Write Bigger Series: Resources for College Bound Students
Developing a Growth Mindset for College Students
You’ve heard that money doesn’t buy happiness (or love if you ask the Beatles), but what about achievement? Can achieving your goals provide lasting happiness?
To receive admission into a great college, students must accomplish, achieve, and execute. So what happens when they finally cross that finish line? Well, if their new school attracted other bright applicants like them, they may transition from excellent to average. For students who’ve derived self-esteem from their scholastic or athletic recognition, or even from university acceptance, starting college can dredge up brand new insecurity or even put their achievement motor into overdrive. While some say the world’s just a rat race, college a ladder you must climb on your way to the next rung of competition, there are others who wonder, “Why doesn’t happiness from accomplishments last? And why must I accomplish more in order to feel good about myself?”
These were the kinds of questions psychologist and author Carol Dweck began asking over 30 years ago when she began studying what today she calls mindset, or more specifically a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. In the growth mindset model individuals believe traits and qualities, like intelligence, can change over time with training and practice. In the fixed mindset model, individuals believe traits are fixed at birth and cannot change over time. Perhaps most interesting, either mindset confirms its own beliefs. In other words, if you think others are just naturally smarter in math and you’re not, then it’s unlikely you’ll get better in math. However, if you believe that hard work, training, and practice can make you a better math student—that challenges and feeling stuck are just part of learning—you can eventually surpass natural mathematicians who do not pursue advancement.
In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck reveals the origin of our mindset may be predetermined—personality, family, or our schooling—but it’s not permanent. This understanding is great news for college students who will certainly be faced with new data to measure their success. In fact, when Dweck began her research over thirty years ago, she wasn’t a college student but a young and highly accomplished psychologist who had a self-described fixed mindset about achievement. Back then, Dweck believed her success and recognition held her central value. The only problem was her own failures and limitations caused her self-worth to plummet. However, through her very own research, where she encountered children who persevered through difficult puzzles and learning challenges, even at times becoming more engaged and excited, Dweck discovered the root of their success came from self-belief. Dweck eventually became a role model for setting her mind on a new world view and adopting the stance of the growth minded learner.
As a former college writing professor, I can say with certainty that every one of my students who sought improvement in writing, who believed me when I said “good writing” can be taught, improved. In fact, I saw firsthand how students who practiced and utilized all of the instruction and resources from our class surpassed peers with more natural writing talent. Students who blamed themselves for their inability to write well or even blamed me for having a different teaching style lived into the fixed mindset and ultimately cut short their own learning.
As a new college student, I encourage you to lean into Dweck’s growth mindset and believe in your untapped potential. Rather than comparing yourself to others or measuring your worth based on achievement, measure your success by how well you’ve learned the material, how hard you’ve worked to overcome limitations, or how devoted you’ve been to the pursuit of understanding. With this mindset, your potential is unlimited.
A Growth Mindset Comes from Redefining Your Notion of Success
- Effort Level. Evaluate the effort you’re giving to learning something new or to your own major. Be honest in your evaluation, not so you can cheer yourself up or tear yourself down, but so you can determine the path for improvement.
- Strategic Evaluation. If you’re giving 100% and struggling, the answer isn’t more effort. Likely, your answer starts with a need for more help, support, and instruction. And if you’re giving 50% and struggling, more effort is likely required. However, the explanation for why you haven’t been working harder is incomplete. Instead of doubling down, pause and evaluate things like environment, stress, difficulty of material (like 100 percenters you too may need more support), and accountability.
- Prioritize Learning. Students who keep their eye on the prize in their courses are those who do not chase a grade, but chase understanding. For example, a complete understanding of how your heart pumps blood to your body while running is far more important than memorizing facts to pass an exam if you want to work with athletes some day. Still, some students get stumped when they fail their first anatomy exam because the professor asked them to explain such functions. Rather than upset they don’t know how this process works, some students blame their professor for not explicitly using this example in a lecture or blame anatomy for just being too difficult.
- Persistence Training. Dweck’s research shows that growth minded individuals persist through difficulty to ultimately achieve goals and gain success. If a subject causes struggle, like the previous human anatomy example, don’t fall for the mind trick that you’re just not capable. Instead, like #2 in this list evaluate what’s missing to see if you can add anything to your study routine. Persistence doesn’t mean you will always be ready for a particular class—you might need to work backward to gain knowledge you don’t yet possess. However, it does mean that with sustained effort you can eventually overcome what previously seemed like an insurmountable obstacle.
- Imagine possibility. It’s hard to believe five time MVP Michael Jordan or Olympic multi-sport medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee were not born with all the talent we would later associate with their championships. However, Jordan famously did not make his high school’s varsity basketball team and Joyner-Kersee battled asthma and injury to win her medals. Despite these obstacles, however, both athletes were known for their incomparable dedication and effort in practices, as highlighted in Dweck’s Mindset. In other words, they didn’t just show up to a contest and shine brightly from talent alone—but their abilities were refined in the thousands of hours spent practicing due to their belief in improvement, or what Dweck would call their growth mindset.
It’s my hope Dweck’s research will help both students and teachers reevaluate their beliefs about potential, while also lifting the burden of comparison from everyone. In a competitive world, obsessing over achievement may feel mandatory but I instead invite you to obsess over learning, to geek out over understanding. Escape the trap of believing that recognition from others ultimately satisfies and instead discover the happiness in being proud of your own effort and devotion.
Victoria is a writer, story coach, and author of Write Big: From College Application Essay to Storytelling Standout. She's helped hundreds of students find their voice, gain admission, and win scholarships through her Write Big process. College bound students can learn learn more about how to write like a storyteller and standout in her free training.