Game. Mental Set. Match.

By Randee Blickenstaff

From the moment you walk through the doors of high school, people are preaching to you about the impending storm that is college.  Teachers preach to you for four long years about how everything that is taught within the walls of your sacred high school is to prepare you for the years of university life ahead.  Well, maybe I missed the part where football games and homecoming are any sort of foreshadowing to college, but for the most part high school faculty hits the nail on the head.  However, they seem to be missing one huge detail.  COLLEGE IS A WHOLE NEW WORLD.

Not quite like that.

Anyway, high schools can prep you as much as they seem appropriate but once the doors to that school hit you, not so kindly, on the way out…life is different.

College brings about a whole bunch of new experiences.  Things like living away from home and having to fully make decisions for yourself are just the tip of the iceberg.  What many new college students don’t realize is that these new experiences are not just within the social aspects of life.  Sure, you can stay out as late as you want with that frat boy who is absolutely going to change his ways and be the one you spend the rest of your life with…

But what about the actual reason you’re attending college?  To learn maybe?  Oh yeah, right, that is why we’re dropping all the money.  Cool.

One of the differences that college brings about is much more work.  Much more.  Many students just starting their college career are under the impression that their study habits from high school will carry over just fine into a college education.  Not necessarily the case.  When we commit things in our life to habit they are known as mental sets. 

Mental sets are certain patterns we ingrain in our brain and use to solve problems or complete tasks.  We constantly refer to them in situations since they have worked for us in the past (3).    These mental sets are ingrained in our brain due to the constant use of them.  This can obviously be a blessing and a curse in life.  Once our mind finds a way of handling things that seems to be fail proof, we tend to not stray away from that since we know it has a positive outcome.  With that being said, mental sets can be difficult to break down and change.  Many studies have been done to see just how possible it is to completely change a mental set that has been created.  Although some results are mixed, what can be confirmed is that changes in these sets are essential over time (1).

So, what is the big deal about these mental sets anyway?  Are they good or bad?  The answer is both.  We carry mental sets with us for the most mundane of tasks.  For example, we have sets on how to enter a room, drive a car, and make macaroni and cheese if you’re broke like me. (5) These sets take us through our everyday life.  However, getting too stuck in our sets can have negative effects on our day as well as the positive ones.

When it comes to studying, what worked best for the past four years is most likely not going to be a mental set that can fully carry over into college studying.  We as human beings have the natural tendency to defend what we hold to be true to us until our heads explode.  These personal mental sets to evoke the same emotions within us and make us jump right to their defense.  Change is not something we are particularly fond of no matter the situation.  These mental sets being so ingrained in who we are as people can cause us to be incredibly rigid in our thinking and understanding (2).

The process of breaking down these old mental sets and creating new ones is not accomplished without a little elbow grease.  The fear of stepping away from something that you know works is often enough motivation to completely stop the change process all together.  That’s those mental sets talking.  Imagine a little devil of a set sitting on your shoulder saying, “Oh yes, your grades will be wonderful if you only study for an hour the night before this exam.  That has always worked for you in the past.”  So, what can we, as students, do to lessen the blow of a new educational world falling into our laps?  First and foremost, we must recognize that these mental sets for studying and learning that we have kept with us for years may not be the best way to go about things anymore.  Once that is realizes and accepted, the real work can begin.

As I said earlier, many studies have been done to determine whether it is possible to change these habits.  Don’t fret concerned reader, it is possible.  It has been found over time that the most successful way to change these mental sets is to not quit cold turkey.  Instead, if a student can slowly incorporate new sets into their old ones, the transition will be much more successful (3).  Take a student who needs background noise in order to get their work done.  In high school, their first thought may have just been to throw on the television and attempt to focus on the task at hand.  If that method is not exactly proving to be successful during their college days, that student might try turning on music instead of the television.  Starting with music they know, then slowly transitioning into music that is a bit more unfamiliar to them or does not contain lyrics.  This still gives them the satisfaction of background noise, without the distraction of a storyline from the television.

Long story short, changes must be made when entering college, especially when it comes to studying.  Often, the stress that comes with thinking about those changes is worse than the change itself.  Having the mindset to break these habits and make a change over time does not only benefit test scores, but the student themselves (4).  Breaking down these mental sets can be frustrating, but the benefits are long term.  As a student prepares to make changes in their study routine, taking things slow is the best was to ensure those old high school mental sets are left behind and success is found.

      Study on my friends.



  1. Shifting between mental sets: An individual differences approach to commonalities and differences of task switching components.By: von Bastian, Claudia C., Druey, Michel D., Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 00963445, 20170901, Vol. 146, Issue 9
  2. Cherry, K. (2017, August 31). Mental set and seeing solutions to problems. Retrieved November 29, 2017, from very well website:
  3. Fournier, G. (2017, July 17). Mental Set. Retrieved November 30, 2017, from
  4. Selig, M. (2015, June 4). To Change a Hurtful Mental Habit, Make “The 4 Decisions”. Retrieved December 1, 2017, from
  5. Thinking skill in psychology. (2016, March 31). Retrieved November 30, 2017, from


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