The following blog post is a reproduction of a blog originally posted by Elsa Ascencio on her blog Lawtina Elsa. The original blog post can be accessed here. The following blog post has been reproduced with Elsa’s permission.
The Ontario bar exams are coming up in June 2019.
I recently passed both Barrister and Solicitors exams. I wanted to offer some insight for students like me who experience from severe anxiety. I really struggled with the bar exams because I had trouble managing my anxiety. I grew nervous about the notion of failing. In my head, I internalized a failing grade as a failing report to my legal career. This is obviously not true, however anxiety has a skill of playing mind tricks on students.
When I was preparing for the bar exams, I was told a million ways on how to study for these exams. I was told to read it all; I was told to skim and find a good index; I was told that the index sucks and use the table of contents instead; I was told to make my own index or just use pre-made ones; I was told to highlight or not highlight at all.
Suffice to say, I was anxious because none of this related to my anxiety. In fact, it made it worse. I felt like Goldilocks, trying to find the study plan that was just right.
I don’t want to add to the countless voices you’ve heard on how to study for the Ontario bar exams, so I will be short:
How does anxiety work?
The one thing you need to know about anxiety is that WE ALL HAVE ANXIETY. It is an evolutionary trait that helped the early humans survive the unknown elements of hunting, scavenging, and defending against animals in the forest. In other words, anxiety is actually a good thing to prepare us for uncertainty. However, anxiety becomes an issue when we have difficulties managing it. There are several socio-economic factors that can explain the difficulty of anxiety-management but I won’t go into the details for this blog post.
At the core, anxiety for the bar exams is based on the unknown: the unknown exam experience; the unknown fate of my legal career; the unknown for everything.
Managing the unknown with your study plan
Lesson #1: Stick with your law school study plan
I found the key to studying was managing my anxiety; thus that meant managing the unknown with the known.
So I stuck with whatever I did in law school; I followed my previous studying methods. I’m a big picture person. Once I know the broad foundations of certain topics, I can grasp the rest. I’m also a visual learner. Highlighting didn’t matter to me, but making mind maps were very important to me. For others, they are okay with just reading and highlighting a few things – and that’s okay!
Whatever you use, you need to trust that it carried you throw law school and it will continue to carry you throughout the bar exams and even your professional career.
Lesson #2: practice, practice, practice
In my opinion, practicing is key to the bar exams – in fact, I would devote a significant portion of my studying to practice questions. Let’s go back to the concept of the unknown: when I was a child, I was scared of swimming. I was afraid of drowning. But the more I practiced, I familiarized myself with water and I didn’t feel as afraid as I did before.
I applied this same experience to my bar exam. Initially, I was mortified of the bar exam. I practiced and practiced. I would get questions wrong and felt discouraged at first. But like swimming, you learn from your mistakes. So you keep going until you feel comfortable with the materials.
On the day of the exam, I told myself “this was just another swim meet.” I normalized the bar exam experience by telling myself that this experience wasn’t unknown to me because I practiced so much. This helped regulate my anxiety on the day of the exam.
Finally, when it comes to reading the materials, my main advice is to do whatever feels comfortable for you – but as long as it doesn’t take time away from your practice sessions.
If you have a number of pages to reach per day, but let’s say you don’t reach your daily goal- just move on. For example, if I had 40 pages per day but I only read 20. I would skim the pages I wasn’t able to read. However, the next day, I would start fresh with my planned 40 pages per day and I wouldn’t look back at what I missed the day before. My main interest is to not backlog myself and delay practice time.
One the day of the exam:
Lesson #3: Keep moving! The question is still worth one point
The bar exam is divided into 120 questions per two sessions– so 240 questions altogether. Some questions will be easy, some will be hard to figure out. Understandably, we will all be anxious that day. I told myself to use my anxiety as a regulator. If a question was too hard, I would start to feel anxious. Rather than fixate myself on hard questions and get more anxious, I told myself to move on. That was my body’s way of telling me to “park it and go back to it later.” This involved trusting my gut.
Regardless, each question is worth 1 point. If you can’t get it under the time allocated, just move on and grab other points.
Lesson #4: You survived law school, you will survive the bar exam
Positive/self-care statements helped me learn that I am stronger than I think. If you survived law school, you will succeed with the bar exams. It may take some time or you may get it in one shot – regardless you came this far and you must honour yourself and your accomplishments.
I hope this short guide helps! I’m still learning to dance with my anxiety but I hope my experience helps others with the bar exam.
About Elsa Ascencio
Elsa Ascencio graduated from the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law and she articled at a prominent, union-side firm in Ottawa. Her passion for social justice has been profiled by Precedent Magazine, New York Magazine, and Toronto Star. In each interview, she talked about her own mental health journey in law, and the need to protect Salvadoran immigrants in the US. Most recently, she discussed the financial barriers that young lawyers face to the Toronto Star. Elsa can be reached via her website https://lawtinaelsa.com/contact/.