Dominating the MCAT Pt. 6 | Mindset, Testing Anxiety, and Managing Uncertainty

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The surge of misinformation bringing question to the scientific enterprise has weaved its way into far more than politics and the pandemic. Far too many online MCAT gurus are propagating massively unrealistic expectations about what it takes to conquer this test; others are misguiding students to leverage suboptimal resources and inefficient study strategies.

I’ll separate the reality from the fluff.

This is the sixth article in this nine-article series – the Dominating the MCAT series – where I will distill everything I have learned in conquering my MCAT into a comprehensive, actionable framework that you can harness and tailor to optimize each aspect of your preparation and test-taking.

If you missed the first article, I would advise you to start there, where I lay three fundamental takeaways that students should carry forth from day one of their MCAT journey and background on my personal experience.

 

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 1 | Everything You Need to Know Going In

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 2 | Optimizing Productivity & Studying

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 3 | Resources & Timeline

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 4 | 4 Month Study Plan

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 5 | Test-Taking & Reviewing | Strategy for Success

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 6 | Mindset, Testing Anxiety & Managing Uncertainty

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 7 | How I Scored a 132 on P/S

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 8 | Deciding Whether or Not to Push the MCAT

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 9 | Tips, Tricks, Rules & What I Would Do Differently

 

Personally, test-taking has never been a problem for me. I’ve been leveraging a strategy I read about in the months before college started for quite some time now and generally go into every exam confident and collected.

When it came to thinking about the MCAT, however, this confidence dissipated. The sheer pressure and weight of the exam left me feeling overwhelmed at times, and testing anxiety manifested as yet another variable I needed to master. I’d like to note that the pressure I felt from this exam was largely a product of my own mistaken creation – and it may be for you as well if you aren’t being deliberate with the information you’re exposed to, as I’ll describe later in this article.

Here, I’ll lay clear exactly how I resolved my testing anxiety and kept myself grounded on test day after I felt an adrenaline rush and faced what felt like an imminent heart attack. I’ll delve into a root cause for testing anxiety – the misinformation plaguing the online MCAT world – and share some insight on what you can do to manage this anxiety and the uncertainty surrounding test day.

 

1 | Combatting Testing Anxiety

You’ve likely heard some story from that fellow premed’s older brother’s best friend’s neighbor, a 520+ scoring test-taker who encountered a 10-point drop on test day, despite acing his practice exams in the weeks prior. The peer group I was studying with was personally connected to several such individuals, and this became a recurring fear for each of us. From my perspective, a large portion of these situations may be attributed to a failed response to the testing anxiety that can arise in the face of the official exam.

Personally, I combatted testing anxiety each time I took a practice test, but the wave of anxiety I felt on test-day was amplified by orders of magnitude.

Upon starting my official MCAT, my heart started racing at a faster rate than it ever has before on a practice exam. This pounding sensation prevailed throughout the entire Chem/Phys section for 95 minutes straight – breathing adjustments and the 5-minute meditation I tried during the break between Chem/Phys and CARS did absolutely nothing. My heart continued to pound at this rate for 2.5 hours, following which I felt a massive crash in my energy and attention. This crash took place halfway into CARS, and I vividly remember thinking that it felt challenging at that specific moment in time to focus my attention on the passages and questions.

Fortunately, using the techniques I’ll describe below, I was able to ground myself in the face of this 2.5-hour-long heightened sensation. This seems to be a common thread amongst test-takers, especially those who regularly combat testing anxiety.

I mention this to make clear that you should be prepared to encounter the very worst on test-day. Don’t be surprised if the wave of anxiety you encounter is overwhelming. Your capacity to manage this anxiety and overcome it no matter the magnitude can surely be honed.

Had it not been for three pieces of wisdom a mentor of mine so graciously shared, I would surely have crumbled the weight of my anxiety on test-day. Today, they’re a part of my everyday toolbox and I regularly leverage them in the face of any difficult situation.

I believe these tips are rooted in certain stoic ideas on emotional regulation, and they truly did wonders for me on test day and continue to help me today. Not a doctor, so take everything I say with a grain of salt.

Tip #1 – Remind yourself not to give your emotions too much weight

Before I heard this tip, I personally did not even realize that we have the power to liberate ourselves from the grips of our emotions. Emotions and anxiety are both wavering sentiments – they are fleeting and rapidly change in the face of new circumstances.

To some degree, I think we have been conditioned to feel concerned in the face of any discomforting emotion – almost as if the onset of anxiety, or sadness, or fear is wrong and in need of immediate remedy. This can lead us to try and control these emotions, which only makes the feeling more pronounced. The reality is that we don’t have to respond to our emotions with concernwe can respond with indifference.

