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How to Recover from a Bad Law School Exam Experience

If you’re in law school, you’re eventually going to have a really bad exam experience.

I’m not talking about the normal “this is pretty un-fun” experience that is every exam — but one of those really horrible, terrible, awful exams. Maybe you studied all the wrong topics, or the procter gave out the wrong questions (happens), or you got sick, or had a meltdown, or didn’t sleep the night before, or overslept, or whatever.

But you’re eventually going to walk out going, “WTF just happened?!?”

If this is your final exam, so be it. You can wallow for the entire Winter Break if you like.

But what if you’ve got other exams to get ready for? You don’t have the luxury of wallowing, so here are a few tips to help you recover from a terrible exam experience and get ready to study again.

1. Take some time off. My general rule is that you should try to avoid studying immediately after an exam (on the theory that your brain needs time to rest and reboot), but this is even more critical when you’ve been beaten up by an exam. It makes no sense to try to study again immediately. Even if it’s only a few hours, take a break! You’ll be more efficient in the long run, so you’re not actually losing study time.

2. Sit with your feelings. If things didn’t go well, you’re probably upset in some way — angry, frustrated, scared, sad, anxious, whatever your go-to reaction is to these things. Because law school is a pressure cooker, many students try to suppress these feelings and pretend everything is fine. Put on a brave face with your classmates if you must, but to get things back on track, you’re going to have to really sit with these unpleasant feelings and feel them. Like, physically. What does it feel like to be really angry about the test you just took? Is your stomach in a knot? Are your palms sweaty? Is your heart beating faster than normal? Just sit quietly, breathe, and observe for a few minutes. (Weirdly, if you take the next piece of advice, you’ll probably feel better after a few minutes of quiet observation.)

3. Drop the story line. After a bad exam experience, it’s normal to start catastrophizing: “I’m going to flunk all my classes. I’m going to lose my scholarship. I’m going to have to drop out of school. My fiancé is going to leave me. My parents are going to disown me. I’m going to end up homeless under a bridge.” This is not helpful. In fact, it’s 100% counterproductive, and is the only way to ensure you actually do flunk out. What can you do instead? Actively interrupt your thoughts. As soon as you notice this downward spiral starting, say to yourself (or out loud) something like, “This conversation can wait until later. There’s work to be done.” Take a deep breath, and repeat as needed.

4. Be careful who you talk to. I advocate a blanket policy of never discussing an exam once it’s over, but that’s just me. I would, however, encourage you to be very careful who you talk to about this bad experience. Just as it’s counterproductive to freak yourself out with a litany of horrible thoughts, it’s counterproductive to commiserate with your stressed out classmates until everyone is in a frenzy of anxiety. Call your non-law school friends, a sibling, a parent, your shrink — they’re all potentially good sources of support and perspective. But going beyond, “Yeah, that sucked, right?” with classmates probably isn’t going to make you feel a whole lot better.

5. Lay off the alcohol. Really, just do it. Waking up hungover is not going to help matters.

6. Get some exercise and go to bed. I know, it’s totally schoolmarmy, but this is the time to call on endorphins. Hit the gym, go to yoga, run, take a long walk outside — whatever suits you. Tire yourself out, go to bed early, and you’ll wake up in a better place.

Having a bad exam day sucks, but it’s going to happen. The key is to bounce back, and quickly!

(And don’t worry, these skills will serve you well as a lawyer. It’s not a profession for the non-resilient.)

Best of luck!

Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl’s Guide to Law School, which helps you get into law school, get through, and stay YOU. She’s also the co-Founder of the Law School Toolbox and the Bar Exam Toolbox, which demystify the law school experience and help you get better results with less stress and effort. You can email her here or here.

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