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Mindset for English exams (FCE / CAE / CPE and IELTS)

Tony Robbins is a motivational speaker and life coach. He says that success is 20% skill and 80% mindset. It's interesting to consider how this might apply to English exams. After all, there are a lot of skills that you need to develop such as essay writing, listening and reading subskills and, of course, your oral accuracy and fluency. Logically, therefore, most learners and teachers focus on developing these skills rather than exploring the way the student thinks about themselves and the exam.


If Tony Robbins is right, though, this kind of exam preparation isn't sufficient as it doesn't help the candidate to cultivate the positive mindset that is likely to ensure success. In this post, I'm going to explore why mindset is important for exam candidates, and share three tips on how you can develop the growth mindset you need to succeed in your exam.


What is a "mindset" anyway?

Your mindset is the way that you think, about a situation or life in general. Having a healthy mindset does not mean being happy all the time or never experiencing challenges or difficulties. Having a healthy mindset means being able to deal with challenges and difficulties and accepting that these are part of life's journey.


Why is mindset important for exam candidates?

Preparing for a Cambridge exam or IELTS is a long, slow, challenging journey. There will probably be times when you want to give up, when things don't go well or when you are tired and don't feel like studying. It's times like these when your mindset becomes important.


For example, imagine you have written an essay that you think shows an improvement. You give it to your teacher, but it is returned to you with lots of red ink and a poor score. Understandably, you feel disappointed. You might even feel that essay writing is an impossible task, that you will never be able to write well. In fact, you may as well just give up now and save yourself from future disappointment. After all, you've been learning English for a long time. If you had the ability to write essays, you would be able to do so by now!


Growth mindset Vs fixed mindset

This form of thinking is an example of a fixed mindset:

I can't do this and I will never be able to learn to do it.


It is probably the worst kind of mindset that an exam candidate can have. Unfortunately, it is very common. The opposite of this fixed mindset is a growth mindset. We can change a fixed mindset to a growth mindset simply by adding 'yet' to the end of a sentence:


I can't do this, yet.


By doing this, we acknowledge our current limitations, but also our ability to learn, develop and grow into new abilities and skills. To succeed in your exam, it is helpful to cultivate a growth mindset.


Which kind of mindset do you think you have?


Cultivating a growth mindset

Here are three ways you can help yourself develop a growth mindset when preparing for your exam:


Be realistic about what you can do in the time that you have

There's nothing wrong with being ambitious, or with having 'BHAGs' (pronounced 'bee-hags, it's an acronym for Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals). However, too many exam candidates under-estimate the difficulty of their exam and the amount of time and work that is required. Unless you are already at the level needed for your exam or IELTS score, you most likely have several month's of work ahead of you so don't expect too much of yourself too soon! Create a study plan that fits in with the rest of your life then take regular small steps towards your exam goal. In the long run, its the regular baby steps that count, not the giant leaps.

Accept that things will go wrong Preparing for these exams is, as I said, a slow and difficult process for most candidates. This means that you will make mistakes with your work and learning. You may even find that you repeatedly make the same mistake. This is incredibly frustrating and can trigger a fixed mindset (I can't do this and never will be able to). However frustrating it is, you need to accept that things will go wrong and you will make mistakes. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, multiple times if necessary. It is only through our mistakes that we can learn.

Question your beliefs

In all honesty, do you believe you are capable of passing the exam? If your belief system is telling you that you are not good enough or that you are going to fail, this is a good sign that you have slipped into a fixed mindset.


It is natural to have doubts from time to time. But it is another thing to consistently tell yourself that you are incapable of passing the exam. If you find yourself saying things like "I'll never be able to pass this exam!", try to remember that our beliefs aren't really true or untrue. They are simply what we are deciding to believe at any one time.


We are free to change our beliefs in any way we choose - "I'll never be able to pass this exam" can be changed to "'with time and practice I can definitely pass the exam, and I am going to do so with flying colours." After all, isn't it much better to have a happy, positive belief than a limiting, negative one?! Skills and mindset should be developed together Ultimately, to be successful in your chosen exam, you need to have strong language skills and a positive, healthy mindset. The two go hand in hand to ensure you get the score that you deserve.


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