You’ve heard that the bar exam is one of the most challenging and stressful exams that you will take in your career. Many people get anxious leading up to the bar exam and try to manage it the best they can. There is a lot of focus regarding anxiety leading up to the bar exam and during bar prep. However, what about the anxiety and panic that you may experience while you are actually taking the exam? Unfortunately, this is something that happened to me – I had a mini panic attack during the bar exam. So what do you do when that happens?? And how can you survive and manage to pass the bar exam? Fortunately for you, since I have first-hand experience and managed to pass my bar exam on the first try despite it, here are my tips on how to get through a panic attack in the middle of the bar exam. I hope that my experience and advice can help you if the situation presents itself during your bar exam.
My Bar Exam Story
I took the Michigan bar exam back before the pandemic in July 2019. Leading up to the exam, I had been feeling a lot of anxiety. However, the morning of the exam, I was surprisingly feeling very confident and good. I was going around pumping everyone up and giving high-fives before I got to my seat. The first half of the day was basically standard, other than one essay question that was a very ill-frequently tested topic that I didn’t feel prepared for. (I actually mistook it for Secured Transactions and didn’t realize it until I had basically finished my answer). Needless to say I did not finish all of my essay questions during the time allotted.
After lunch, the second half of the essays began and so did my panic attack. I looked through the test and could have sworn there were three different Crim Pro questions. I read them again and again and couldn’t understand how it was possible. There was one question that I didn’t even know how to answer. Then, I start spiraling. It felt like I couldn’t breathe or feel my hands. My vision started to get blurry, and I felt like I was going to hyperventilate. I thought it was a nightmare. I convinced myself that I was going to fail the exam so I should just leave. Afterall, there was no point in finishing if I was going to fail, right? I decided to take a break and had a meditative moment in the bathroom. I calmed down and rationalized that since I have already completed a quarter of the exam, I should just push through. Just finish the exam, and it will be okay. I rallied together and got back to my seat and finished the exam.
After I had gotten back to my hotel room, I told my husband that I thought I had failed. He assured me that I didn’t and encouraged me to finish the exam strong the next day. During the three months following the bar exam, I convinced myself even more that I had failed. Fortunately, I did pass and by good margins too. I was very surprised because I thought it went so horribly wrong. This isn’t meant to be a humble brag, quite the opposite in fact. I want to reiterate that even if you think that you failed the bar exam or that you can’t do it, you should push through because you never know how you truly are going to do on the exam until you get your actual results back.
Take a Deep Breath
The first thing you need to do is take a deep breath!! This may sound silly and an obvious thing to do, but it is something that helped me during my panic attack. I needed to take a deep breath and slow down my breathing. So first, take a long breath and breathe out slowly. Meditate for a moment. This will help regulate your breathing so that you’re able to take the next step.
Try To Gather Your Thoughts
The next thing you will need to do is to gather your thoughts. Again, this sounds like a simple step, but it is very important. For whatever reason it may be, you began to panic and have an anxiety attack. In doing this, you have overloaded your brain with stress, anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Thus, you need to get your brain back on track so that you can focus on what you are actually doing. It could have been a specific question that you were about to answer or a specific topic you were struggling with. It might even be helpful to just remind yourself, “Hey I’m actually taking the bar exam right now!” This will help you center your thoughts and bring you back into “reality” from your panic attack.
Take a Bathroom Break
If your anxiety attack is big enough, it may be useful for you to go to the bathroom. You are limited in the amount of time you have to complete the exam. However, you are allowed to go to the bathroom during the test (at least this is how it was for me, pre-pandemic). This is useful when you’re having a moment of anxiety and need to step away. For me, this was really helpful. I was able to reset and attack the exam with a new outlook. It was worth losing a couple of minutes of test time to take a break and finish strong.
Write Down What You Can
After you get back from the bathroom or your meditative moment try to write down as much as you can remember regarding the specific area of law or topic that question tests. This will help bring your focus back to the law and the bar exam. If you are still struggling with a question or area that potentially triggered your panic attack, it may be helpful to move on to an easier problem first instead. Get your sea legs back as they say! Once you have worked through an easier question you will feel more confident and able to tackle the harder ones. This also maximizes your time so that way you can get the easier questions done first and save the harder questions, which you likely would have gotten less points on, for last.
Know it Will Be Okay
You are not alone in feeling anxious about the bar exam. Many people get stressed and overwhelmed on test day. It is very scary to experience extreme anxiety or a panic attack during the bar exam. Unfortunately, sometimes it happens, and we have to do our best to get through it and carry on with the exam. Ultimately you need to do what is best for you and your anxiety. It is perfectly okay to keep to yourself during the lunch break or after the testing day is over if you are still feeling anxious. You will be able to finish the bar exam and you still can pass. I wish you the best of luck!