As someone who has chosen to pursue a career in law, one of the most stressful times in your life will be taking the bar exam and the period of intense study leading up to it. With every minute you spend drilling laws into your brain; with every vein that throbs in your temple in concentration; and every bead of sweat that slips down your face as you pore over your books, bar exam stress will be an unwelcome passenger.
Fear of failing is the number one cause of the anxiety you’ll feel as you prepare to jump the biggest hurdle yet in your career. And if you’re too far from the bar to understand what I’m talking about, it’s only a matter of time before fear visits you; your very own constant companion standing just behind you, breathing into your ear like some odiferous creep on the subway… “What if you fail?”
Every law graduate knows the feeling. But it doesn’t have to be YOUR reality, and we’re going to show you how you can yank that bar exam anxiety drip out your amygdala, and take a calm, measured, and efficient approach to the MBE.
[Read: 5 Tips for staying sane during your bar exam preparations.]
Who are we?
We’re Brainscape, the world’s most efficient study app with THREE awesome tools to help you smash your MBE and embark upon a successful career in law:
- A certified, expert-curated collection of 2,600+ adaptive MBE flashcards for the most critical background knowledge you need to memorize.
- Hands-free MBE prep video/podcast series, which you can listen to for free as a podcast or as a series of videos on our Law YouTube Channel.
- Brainscape Law Academy: a rich and valuable resource—also totally free—that’ll equip you with the right study techniques and mindset to take on law school and the mighty bar exam.
This particular guide, my friend, has been compiled by people who have faced down the bar, passed it, and now lead enormously successful law careers; and by people who have made it their business to understand study efficiency, dealing with school stress, and the optimal ways to prepare for high stakes exams like the bar.
With that said, let’s dive in with the following key antidotes to bar exam anxiety:
- Acknowledge your fear … and then move on
- Destroy bar exam stress with proper preparation
- Care for yourself properly through bar exam prep
- Have a stress strategy for test day
By working through these, you’ll disarm your bar exam stress, return your focus to where it belongs (learning), and mitigate the physical and psychological symptoms of being stressed out, both as you approach your bar exam and on test day.
Let’s get started!
Acknowledge your fear … and then move on
Fear has a voice and it wants to be heard. It’s your primitive self warning you of danger and if you don’t acknowledge it, it’s just going to scream louder. So, acknowledge your fear, and when it gets a little too loud for you to concentrate on your studies or fall asleep or enjoy time with family, talk to it.
Yes, I know this sounds weird but it really works.
Say: “I’ve heard you, fear; I acknowledge that I’m afraid about failing this exam, but I’ve got this. And I’m making the decision to focus on this chapter / get a good night’s rest / fill my love tank with quality family time because that’s what I need to be successful.”
This is the first step to gaining control of runaway thoughts and fears. If you tell your inner caveman or woman that you’ve heard their warning, that you’re in charge, and that everything is alright, everything will be alright.
Pssst! Check out these 12 top apps for law students and bar prep.
Destroy bar exam stress with proper preparation
The next important step in dealing with bar exam stress is actually being prepared to take the MBE. It makes perfect sense: if you get to the bar a well-oiled machine with the legal content memorized and your thinking skills and strategy polished to a blinding shine, you’ll feel more than confident to take on the bar ... you may even be excited about it!
Check out 'When should I start studying for the bar exam?' so that you give yourself enough time to prepare! But let’s start at square one, shall we? Getting to the bar prepared requires you to have a detailed study plan:
Create a robust plan of action
Passing the bar begins on day one of your prep with a solid plan of action. In fact, you should probably take a few days to put together a detailed and rigorous bar prep plan, which breaks up the mountain of content you need to learn into daily study goals that include (1) a lot of bar practice questions and (2) constant, ongoing content review.
A few fundamental things to remember when doing this:
- Be specific with your daily goals. Outline exactly what you wish to achieve every day leading up to the bar exam. This may change and that’s okay.
- Keep these goals achievable, humble even. Rather do more than you expect than struggle to achieve your goals.
- Spread your workload out over a longer time and take sufficient breaks. Although most students spend more than 6-8 hours a day studying in the month before the bar, it is simply not an efficient way to do things. Your brain can only retain so much information in a single study session.
- Build plenty of time into your study schedule for review. If you never return to older material, you WILL forget it.
- Include LOTS of bar exam practice questions every day of your prep and start early so that you know from the outset what the bar looks and feels like. (Check out ‘How to take a practice bar exam’ for best practices!)
