On exam day, whether it’s the bar or a law school exam, we end up trying to control every aspect. For instance, if you were like me in law school, you had your time itemized: wake up at 6 a.m., shower for 7 minutes, put on clothes, make coffee and be in front of my desk by 7 a.m. Study for 25 minutes, 5-minute bathroom break.
If you want to call me a little neurotic, that would be okay. I had my time down to a science and if anything interrupted that schedule, I panicked.
During bar exam prep, I was more than anxious. I would hop out of bed every morning to go study because I had spent the entire night waking up in cold sweats about failing the test. I would push those fears down and start my routine for the day. I never dealt with the possibility that this fear might derail me later.
It was after I got my scores for my first attempt at the bar that I knew my second attempt had to have a different approach. I would still study and organize my time efficiently, but I would put way more of an emphasis on my mental health along the way. If something happened to derail me, and it did nearly every day (i.e., my parents had visitors nearly every weekend, and I always had FOMO), I would take five minutes to go for a walk and reset.
Additionally, when the panic started to creep in, instead of pushing it away, I sat in it – for five to ten minutes. And when I was doing something and it started to peek out in my mind, I told it to come back at 6 p.m. when I was done studying. When 6 rolled around, I closed my eyes and called it forward. I let it wash over me, take hold of me, and then waited for it to end. At first, it took a long time before it let go, but then something amazing happened.
The day before my second bar exam attempt, I was in my hotel room pacing, about to cry, anxiety ripping at my chest. I thought I was going to die. I had already gone for a few walks around town, around a ravine, and around a mall. I knew I wanted to take a bubble bath, eat room service, and go to sleep. I also really wanted to rewind three months and study all over again. My Bar Exam Toolbox tutor kept telling me I didn’t need to study anymore, that I could peruse things leisurely from my study guide, but that all the information was already in my brain. This was it.
So with three hours before it was appropriate to order room service, and a chest full of dragonflies, I decided to plotz down onto a chair and play brown noise (kind of like white noise but a different, softer frequency). I closed my eyes and called out to the darkness to send me my fear. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s what I did. I asked the universe to show me what I was afraid of, I sat through every scenario, felt exactly what it would feel like to fail a second time, and then, when I was done, the fear and panic had completely dissipated.
The next morning, at the bar exam, I found a quiet corner and did the same visualization. Miraculously, I couldn’t find the fear. I had to actively try and recreate it, but I couldn’t get the same genuine anxiety feeling as before. I sat through both days of the exam with absolutely no fear, no panic, no dropped stomach or fluttery heart. Nothing.
Here is exactly what I did:
1. Sit in a Calm Place or Quiet Corner
It really doesn’t matter where you sit. You don’t have to be in a monastery or meditation hall to do this visualization – just a place where you can eliminate much of your distractions. I used to meditate in the front lobby of my law school. Find chair, park tush, pop headphones in, and begin.
2. Close Your Eyes or Leave Them Open
I know this sounds weird and counterintuitive, but you can easily meditate with your eyes open. Just pick a spot to gaze at and let the picture get blurry. It also takes the pressure off when you’re doing this in a public place. When I meditated at school, I often kept my eyes open to appear like I was just zoning out for a minute.
Or you can close your eyes. The important part is that you showed up to do the visualization, not how you do it.
3. Let the Fear Wash Over You
When you start to experience the panic creeping up in the darkness, let it stay. Don’t push it away. Ask yourself how it makes you feel? How is your heart beating? How quick is your breath moving? Where do you want to run to? What would you rather be doing at that moment?
Allowing your fear to stay is vital. And asking these questions gives you more insight into how you’re feeling and why the panic pops up. If you can label exactly where it comes from, you’ll be able to control it better in the future.
For example, I have a terrible fear of rollercoasters. I have the same anxious feelings about rollercoasters as I do sitting for an exam. But, the exam I can control. I can study hard and usually do well, but a rollercoaster I’m not in charge of ensuring is safe or driven properly. I can’t control it. So with the exam anxiety, I can sit back and label it, figure out exactly what is causing that fear, and then calm myself down and talk myself out of it. That’s the beauty of acknowledging its presence and listening to it – it gets quieter and you know how to listen before it even speaks.
4. Visualize All the Things That Could Go Right
After listening to your fear and seeing all the things that you believe will go wrong on exam day, now choose what will go right.
I imagined my entire day – from the moment I opened my eyes, till the moment I closed them for bed. I saw exactly what I ate, how I washed my hair, what the exam booklets would look like, the room where I sat. I sat through the entirety of the exam in my head, feeling how thrilling it would be to know all the answers to every question. It filled me with a sense of calm and confidence. I knew I could do this – I could pass this test and have the comeback I’d been dreaming about since finding out I’d failed in October.
The bar exam is scary, even law school exams can be scary, and that fear can hold you back. I find that most people are so bogged down in worry about what will go wrong that they don’t even consider what will go right. If you take the time during your bar prep to sit in that worry, you can learn to control it. And if you switch your visualization to seeing what you want to happen, you can influence your mindset on exam day. As my tutor used to tell me, the exam is a marathon, and on marathon day all that matters is your mindset and what you believe you can do.