School & District Management

Anxiously Waiting on SAT Scores? Study Suggests a Little Stress Is Good

By Elisha McNeil — November 12, 2015 3 min read
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For students, waiting on the results of a test isn’t always easy, but they often handle that period of waiting in different ways.

Many of us generally think that those who are calm, cool, and collected during waiting periods practice the best way to cope with the uncertainty. A new study, published in the psychology journal Emotion, suggests that this may not be the case, however, and discovered that embracing some of that stress correlated with certain emotional benefits.

The “Two Definitions of Waiting Well” study was conducted by a team of University of California, Riverside researchers to challenge what is previously thought about when dealing with stress and the effectiveness of certain coping mechanisms. The findings are based largely on a series of surveys given to 230 law school graduates before, during, and after taking the July 2013 California bar exam.

Although the study focuses on law students, there may be lessons here for K-12 students—especially juniors and seniors taking the SAT/ACT—waiting on the results of an exam or standardized test. Amid reports showing that overtesting is rampant in U.S. schools, K-12 students are no strangers to the waiting period for the results of a test.

The goal of the study was to answer two questions that investigate strategies for the “waiting well.” First, can people wait in a way that eases their distress during uncertain waiting periods? Second, can people wait in a way that eases the pain of bad news or enhances the thrill of good news?

During the study researchers observed the students’ behavior and compared their anxiety levels at multiple points in time. They broke the students into two groups—optimistic versus pessimistic—and evaluated both on how they dealt with the waiting period and how this affected their reactions to positive versus negative news.

Researchers found that despite all students’ efforts, stress-coping strategies were ineffective and most students were unsuccessful at suppressing distress associated with uncertainty. “By our first definition of waiting well, people seem to be failing miserably,” the authors conclude.

However, an analysis examining the relationship between the waiting well and responses to good news or bad news showed a difference in their reception of the test results.

Those who suffered through the wait responded more productively to bad results and more joyfully to good results, compared with the students who kept an optimistic outlook and were better at coping with waiting stress—those students were discouraged by bad news and underwhelmed by good news. As the researchers note, people often brace themselves for failure in an effort “to avoid being caught off-guard by failure,” and that strategy appears to work.

Despite these findings, researchers suspect that distraction can be an effective approach for reducing stress if people can immerse themselves in an engaging and unrelated activity. Even though the study did not find any of the students’ coping mechanisms to be particularly effective, the overall feelings of distress decreased during the middle of the waiting period when students used a distraction as a stress-reducing strategy.

The takeaway for the “Two Definitions of Waiting Well” study suggests this: those who embrace their anxiety while waiting for uncertain news may be better prepared for the end results—whether good or bad.

Photo by Flickr user Helga Weber; licensed under Creative Commons.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.