anxiety bar exam

How to Hack your Mind
(and the Bar Exam)

By Aaron Oustrich
Updated: March 29, 2020

863… 864… 865…

Picture this: You’re lying in bed the night before the biggest test of your life—the Uniform Bar Exam. A couple of years ago, you were scrolling on Instagram until 1:30 in the morning without sweating about the SAT (or ACT). But by now, you’ve finished law school and take standardized tests a lot more seriously, and when it comes to the bar exam, you take it too seriously. Instead of scrolling or snoozing your night away, you’re speedily approaching the 4th figure in your sheep count. Why can’t you sleep? Stress? Anxiety? It’s probably some combination of the two.

The National Institute of Mental Health has identified symptoms of anxiety, which include “irritability, being easily fatigued, difficulty controlling feelings of worry, and sleep problems” (including difficulty falling asleep). Sound like you? There is no shame in admitting that your extensive preparation for the bar exam has given you, even temporarily, some serious symptoms of anxiety. Take heart in knowing that you’re not alone in this discomfort. Whether you’re experiencing symptoms of severe or moderate anxiety in your bar prep, know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that there are ways to overcome these feelings. It goes without saying that more sleep, exercise, and periods of rest can and will help you, but I want to discuss some brain hacks that can also yield similar results.

Photo credit: StockSnap

Nerves or excitement?

If we can all agree that these effects we experience are caused by a general nervousness for the test we want so badly to pass, I want to introduce an idea that can quite literally change your perception of the bar exam and eliminate almost instantly the negative symptoms it causes. Since you’re reading this article and not counting sheep, I know you’ve got some time before that big test, so listen up—this could really help you. As explained in this 2.5-minute video, Simon Sinek, a motivational speaker and best-selling author, teaches that a simple paradigm shift can give us an attitude shared by the world’s best athletes.

If “palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy,” is an accurate description of you, then I want you to try this: The next time (yes, “next time” can also mean “right now”) you feel irritable or tense, the next time your mind is on a record-setting pace for overthinking this exam, remember how you feel each time you ride a roller coaster or go on a date with that special someone. Recognizing and admitting to yourself that the same feelings that describe nervousness also describe excitement will help a ton! Choosing to identify your sweaty hands or weak knees as a sign of your excitement for the bar exam will help ease the pre-test anxiety (and as an added bonus, your mom’s spaghetti will stay where it belongs—NOT on your lucky sweater).

A word of caution: If it sounds too simple to try, think back to the Titanic, Chernobyl, and other catastrophes caused by the overconfidence bias before writing this activity off.

Hack your mind

As I am writing this, I realize that for some, this mindset shift is definitely easier said than done, so here is some more practical, psychological advice.

The “motivation ritual”

In his bestselling book Atomic Habits, James Clear shows that we can be a lot more like Pavlov’s dog than we usually think. The examples he gives show that a repeated stretching routine or even something as simple as putting in headphones can, over time, condition someone to have a more competitive or a more creative mentality.

The easiest way to apply this principle to your life is to think of the most calming experience you do on a consistent basis. For one, it might be going for a run, taking a hot shower, or if you’re like Adam Balinski, getting in some batting practice. Every time you are about to do this activity, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and smile. If repeated consistently, your brain will associate closed eyes, a deep breath, and a smile with the calm that comes from your favorite stress reliever. So, when you’re stressing before or even during the bar exam, repeat your ritual and reap those calming rewards.

Know your low target score

Depending on the state in which you will take the bar exam, the minimum score required can be, and often is, different. If, for example, you are one of the lucky people taking the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) in Alabama, you only need a score of 260 to pass. So instead of stressing about getting a perfect 400, remember that 260 (65%) can get you what you need: a passing grade.

“Aggregation of marginal gains”

Another vital mentality to have is that no positive effort and no improvement is a waste. It’s easy to think we will never pass the bar exam if we are seeing small improvements when our work ethic warrants drastic improvements. I can’t go into as much depth on this topic as I want to, but the economic principle of the Aggregation of Marginal Gains will change your perspective on small success.

I know we want to be lawyers, but let’s look at some math. If you were to improve only by one percent (in your bar exam preparation or anything else) every day for an entire year, you would end up being over 37 times better by the end of the year ( 1.0 1 365 = 37.78) . But if your bar prep starts about 2 months before test day, as we recommend, then this 1% each day won’t work. Luckily for you, over 2 months, you only need to improve by 6.25% each day to have better results! (1.062 5 60 =37.99 )

What exactly does a 6.25% improvement look like? I have no clue. But the big idea is that you don’t need to stress over a 15% improvement each day to pass the exam. Changing your interpretation of your feelings of anxiousness, having a motivating ritual, and knowing your target score are big parts of this 6.25%. If you add these practices to your dedicated study routine, then you can be more focused on the aggregation of marginal sleep instead of the aggregation of marginal sheep the night before you crush the UBE!

About the author

Aaron Oustrich is a student at Brigham Young University who enjoys reading, writing, learning, and thinking.

Related articles