By Natalie White
Updated: November 3, 2020
“When I got to the multiple choice section of the bar exam, I had a panic attack.” Chris Wallace said. “I went to the bathroom, splashed water on my face, and came back. Then I thought about alpha waves meditation, and I heard the voice of my teacher come back to me . . . I was able to calm myself down.”
Chris’s experience is not uncommon among students taking the bar. The bar exam is a marathon test. Memorizing the black letter law is hard enough, but a crucial aspect of the exam is having a clear mindset. You must recall information, analyze it, and coherently synthesize it into legal arguments. With a timed test, you have little time to panic.
One mindset skill is using alpha brain waves in your bar exam study. I interviewed Chris about his bar exam study process. When he studied for the bar, he used alpha brain waves relaxation techniques to calm his anxiety and think clearly.
Why try new study techniques?
Many students have already learned how they study best and what techniques help them retain information in college and law school. However, the bar exam is different. Most people preparing for the bar study all day, every day, for weeks and months before the exam. This rigorous schedule will put your study skills to the test.
As many students go through this process, they begin to be incredibly anxious about the test. Am I studying the correct material? Do I understand these terms? Is my mind just going to blank out on test day?
“I always did well on the practice essays for the bar exam, but on the multiple choice, I thought it was the dumbest thing in the world. I feel like I can find at least two choices to argue as a right answer, but that’s not how it is on the bar exam. There is one right answer. That gave me a lot of anxiety.”
Chris realized that his anxiety was affecting his test performance. In general, anxiety is a good thing for the body. It pumps adrenaline into the body and sends blood to the muscles in the legs as part of the flight or fight response. While this is useful in a dangerous situation, feeling anxiety during a test or while studying will lessen the amount of blood in the brain and actually reduce brain function. Also, repetitive, anxious thoughts can easily become distracting during the test, breaking your concentration and further reducing performance.
Chris said that one of his friends started prescription anti-anxiety medications during his bar exam study, but Chris had not used anxiety medications before and wanted to try something else. He tried several mindfulness techniques, and on a whim decided to listen to an alpha brain waves meditation.
What are alpha brain waves?
Your brain produces five different kinds of waves based on how active the brain waves are. The first three types of waves–infra-low, delta, and theta–mostly occur during sleep, but can be common during deep meditation. Alpha brain waves occur when you are awake, but in a very restful state. Beta and gamma rays happen when your brain is concentrating on cognitive tasks.
Each kind of wave triggers a different brain function, and each feels different. When most of the waves in your brain are alpha waves, you feel relaxed and calm. Chris said, “Centered is one word I would use to describe it. I felt like I had more control. I had more clarity around what was important versus ancillary.” These feelings are vitally important during your study and on test day.
Before Chris started using alpha brain waves meditation, he would finish a day of studying for the bar exam and lay in bed, trying to sleep. But as he closed his eyes, his brain kept spinning. He would think, “I should have spent more time on that card. I should have reviewed the section of torts again.” These distracting thoughts kept him awake and affected his memory retention.
Chris then started listening to alpha brain waves meditations as soon as he woke up in the morning and right before he went to bed. He spent most of the rest of the day studying. When he started beginning and ending his study sessions with alpha brain wave meditation, he no longer felt overwhelmed by nagging fears as he fell asleep. He felt much more confident in his bar exam study.
Where should I start with alpha waves?
When you are using alpha wave meditation, your goal is to calm down your mind so that the majority of your brain waves are flowing in the alpha state, which is at 8-12 Hz. There are several ways to achieve this state. First, try taking several deep breaths and clearing your mind of all distractions. If you are already familiar with meditation practices, alpha brain wave meditation will likely come naturally to you. Many people listen to music with sounds that have a wavelength of 8-12 Hz. This may help you increase alpha waves in your brain.
If you are not familiar with meditation, you should try to listen to an alpha meditation session that is guided by a therapist or guru. These videos explain how to enter a meditative state and how alpha waves help. Many videos include tips on how to maintain a growth mindset and stay optimistic about your testing results.
Chris watched a series of four guided meditations. He said, “There are a few things from the videos that really stuck with me. The guy told us to remember when we were kids and learning to ride a bike. He said, ‘Remember how fun it was? When you failed or fell off, you just kept going and having fun.’ I thought about that many times after.”
What other techniques can I try?
Alpha brain waves are not for everyone. Different people cope with anxiety in different waves, and this technique may or may not be useful. If alpha brain wave meditation isn’t your style, there are many other study techniques that you can use to create a good test-taking mindset.
- Practice Mindfulness. There are various techniques you can use to hack your mind and create a strong test-taking mindset, such as using affirmations and visualizations. Many studies prove that mindfulness increases performance and brain function, although often these results are stronger if you commit to daily, consistent mindfulness meditation.
- Get a bar exam mentor. Test anxiety can be caused by underlying fears, especially fears about failure. Talking to someone, whether a professional or a trusted friend, can help you uncover those fears and feel confident in the bar exam.
- Read The Zen of Passing the Bar Exam by Chad Noreuil. This book applies Buddhist principles to bar exam study and helps you create a positive mindset for the bar exam. This short book has many nuggets of insight you can use during study, such as how to be grateful and balance personal relationships.
- See a therapist and take medication. If you are having consistent test-taking anxiety that interferes with your daily life, you really should consider getting professional help. Many law students do it. Talking to a professional will at least help you understand the different options that are available to you.
More about Chris Wallace
Chris Wallace went to law school at the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law. He currently works at the Freeman | Lovell Law firm in Sandy, Utah specializing in entrepreneurial law.
Advice for law students: Build relationships. You need an ability to connect with people and be social. This isn’t just about business, but about engaging meaningfully with others. Also, take some interesting, cool electives in areas beyond your ideal practice area.