- Give yourself a little more time than you think you’ll need. Sh*t happens and you need a little cushion in case you end up taking a few days off.
Put your plan together and then do the damn thing! Your study plan is the vehicle that will deliver to your exam totally prepared. So if you dedicate yourself to smashing those goals and maintaining a healthy daily study habit, you can rest assured that you’ll be prepared well in time. And this will be the perfect antidote to that bar exam anxiety.
Pro Tip: If you’re concerned about getting everything done in time, read Brainscape’s guide ‘How to study for the bar more efficiently, which will help you optimize your study time.
Regularly review older material
Okay, so we already mentioned this point but a huge cause of bar exam stress amongst law graduates is coming across practice exam questions that test material you should know but have somehow managed to forget.
That’s why, each week, you should set aside about 20% of your time to review the sections you’ve already studied. The importance of regularly reviewing the material you’ve already covered cannot be emphasized enough because, without regular review, you will simply forget everything.
The more you review, the more you internalize the facts you need to remember to ace the bar. This is what is referred to as spaced repetition and it is precisely how the human brain is hard-wired to remember new information. Traditional studying techniques sorely neglect to leverage the power of spaced repetition but there is one nifty tool that’s all about it: Brainscape’s certified MBE flashcards!
We’ve worked with a team of attorneys from UCLA School of Law to break down the latest Multistate Bar Exam test plan and prep books into a collection of 2,600+ adaptive flashcards for the most critical background knowledge you'll need on test day.
These flashcards hammer you on the key concepts you MUST know well to pass the MBE, from civil procedure, real property, and torts to constitutional, criminal, and contract law (and more). Furthermore, they’re delivered via an intelligent spaced repetition algorithm that feeds you material at the perfect rate to keep you learning at maximum capacity. It then repeats material just often enough to keep it in your working memory, and this helps you learn up to twice as fast.
So, use Brainscape’s certified MBE flashcards to help you with the task of revision and you’ll actually remember all the content you study. Bonus: because it’s an app on your phone you can take it with you absolutely anywhere and sneak in study sessions anytime!
Practice MBE questions and tests
We mentioned this previously, as well but it’s worth repeating: include plenty of bar exam practice into your study plan! This is a literally indispensable component of your prep, and the earlier you start, the better. Knowing what to expect will help alleviate your bar exam stress. Just don’t wait until you “feel ready” because, in all likelihood, you won’t ever feel ready. That’s just how the bar works.
To help you get the most out of this practice so that your learning curve is exponential, check out ‘How to take a practice bar exam’.
Have a strategy for bar exam day
You’ve come this far. You’ve done all the hard work. Now, the very last thing you want to happen is something stupid that compromises your exam: like getting lost on the way to the exam venue, or not showing up with the necessary documentation, or enough water to see you through.
This is where practical preparation comes in and is key for squashing bar exam anxiety:
- Read through the bar exam administrator’s website/requirements carefully so there are no surprises.
- Know exactly where your exam venue is.
- Take a drive there one week before (at the same time and on the same day as your bar) so you know the way, how to get there, and what traffic looks like at the time and on the day you’ll be sitting for your exam.
- Get to the venue at least 30 minutes beforehand, which will give you time to settle down, focus, use the restroom, etc.
With all of this said and done—your study plan, your daily devotion to studying and practicing questions, and test day logistics sorted—you should feel a whole lot more optimistic about taking on the MBE.
Read: How to use exam stress to actually IMPROVE performance and prevent burnout
Care for yourself properly through your bar exam prep
The next step in combating bar exam stress is to ensure that your physical and psychological needs are taken care of. Preparing for the bar is like an ultramarathon. And you cannot win an ultramarathon through physical exercise alone. You also need proper nutrition, hydration, rest, and the motivation to peel yourself out of bed each morning at 5 AM to train.
The bar is the same. Your knowledge of the law and its application is fundamental to your success (we covered that in the previous section) but equally as important is your physical and mental health, both of which can be gravely corroded by bar exam stress.
So, it’s vital that you take time throughout your bar exam prep—and particularly in the days and weeks leading up to the date of your exam—to care for yourself properly. This means attending to your physical and psychological needs:
- Eat healthy, balanced meals three times a day
- Drink at least 8 glasses of water per day
- Avoid the sugar and caffeine train: it invariably crashes
- Get full nights’ sleep. Sleep is essential for brain function and memory
- Don’t sacrifice exercise: it can be an ally in your studies
For the full scoop on how to get the most out of your brain during bar prep, check out our academy guide: ‘Optimize your brain health for effective studying.’
