The Secret Psychology Behind Test Day

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PMY 544: The Secret Psychology Behind Test Day

Session 544

Today, we talk with test prep tutor, Amanda Brem, about the psychology behind what happens on test day and how to better prepare for it.

For more podcast resources to help you with your medical school journey and beyond, check out Meded Media.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[00:47] The MCAT Minute

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[02:09] How She Got into the MCAT World

Amanda got into MCAT tutoring and test preparation after her own experiences studying for and taking the MCAT. She originally wanted to go to medical school, but after starting a master’s program, she realized she really just enjoyed teaching science.

When she did well on the MCAT, her program director suggested she start tutoring students for the exam instead of continuing her education, since there was a need for good MCAT tutors. This is how Amanda got her start in the MCAT preparation world and eventually founded her company, The Brem Method.

[06:17] Her Passion for the Psychology of Testing

Amanda developed a passion for the psychology of testing from her background in sports and athletics. As a former athlete and coach, she took sports psychology courses and found them personally relevant. When working as a personal trainer, she also noticed how closely physical and mental health were tied together for her clients. This led her to realize when tutoring for the MCAT that students’ emotional states and beliefs about themselves played a big role in their performance, beyond just content knowledge and strategies.

Due to this background and realizations from working with students, Amanda became interested in how to prepare for tests psychologically and build mental fitness, not just focus on content and strategies. She draws from sports psychology research to help students reframe negative thoughts and develop coaching mindsets to approach standardized tests like the MCAT.

According to Amanda, there are three parts to doing well on the MCAT:

  1. Content – Students need to know the material like their amino acids, biology concepts, etc. Without this foundation, it’s very difficult to take the test.
  2. Strategy – This involves how students approach the test, such as how they read passages and think about multiple-choice questions. Having strong testing strategies is important.
  3. Mental fitness – Amanda believes this aspect often gets overlooked. But the mental aspect, like a student’s self-talk, beliefs, stress levels, and ability to stay focused, plays a huge role in their performance. Having positive thoughts and being mentally prepared are keys.
'It wasn't content and it wasn't even the strategy.... it was how you are approaching test day.'Click To Tweet

Amanda emphasizes that even if students know the content and strategies, they may still struggle on test day if their mental game is not solid as well. All three parts – content, strategy, and mental fitness – need to work together for optimal MCAT performance.

[10:29] Overcoming Inner Saboteurs for Success

Amanda recounts having students come to her after having scored significantly lower on their actual MCAT exam compared to their practice exams. That was the case even when they had taken full-length practice exams in a simulated testing environment.

She says the first thing she does is validate that it’s difficult to perform well on a specific high-stakes test on a given day. Not everyone will have their best testing day. She acknowledges outside factors may have played a role.

However, if the student insists they followed all of Amanda’s preparation advice like relaxing before the test, she will ask about their mental state and thoughts while taking the exam. Were they different than during practice tests? Was their attention wavering more? Did anxiety or fatigue set in?

Identifying what happened mentally is important, as content knowledge and strategies were not likely the issue if practice scores were higher.

'It's tough to acknowledge that your own head was getting in the way of your success. It wasn't your knowledge. It wasn't your skills. Yeah, it was that inner voice.'Click To Tweet

[13:26] Fighting Off Your Internal Saboteurs

It’s challenging to admit that our own thoughts can hinder our success. It’s not about lacking knowledge or skills, but rather the inner voice that Amanda refers to as saboteurs in The Brem Method. These saboteurs sneak in and sabotage everything we do. To counter this, Amanda suggests transforming those sabotaging thoughts into coaching thoughts that are helpful and supportive. However, this process requires significant effort.

Amanda recommends taking time for self-reflection and recovery, ranging from a few months to a year if necessary. It is crucial to focus on improving our internal dialogue so that while studying or taking practice exams, we maintain a mindset filled with strong coaching thoughts. Just like athletes train with coaching talks, we can train our minds to cultivate positivity and resilience.

How to Calm Your Saboteurs

When students have very negative inner dialogues dominated by “saboteurs” or negative self-talk, there are a few things that can help quiet them:

  1. Practice mindfulness techniques like meditation. This helps recognize negative thoughts without getting caught up in them, and let them go.
  2. Use “mental resets” – when a negative thought comes up, pause and ask if it’s helpful. Thank the thought but acknowledge it’s not useful. Replace it with a more positive thought.
  3. Seek therapy if negative thoughts are severely impacting daily functioning. Treating underlying mental health issues can help reduce their power.
  4. Challenge whether negative thoughts are helping reach goals. Being willing to try alternative methods even if it’s uncomfortable can shake students out of unhelpful patterns.
  5. Remove oneself from echo chambers that breed negativity, like some online forums. Surrounding oneself with positive communities can counteract saboteurs.

