How to stay calm for the Bar Exam.


It's that time of year again, when thousands of young attorneys-to-be trek to an enormous exam center and sit through 2-3 days of grueling test taking.  

It's an exercise in high intensity endurance.

I took my first Bar Exam in New York 16 years ago (the second one I took was several years later in Florida), but I still remember clearly the days leading up to it. I was full of anxiety and overwhelming panic. A couple of days before the exam I was nauseous and I could barely breathe.

You see, I hadn't studied nearly as much as my friends and colleagues. But even even if I had, it still wouldn't have been enough because the material young lawyers have to memorize for the Bar Exam is so extensive that no matter how hard or how long you study, you still feel like you don't know anything.  

And that was exactly how I felt the weekend before my exam.

I was sure I was going to fail.

Luckily, though, I had already encountered the (highly useful) practices of yoga and meditation, and I was beginning to put them into action in my life. And not a moment too soon because without them I would not have had the calm, clarity, and focus to survive the Bar Exam with such ease.

Are you (or someone you know) on the verge (or in the midst) of a panic attack right before the Bar Exam? 

If so, keep reading because I'm going to share with you the 5 best ways to stay calm leading into and during your exam. I used these methods myself and they worked—I passed both exams on the first try (and both after studying 50% less than everyone else around me).  

I want YOU to pass your exam.  So trust me on these.


1. Get enough sleep. The sheer size of the Bar Exam–hundreds of multiple choice questions and several essays–and the limited time frame for completing it means that every minute counts. You have to be 100% focused for hours at a time or you won't be able to finish. You need a mind that is as clear as crystal.  

The single best way to maintain your clarity for an extended period is to get enough sleep. Much has been written about the negative effects of sleep deprivation, and you certainly don't want any sleep-deprived slips during the exam (not to mention you want to avoid falling asleep with your head on your desk, which basically ensures you will be fast filling "c’s" for your last 100 questions).

So put down the study guide and get a full 7-8 hours of rest (more or less depending on what you normally require for optimum functioning). The gain in mental clarity you get from a full night of sleep will more than outweigh the fact that you didn't get to memorize all the elements distinguishing murder from manslaughter. And we all know that you are not going to finally understand the Rule Against Perpetuities between 1-3 am the night before the exam.  Let it go and go to sleep.

2. Chant "pick the right answer" before and during the exam. In a time limited exam, many of your answers are going to be rushed. You might know for sure the answer to some questions, but for a bunch of others you will have to pick the one that is most right (or that just feels right). This will be a gut-reaction selection, so by chanting "pick the right answer" you will be sending your gut (also known as your subconscious) the positive reinforcement of making the right selection.  

You've probably heard that studies have shown when test takers change an answer from their first selection to something else, their second selection is usually wrong. This is because you have a whole pile of intelligence simmering under the surface of your conscious mind that pushes you toward one answer or another, but then it gets clouded over by other distractions (like your fear of failure, the freezing temperature of the exam room, or your wondering why the person behind you keeps snorting).  Keep chanting "pick the right answer" and let your intelligence lead you.

What about those essay questions you ask? Try this chant: "words on paper."  It will clear your mind and help you dump all that information you memorized onto the paper, collecting valuable points along the way.


3. Go easy on the caffeine. If you follow the first two steps, your mind and body will be awakened enough by the thrill of test day. Taking such an important exam triggers your body's ingrained "fight or flight" response and your adrenal glands respond accordingly. You will naturally have plenty of energy to fight through the experience (or take a flight if you must!). Adding caffeine to the mix will just make you jumpy and increase your anxiety. Rely on your body, it has been designed to do exactly what you need it to do.

4. Stop and breathe. Taking the Bar Exam will probably be one of the most anxiety inducing events in your life. So even if you follow all my advice, you are doubtless going to have plenty of moments of raw, unadulterated panic. Make sure you keep breathing, no matter what happens.  

I remember in the first 3-hour session of the first day, while I was dealing with a difficult question that I knew little about (of course the essay questions had to be on a subject that I didn't get to study enough), I felt the panic rising. I started to think "sh*t! I'm f*cking it up! I'm f*cking it up!"

Then I remembered what I had learned from yoga about breathing.  So I took a deep breath and felt it fill up my lungs; when I let the breath out I felt my body tight with fear and anxiety.  I took a few more slow, deep breaths. Then I started to chant "pick the right answer" and "words on paper" and continued the test. The fear and anxiety did not disappear, but by making sure I was breathing fully I was able to stay focused on the test despite it.

Any time you feel the panic coming on, pause for just a second and take a deep breath. Then keep on moving through the test with nice and even, full, deep breaths.

5. Meditate through the free time. If you have not begun a meditation practice yet, check out my previous post on how to incorporate it into your practice and life.

Whatever you do, don't try to cram more information into your head during the breaks or the nights between exam days. That will only make you more aware of how much you still don't know. Instead, keep your mind quiet and clear by practicing meditation during any free time.  

You can meditate while sitting on a bench during the lunch break, lying down in your bed or couch at night, standing in the long line for the bathroom, or even walking around the exam center waiting for the next session to begin.  

Do your best to not think about the test, or how you're doing so far. Stay focused on keeping your mind clear and your body calm.

In the end, one thing is sure: you will survive the exam. But follow these tips and hopefully you will move through the experience with more calm and ease, which is the best way to pass any difficult test in life.


I wish you the very best success on your exam!  Try these tips and see how it turns out. And when it's all done and you've had time to recover, tell me: what was your experience on test day? Share it all in the comment section below.

Also, if you want to learn more about how yogic breathing techniques, mindful movement/asana, and meditation can improve other stressful areas of your work and life, then email me your questions and inquiries here.

postscript: I originally wrote this post a few years ago for my Lawyoga website. I’m on a hiatus from teaching yoga at the moment but I’m still incorporating yoga into my law practice and I’m always happy to talk to you about it.