Law School, Life, Tips & Tricks

Exam Anxiety In Law School

 Its often portrayed that law students facing exam season have to be sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, and unwilling to spend even a moment away from outlining.  I believe this is a sad exaggeration which leads many students to assume that if we do not fit concretely into the neurotic stereotype we are failing or bound to do worse on exams than our peers.

The phenomenon reminds me of people’s addiction to being busy.  This is to say, American work culture is obsessed with the idea that people must be incessantly busy to be successful in their field.   So, many people spend their days muddling through busywork or inefficiently attacking the work they actually have to do, all the while running themselves into the ground for the sake of feeling busy.

What is the point of being so busy, so neurotic and so miserable
if we can accomplish the same goals without the suffering?
*well without suffering so much*

 Be it work or law school exams there is a better way!

Take it from Tim Ferriss:
“Focus on being productive instead of busy”


1. Define Your Exam Goals

Approaching law school exams with clear and defined goals makes the process tremendously more manageable.  I started over Thanksgiving break with a timeline of when I wanted each of my outlines to be completed.  I cannot emphasize enough how helpful just setting an outline schedule was to my exam preparation and minimizing my stress.  Whenever the anxiety would start to build I would take a moment and consult my schedule. This gave me perspective on the amount of time I had left and the comfort of knowing I was on a path to having my outlining done nearly half a week before my first law school exam.

Some solid goals would be: 
– I want to have my outlines completed 3 days before exams start
– I want to complete 3 hypotheticals every night
– I want to review older class notes for 2 hours before bed

*If you are seeking a more detailed law school exam-prep timeline see *

2. Identify Your Anxiety Source

Exams are often a giant source of anxiety for every law student, which is not surprising since nearly 80-100% of your final grade is based on one exam. Tackling this anxiety starts with identifying what specifically about finals makes you uneasy.  For me, it is the idea of the curve. No matter how well I prepare for or perform on the exam, the curve (AKA how well my classmates do) will influence my final grade.  The more I focus on this unfortunate fact, the snippier I become with my friends and the more crushing my anxiety becomes.
BUT identifying this specific fear allowed me to tackle it head-on. 

3. Recognize What Relaxes You

Once you know your fears you can combat them with activities that calm you. Whether it is working out, taking a quick nap or spending time with your cat, use the simple joys of life to quash the exam anxiety.  Whenever that crushing feeling starts to loom, immediately take 10 minutes to remove yourself from the source of the anxiety and refocus on the goal.

4.Pick Your Productivity

Reflect upon your undergrad years of exam cramming and pick out those things that really helped you retain information.  Everyone has a different study style. Some people need to teach others to understand topics, others need to tackle questions on their own and many are a mix.  I will ALWAYS suggest outlining be done, but the manner in which you create your outline is completely up to you.  I found it most helpful to struggle through the organization of the class topics and relevant information by myself.  This cemented the information in a way I could recall.  Before attempting my outline for civil procedure, personal jurisdiction, subject matter jurisdiction, venue and supplemental jurisdiction all blurred into one giant procedural blob.  Working through the material, just to organize the topics in some semblance of an order, is what brought the entire course into focus.   After making my outlines I worked solo through hypotheticals then reviewed hypos and quizzed with my roommate.

Some Productive Study Methods:
Mind mapping: create a visual of how the topics connect to each other
Flashcards: great or repetition and recall of topics like the elements or a tort or rules of civil procedure
Outlining: making a short and sweet summary of all the relevant theories, rules, cases etc. that you covered in class.
* More to come on what parts of my outline I actually used during the final*

5. Find Your Own Study Space

Just because everyone else has to spend “every night at the library until 2:00Am” does not mean you must follow suit.  The library during law school exams can be the most stressful place on campus.  I find the eccentric coffee shop down the street from my house an awesome alternative.  The ample supply of caffeine, snacks and strong wifi allow me to study for hours on end while still being able to see people not drowning in stress or interrupting my flow to ask questions.  Basically, find a place be it a study room, coffee house or your bedroom where the vibe is right and make it your study oasis.

6. Set Boundaries

Yes, friends in law school are essential to the process but the curve and the pure stress of finals can put a strain on friendships.  I found that being around my viscerally anxious friends actually made me more anxious.  Their stress would soak into my mind, leaving me perpetually questioning if I was doing enough.  The same idea carries over into negative peers.  Being overly negative about the process and focusing on “how much finals suck,” is an absolute mental trap. If you only talk about “how much law school sucks” your default mindset will be that the entire process is horrible and can’t possibly be endured without tremendous agony and pain.  This just is NOT TRUE.  Law school exams are brutal but keeping your perspective bright and your mind focused will make getting to finals a more bearable process. Setting boundaries on how much time you spend during law school exams with anxious or negative peers will keep you sane.  It is NOT wrong to refuse to give other procrastinating students your outlines (that you slaved over) or explain lectures ( that they skipped in favor of a nap) if you gain nothing but resentment or confusion from the experience.  Set boundaries between you/ your work and your friends, then stick to those boundaries.  

Ultimately this all boils down to the fact that law school exams despite being the hardest academic challenge I’ve faced yet, do not have to be a time of total suffering.
Choose a positive perspective and take a sabbatical from anyone or anything that degrades that perspective. 
You can always catch back up with your anxious but amazing friends after exams are over!

Don’t force yourself to study the same way anyone else does.
Chose what makes the most sense for you and attack your finals from those angles.  


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