If you’re preparing the SAT, ACT, ISEE, SSAT or any other standardized test, it’s essential that you don’t simply study hard, but study effectively. Two essential elements of effective studying are analyzing your mistakes in-depth, and then reviewing what you’ve learned from them. How can you make sure you’re systematically tracking, reflecting on, and learning from every mistake when you’re spending months studying for a sprawling exam? With a mistakes journal. 

A mistakes journal is a powerful tool for optimizing and organizing your studying. It is essentially a place where you systematically log every question you missed along with a record of where the question is located, why you missed the question, what type of question it was and how you could tell, and what lesson(s) you learned from reflecting on your mistake. You may have missed a question about triangles, for instance, because you didn’t know a certain rule in trigonometry, you didn’t pick up on the cue that this was a trigonometry question, or because you tried to solve the problem in your head without first labeling the diagram or writing out your work. Using a mistakes journal forces you to reflect on what exactly is making you miss questions and how you can avoid those mistakes in the future. The other great benefit of a mistakes journal is that it facilitates review by helping keep track of everything in one place—not always an easy task when you’re taking multiple practice tests from different books and websites. 

Learning science has revealed that we best learn new information through an iterative review process. This means that you must revisit your notes multiple times before they will move into your long-term memory. Specifically, you’re most likely to commit material to memory if you first review it within 24 hours after you first encounter it, while it’s still fresh. This means that you should review new entries in your mistakes journal the day after you write them, and then again every few days until the notes are in your long-term memory. Every so often, you should review the mistakes journal in its entirety to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.

You should also attempt to resolve any missed problems a couple of days after you’ve entered them in your mistakes journal. To do this, first print a blank copy of the test so that you won’t see your old notes. Once you’ve successfully redone a problem, make of note of that in your mistakes journal. In another couple of days, use the mistake journal to identify the problems you haven’t been able to redo successfully, and attempt those again. Repeat the process as needed. Every so often, you should attempt to resolve all missed problems to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything. 

Lastly, remember that a mistakes journal can be as effective an aid in academic classes as it can be in test prep. Many students, seeing the benefits it brings to their test prep, start using the journal in school as well.