Training Your Brain for MCAT Success

In previous articles ("Improve Your MCAT Score By Increasing Brain Functionality", "Improving Cognitive Functioning: Where to Learn How") we’ve talked about the importance of increasing your cognitive functioning to do well on the MCAT. Now we’re going to talk a little bit more about the research behind this and some actual exercises you can do.

One critical factor in increasing cognitive functioning is training your mind. You can train your mind to be unhappy and seek out the negatives in life or you can train your mind to be happy and look for the positives. Guess which one is better for you?

Let’s take lawyers for example. Lawyers are 3.6 times more like to be depressed and more likely to be divorced (Seligman). But what’s that have to do with training your mind. According to Seligman, lawyers “have trained their minds to see out the bad in life because pessimists excel at law...seeing problems as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence.”

Just like lawyers, both fortunately and unfortunately, have a penchant for seeing and focusing on the negatives, you can train your mind to focus on the positives. Doing so will put you in a much better mental state and as we explained in "Why Mood Management is Critical for Scoring Well on the MCAT", this is critical to scoring well on the MCAT, especially for the CARS section.

So how can you teach your brain to be happier, to look for the positives? We’re going to introduce you to three techniques. In short, they are:

  1. Count your blessings.

  2. Only compare yourself to those worse off than you are

  3. Tell yourself a positive story about the challenges in your life.

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

1 - Count your blessings

Every day write down 3 things that went well or that you are grateful for. We recommend doing this in the morning; however, if you prefer to reflect at the end of your day, that will work to. Take those 3 things and write about them, describe how it made you feel. Relive that sense of accomplishment or gratitude and next to it answer, “Why did this happen?”

Taking time to consciously realize and acknowledge the good things in your life will train your brain to notice these things subconsciously. After practicing this for a while you’ll notice that you feel better and happier more of the time.

2 - Only compare yourself to those worse off than you are

Unfortunately society has gotten us into the habit of making comparisons. It’s hard not to, especially during the medical school admissions process when you’re constantly asking yourself how you compare to other applicants. It may be hard to change how often you make comparisons between yourself and others, but it’s not hard to change who you compare yourself to.

Comparing yourself to others will only make you feel worse about yourself. Instead, if you’re going to make comparisons, compare yourself to those worse off than you are. Doing so will make you feel better about yourself. Don’t do it in a way that puts or tears others down but in a way where you feel grateful for what you have that they don’t.

3 - Tell yourself a positive story about the challenges in your life

Some people think about the challenges in life and ask, “Why me?” Don’t be one of those people. Doing so will cause your self-esteem to plummet and will put you in such a terrible mental state where you set yourself up for failure. And that is most definitely not the state you want to be in when preparing for and taking the MCAT.

Instead, reflect on the challenges you’ve had or have in life in a positive way. Think about what you learned from them, about how much stronger you are because of them. Take those challenges and your ability to persevere through them and generate the belief that you can do anything. The effect that interpreting events positively can have on you psychologically and emotionally are profound.

When preparing yourself for the MCAT you want to do everything in your power to set yourself up for success. It’s not just about working on the material, it’s about working on “you” as well. Try out these techniques for training your mind. There are others out there but the research behind these three is solid and time-tested.

Comment below with you experience and any questions you have.


Barker, E. (2011, March 7). Is there a quick and easy way to overcome disappointment? Barking up the Wrong Tree

Barker, E. (2014, October 9). What are the three ways to train your brain to be happy? Time Magazine.  Retrieved from

Diener, E & Diener, B. R. (2008, September 9). Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth.

Seligman, M. (2012, February 7). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being.