Standardized tests like the SAT have become a rite of passage for young adults going into college and graduate school, but they can also continue all through your working life.
The rigid, impersonal, pressured environment these tests create can exacerbate existing anxiety, and may even put the most stable individuals on a knife edge.
According to these government statistics, 30 percent of Americans and 12 percent of Canadians and are affected by test anxiety, and research suggests that if left uncontrolled it can decrease student performance by at least 10 percent.
Test Anxiety Is Not What You Think
To learn more, I spoke with psychology and behavior consultant Bill Cole, who gave this helpful example to explain what’s really going on with test anxiety:
“Let's say three of us are walking down the street. We turn the corner and we're confronted by two mean-looking, large dogs, baring their teeth and growling. And they're coming right toward us. I don't know about you, but I'd be up a tree or on a car roof in no time flat.
Maybe you'd be with me. But amazingly, we see our third friend simply standing still, and begin commanding the dogs to back off and to behave. And the dogs actually DO behave. Unknown to us, our brave friend is a dog trainer who knows exactly what to do in a situation such as this.”
Stress, in other words, is not an external phenomena, waiting to attack us—it comes from within. Stress isn’t the snarling dog, it’s our reaction to the snarling dog.
The amount of stress we feel, Bill says, is self-generated, and is not a simple cause-effect relationship. In this example, the dog trainer feels no stress because he had proper training. He had a plan worked out in advance, had lots of experiences around dogs, and he knew what to expect. To him, it was just another day at the office.
Tips for Avoiding Test Anxiety
The story about the dogs demonstrates how preparation and familiarity leads to confidence, which can then prevent a stress reaction from occurring.
Here are Bill’s recommendations for preparing to take a test:
1. Study hard and study correctly. Give yourself plenty of time—do not cram.
2. Make sure you know the test material well and can answer questions about it in the format the actual test will be in.
3. Set up practice testing conditions as close to the real conditions as you can.
4. Strive to score better than the practice test’s minimum passing grade. If you barely pass your practice exams, your chances of managing stress during the real exam will be quite low. The better you do in your practice tests, the less stress you'll feel in the real thing.
Heather, a postgraduate student who received counseling for anxiety, shared her experience taking standardized tests at Bristol University.
She spoke of feeling a “lack of control”, and “not-knowing if you are prepared enough.” Then, afterwards, she felt a daunting sense of finality, of not being able to make any more changes.
To deal with this, Heather said she ritualized the pre-exam process to create an internal environment that allowed her to thrive at crunch time. This included arriving at the test center 2 hours in advance, and then, instead of cramming last minute, chatting with classmates to lighten the mood.
Preparation was critical for Heather, and not just in terms of studying. She said that she maintained a good psychological state by watching something lighthearted the night before, eating a good meal, going to bed early, and eating a healthy breakfast the morning of the test.
Then, when she was finally at the desk, she felt a sense of calmness before the adrenaline kicked in and she started to write.
Of course, since anxiety affects people differently, others have reported having the opposite problem to Heather. Carolyn told Bevoya that the difficult part of standardized testing was not the fear of not knowing the answers, as that was something she could study. For her, anxiety typically stemmed from “anything more ambiguous or subjective”, like fearing there could be a section of the test she hadn't known about, or that she wouldn’t have enough time to finish
In addition to the tips that behavior consultant Bill Cole gave for avoiding test-taking anxiety, he also has some helpful ones for dealing with any situation that may cause you stress:
1. Pride yourself on handling higher and higher levels of stress. Call it grit, resilience or hardiness, but to deal with the higher pressures that bring higher rewards in life, you must learn to take stress in stride, and even to thrive on it.
2. Reframe stressful situations as challenging situations; learn that it's a choice how you view things.
3. Realize that while we often have little control over what happens in life, we have a lot of control over how we respond to what happens to us.
4. Create a strategy for how to respond to stress ahead of time, don’t merely react to it. Reacting is a knee-jerk, automatic, unthinking way of relating to events. Having a prepared response puts a pause between the stress trigger and your behavior, which allows you to take a deep breath, view the situation with care, and devise a strategy for dealing with it more effectively.