We’ve all had that feeling—that moment when you are sitting in the classroom, your professor hands out the exam, and every rational thought flees your brain. You are paralyzed. Sweat begins to bead your forehead. And then the voice in your head screams out: “I can’t remember anything I studied! I’m about to fail my exam!” The challenge is how to move past that feeling of panic and successfully complete the exam.
While you can’t vanquish those feelings of panic with a magic wand, there are things that you can do to conquer panic during exams. As with so much else in law school, one of the most important keys is what you’ve done prior to the exam—your preparation. We’ve talked before about how taking the right approach to outlining can help you to predict what may be tested on the exam. One of the reasons why law students panic at the beginning of an exam is because they are afraid of the unknown. Law students view exam creation as a mysterious and unpredictable process. In reality, as I’ve explained before, professors tend to test the nuances in the law—areas where there are competing approaches, shifting outcomes based upon facts or policy approaches, and fact patterns that require students to recognize how a series of legal issues relate to each other. Identifying those nuances in advance through outlining will make the exam more predictable and reduce your feelings of anxiety.
I have also explained previously about how to create a one-page checklist of legal issues that may be tested on an exam. This checklist is a very specific way of connecting your preparation prior to the exam to what is going on during the exam. If you create a checklist of potential legal issues, you have a mental prompt you can rely upon when that feeling of panic rears its head at the beginning of the exam. How can you do this? If you immediately panic when you look at the exam questions, try this technique: Put your exam aside for a minute and take out your scrap paper. Quickly replicate a shorthand version of your checklist on the scrap paper. Once you have put that checklist on paper, you have a tool that you can use to answer the exam questions. You can literally take each issue on the checklist and evaluate whether that issue is raised by the fact pattern in the essay question. If it is, you can jot down quick notes about what facts you wish to talk about with respect to that issue. By the time that you get through the checklist, you have created a quick outline, chart, or list about how you will tackle the essay question, and the writing should go smoothly and quickly. The feeling of panic will go away as your preparation kicks in!