Every time I encountered a wave of anxiety or felt stressed out and uncomfortable, I reminded myself not to give my emotions too much weight because they are fleeting in nature. This practice of informing myself of the transient nature of emotions and detaching myself from them – choosing not to give them much consideration – allowed me to separate myself from the discomfort that came with the emotion. I reminded myself that the discomfort I felt – my rapidly pounding heart, in particular – was just a physiological response rooted in emotion, and that it was just my body’s means of responding to the situation around me.

This reduced the experience to something I did not have to stress about or dedicate much attention towards. As a result, I could refocus my attention on the questions at hand.

Be deliberate and choose your response to your emotions – remind yourself that since your emotions waver and rapidly change, they aren’t worth giving too much weight, or attention, to.

Tip #2 – Don’t try to control the anxiety

Trying to manage testing anxiety will only make things worse – anxiety is completely normal in the face of a difficult, stressful situation, so embrace it, remind yourself that you can’t control it, and do your best to refocus your attention on the test.

I know this doesn’t cure the discomfort – but you need to recognize that trying to grapple with and manage this anxiety may only result in the problem becoming worse than it is.

Instead, focus on yielding to the circumstances, accept the anxiety as a physiological response manifesting in the face of the situation, and remind yourself not to try and control it.

As you do this, thoughts surrounding the anxiety will arise again in your head – that’s okay. This is normal. Just repeat the practice: remind yourself not to try and control the sensation and these thoughts, and don’t get frustrated when any such thoughts reappear.

Fusing this practice of yielding to the anxiety with the practice of reminding yourself not to give your emotions and anxiety too much weight will do wonders together, and leveraging the tip below, you’ll be more than equipped to respond to these situations.

Tip #3 – Reframe your internal dialogue in a manner that serves you well.

This last tip is an extension of the two tips above. In addition to responding to emotion with indifference (as opposed to concern), you can also reappraise the discomfort in a manner that serves you well. In the face of anxiety, I always reminded myself not to control the anxiousness and not to give my emotions too much weight, but I also informed myself mentally that the anxiety was really just my body preparing to conquer the task in front of me.

I know this might sound a bit strange. But I reframed my internal dialogue and told myself that the anxiety was just my body preparing for battle – the MCAT was in front of me, and my heart was beating fast with the goal of transporting glucose at a rapid rate into my brain. Now I’m not a doctor – that probably isn’t the case.

But this was the story I leveraged as my internal dialogue, and it allowed me to extend my response to the anxiety beyond indifference – I was able to reappraise the anxiety as something that was helpful to me. This freed me entirely from being concerned and worried about the situation at hand.

Reevaluating the situations I encountered empowered me to focus all of my energy on the test itself instead of trying to control my emotional state, which I would’ve inevitably failed at.

 

2 | Root Cause of Testing Anxiety – Be Deliberate w/ Online Info

My testing anxiety was largely rooted in the fact that I had mentally heightened the MCAT into an insurmountable hurdle that could only be cleared by those who dedicated an obscene level of time and preparation towards the exam; I also have certain perfectionist tendencies that leave me greatly frustrated in the face of mistakes, and together, these two things made the journey of conquering this exam a heavier burden than it had to be. I’m sure that this problem isn’t unique to me.

My entire peer group, myself, and I’m sure so many others have at one point or another perceived the MCAT as this brutal, borderline unconquerable beast – I think this impression can be traced to the discourse surrounding this exam online.

Far too many people on Reddit and other sources have channeled their frustration and stress into these platforms, venting and proliferating this impression that the rigor of the MCAT is an almost impossible feat to overcome. There are some people who’ve set these massively unrealistic expectations. I remember reading one post where one student stayed up from 4 PM – 8 AM every single day studying for the exam. You’ll find others describing how they started every morning with a 5-mile run, studied for 6 hours straight, took a 1 hour break, and worked for another 5 hours only to sleep and repeat for four months straight.

As I’ve written before (and again, at the risk of being biased and partly judgemental), the reality is that the people posting on these platforms are disproportionately stressed and anxious about this exam. The viewership of these platforms spans thousands of students (for years on end), and each time these writers propagate these hugely skewed expectations of what the test entails, and what is required to do well, students like myself are burdened with unreal expectations to strive for.

When we fail to meet these expectations, burnout is fueled. Self-doubt is fueled. We’re inevitably left thinking that we aren’t doing enough day in and day out. This compounds over time and manifests into testing anxiety that compromises our performance.

This test is indisputably rigorous – far more so than any college exam. While it may take hundreds of hours of preparation, you do not need to be destroying yourself day in and day out, striving to match the expectations set by the latest 520+ scorer on Reddit.

Your journey is fundamentally unique. You will conquer this test by traversing a trail that is completely unique to you.