When the Above Tips Don’t Seem to Work

Anxiety, depression, OCD – all of these mental health disorders are real. If it’s to that level, the first thing Amanda always recommends is to go seek treatment. Therapy is an amazing way of approaching this.

Especially if you’re finding that the negative thoughts are taking over and actively impeding your ability to be successful, that’s something that you can treat.

“There's a lot of online communication that just breeds negativity.”Click To Tweet

[26:06] Setting Realistic Timelines

One of the most important things a student can do when beginning their MCAT preparation is to set realistic goals and timelines.

Setting Your Timeline

Most students need a minimum of 3 months to study for the MCAT, but 6 months or even up to a year is better to develop strong study habits and learn effectively. Students should aim to study for a minimum of 300 hours total as a baseline. More time is better than too little.

When first setting a timeline, students should pad it and make it more generous than they think they need. If estimating 4 months, plan for 6. The first month should focus on creating a sustainable long-term study schedule, not rushing into content. Adjustments may be needed.

By setting realistic expectations and avoiding overly aggressive timelines, students can avoid burnout, disappointment, and loss of motivation if initial goals cannot be met. It’s important to give the MCAT preparation sufficient time.

'Be really generous with your timeline. Make sure that you're spending a good chunk of your first month looking at your study schedule, and making sure it's sustainable over that long term.'Click To Tweet

Practicing Your Timing

Amanda recommends students use timing apps to help structure their study sessions, such as the Pomodoro technique timers that break up studying into small chunks with short breaks. This prevents burnout. During break periods, use the time for mental resets or meditation to refocus the mind. Any app that allows setting Pomodoro-style timers can work for this.

Schedule reflection time at the end of each study session or day, 20-30 minutes, to journal about what went well, challenges, and goals for the next session.

Take time to reflect on progress to help you stay motivated when it’s easy to just keep pushing forward without pausing. Timing apps can help enforce reflection periods and breaks as part of an effective study routine.

[29:52] The Importance of Celebrating Small Wins

When discussing the importance of celebrating small wins and progress, Amanda notes this is not just a problem for pre-health/premed students, but a broader societal problem. Specifically, she says that as a society we tend to be very achievement-focused. 

Especially in American culture, where the sole focus is on the end goal and everything that leads up to that goal is discounted. However, she points out that in reality, the process is a big part of success.

'We're so skewed towards what needs to be fixed that we just need to balance it out.'Click To Tweet

Amanda further uses the analogy of a movie montage scene. She emphasizes that it’s not just about achieving the final goal. But it’s also about all the times falling down and getting back up that make up the “win.”

Amanda argues we need to do a better job as a society of recognizing and celebrating the small wins and daily progress. Because those are what lead to achieving major goals and accomplishments.

The Importance of Curiosity

Amanda emphasizes the importance of curiosity. As a premed student, you should love learning and science, as that will be a lifelong pursuit in your career. Bring excitement and curiosity to your studying by focusing on what new things they are learning and understanding about science. She says looking at studying and preparation through the lens of discovery can help reinvigorate curiosity when it starts to fade under pressure.

'You're going to be doing a lot of learning and a lot of science for your life so try to bring that excitement and curiosity.'Click To Tweet

Maintaining curiosity about learning keeps studying feeling engaging and interesting. Keeping your mental health and motivation in check will help retain your natural curiosity about science and your subjects as you progress through undergraduate education and beyond.

[33:32] The Importance of Asking for Help

In managing negative thoughts and struggles, Amanda emphasizes the importance of asking for help from the support systems available as a student. She notes that in college, students have professors, TAs, advisors, and career centers to assist them. If things aren’t going well or the negative voices are loud, or a student doesn’t know how to improve, reaching out is key rather than letting themselves stagnate.

Amanda recommends advocating for oneself as a learner by admitting “I don’t know what I’m doing” and seeking guidance from others. This can be psychologically beneficial.

'One of the benefits of being in a school/institution is that you do have those people and reaching out to them can really help psychologically as well.'Click To Tweet

Taking advantage of the help that educational institutions offer through faculty and staff can help students navigate difficulties, especially when they feel stuck and unsure of the next steps on their own. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness.


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