It’s Thanksgiving, Should You Be Flipping Out About Exams?

TurkeyThanksgiving is upon us, which means law school exams are just around the corner. Is it time to start flipping out?

Um, no.

I know it’s tempting to work yourself into a frenzy of stress and anxiety and ruin your holiday (and everyone else’s), but that’s not a course of action I can really get behind.

Frankly, it’s counterproductive.

What I Suggest Instead

I think the best way to look at the Thanksgiving holiday is as the calm before the storm. If you’re about to be in the path of a hurricane, you don’t run around worrying about what might happen. You figure out what size wood you need and go to the the lumber yard to buy it.

Similarly, this is the time to calmly appraise your situation, and make a plan for how you’re going to move forward.

But first: Take time off!

Why Time Off Matters

Trust me, I know the compulsion to work through holidays. In my first year of architecture school, I was the only person in the entire building on Thanksgiving day. It wasn’t until my sister showed up unexpectedly and demanded to be fed that it occurred to me how ridiculous my behavior was.

Was I doing anything that important? No. I would have been better off sleeping all day, and starting fresh in the morning.

When you’re in the moment, it can be really difficult to see that you’re better off resting. There’s always something else to study, another article to read, whatever. But that’s always going to be true! You’ll never know everything, so you have to learn to recharge, regardless.

Think of Thanksgiving as the first day of the rest of your life.

Do you want to be stressed out and self-centered your entire life?

Probably not, so practice putting your work aside and concentrating only on relaxation and, if applicable, connecting with the people around you. (Even if you’re not planning to hang out with other people, this advice still applies. The difference is you get to choose exactly what you want to do to relax, rather than having to spend the day tolerating your batty Aunt Sue.)

Get Mentally Prepared

After Thanksgiving weekend is over, the real law school craziness starts. It’s intense.

Now is the time to mentally prepare yourself for the challenges ahead.

Having the right mindset, and a solid plan, will help you survive the law school exam period with your sanity intact. Somewhat ironically, it will probably also lead to higher grades, because you’ll focus your available time and energy on useful tasks, not on misdirected anxiety.

So, what should you do?

  1. Calmly review your level of organization and preparation. Do not stress out about this, but take an objective look at where you are in each class. Have you gathered the necessary study materials? Have you started organizing the material in your own head? Are you generally up-to-date on the reading? Have you gotten class notes for any day you missed? If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, make a note of what you need to do. Don’t start worrying about it yet! Just write it down so you know where you’re at.
  2. Make a roadmap. After you’ve evaluated where you’re at, it’s time to make a plan. There are different ways to structure your study time. Some people like to only study one subject a day, others prefer to mix it up. It’s up to you. Just be sure you spread your study time relatively evenly across subjects, so you don’t end up spending five days on Torts and only a few hours on Contracts. Assuming all your classes are roughly evenly weighted, spread your time evenly. I’d also suggest studying at least one day for each class early on, so you can get a sense of how much you know before it’s too late to improve. (And you’ll be tired at the end, so a study day a week into the exam period isn’t going to be as effective as one at the beginning.)
  3. Write down a plan. For exam time, it’s hard to beat The Circles. If you have another planning technique that you swear by, great, use it. If not, try The Circles. I used this technique every exam period, and there’s something very soothing about looking back and seeing how much time and effort you’ve put in. Definitely calming.
  4. Take a deep breath. Speaking of calming, now’s the time to take a deep breath and focus your attention. Yes, the next few weeks will be challenging, but you’re up to the challenge. If a mantra pops into your head while you’re breathing, write it down. You need something to focus on when things get crazy (as they will). Even if it’s only “I can do this,” that’s good enough.
  5. Go for it! Now is the time to really commit to your plan. If you have a clear vision of how you want to study, and you calmly execute that plan, you can look back when exams are over and feel good about what you accomplished, whatever your grades turn out to be. You don’t control your grades, but you do control your effort. Make a commitment now to doing your best, and then let the chips fall where they may.
The Bottom Line

Law school exams are stressful and difficult, but you can get through this.

Try to maintain the attitude that taking law school exams is challenging, but you can do it.

Even it seems a little “Rah, rah!” cheerleader-y, focusing on boosting your spirits.

Which internal dialogue seems more effective?

  • There’s so much to know, I’m really stupid, I’ll never be able to learn everything.
  • Learning all this law is an interesting challenge, and one I’m really going to enjoy.

I’m going to go with the latter.

In the end, the purpose is to learn something, which is its own reward. Try to keep your approach light and fun, and you’ll be able to do your best.

At that point, let the results go. You don’t control them anyway!

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