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Tackling Anxiety During Bar Exams

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Tackling Anxiety During Bar Exams
The discipline you have been developing in shifting your mindset about the bar exam, organizing your life, planning and scheduling your activities, and creating a study routine, is the same discipline that you will bring to the exam itself. But before you open an exam booklet, you will have to call upon that discipline to help you overcome another challenge.

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Exam Anxiety

In theater, it is called "stage fright." Opening Night is approaching and you panic. You can't force yourself to go on stage. You can't remember your lines. You just want to go home. That kind of fear can cause similar behavior the closer you get to exam day.

You tire easily but can't sleep. Your appetite is gone or you sleep and eat too much. You easily lose your concentration. You can't remember legal principles. You just want to stay in bed.

While a little anxiety is not a bad thing in that it helps to keep you working and motivated, too much may cause you to shut down. To keep this from happening, find your balance again.

Know Yourself.

You are no stranger to anxiety. Having made it through school, by the time you begin the preparation period for the bar exam, you will have experienced exam anxiety enough times in your life to anticipate it. Use that knowledge to meet the anxiety and to dispel it.

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If you tend to react physically to stress, prepare yourself for it well before the exam. One of my student's asthma would flare up as she approached exams. She knew to see her doctor beforehand to get the necessary opinion (that she was alright) and any needed medication. This way she would ease her mind and remove a potential distraction. Another student would develop a "tightening" in his chest. He knew this time that he need not go to the emergency room (again) because he was having an anxiety attack, not a heart attack. When symptoms occurred, he knew it was time to take a break, relax, visualize (the positive results) and then return to the routine. If, however, you experience new or prolonged physical symptoms, go see your doctor. It may be a symptom of something other than anxiety, which would be better addressed earlier rather than later.

Reflect upon those times when you were anxious. Know the signs and prepare to meet them. When you get anxious, take a break. Go to the movies. Jog around the reservoir. Do deep breathing. When I get anxious, I break into a rash. I don't eat or sleep much. On the day of an exam, I tend to perspire heavily. I know that I'm about to freak out when I feel that one cold bead of perspiration roll down from my underarm along my side. My ankles get weak and I can't seem to catch my breath. At this point, I have a choice: I can let the panic mount, consume me and become hysterical (losing precious time and points). Or, I can get to my seat quickly, close my eyes, catch my breath and begin chanting or praying while I breathe deeply. I choose the latter. By the time the exam booklets are passed around, I will have forced myself into composure, fixed my sights and unleashed my creative juices. The discipline we have been developing allows us to make the right choice.

Know the Law.

There is a one-to-one relationship between exam anxiety and the extent of your legal knowledge. The less law you know, the more anxious you will become. The greater your preparation and resulting legal knowledge, the lower your anxiety. Given the 45-50 minutes you might have per essay or the 1.8 minutes per MBE question, you will have precious little time to waste trying to figure out the law. Writing concise, complete answers is a function of an ability quickly to IDENTIFY THE ISSUES and to APPLY THE RELEVANT LAW. Knowing the law cold will help you stay within the time constraints, and knowing the right law cold will help you increase your scores.

Know the "Right" Law.

The bar exam tests more than the "black letter" law, those legal principles you learned in your first year of law school. If that were all that were tested, then just about everyone would pass. The bar exam also tests more than just the exception to the "black letter" law, although you must be able to identify applicable exceptions. More often than not, the bar exam tests an exception, to the exception, to the "black letter" law, which is usually that shade or nuance of the law that further defines rights and obligations.

Consider, for example, a fact pattern which involves oral and written contract provisions and modifications in a commercial context. An aspect of the law that you would need to know is whether the Statute of Frauds (SOF) applies. Another level of knowledge required is whether there are applicable exceptions. The third level is knowing whether there are exceptions to this exception. You may get a point after noting the SOF's applicability. You will increase points by discussing exceptions or defenses to the SOF. You will gain even more points by identifying the applicability of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) and its provisions on contracts and contract modifications. The more levels of knowledge you display, the more points you can earn.

Now, if you became just a little anxious at the terminology and analytic issues presented above, you can begin to appreciate the interplay between exam anxiety and how much law you know. Eliminate anxiety connected to ignorance—learn the law cold!

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