Undoubtedly, the biggest mistake I made was allowing the online discourse and the experiences of others to influence my perception of my readiness for this exam. Again, this exam will not be conquered following a linear, replicable approach – there is no sacred, online plan (not even this one) and substantial deviance in your performance and approach from what is described online and by your peers is completely normal.

If you dig through Reddit trying to unearth the journey that 520+ scorers underwent, and trying to match their preparation approach and test scores with each practice exam, you are strapping yourself to an emotional roller coaster, one that will take you down some steep falls each time your performance inevitably deviates from what you sought to mirror.

As I’ve said before, when it comes to the MCAT test, there are so many variables at play – your attentional span, your endurance, your time management, your capacity to break down complex paragraphs and derive meaningful insights, your ability to take those insights, examine them from the lens of your growing foundation, and answer questions accordingly, and so on.

These variables will surely be at odds with each other and lead you to choose an incorrect answer here and there – the key is that you recognize the multidimensional nature of this test and be more than willing to forgive yourself compassionately in the face of mistakes instead of taking on pressure and stress and comparing yourself to the performance of others.

Embrace the fact that your journey, your test scores, your performance on practice questions, your weaknesses, and your strengths are all fundamentally unique. The process of conquering this exam is different for everyone, so scrutinize any insight you hear on Reddit or from others, and evaluate for yourself what is valid, and what you’d like to take moving forward.

Do not let information on the internet or insight from your peers demoralize you, which will fuel burnout and compromise your journey if unresolved. If you find that happening, remind yourself that your journey is fundamentally unique, improvement will be apparent in time, and there is no pressure to closely match the journey that others underwent and described online – and then, block the sources of information that you are reading or speaking with because they aren’t serving you well.

Personally, I’ve never had a problem with this in the past, but looking back on my journey, I’ve come to realize that a major source of my anxiety was really the fact that I wasn’t deliberate about the information I was reading and being influenced from – I was working with the impression that my journey needed to match the experiences that others have described if I hoped to score as well, which fueled a comparison game that I was completely blind to for a while.

The online discourse surrounding the MCAT can easily shift from being a wealth of information to not serving you well unless you are deliberate and recognize that the information should be scrutinized and evaluated thoroughly before you let it influence your approach.

Key Takeaway: ground yourself every day with recognition that your journey is fundamentally unique and will be different from others; there are many different factors at play on your performance; and failure, or deviance from the performance you are striving for, is completely normal and improvement will surely be apparent with time.

 

3 | Managing the Uncertainty of Test Day

I think arguably one of the hardest aspects of this exam is the fact that there are so many variables at play and so much uncertainty surrounding test day. The new environment, random students seated beside you, a test-proctor who doesn’t know what they’re doing – what if everything goes wrong and you can’t perform as you hope to?

The uncertainty surrounding whether or not you can conquer this test on test-day can consume you if you haven’t girded your mindset and self-dialogue appropriately.

All I can say is embrace the uncertainty. It is what makes this journey arduous, but beautiful upon retrospection. It adds to the challenge, so embrace the constraint and remind yourself to put faith in the prospect that by striving to master the material and acting with integrity, you will land in the proximity of your goal score.

Obviously, nothing is guaranteed. But we can either psyche ourselves out questioning whether or not we have what it takes to perform on test day, or we can be deliberate and decide that we are going to respond with faith and prevent that sense of uncertainty from consuming our thoughts and attention. We can put in the work, prepare ourselves to face unexpected obstacles on test day (like the digestive issue I encountered upon waking up), and trust that we will reap the fruits of our labor and perform as we intend to in the face of the official exam. This is a decision you have to make and adhere to each time the uncertainty works its way into your thoughts.

There’s no doubt that the uncertainty surrounding test day can be overwhelming. However, like with all challenging obstacles, all we can do is work our hardest and leave the rest to god. For those of you who perhaps don’t believe in God, that’s fine: put faith in the prospect that you will reap the fruits of your labor and trust in the work that you put in.

Don’t overanalyze whether or not the work you are putting in is sufficiently optimized. That won’t help calm your mind either.

As long as you are leveraging efficient study tools, and striving to adhere as closely as you can to the plan you have set for yourself, you will be okay. Again, the prospect of adhering to that golden plan entirely is only an asymptote towards which we can strive – mastery of the material, and completion of every task on our to-do list isn’t the end-all-be-all. There will always be more to do – but trust that by striving towards completion and mastery with integrity, you’ll be okay.

Kobe Bryant, a great deal of inspiration to me personally, said “everything negative – pressure, challenges – is all an opportunity for me to rise.” Remember this.

Your MCAT journey is a fantastic opportunity to synthesize all the information you’ve learned through your coursework and make sense of these scientific disciplines on a deeper, interconnected manner. Find joy in this opportunity to learn and remember that the rigor of this journey is what makes it so beautiful upon retrospection – the pressure, and the challenge, is all an opportunity to rise.

 

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