Dealing with Bar Exam Stress and Anxiety

I know that taking the bar exam is incredibly stressful. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Everyone feels a lot of pressure and anxiety leading up to test day. The problem is that stress and anxiety can affect your bar exam studying, and ultimately, your performance on test day.

There is good news. I’ve put together 4 simple steps to help you manage your bar exam stress, power through your practice, and ace the bar exam!

STEP 1: Talk to yourself. Yes, I know that sounds crazy, but we all talk to ourselves at some point or another, and what we say really matters. It turns out, the way you engage in self-talk can actually affect things like the stress you feel, your tendency to ruminate (or stay stuck on an issue), and your ability to take negative feedback. So how can you make sure that your self-talk is helping not hurting? Glad you asked! Start by calling yourself by your first name. I know it feels strange, but studies have shown a correlation between calling yourself by your first name when you self-talk and success when completing various tasks. Then, make sure you’re building yourself up and not putting yourself down. Keep your self-talk positive. Encourage yourself and have compassion with yourself--the same way you would if you were talking to a friend. Remind yourself of past accomplishments, tough situations you’ve dealt with successfully, and remind yourself to stay calm. The final thing you should do is come up with a mantra or pick a quote that inspires you. Repeat this mantra/quote frequently. Say it to yourself every morning and set it as your computer background, write it on your notebook, or put it on a post it note at your desk.

STEP 2: Take breaks. I know you want to cram in as much studying as possible, but you don’t want to burn out. Take short breaks during your study to stand-up and stretch. Do a few jumping jacks or take a quick walk around the block. Getting your body moving will help reset your brain and help you focus. Make sure to take bigger breaks too. Take at least half a day (preferably a whole day) away from your bar studying to do something you enjoy. Get together with your friends or family, see a movie, go to the gym, or make a gourmet meal. You can do anything you want--except for study! I imagine that when you come back to studying after your break you’ll find that you are actually able to retain more information and work more efficiently. Many students want permission from someone to take a break. Here it is—I officially give you permission to take a break. So go for it. You will be glad you did!

STEP 3: Exercise regularly. Note that I said regularly. Hopping on the treadmill once a month really isn’t going to help. Exercise helps move stress hormones out of your system. It also helps improve memory, cognitive capacity, and mental clarity. You’ll also find that your mood will improve and your stress level will decrease. It’s a win, win, win! Your exercise doesn’t have to be anything too strenuous. Even a short jog, a walk to the park, or some yoga will allow you to reap the benefits of exercise.

STEP 4: Take care of yourself. I mean this both mentally and physically. You are what you eat, especially when studying for the bar. So make sure you’re putting good foods in your body. Eating right will help you focus, sleep better, and can lower anxiety. Food is your fuel and you don’t want to be on empty. I’m not a nutritionist, so I’m not here to tell you what to eat. But I will encourage you to eat 3 healthy meals a day. It may be tempting to skip breakfast or lunch when you’re in the middle of studying, but don’t. Take time to eat a healthy meal that will give you energy to keep studying. The same goes for the day of the test. In the days before, plan out your test-day meals. That way you’ll be sure you’re getting good fuel and you don’t have to spend time doing it day of. You also need to take care of yourself mentally. If you feel it’s necessary, consider reaching out to a professional. If you don’t want to go that route, there are a few at home tips and tricks. Try meditating in the mornings or at night. I really think meditation helps reduce bar exam stress. You can also try some deep breathing. If you’re not sure how to get started with breathing exercises or meditation, there are some apps to help!

Lee Burgess is the only child of two attorneys, so she had little choice but to become a lawyer herself. Perhaps it was because she had absorbed legal jargon with her breakfast cereal for years, but Lee did very well in law school at the University of San Francisco. She graduated cum laude, was a TA for Contracts and Torts, and was the Managing Editor of the USF Law Review.

After graduating in 2008, Lee worked in a large law firm until she received a letter from the California Board of Bar Examiners about being a bar exam grader. Rather than grade for the bar exam, Lee decided her real passion was helping students conquer the California bar exam! So she left her law firm job and became a private California bar exam tutor and law school tutor. Various Bay Area law schools recognized her teaching talent, and Lee has served as an adjunct member of the faculty at several local law schools. 

Lee created Bar Exam Toolbox with Alison Monahan to help law students across the country find bar exam success. Bar Exam Toolbox features a blog with helpful blogs devoted entirely to preparing for the bar exam. She also is the co-founder of the Law School Toolbox, which provides tutoring and courses for law students. 

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