mediocre student is quick to jump to the conclusion, “I understand this well enough already.”  The excellent student always wants to push toward a deeper understanding of each concept and strategy; toward this end, the OE of any problem the student gets wrong merits careful attention and reflection.  For the excellent student, each problem the student got wrong in practice is a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down: how can the student use the occasion of getting that question wrong to improve herself so that she learns deeply everything she possibly can from this mistake.  One of the marks of a truly excellent student is: never to make the same mistake twice.  This is an extremely challenging standard by which to live.  Even if it is impossible to adhere to that standard in all cases, it is an ideal toward which the excellent student is always striving.


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Keeping an error log

An error log is a notebook or computer file in which you record each mistake you make, with the date.  The basic purpose is to track your personal rate of learning over time.  If you are serious about learning from your mistakes, and especially if you are striving toward the ideal of never making the same mistake twice, and error log is invaluable.  It takes tremendous discipline and focus to maintain a good error log, but the level of self-understanding one can get from it is simply irreplaceable.

If you are going to keep a good error log, then absolutely every time you do a set of practice problems, after you study the OE, you need to write an entry in your error log.  Always date the entries, because part of the point is to see how much you are learning and growing over time.  Write the question format and subject area.  If possible, give the exact question number & page (if it’s a book question) or URL (if it’s a web question), so you could go back and look at this exact question later if you so chose.  Write down, in some abbreviated form, the nature of your mistake: pronoun can’t refer to possessive, or can’t divide by a variable.  You have to do this for each and every problem you got wrong.

Part of the reason for writing it down is so that you could look back and see if when the last time was that you made a certain mistake.  Part of the reason, though, is subtle.  You see, the human brain is a remarkable instrument, and sadly, it doesn’t come with an owner’s manual.  Suppose, in some math problem, I see some algebraic pattern: this algebraic procedure is always wrong, and that one is always right.  The part of my brain that thinks in algebra gets that.  Now, if I am going to write this my error log, I have to engage the part of my brain that turns idea into words, and then I have to use the parts that operate the hands, so that the words in my head appear on the written page or on the computer screen.  The entire process of writing down one’s mistake engages several different regions of the brain, and the more regions of the brain engaged, the easier it is to remember something.  The very work you feel yourself doing as you struggle to articulate something is an investment of energy into the process of long-term retention.


Further steps

Sometimes studying the OE of a question is enough to clarify one’s mistake, but sometimes that’s not enough.  What else can a student do?  Well, certainly, sometimes one needs a deeper understanding of the concepts in the question.  Each Clemmonsdogpark question comes with “related lesson,” on which students can click to get a refresher on the key concepts in the question.  If that doesn’t clarify everything, or one simply doesn’t know which concepts to study, then it can be helpful to ask a question. Clemmonsdogpark students can send in student help tickets, by selecting the “Help” on any page inside the Clemmonsdogpark product.  All students can make use of the forums.  Of course, in asking any question, there’s another challenge: how good a question will the student ask.  In this connection, see this blog on asking excellent questions.



As you can tell, there is potentially a great deal of effort involved in learning from one’s mistakes, especially if one intends to perform this as a habit of excellence.  I know everything I have suggested here sounds like a lot of work, and many folks might blanch at the thought of this much extra effort, in addition to what they already do.  Here, I will remind you of the Great Law of Mediocrity: if you put in only the amount of effort that most people are willing to put in, then you probably will wind up with the results that most people get.  The corollary is: if you want exceptional results, you need to put in an exceptional effort daily in your preparation.  Practicing the habit of learning from your mistakes with discipline is very powerful, because you can advance tremendously in your levels of understanding if you are always learning from your mistakes and improving.  Tremendous payoff, but you have to have the heart for this lion’s effort.  Excellence comes from the heart.


If you have have experiences keeping an error log yourself, or have further questions, please let us know in the comments sections.

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Without making mistake after mistake, we depart from the Dao.”  — Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253)

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