Five Tips for Lowering Your Bar Exam Stress

Published: Jan 28, 2019


The February bar exam is just weeks away, and if you are anything like I was in the month leading up to the test, you are oscillating between periods of intense study and momentary freak-outs through which you convince yourself you will fail.

Content-wise, you should plow forward with your study plan—either course-based or self-driven—and implement the study tools that you know have been most effective for you in the past. But even sticking to a plan isn’t always enough to curb bar exam stress. Below are five tips to help you stay calm and focused as you ready yourself for test day.

Close Your Laptop

I know—I’m crazy. But if there is one thing that struck fear in me more than anything else bar-exam-related, it was technical issues on test day. You just never know what could happen, and in a world in which we do most of our communication through devices, that is a pretty scary prospect. But if you are prepared for the worst, then you won’t need to waste your worries. Doing practice questions and taking practice tests are vital aspects of bar exam study. Make sure that you put your laptop aside and pull out some paper for some of these practice sessions. Get used to planning, organizing, and writing out your answers on paper within the time allotted. It’s a lot different because you won’t have the luxury of easily deleting and rearranging items. And if you’re a fast typer, putting pen to paper may be an adjustment. Instead of stressing over problems, be ready for them.

Understand the Rules

Does your state allow you to wear a watch? What kind of water bottle are you allowed to bring (New York, for example, requires the labels to be removed)? Should you bring pens or pencils or both, and what type (some states, like California, are specific about the types of pencils allowed)? If you think I sound ridiculous, think again. State bars have very specific rules about what you are allowed to bring into the testing room, and some even specify the vessel in which you are allowed to bring permissible items (e.g., a plastic storage bag). Don't stay up the night before the bar panicking about what you need and what is allowed. During one of your study breaks, check out the website for any bar exams that you are taking, and read up on exactly what you are allowed to bring. Do it sooner than later so that you can better replicate your testing situation when you do practice exams. For example, if you are accustomed to using a watch to keep time during an exam or have a lucky hat that you were planning to wear, you should check if the guidelines allow those items.

On the flipside, you should also be aware of supplies that you will be required to have with you on testing day (e.g. government-issued ID, exam ticket, pencils, etc.). It will only take you five minutes to read up on the what you can/can’t bring and what you need, but it’ll save you late-night worry fests when you should be resting.

Pack A Bag in Advance

Once you have figured out everything you need and can bring, get your bag ready. And I don’t mean the night before—I’d do it days in advance. Pre-night jitters can be a killer, and the goal is to decrease your stress. You don’t want the burden of remembering everything the night before or especially the morning of the test.

Nail Down the Logistics

Unless you are the epitome of zen, you are probably going to be nervous on test day. The last thing you need is to worry about travel, start times, meals, and all of the other logistics of the day. Now is the time to plan out the details so that on test day, you can just walk into the room and take the test. Consider the following tips:

  • Plan your travel: If you live near your test site, map out multiple routes so that you are ready if there is traffic. If possible, ask a friend or relative to drive you so that you don’t need to stress over parking and gas. If not, make sure you understand the parking options in advance, fill up your tank, and have the test center programmed into your GPS. Practice driving there so you know exactly where you are going. If you plan on taking public transportation, make sure you understand your options and alternatives you can use in case your chosen mode has an issue. If you don’t live near the site and need a hotel, book it now.
  • Know when you need to be there: Regarding start time, make sure you know not only when the test begins but when you need to be there to check in.
  • Don't forget about food: As silly as this may seem, you should plan your lunch. When I took the bar, the testing site offered the option to order a boxed lunch in advance. It was the best decision I had made—not because the turkey sandwich was a culinary piece of art, but because I was a total test zombie who didn’t want to talk to anyone; I grabbed my box, hid in a corner, and ate. I didn’t have to worry about scoping out food options in an unfamiliar area, getting back in time for the test, or having enough cash. You don’t need to box it like I did, but have a plan for lunch, whether that means bringing one (and storing it somewhere as it likely will not be allowed in the test room), ordering in advance, or having a plan on where to go.

Give Yourself a Break

I’m sure people have been telling you to take time for yourself and not to study 24/7. They’re right. But you should also be careful about your time off. If your friends and family aren’t also preparing for the bar exam, it can be hard for them to understand just how demanding and time consuming studying for it is. And that can make it difficult for you to resist their pressure to ditch studying and hang out. My best advice is to create a study schedule for your final weeks—if you don’t already have one—that allots sufficient time for each subject as well as practice tests. And commit to your studies as you would a full-time job. But within that schedule, insert times for you to unwind—whatever that means for you—and stick to those breaks. For me, I reserved every Friday night to watch my favorite show, and no matter where I was in my studying, I dropped it, poured a glass of wine, and watched the show. It was such a small thing, but it helped me feel human and allowed me to recharge. I also slotted time for workouts throughout the week so that I wasn’t glued to a library chair all of my waking hours. You should give the bar exam everything you’ve got, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have any time for you.