Tips for Managing Exam Stress

The rapid heartbeat. Sweaty palms. That pit in your stomach, or maybe even full-blown nausea. An overwhelming sense of fear that you’re going to totally bomb the test and you’ll never achieve your goal of becoming an attorney as a result.

If you suffer from test anxiety, you’re not alone. As many as 40% of students do, with both physical and emotional symptoms that range from headaches, shortness of breath and even nausea, to feelings of fear, self-doubt and inadequacy. Worse yet, test anxiety can cause students to blank or freeze during the test, reduce working memory, and cloud reasoning, leading to lower performance.

But if any of this sounds like you, the good news is there are some coping mechanisms that can help minimize the impact of test anxiety and improve your bar exam performance. Here are a few tips:

  • Reduce caffeine and sugar intake. It’s tempting to fuel long study sessions with energy drinks and candy, and it’s true they might help you feel more alert and focused…temporarily. But long-term reliance on these substances can lead to dependence, and soon you can’t function without them. Consumption can interfere with sleep (more about that next) and cause physical symptoms that mimic those of anxiety, so over-indulgence is essentially a double dose of stress that your body and your brain certainly don’t need—especially on test day. Instead, be sure to eat a balanced diet rich in protein and healthy fats (it’s good for brain function) and get plenty of rest.
  • Get some sleep. Skipping out on sleep is a double whammy. First, during sleep is when your brain commits data to long-term memory, which is vital for retaining what you’ve studied. Lack of sleep can directly impact your recall ability when it matters most. Plus, sleep helps to reduce the overall effects of stress—and lack of sleep amplifies them. To get better sleep, stick to a regular bedtime/wakeup routine and create a good sleep environment: a dark, cool room with no electronics and no study materials. Separating your study and sleep areas can help clear your conscience and wind down when it’s time for bed.
  • Exercise. Getting some form of exercise has proven to reduce stress and enhance brain function. While there’s no need for an intense workout regimen or training for a marathon, simply going for a walk or doing 15 minutes of yoga a few times a week can help reduce anxiety and give your brain a boost.

On test day, here are a few simple ways to help keep your cool and your focus:

  • Deep, belly breathing. Take a deep breath in through your nose, feeling your belly expand as you fill your lungs. Exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat 3-5 times as often as needed before and during the exam.
  • Repeat positive affirmations. You may be too young to remember Al Franken’s Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley, but his “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” daily affirmation was based on science. Repeating positive affirmations like “I’m ready for this,” “I’m focused on doing well,” or “I’ve got this” either out loud (where appropriate) or in your own head can reduce exam stress.
  • Use aromatherapy. Certain scents, like lavender, jasmine and even lemon have a calming effect, and peppermint and cinnamon can help increase motivation and performance and lower fatigue and anxiety. Try some essential oils applied to a necklace charm or chew some gum during the test.

To be sure, taking the bar exam is anxiety-inducing. But, using these strategies as you prepare for, and on the day of, the test, can help lower test anxiety and levels and give you a better chance at performing well.