By Sandra Thébaud, PhDheader of an individual seated in an office, stretching their arms above their head while looking out a windowPreparing for the bar exam can be a daunting experience for aspiring lawyers. When poorly managed, the stress and anxiety that can accompany the desire to pass the exam—whether for first-time or repeat takers—could hinder the prospective examinee’s ability to prepare for the exam effectively and ultimately decrease their likelihood of success. Therefore, it is vital to manage stress during bar exam preparation. This article explores some effective stress management strategies to help prospective examinees stay calm and composed while studying for the bar exam.

Understanding Stress

Stress is a normal response to challenging situations. We need stress. In small amounts, stress can be motivating. It helps us concentrate, focus, and mobilize our resources to overcome challenges. However, excessive stress can have negative effects on our physical and mental health, including fatigue, anxiety, and burnout. Understanding stress and its effects is the first step in managing it effectively.

Common Causes of Stress

Common causes of stress during bar exam preparation include the following.

  • Time pressure: The bar exam is a time-constrained test, so there is inherent pressure to complete it within the allocated time. The volume of material to cover while studying also necessitates strong time management skills.
  • Information overload: Because preparing for the bar exam involves studying and comprehending a vast amount of information across various legal subjects, it can be challenging to prioritize and retain the necessary information.
  • Fear of failure: The high-stakes nature of the bar exam naturally leads to a degree of fear of not passing. The pressure the prospective examinee feels to meet their own expectations and those of others, such as family or peers, adds to the fear of not achieving the desired outcome.
  • Social isolation: During the intense study period, many individuals preparing for the bar exam may experience a sense of social isolation. Spending long hours studying alone can lead to feelings of loneliness and disconnectedness.

Recognizing the Signs of Stress

The first step in managing stress is recognizing the signs of stress, which could include the following.

  • Headaches: Prolonged periods of intense studying, involving long hours of mental exertion and focused concentration, can contribute to tension headaches or migraines.
  • Difficulty sleeping: Stress can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep. Insufficient or poor-quality sleep can impair cognitive functioning, memory recall, and overall performance.
  • Changes in appetite: Stress can affect appetite in different ways. Some individuals may experience a decrease in appetite, leading to unintended weight loss or inadequate nutrition. Conversely, others may turn to food as a source of comfort or stress relief, resulting in overeating or unhealthy food choices.
  • Feeling anxious or irritable: The pressure and uncertainty surrounding the bar exam can trigger feelings of anxiety and irritability. It is not uncommon to experience heightened emotions, restlessness, or a sense of unease due to the weight of the exam’s importance.
  • Difficulty concentrating: Stress can significantly affect one’s ability to concentrate and maintain focus while studying. Racing thoughts, worry, and anxiety can make it challenging to stay engaged with the material, which can lead to decreased productivity.

Stress is a normal response to challenging situations. We need stress. … However, excessive stress can have negative effects…

These common causes and signs of stress during bar exam preparation highlight the multifaceted nature of the challenges prospective examinees face. Understanding these stressors can be helpful in developing effective coping strategies and support systems to manage stress and improve overall exam performance.


Strategies to Manage Stress

Managing stress during bar exam preparation requires a combination of effective study habits, self-care, and mental health support. The following are some strategies to help manage stress while preparing for the bar exam.

Effective Preparation and Study Habits

Take Care of Administrative Tasks Early

The process of completing the bar application is itself a demanding and complex task, necessitating the gathering of an extensive array of documents, records, photographs, and other supporting materials. These documents often need to be notarized and signed by multiple people. Strict adherence to specific guidelines and formats is also a must. Each jurisdiction has its own unique set of requirements and procedures, further adding complexity and variation to the process.

Candidates who choose to leave things until the last minute not only subject themselves to increased stress, but they also risk missing important deadlines and potentially delaying their taking the exam. By recognizing the intricacies of the application process and being mindful of the potential consequences of delay, candidates can approach the task with determination and diligence.

Beware of Procrastination

When it comes to preparing for the bar exam, starting early is key for effectively managing stress and maximizing the chances of success. Procrastination can be a slippery slope that leads to heightened stress levels, increased anxiety, and inadequate preparation. Any delays rob the candidate of precious time that could be dedicated to studying the material and building confidence.

By starting early, the prospective examinee gets the gift of time—time to establish a study routine that suits their individual needs and preferences. This allows them to set a pace and avoid the frantic rush that comes with last-­minute cramming. Instead, they can approach their studies in a more balanced and structured manner, allocating dedicated time to each subject’s nuances and complexities.

Moreover, starting early provides them with the invaluable opportunity to review the exam material. This enables them to identify any areas that require additional attention or further clarification.

In essence, starting early not only helps the prospective examinee manage stress by alleviating the pressure of time constraints but also empowers them to create a reasonable schedule of preparation with review built in.

Plan a Study Schedule

Crafting a well-designed study schedule is a vital component of successful bar exam preparation. Not only does a study schedule keep the prospective examinee organized, focused, and on track, but it also plays a crucial role in optimizing their study efforts. By creating a schedule that accounts for their individual needs and knowledge gaps, they can enhance their overall study effectiveness and boost their confidence heading into the exam.

A comprehensive study schedule begins with establishing a timeline that spans the entire preparation period. This timeline should outline key milestones, such as the start and end dates of each study phase, important review sessions, and mock exam dates. By setting clear deadlines and milestones, the candidate can create a sense of structure and accountability, ensuring that they make steady progress toward their exam goals.

