Law school is stressful enough as it is, but when combined with the fact that your entire grade performance for a semester-long course is determined by one final exam, the pressure can become crippling.
When a law student receives either a low grade, or one they feel is inconsistent with their usual standards, their initial instinct is to panic. You begin to ask yourself: Where did I go wrong? I participated in class, I took well-organized notes, my outlines rivaled commercial ones, I studied like an Olympian vying for the gold medal in a law school finals event, and so forth.
This mixture of confusion and frustration can also shatter your confidence, which then causes deeper anxieties to surface. Your mind whirls: I’ll never make law review, I’ll never get an internship, if I never get an internship, I’ll never get a job, and if I never get a job, I’ll never be successful and this will all be for nothing, but debt and misery…Stop!
Self-defeating thoughts will only hinder your abilities. Instead, focus on how you can improve next semester and revamp that overactive imagination with the following tips:
Stage One: The Meltdown
Law school is challenging. It requires learning a copious amount of material in a very short time frame. This can drain a person both mentally and physically. Thus, after studying for an entire semester under such conditions, it is completely reasonable to feel frustrated by a grade that does not demonstrate those efforts. However, you cannot allow one bad grade to consume you for the next three years. The only way to prevent it from happening again is to allow yourself to move forward. Try some of the tips below to help overcome this setback:
1. Let It Out
When you first view the grade, spend some time alone. Don’t go spouting off your frustration via text, social media, or to commiserating colleagues. Figure out your feelings on your own and let them out. You worked hard this semester, so feel free to scream, cry, throw your textbook, etc. Do whatever works for you when you’re feeling upset, but again, do it alone.
Before continuing to descend down the spiral staircase of despair, take three deep breaths and concentrate on emptying your mind.
3. Focus on Something Else
After you finish expressing your emotions, find an activity that will really clear your head. Unless a professor made an egregious calculation that you can clearly prove i.e. grade on the returned exam says B, but they entered a non-corresponding letter, do anything else: go for a run, phone a friend, watch a silly movie, etc. There is no benefit to focusing on something you cannot change right now; the test is done, and the grade has been entered.
When you feel like your head is clear and you have calmed down a considerable amount, reflect. Why did you enroll in law school? If your answer is to become an attorney, then you must continue on to pursue that career goal. What did it take to get you there? Applying to law school is a tedious process. You worked just as hard as everyone else to complete the application requirements, and chances are that you worked just as hard as those students to be accepted to the particular school you eventually chose. You deserve to be there. Do not let one grade make you feel inadequate. Do better next semester by following the rest of the steps below.
5. Create an Attack Plan
Finally, it is time to plan your next move. When you wake up tomorrow, what is the first step you want to take to remedy this situation? For a few quick ideas, we’ve covered some of the basics in previous posts such as: getting feedback from professors, altering your study techniques, and reviewing old exams to see if you can figure out where it all went wrong.
Stage Two: Rebuilding Confidence
Now that you are composed and an attack plan has been put into motion, it is time to rebuild your confidence. Here are some key things to keep in mind as we continue with your progress:
Concentrate on what motivates you. Does making top 10% only interest you so you can pad your resume? Or do you want it because it will allow you to work at one of the top law firms in the country for a particular, niche field you are interested in, not solely for money and/or power. Don’t do it for GPA bragging rights. Do it because that’s what your passion requires from you.
2. The Curve
Although law students tend to be over-achievers, the curve makes it statistically impossible for everyone to receive an A. That being said, the majority of lawyers have not been the crème of the crop and yet, they have still somehow made it to their dream job. The key is to never give-up. Grades do not truly define you in the real world, but hard work and perseverance do.
3. Law School vs. Undergraduate
Prior to law school, the majority of your academic career was based on rote memorization. The more information you could provide on an exam, the more directly correlated your grade would be. In essence you were a robot. In law school, excelling on exams requires learned skills. You are expected to think about issues objectively, to digest and analyze cases to formulate a rule, and, finally, be able to demonstrate you can properly apply that rule. Since this requires more work than straight memorization, not everyone will learn at the same speed. If you are truly concerned, then ask for help.
4. Common Themes
Start by asking your professor to review the exam. If you have problems in more than one class, see if there is a common theme running throughout your exam answers causing a glaring error. Some examples of questions to ask are: Did I spot the issues and develop the facts sufficiently? Did I apply the law correctly? Was my reasoning flawed? Did I address both sides of the issue? Should I have used more cases we discussed when explaining my answer? Was my writing clear and organized?
5. Other Sources of Help
On the off chance speaking with your professor is either not an option or turned out to be unhelpful, turn to a top student, student services or a dean within that department, or your law school’s writing center. Many law students can regurgitate the law properly and cite cases, but will lose points where writing is not clear or is missing the proper elements to string an entire answer together. Also, if available, review any sample answers your professor has provided.
6. Miscellaneous Improvement Questions
Also, look at your study habits. Here are some examples of what you can ask yourself: Did I work diligently throughout the semester or cram at the last second? Were there ways I could have been more productive and worked smarter, not harder? Did I allocate the proper amount of time to each class according to credit weight or where I was weaker on a topic? Did I understand how cases we discussed in class were connected? Did I include any arguments from the dissent in my answer? Was my outline effective or should I change my study and/or outline method next semester? Did I discover when a professor had a particular approach or focus and use it to my advantage? Did I take practice exams and review my answers? During the exam, were my answers organized and fully answered despite the time constraint?
Stage 3: The Comeback
Lastly, work towards improving. In addition to discovering what you did wrong on exams, getting help from a tutor, or changing your study habits, you can also try to bolster your grade point average by: taking a class that you know is easier due to either your interests or what past students have said about the class, or try to retake a professor whose teaching style you enjoyed and excelled at on their exams.
Whatever you choose, do not let one bad grade disrupt the rest of your year. While that may be hard to hear, try to focus on graduating or how happy you will feel once you have accomplished your goal of becoming an attorney. Use some of these helpful tips to ground yourself if you feel as if you are spiraling again.
Lastly, remember to relax over break. Whether it’s Christmas or summer, take time for yourself. You will need it to refuel and come back with a positive mindset for either the next semester or for your 2L year.
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