An important part of preparing for the bar exam is developing a healthy mindset that will allow you to deal with the inevitable stress and perform your best on the exam. One good way to shape your approach to the bar exam is to treat it more like an athletic competition than an academic test. In reality, the bar exam is much more like a big game day following an intensive training period than a test of your ability to regurgitate law you have memorized. In a previous post, Keri Bischoff Clapp discussed training like an athlete for the bar exam. She writes that it is important to adopt a training plan, trust the training, focus on small steps, remember to cross train, and have a mantra. This is great advice, but I would extend it to its natural conclusion. If you train like an athlete, shape your mindset for the bar exam as if exam day is game day. Preparation is only the first step….
Be Ready To Play
Like athletes with intensive training regimes, you will study hard for the bar. In the months leading up to the exam, you may pull all-nighters, load up on Starbucks, settle for fast-food on the way home from the library, and grind out long days of practice tests. But like a finely tuned athlete, you need a pre-game routine that optimizes your performance on game day. No athlete runs a marathon the day before their competition. If you trained right, you won’t pull an all-nighter the week of the exam or cram in the hall between sessions. As Keri put it, trust your training. Be confident and get yourself physically and mentally ready for the exam. Showing up to the exam relaxed, well-slept, well-fed, and self-assured will be far more beneficial than burning yourself out with futile last-minute studying.
Know The Playbook, But Don’t Overthink It
Whatever sport you play seriously, you will have a playbook or a plan of attack. By the time game day arrives, the playbook should be second nature to you. During bar prep, you will learn all sorts of strategies and approaches. Knowing and executing those strategies is important, but, like an athlete, overthinking your playbook on exam day can be disastrous. Doing plenty of practice questions during bar prep will help you hone your methods. By exam day, know which ones work for you and which don’t. Only employ the strategies or approaches on exam day you are comfortable with by then. Game day is about performing, not experimenting with new strategies.
Harness Your Nervous Energy
Athletes succeed when they harness their nervous energy and it makes them better. You will be anxious on exam day, but how you channel your nervous energy is crucial. Some applicants will let their nerves overwhelm them, and they won’t perform up to their capabilities. Discussing bar prep, Bar Exam Toolbox contributor and anxiety expert Elena DuCharme writes:
[Y]ou don’t want to be completely anxiety-free when you’re approaching the bar exam. You actually want and need some of that stress and healthy nervousness that charges you up to meet the challenge—it keeps you on your toes, highly motivated, and studying more than you thought you would or could. This is healthy and useful.
(Find her full post on finding your stress “sweet spot” here.) Consciously focus on controlling your nerves as you practice during your bar prep will allow you to perform on exam day. Remember, you can do far more damage to your score by losing control of your nerves mid-test than by forgetting a nuance of general jurisdiction.
To quote Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” Athletes have to be ready for anything. Part of being a great competitor is the ability to stay focused and adjust the game plan amidst chaos. Even the best prepared applicant will have a panic-inducing moment when things get chaotic. Whether your watch stops mid-section or you encounter your worst subject as an essay topic, remain as calm as possible and stay in the fight. Part of the benefit of all the practice during bar prep is learning how to answer the question even when you may not know the answer. One bad question won’t make you fail the bar exam, but the trouble comes when you let that one question throw you off your game for a full section of the exam.
Play To Win
Great athletes play to win. Stay focused on doing your best on every question, every section, and every day of the exam. There is no value in trying to calculate how your score mid-exam or comparing answers during the break with other students. The bar examiners will take care of that part later. Even if you have a bad section or even a bad day, don’t throw in the towel. Fight for the great comeback. Come exam day, be confident and put all of your energy into performing the best you can.