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How To Tackle MCAT Prep With a Growth Mindset

Written By: Rachel Lorenc, a Blueprint MCAT Tutor

Developing a Growth Mindset for the MCAT

You’re sitting down at your desk (where you’ve been for the past nine months), after finally gaining the momentum to crack open those Blueprint MCAT books or click “Play” on the first Chem/Phys module in the Blueprint MCAT Course. However, after a few equations that look more alphabetic than numeric and a CARS passage that gives you flashbacks to the SAT, your momentum is fading—fast. Scanning through the AAMC’s What’s on the MCAT, or at least the first twenty out of the one hundred and eleven pages leaves many students wondering how on EARTH they are supposed to conquer all that information in the 1-6 months they have before test day. Almost all students start off their MCAT study period feeling overwhelmed. So what separates the 520+ scorers from those struggling to break 510? 

What if I said it’s all in your head?

Possibly, you’d want to throw those very heavy stacks of MCAT prep books at me, and I wouldn’t blame you. But, if you won’t listen to me, maybe trust Dr. Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and the author of “Mindset: the New Psychology of Success.” Dr. Dweck is interested in studying the “why” behind the success of some students versus the struggle of others. Her research revealed that students who saw their intelligence and abilities as plastic performed better, learned more, and bounced back from failure more quickly than students who believed that “smartness” was an inherent ability with a finite cap per individual. Dweck and her colleagues labeled the tendency to view personal qualities like intelligence as fluid and fortifiable as having a “growth mindset.” These individuals are more likely to approach challenges as a learning process, and to see failure as data to inform their next attempt, rather than as a final pronouncement of their abilities. Individuals with a growth mindset view intelligence as a muscle, and just like going to the gym, hard work makes that muscle sore. 

So, what does your brain-muscle and growth mindset have to do with your MCAT studying? Here at Blueprint, we find that embracing the growth mindset leads to significant student success. Individuals who see lower-than-desired test scores as data points and that 111-page document as a checklist rather than a chore tend to maintain motivation, retain information, and perform better on exam day than those who use the MCAT as personal validation for their intelligence, success, and potential.

Developing a growth mindset takes time and practice, just like developing any other strength. However, instead of pull-ups, Dweck advises us to identify our “fixed-mindset persona” triggers. When do we start to feel defensive of our abilities, take feedback as criticism, or become tempted to give up for the day? Identifying the areas in which our fixed mindset presents itself allows us to engage with that material with an open mind. On the MCAT, this might look like getting a 123 on a CARS section test for the third time, and initially feeling super bummed out and frustrated that your practice doesn’t seem to be working. However, rather than giving up or believing that you’re “just not good at CARS,” your growth mindset self understands that the way you’ve been studying CARS isn’t working. Using this data, you go back through the section test and identify what made you get questions right, as well as what tripped you up. From here, you go back to the whiteboard (or the CARS module) and decide to try using passage maps instead of summary statements for next week’s practice. This is also why we strongly encourage students to review their practice MCAT exams and learn from mistakes made on their full-lengths.

Growth mindset is incredibly important to tackling a test as daunting as the MCAT. With an immense amount of information and strategy to learn, it is easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged. Challenge yourself to engage with the information. Use wrong answers to guide your study and celebrate the improvements that you make – not just when you see your numbers go up, but also when you find a study method that works and when you finally understand that tricky physics topic. 

Saga Briggs, Managing Editor of InformED, brilliantly listed 25 Ways to Develop a Growth Mindset, and I’ve taken her list and narrowed it down to the Top 10 Ways MCAT Students Develop a Growth Mindset. See if any of these strategies resonate with you, and remember that despite the percentile rating next to your score, your success is unquantifiable. 

Top 10 Ways MCAT Students Develop a Growth Mindset:
1. Identify and acknowledge your weaknesses. No one starts off at a 528. Bringing on a little humility and organizing your weaknesses into manageable tasks gives you the ability to face your weak spots head-on and see the most tangible improvements.
2. View challenges as opportunities. Yes, the MCAT is hard, and the MCAT is important. However, no one says that the MCAT is impossible. This test grants you entrance to your dreams. Viewing it as a stepping stone allows you to embrace the test as a part of your journey, rather than a daunting destination.
3. Try different learning tactics. Ok, you’ve tried passage outlines and they aren’t for you. While I’m going to tell you to try again, after that, it’s time to brainstorm another way to tackle those CARS passages. Maybe try rephrasing the questions or identifying the author’s main point. 
4. Replace “failing” with “learning.” Every wrong answer or tricky problem is a chance to identify what you don’t know, yet. Rather than viewing the struggle as a personal downfall, see it as a chance to learn something for test day. Remember that every wrong answer in practice gives you a better chance at a right answer on the real thing!
5. Value the process over the end result. What’s cool about the MCAT is that it teaches you how to study for medical school, Step Exams, and Boards. Mastering your study skills now will help you build a solid foundation with which to thrive once you’ve gotten into medical school and long into your career as a physician.
6. Think about the “why?” Dweck’s research revealed that a growth mindset correlated with a greater sense of purpose. For the MCAT, this translates into seeing the exam as one stop along your journey to becoming a doctor. Find ways to remind yourself why you’re studying the Krebs Cycle for the umpteenth time. Talk to friends in medical school or physicians. Read blogs or follow social media platforms of people living the life you’re trying to achieve. Remind yourself that they’ve all been in your shoes, and they came out the other side!
7. Cultivate grit. Just like benching 250 doesn’t happen your first day at the gym, scoring a 520+ will most likely not happen on your first practice test. It takes hard work and patience to commit to studying new material, applying old material, and learning how to take the MCAT. Hard work and dedication take practice, and you have to sit down and struggle a few times before it starts to get easier.
8. Use the word “yet.” Yes, organic chemistry is a beast. Those philosophy CARS passages take you well over ten minutes to read and understand… right now. Just because something is difficult in the moment doesn’t mean you won’t master it with practice!
9. Constantly make new goals. 3 months into studying and you finally feel confident. You’ve broken 510 on your last three practice tests, and you still have 3 weeks until your exam. To this, I say cool, now break 515. Being a doctor means you must accept that you will never be the smartest person in the room, and you will always have more to learn. Practice cultivating that mindset by celebrating your achievements by raising the bar and pushing yourself even further.
10. Own your attitude. You’re working to develop a growth mindset, and let that apply not just to the MCAT but to every aspect of your life. No one is perfect, but everyone has the potential to grow. Struggles and difficulties will appear everywhere, but viewing them as learning experiences helps you to stay positive, humble, and develop the open mind that modern physicians need in order to provide the best patient care.

MCAT is a registered trademark of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which is not affiliated with Blueprint.