Here are some other strategies for combating bar exam stress and staying focused and happy during your prep:
Practicing breathing, meditation, and relaxation techniques
If you’ve never done anything like this before, now is as good a time as any! Find a technique that works for you—whether meditation, yoga, intense exercise, or breathing exercises—and use it daily to blow off negative energy and keep yourself focused on your studies.
Ask for help
Do NOT be afraid to ask for help, whether it’s with the household chores or for emotional support. Talk to your friends, family, partner, tutor, therapist, life coach, pet goldfish, or potted fern plant. Preparing for the bar is an overwhelmingly stressful undertaking so take care of YOU.
Have a life outside of your bar prep
Your brain and body need social connection, sleep, exercise, and entertainment. Make sure you get all of those throughout your bar prep so that when you do put your head down for another 6 hours’ study, you feel motivated, happy, and focused. This is why giving yourself adequate time in your study schedule is so important.
Hang out with friends that aren’t studying for the bar
As a law grad, you’ll be more than familiar with how things go when you get together with your law schoolmates. Exam stress-fueled conversations about the bar prevail! So you might want to spend a little less time with them to allow yourself a break from constant bar exam anxiety.
Expectations are probably a waste of time (and emotions)
The definition of a unicorn is a law graduate who goes into the bar feeling ready. You’ll never feel ready to take the bar. But an even rarer specimen is the law graduate who emerges from the bar feeling optimistic about how they did. Most bar candidates find enormous fault in their performance; even those who end up doing really well, so don’t waste any time or emotions on expectations.
Congratulate yourself on how far you’ve come
A lot of bar exam stress is fueled by the internal monologue: “I don’t know enough! I haven’t done enough! I’m not ready yet! I don’t know what I’m doing, yadda yadda yadda.” Yet, you seem to have totally forgotten that you made it through law school, which is not an easy feat! So give yourself a break and admire how far you’ve come.
Have a stress strategy for test day
It’s all come down to this. Of course, D-day is also about the time bar exam stress reaches a crescendo. And trying to focus on an exam when there’s a hysterical caveman running around in circles in your head can be impossible.
So, the final step in mitigating bar exam anxiety is having a strategy for coping with stress on the day of your exam. This isn’t something you try on the day and hope it works. Rather, it’s something you experiment with throughout your bar prep.
From breathing exercises and doodling on a notepad to counting to ten, reciting mantras in your head, or having a piece of paper you fold again and again and again … there are a whole bunch of stress relief tools you can use to divert your focus from bar exam stress, and calm your mind.
Find out what works for you and use it regularly so that your brain and body learn to associate that activity with stress relief. This will help you on the day of your bar if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Read: The best 22 test-taking strategies used by top students
A final word on dealing with bar exam stress
On the other side of the MBE is a thrilling career in law and all the money, success, and prestige that (hopefully) brings with it. But if you fail to pass through the gates of the bar exam, you’re looking at doing it all over again in another six months or even a year. And that is a devastating thought.
No one wants to go through the rigors of bar exam prep twice (or even more) while having to put their career on hold and watch their peers surge ahead of them. Bar exam anxiety is perfectly justifiable.
But it’s not the end of the world. And this is the message we’d like to leave you with.
So many law graduates convince themselves that it’s the end of the road for them if they fail the bar. They’re so wrapped up in this idea that they have zero vision beyond the point of receiving their results in the mail, save perhaps for the hope that they’ve passed. And this lack of vision is terrifying.
But if you take a moment to follow your exam stress down the rabbit hole—explore your feelings and think about what you’d do if you failed—a significant part of that fear becomes disarmed because now you can see a way forward.
Even if it’s a very sketchy plan to take a week off and then sit down to figure out where you went wrong, it’s still a plan. And plans are roadmaps forward. So instead of being sucked through the floor into the bowels of bar hell, you’ll have something to grab onto and move forward.
Use these thoughts to motivate a plan of action so that if you do get bad news, you have already been down this path of inquiry and know what next step to take.
Again: it’s NOT the end of the world! Tens of thousands of law graduates retake the bar every year and so many of them go on to be enormously successful lawyers. This is just a little setback. You can do it.
For even more great advice on acing the bar, check out our guides ‘How to study for the bar more efficiently’ and ‘How to take a practice bar exam’. And get Brainscape’s certified MBE flashcards in your corner to help you establish healthy, daily study habits.