Top 3 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid in Mathcounts

Diligent competition math students puts in a great deal of effort towards preparing for Mathcounts competition and the season is about to begin soon. This post is an effort to share experiences from our 3 years of Mathcounts journey and to highlight the lessons learnt from 3 of our biggest mistakes along with strategies that can help you avoid making them during your competition. So, lets get started.

In Mathcounts Sprint, you have 40 minutes to solve 30 questions. If you think about it, that’s just 80 seconds per question (i.e. 2400 secs / 30 questions) .  So your success hinges upon the speed and accuracy with which you can solve a question in the first go without the need to review and fix it in the end. 

Mistake #1: Spending more time than required on a question. 

Due to competition stress you will venture into solving unfamiliar questions wasting precious time. This leads to not only making silly mistakes but also running out of time on questions that could have been answered correctly. 

Do this instead to overcome this challenge. 

Even before attempting to solve a question you should know if it is going to require more time (i.e. more than 45 seconds). This can only be achieved with a decent amount of preparation and practice. 

When you read a question you should be able to identify the following 2 things in less than 8 seconds (i.e. 10% of the average time available per question, 80 secs) 

1. Have you solved a similar pattern of that question during your practice sessions?  

If Yes, It is a slam dunk. Work on it quickly and move on to the next. In this case, it shouldn’t take you more than 45 seconds to solve for questions in the 1 to 15 range. For later questions beginning 16 or so till 30, it might take a bit longer but your accuracy rate will be very high so continue to work on it and complete it.

If you have not solved a similar pattern of that question before, then  

Ask yourself,

2. Do you know the concept well enough to solve it correctly?

  • If No, Skip it immediately and go to the next question. 
  • If Yes, your chances of getting a correct answer is more than 70%. So, put a box around it (or mark for review if online) and go on to the next question.

This way you will solve all the questions in this order 

  1. Questions where you have seen the pattern and solved during practice sessions (solve and place a tick mark)
  2. Questions where you know and understand the concept to solve them (these are the ones you marked with the box around it, solve and place a tick mark)
  3. Questions where you are not too sure how to solve them. If you look close enough, typically these questions would be multi-layered easy problems in disguise. You just need time to peel them to solve it.  (solve and place a tick mark)
  4. Finally, tackle unfamiliar challenging questions. Make a best effort based on the available time or go with an educated guess and give an answer. Don’t leave any questions unanswered since there is no penalty for incorrect answers on Mathcounts. 

    In essence, this method gives you the ability to speed up your solving time at high accuracy levels thereby increasing your overall score.

    Mistake #2: Don't approach the sprint round like a countdown round. 

    Let's focus on some background information to understand this mistake #2. 

    Do you know that placing in Top 3 is crucial for staying in the game at Mathcounts Chapter and State level? I have personally witnessed students placed 4th on the written round end up finishing 5th overall after the countdown. Even with perfect countdown skills, it is imperative to place in Top 3 on the written round so that you can avoid taking chances. Countdown rounds are tricky and anything can happen during the day of the competition.  Placing in Top 3 on the written round will guarantee you a qualifying seat to the next level irrespective of your result in the countdown round. 

    Why do I say this? Because simple silly errors in the Sprint round can cost you very dearly in Mathcounts. It’s common for many to do the questions in their head due to time pressure, stress and at times overly confident with their computational ability. Most of the silly mistakes that I have heard from students are the ones they do in their head in a hurry without writing information on the paper resulting in computation errors which they regret deeply afterwards. 

    Take a look at this example

    Raghav and his friends have a pack of pokemon cards with 25 cards in it. They decide to share among them equally. If they each get 5 cards, how many friends are there?

    This problem is very simple and you will be tempted to do it in a countdown style. Many would write the answer as 5 just by quickly doing mental math, dividing 25/5. But once you jot down the numbers and the asked keyword in the question then you will realize it is only asking for ‘how many friends are there’ - and the correct answer is 4 (not including Raghav). The question is not - how many friends are there altogether.

    To drill this point across, let me share a personal experience. 

    In the 2019 New Jersey State Mathcounts Competition, 15 students tied for 3rd place at 39 points out of 46. Students who scored 25 on Sprint and 7 on Target did not make it to the tiebreaker whereas students who scored 27 on Sprint and 6 on Target did. Tiebreaker round was used to decide the top 10 who would participate in the countdown round. Imagine if the student above with a 25 on Sprint was careful enough to avoid one silly mistake, he would have automatically qualified to go to the next round with an overall 40 points directly placing on Top 3. This would have also guaranteed a spot to represent NJ in the Nationals irrespective of the countdown results. Read this again so you know the importance of doing well in the Sprint and avoid silly mistakes at any possible cost. 

    So, the simple trick to overcome this challenge is to - Write down the keywords important to solve the question. Don't do it in your head. Almost always these errors are very costly and may take you out of the competition in the blink of an eye.

    The only way you can train and force yourself to write down the keywords important to solve the questions is through practicing hard and practicing often so you can catch the question patterns on which you tend to make mistakes. Our simple 5 step success method will drill these principles into your practice so that it becomes a muscle memory for you. 

    Mistake #3: Stop relying on your ability to review answers at the end to catch errors

    Most would disagree with this approach since review in general is considered to provide positive results, help catch errors and oversight. We are not recommending that you avoid reviewing your answers.  When it comes to competitive math, it's all about accuracy, timing and working under stressful conditions to fully complete the test in order to attain a high possible score. 

    If you depend on your review at the end to catch errors and silly mistakes, it may never happen as you will most likely run out of time from attempting all the questions and will have a bit of mental fatigue as well. This gives rise to simple errors going unnoticed that could have been avoided. 

    The best way to overcome this Mistake #3 is

    • Review while Solving the question to avoid silly mistakes. This has 2 parts 
    1. Understanding - Read the question fully. Don't glance through it.
    2. Solve and Review - Don't do it in your head. Write down important keywords and then solve. When you do it this way, you are automatically reviewing your work. 

    Solve and Review when done together helps you with 

    1. Zoning in on the question to understand what is being asked 
    2. Helps you methodically solve (using question pattern recognition and concepts) 
    3. Match the answer to the actual ask of the question - essentially this is review

    The above method brings results of high accuracy levels without having to check and catch errors at the end. In order to do all of this for each question in roughly between 35 to 60 seconds you must have to put in countless hours of timed practice under test conditions. Only timed practice gives you the speed with which you can solve questions, review at the same time and be confident that you have hit a high accuracy level leaving you with enough time to focus on harder questions using the same approach. 

    In the end, it all boils down to the tireless preparation and timed practice that sets you apart from your competition and makes a huge difference in many ways guiding you through the journey that you can be proud of looking back after your Middle School years. Enjoy the experience. May the force be with you all!