Decrease Test-Taking Stress & Improve Your MCAT Score by Writing

Your MCAT score is a very important factor in the medical school admissions process. And you can read why your score on the CARS section is especially important here: ("Why MCAT Verbal is the Most Important Section on the MCAT"). So it’s understandable that you’re going to be nervous for this test; it only affects the rest of your career in the medical field.

In previous posts we’ve talked about the importance of mood management ("Why Mood Management is Critical for Scoring Well on the MCAT") and given you some resources to help decrease test-taking stress and anxiety ("How to Decrease Test-Taking Stress & Anxiety"In this post we’re going to give you another tool you can use to help and introduce you to the research behind it.

During the time leading up to their MCAT test date a lot of students start to worry about how well they’re going to do. And they more they ruminate about it the more worried they became. It’s impossible to completely push this fear of not scoring well enough on the MCAT from your mind. So instead, write about it.

Write down what you’re worried about and the feelings that brings up in you.  Recent studies have shown that expressively writing, repeatedly writing about a worrisome event over several weeks/months, can improve your test performance. Students who did this performed 17% better than those who did not. 17% better just from writing down their worries about the test they were going to take!

One study split students into 2 groups. Both took 2 tests on the same material: a pre-test and a post-test. Before the pre-test, the 1st group of students (Group A) was told to write as openly as possible for 10 minutes about their thoughts/feelings about the test. Then both groups of students took the pre-test.

After the pre-test both groups were told that they were going to take another test (the post-test). There would be a monetary reward if they performed well. Additionally, students were told that their reward not only depended on their high performance but also on their partner’s high performance. The students were then told that their partner had already completed the test with a high score. This put the pressure and responsibility of receiving the monetary reward on these students, thus simulating a test with high stakes. The students then took the test.

Can you guess what the results were? The students in Group A that had written about their test anxiety scored significantly better than their counterparts who didn’t (Group B). Group B showed a 12% drop in test performance on the post-test in comparison with the pre-test; whereas, Group A should a 5% improvement. That’s a net difference of 17%. So those who wrote down their fears about the test scored 17% better than those who didn’t.

Now you might be wondering, “How do I know if it is writing about my test anxieties or just expressively writing in general that helps?” Great question. That’s exactly what another study tested.

In this second study, a third group was added: an unrelated writing group (Group C) where students are instructed to write about an unrelated, unemotional event write before the test.

So we have Group A who is expressively writing about their test worries, Group B who isn’t writing at all, and Group C who is expressively writing about an unrelated event. How’d they do?

Groups B & C experienced a 7% decrease in performance on the post-test compared to the pre-test. Group A showed a 4% improvement. That’s a net difference of 11%.

While the results of this study show a smaller net difference (net 11% compared to net 17%), it still shows that students perform better when they expressively write, not about anything but specifically about their test anxieties and fears.

So what can you take from this? Short expressive writing can be used to decrease your stress about a test and can help you improve your actual performance. This small act helps eliminate your tendency to “choke” on the test.

For the best benefits from expressive writing, start doing it at least a few weeks to a month before your test. It’ll not only help decrease your stress as you prepare for the MCAT but will also help you perform better come test day.

If you’re interested in some other things you can do to help decrease your test-taking stress and anxiety and improve your performance, check out these articles in addition to the ones mentioned above:

"Training Your Brain for MCAT Success"

"Improving Cognitive Functioning: Where to Learn How"

"Improve Your MCAT Score By Increasing Brain Functionality"


Ramirez, G & Beilock, S. L. (2011, January 14) Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom.  Science Magazine.