A look at common causes, the effects and some solutions
A few years ago a friend of mine, Robert, wrote the December sitting of the LSAT and scored in the 75th percentile. Not a great score, so Rob decided to re-write in February and registered for that exam. His intention was to study really hard over the holidays and seriously improve on the February exam. Rob had excellent grades and work experience and wrote a killer personal statement and so despite his LSAT score he got accepted to one law school very quickly after the December LSAT. In part because of this and the busy holiday season, he never sat down and studied. So Rob walked into the February LSAT without any additional preparation time over his December sitting. In fact he might even have been worse off as he had probably forgotten some of what he learned for the December exam. On the February exam, with no new skills and no additional preparation Rob scored in the 98th percentile. Why?
Stress. For the December exam Rob was stressed out. Very stressed out. He wanted very much to get a great score and this stress reduced his abilities on the LSAT significantly, leaving him in the 75th percentile. By February, he didn’t have a care in the world. He was accepted to a law school he was happy with, he knew he hadn’t studied anymore and he didn’t expect to improve his score at all. He pretty much took the LSAT again for fun. This time, stress free, Rob jumped up to the 98th percentile.
So how can you reduce your stress on the LSAT? Here’s a few ways that I have found have worked for students over the years. Many of these will work for exams and tests in general.
First, you need to narrow down your sources of stress. Write down anything that stresses you out about the LSAT and exam writing. Do you get stressed out by…
Common Causes of LSAT Stress
- people sniffling shuffling, coughing and turning pages around you;
- the proctor’s voice, calling out “Five minutes left!!”;
- temperature variances, cold or hot classrooms;
- the fear of failure, or at least not scoring high;
- a single hard question that stumps you;
- any other factors?
Make a list of all your stress inducers. Next, we are going to devise a plan as to how to eliminate or at least mitigate each one of these stress inducers.
Stress is caused by unfamiliar effects on the body. By making these effects more familiar you can dramatically reduce your stress. Most people are stressed out by a bomb exploding near by, or gun fire in the night, but during the very extended civil war in Lebanon, people living in Beirut were continuously exposed to explosions and gunfire for years. They became inured to these daily disturbances. That’s not to say it wasn’t horrific, and that they were not affected by it or didn’t stress or grieve if it hit close to home or loved ones were involved. But they did become less stressed by the sounds of the gunfire and the explosions.
If it’s possible to become less stressed by gunfire and explosions in your hometown, it is possible to become less stressed for the LSAT. You simply need to expose yourself to your stress inducers on a regular basis.
Looking back at the stress inducers we identified above, here are a few ways to expose yourself and thus reduce your stress levels during the LSAT.
LSAT Stress Reduction Tips
- Take practice LSATs in a coffee shop, people will be talking and making noise, moving around you, distractions will be everywhere. Force yourself to focus on your test. After a few weeks or months of coffee shop exams the actual LSAT environment will seem serene. Just don’t get used to the coffee. You’re not likely to get a coffee during your one break on the actual LSAT.
- Always, always, always, take practice exams under actual timed conditions. So many students tell me they have been studying but without the clock. No. Bad idea. You must get used to the clock, the count down, the time limit. Without this your scores or success is meaningless. Anyone can do well on the LSAT with sufficient time. Make sure you give your self exactly 35 minutes to do each section. If you want to review or go over questions fine, do it after you’ve done the 35 minute section and taken your score. Then you can go back and review and analyze.
- Along the same lines as the last point, try as much as possible to take practice tests under conditions as close as possible to the real thing. Go to a busy study hall or library where you will be surrounded by other students sniffling and shuffling papers. Turn your clock on. Have a friend or parent interrupt you to yell out “Five minutes remaining”. Or even do it yourself. Use the actual bubble sheet that you will use for the exam. Take the 15 minute break. Eat what you will eat on the LSAT day.
- Set special test days – If your test is on a Saturday then for a few weeks if not months before the exam, tell yourself that every Saturday you have an LSAT. Make sure you have all your pencils, pens, highlighters, erasers, watch, water, lunch, ID etc. Packed the night before. Go for a work out. Go to bed at a reasonable time. Get up and go out of the house to a testing environment (library or study hall or classroom) and take the test at the same time that you will take the real thing. By the time the real one comes around your brain will hardly know it’s not just another practice exam.
- Temperature – you can try writing in hot or cold conditions but better yet just make sure you have some layers of clothing and don’t sit next to the window when you write the LSAT.
- Fear of failure – if your biggest stress is a fear of not scoring as high as you would like, all of the above strategies will help you with this stress. But you can also do some of your own mental exercises to help mitigate this inducer. Make a plan B. If you don’t get into law school, there are plenty of other excellent options for you. Apply to some easier to get into schools so that you know you don’t need a perfect score. The more you are comfortable with the idea of not being perfect on the LSAT the higher your will score. Remember our friend Rob, he jumped from 75th percentile to 98th percentile simply by not caring. Now you still need to care in order to convince yourself to study, but on test day you want to be as unworried, uncaring and calm as possible. Remember the lyrics to that song, What a Good Boy …“ I go to school, I write exams, if I pass, if I fail, if I drop out, does anyone give a damn? And if they do, they`ll soon forget `cause it won`t take much for me to show my life ain`t over yet.”
- Skipping questions – If you get stressed when you encounter difficult questions or a particular type of question skip them. I hated parallel reasoning questions (love them now) so during all my practice LSATs and the actual LSAT I would skip them on sight. Then when I finished the section I had time to spare to address the parallel reasoning questions. At this point I knew I had most of the other questions right and more so because I skipped the ones that were hardest for me. Now I could tackle the hard (for me) questions with less stress knowing that even if I didn’t get them I still had finished the section and it wasn’t the end of the world.
- A few other things that help – These are overexposures to stress inducers but they do help reduce stress. Work out. Eat healthy. Get outside, once a day. Take the last few days or week off before the LSAT. Go see a movie the night before to get your mind off the LSAT, just don’t stay out to late. Eat breakfast the day of the LSAT. Pack a good lunch.
- Check out the actual LSAT location – go to your the place where you will be writing the LSAT, find parking (this could be a big stress on the day of the test so have some backups), know how much change/cash you need to pay for parking, see how long a walk it is from parking to the test site, find the bathrooms nearest the testing rooms, sit in the classroom or hall, take a practice test if possible. Get used to it. The more it feels comfortable and familiar the less stressed your brain will be.
Whatever other stress inducers you may have, come up with a way to expose yourself to them repeatedly, while writing practice LSAT exams. If you get stumped by hard questions, keep a collection of hard questions and do one of them half way through or at the start of each LSAT section. Or learn to skip them and come back at the end. Find your stress inducers, overexpose yourself to them and become immune!