In law school, exam season is never much fun. The stress is palpable, the stakes are high, and everyone is overcaffeinated. But in spite of it all, I always took pleasure in watching those with highly developed exam routines prepare for an exam session. Such a person would arrive exactly 20 minutes early, pick their preferred seat (usually in the front row), and start unpacking. They would have their one drink of choice, one bottle of water, an energy supplement, one snack, four pencils, one eraser, and one tissue packet lined up on the desk before each exam. It was not just what these folks brought, but it was the military-like precision with which they placed it all neatly on the desk just so and how they strategically employed the items during the exam. While always fascinated by the show, I initially thought it was a bit over the top. Could all of this really help someone perform better on a torts final?
(For an entertaining list of what Law School Toolbox co-founder Allison Monahan would bring with her to every exam, checkout her post What Should You Bring with You to a Law School Exam?)
I still doubt that person ever used the fourth-in-line pencil, but after a few exams, I came to appreciate the value of a law school exam routine. My routine could never match that of the true overpreparers, but I did develop my own exam ritual—it was coffee going into the exam, with a bottle of water, a Coca-Cola, and an extra pen or pencil on the desk. I rarely got to the water, but I would strategically crack into the Coca-Cola when I hit the midpoint of an exam. Here are four benefits that can be drawn from a rigid exam routine:
1. Stress Relief
The most significant benefit is likely stress relief. I too was originally skeptical about how a third beverage on your desk (that you may never open) could reduce law exam stress, but at least for some it can. Exams are stressful because of the unknowns. You don’t know if you studied the right thing, you don’t know if you’ll remember what you studied, and you don’t know if you will have enough time. Any unknown you can eliminate will help to reduce your stress level. Plenty of people psych themselves out before an exam because they feel a loss of control that turns to panic just about the time they receive their exam paper. You can’t control much on exam day, but if you have a routine, you will at least control what will be sitting in front of you and have a task to occupy your nervous self before the exam. Instead of the illusion of losing control and panicking in the 20-minutes before the exam, give yourself the illusion of control.
Exam season is stressful for so many reasons, but feeling rushed and unprepared is a common stressor. Having a pre-exam routine can help you save time and eliminate yet another decision you have to make on the fly. It allows you to be mentally efficient. It may seem insignificant, but when exam day arrives, you only want to have to answer the questions on the exam. If you have to decide the morning of the exam whether you want to brew coffee or grab a soda from the convenience store on the way to the law school, you will be less mentally efficient and less focused on the key task at hand.
Law school exams always seemed more like an athletic competition to me than an academic assessment. Even though you take the test by yourself, you are in fact competing with everyone around you for your spot on the curve or at least your class rank. Although illusory in a sense, I always felt, like in an athletic competition, maintaining your composure and being confident helps you to perform at your best (and it makes the competition squirm a bit). Having a routine expresses a cool confidence that will put you at your best and be the envy of those around you that feel like you are more prepared for the exam because you at least came with the look of someone on a mission.
4. Actual Utility
Finally, maybe you will actually benefit from having all the things you brought. Maybe your first pencil will break. Maybe you will develop a scratchy throat half way through. Maybe a shot of sugary caffeine is just the boost you need to remember that third element of your constitutional law test. Minutes saved by cutting out a trip to the water fountain or to the pencil sharpener may seem negligible, but you just never know when that time could make all the difference. The cost of coming over prepared is next to nothing, but the payoff could be that little bump that will push you from a C+ to a B or a B+ to an A.
So don’t be too quick to scoff at those that seem a bit too intense about their exam routine. It may not singlehandedly fast-track your law school success, but come exam day, don’t you want every possible edge? Give it a try this exam season!
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