Today we are honored to have Dr. Hank Weisinger returning to talk about the pressure of law school. Dr. Weisinger is trained in clinical, counseling, and organizational psychology, is a New York Times Best Selling Author, and is the author of Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most. Welcome!
Imagine it’s getting close to finals—how do you feel? If it’s like the students in the famed Paper Chase, panic would be your answer. You can take solace in the fact that most of your classmates are feeling the heat too but that won’t help you do your best when it matters most.
You still have time to implement a better strategy—instill yourself with confidence and optimism and immunize yourself to the distressful feelings and distracting thoughts that pressure creates that cause you to lose focus, curtail your capabilities and make you wish you could declare a “miss-test.”
Be clear that your defense against pressure is not going to help you do better, to rise to the occasion; rather, you defend yourself against pressure so you don’t do worse! The fact might be that your capabilities are going to place you close to the 50 percentile—no matter how much you study, you’re not going to place in the top ten percent. Get over it! However, If the best you can do is perform at a “B” level, you don’t want pressure to downgrade you to a C –that would be a crime.
Think of your pressure defense in 5 phases: 1) The time leading up to the exam: 2) the night before the exam; 3) the morning of the exam; 4) during the exam, and 5) after the exam. Knowing how to defend yourself in each phase makes your pressure defense airtight. In this first article, we will talk about the lead-up time.
Lead Up Time
Your task during the lead-up time is to develop a mindset that helps you reduce distressful feelings of pressure and distracting thoughts so you can focus on do what you need to do: study. Start to prepare for your day in court by getting your mind right. Here are the tactics over the next few months to use:
- Befriend the moment. If you perceive the test as threatening, your mind will be plagued by anxiety and fear arousing thoughts that will doom you to perform below your capability. After all, it is hard to approach a situation with confidence if you think of it as threatening. Students who perform closest to their potential befriend the moment—they see it as a challenge. Continually remind yourself that the test is a challenge, an opportunity to show what you know. The more you hold this thought, the less pressure you will feel.
- Focus on doing your best. Forget about your classmates. You can’t control how they perform and you will waste valuable time and energy if your thoughts are directed to “beating them.” Don’t strive for an “A” either—if you don’t achieve one, you’ll feel disappointed or worse. Instead, focus on what you can control—doing your best. This focus will ensure that you make the effort that realizes your capability by keeping you attention fixed on what you need to do to do your best—review cases, test yourself, clarify your understandings. Even if you score low, you’ll find some good in knowing that you did your best.
- Anticipate. You’ve been taught not to make assumptions so don’t assume you know the questions, test format, or even that you will get to the test on time. Study as though you will be given essays, short answers, multiple-choice, fill in the blanks. Prep yourself to be ready for any question asked in anyway. Then anticipate all the things that can go wrong—you get a sudden toothache, you have to go to the bathroom, or you are given a question you didn’t anticipate. Mentally rehearse how you would handle the situation. The pay off—you’ll feel more confident if the unexpected happens and be more likely to stay the course.
- Shrink the significance of the test. The more important you make a test, the more pressure you experience and the worse you do. Law students tend to exaggerate the significance of their exams telling them, “This is the most important test of my life, it determines my entire future, and it is my big chance.” It’s counter intuitive but you will test smarter if you tone down these statements to a more realistic perspective: “The test is important but it does not determine my life and there will be plenty of other times to demonstrate my capability” is in fact, a much more realistic and pressure-less perspective when taking an exam. Be alert to your tendency to over-exaggerate the exam’s significance and when you do, counter with “under-exaggerating”—“it’s no big deal,” to help you return to more realistic thinking and less pressure.
- Practice Feeling Pressure Get used to the feelings of pressure so that you are able to perform at your best level in spite of pressure. In psychological terms, you are to desensitize yourself to the discomfort of pressure so that it has little effect on you. To do so, train yourself by practicing your task under pressure conditions. The goal is to put yourself under the same conditions —or worse—that you’ll face when you have to take your written exam or verbally present a case. If you are practicing for an oral exam, challenge yourself to give your presentation coherently in half the time. Add more pressure by handicapping yourself—practice with the television blaring. If it’s a written exam, give yourself half the time to write out answers to your anticipated questions
If you follow these strategies you’ll begin to immunize yourself to pre-test anxiety and other distracting thoughts that rob you of the time you need to study.
Be sure to listen to our podcast with Dr. Weisinger or read his past articles. Stay tuned as he will be sharing more tips on handling pressure before, during and after your exams!
More about Dr. Weisinger
Hank Weisinger, Ph.D. is trained in clinical, counseling, and organizational psychology. He is the author of several successful books, including the New York Times Bestseller, Nobody’s Perfect, and the senior author of the recent New York Times Bestseller, Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most (Crown, 2015).
He has consulted and conducted workshops to dozens of Fortune 500 Companies, government agencies, taught in numerous business school executive education programs and executive MBA programs, including Wharton, UCLA, Cornell, NYU, Penn State, and Columbia.
Dr. Weisinger has appeared on over 500 television and radio shows, including The Today Show, Good Morning America, Oprah, ESPN, and NPR. He is currently working on Helping Your Kids Handle Pressure: Giving Your Sons & Daughters Life’s Ultimate Edge, soon to be an online course. You can sign up for the online version of Performing Under Pressure here.
For more information, check out https://hankweisingerphd.com/ or follow him at @pressuretweets.
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Other helpful law school tips:
- Caution Law Student Under Pressure! Handling Law School Stress
- Podcast Episode 29: Handling Pressure in Law School (Guest Dr. Hank Weisinger)
- All The Supplies You Need to Start Law School Right
- How to Think Like a Successful Law Student
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