In law school, the shadow of final exams starts looming around early November. A general feeling of tenseness enters the atmosphere, and the law library begins filling up with people hunched over laptops and casebooks, wielding multicolored highlighters like weapons. People start talking about outlining, whether making their own from scratch or using other students’ from outline banks as a guide. Your classmates may start meeting for hours in study groups, bragging about the pristinely-formatted 100-page CivPro outline they just finished or the ten practice exams they’ve already taken.
It’s hard not to buy into the exam stress culture when it is so pervasive—with your grade dependent on one test, the exam becomes the be-all-and-end-all in everyone’s minds, so it makes sense that exam prep becomes a huge topic of conversation. But these discussions not only tend to be circular and unproductive, but also, even with those you consider friends, may be heightening your stress level. So what to do when you want to spend time with your classmates, but don’t want the accompanying anxiety spike from discussing exams? Setting boundaries is vital for your personal wellbeing not only in law school, but also in life, so it’s a great skill to practice now.
Set mental boundaries
The first step is to set mental boundaries. As long as you have a study plan that you’re confident in and that aligns with your own learning style and goals, if someone makes a comment that isn’t relevant to you or stresses you out, consider it just that: not relevant. Essentially, keep your eyes on your own paper! You can listen to what other people have to say, but that does not mean you have to internalize it or take it as a judgment on yourself. You can hear a comment about that 100-page outline and think, that’s great if that works for that person, but I’m doing what works for me. If someone says something you find helpful, great! But if not, don’t let it get in your head.
This strategy works best one-on-one. If you don’t want to talk about exams, say so! It is perfectly understandable, when you already spend a lot of time thinking about and preparing for exams, to want to discuss something else for a change. If someone won’t stop bugging you about how long your outline is or how many practice exams you’ve taken, especially if they’re a friend, they probably aren’t purposely trying to be stressful. Rather, it’s more likely they’re feeling insecure and anxious. If you point out to them that your conversations are making you more stressed out, they’ll probably respect your boundaries (and if not, it might be best to just try to avoid them during exam season). Try saying something like, “I know exams are on all of our minds right now, but it would be great to get a break from that and just talk about something else” or “I get stressed out when we talk about exams—I’d really appreciate it if we could not do that when we’re together.”
Change the subject
A more subtle tactic when you sense the conversation veering into finals territory is to try to change the subject. This might not work if someone is intent on talking about exams, but often if you change the subject, the conversation will just move on. It might not even be that the person wants to talk about exams, but just that they’re trying to make conversation! Try giving a short response and then steering the conversation into less anxiety-inducing territory, like your professor’s weird habit of clearing his throat every other sentence.
Another great option, especially if you’re in a larger group, is simply to walk away. If you can sense the people around you entering a group stress sesh, it’s often best to just remove yourself from the situation. You don’t have to be all dramatic and proclaim to everyone that you don’t want to talk about exams; you can just opt out of the conversation. In law school, there are a million excuses for why you might have to step away, from going to the library to picking up a book from your locker to grabbing a coffee. Don’t feel the need to stick around if a conversation starts becoming unproductive and stressful!
As exams approach, I hope you find some of these strategies helpful in setting boundaries with your classmates. Law school is already stressful, so why make it more than it needs to be? And remember: though final exams might loom large right now, you are not your grades, and you cannot always control your grades. Your value as a person and a lawyer is not determined by how you perform on one day on one somewhat arbitrary test.
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