In addition to the timeline, a study schedule should include a detailed list of subjects to be covered. This list acts as a roadmap, guiding the prospective examinee through the subject matter that will be tested. Breaking down each subject into manageable subtopics allows for a systematic and focused approach to study sessions. As they allocate time to each subject, they should consider individual strengths and weaknesses, giving more weight to the areas where extra attention and practice is needed. By being mindful of these variations in difficulty and familiarity, study time can be allocated more effectively.

Though covering the material is essential, equally crucial is the integration of regular review sessions. Setting aside dedicated time for reviewing previously studied subjects will reinforce understanding and solidify knowledge. Regular review sessions not only aid in retention but also help identify any areas that require additional focus or clarification. By incorporating strategic review sessions, the prospective examinee can continually build upon their knowledge base, ensuring a strong foundation as they progress toward the exam date.

It is important to note that flexibility should be built into the study schedule as well, recognizing that adjustments may be necessary as the prospective examinee gauges their progress and discovers new areas that require more attention. They should be open to adapting the schedule to accommodate unforeseen circumstances or unexpected challenges that may arise during the preparation journey.

By following a well-crafted study schedule that incorporates a timeline, a comprehensive list of topics, and planned review sessions, the candidate can create a more efficient and effective study experience tailored to their unique needs.

Find a Study Routine That Works

Each individual possesses unique study habits and preferences. It is essential for prospective examinees to explore and experiment with various study methods and schedules to discover the routine that maximizes their learning potential and minimizes stress.

Recognizing the importance of balance, it is necessary to consider the integration of study and work schedules. Many bar exam candidates juggle multiple responsibilities, including part-time jobs or other commitments, alongside their exam preparation. In such cases, striking a harmonious balance between study and work becomes paramount.

To identify a study routine that works best, individuals should allocate time for self-reflection and exploration. This involves experimenting with different study techniques, such as reviewing textbooks, practicing sample questions, participating in study groups, or using online resources. This allows candidates to evaluate each technique’s effectiveness and identify those that resonate most with their learning style.

The exploration of study schedules is equally important. Prospective examinees should endeavor to find the right balance between study time and other commitments. This may require adjusting work hours if possible, allocating dedicated study blocks during the day, or using weekends strategically. It is vital to create a study routine that not only accommodates personal and professional obligations but also allows for sufficient rest and rejuvenation.

During the experimentation phase, candidates should closely observe their productivity, concentration levels, and overall well-being. Paying attention to these factors will enable them to assess the effectiveness of different study routines and make informed decisions about what works best for them. It is essential to listen to one’s body and mind, adjusting the schedule as needed to optimize focus and productivity.

In addition to personal experimentation, seeking guidance and advice from experienced peers or mentors who have successfully navigated the bar exam preparation process can provide valuable insights. These individuals can share their experiences, offer suggestions, and provide support during this challenging journey.

Find a Study Environment That Works

Creating an optimal study environment is crucial. The study environment plays a significant role in enhancing concentration, focus, and overall productivity. Each prospective examinee has unique preferences and requirements when it comes to the study atmosphere, making it vital to find a suitable space that fosters maximum concentration and minimizes distractions.

For some individuals, a serene and quiet environment is conducive to deep concentration and absorption of study materials. The absence of distractions allows them to immerse themselves fully in their study materials, facilitating a deeper understanding and retention of the subject matter. However, other individuals thrive in an environment with a moderate level of background noise. A gentle hum of activity can create a sense of energy and engagement, stimulating their focus and cognitive processes.

Regardless of individual preferences, the prospective examinee must strive to find a study space that meets their specific needs. It is important to consider factors such as noise levels, lighting, comfort, and the availability of necessary study resources.

Any study environment should be free from potential distractions that may hinder productivity and increase stress levels. Minimizing interruptions from external sources, such as electronic devices, social media notifications, or personal obligations, is essential. Creating a dedicated study area or setting boundaries within a shared space can help establish a sense of focus and separation from distractions.

Maintaining a clean and organized study space can contribute to a calm and conducive study atmosphere. Clutter and disarray can create unnecessary stress and make it challenging to locate study materials when needed. Keeping essential resources within reach and organizing materials in a logical manner can enhance studying efficiency.

Use Practice Tests

Incorporating high-quality practice tests into bar exam preparation is a highly effective strategy for effectively managing stress and enhancing exam readiness. Practice tests are invaluable tools that not only aid in familiarizing the prospective examinee with the bar exam’s structure and format but also in providing a comprehensive assessment of their knowledge and skill levels.

Taking practice tests allows the examinee to become acquainted with the typical exam question types, enabling them to develop familiarity and build confidence in their ability to navigate through the question formats that appear. By simulating the actual exam experience, practice tests contribute to a sense of readiness and reduce potential anxiety associated with encountering unfamiliar question styles or formats during the actual exam.

The iterative process of practicing, receiving feedback, and making necessary adjustments cultivates a continuous learning cycle, ultimately enhancing the examinee’s overall preparation and exam performance.Moreover, practice tests play a pivotal role in identifying areas of strengths and weaknesses in the examinee’s knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. Careful analysis of their performance on practice tests allows prospective examinees to discern specific subjects or concepts that require further attention and improvement and then tailor their study plan accordingly. The iterative process of practicing, receiving feedback, and making necessary adjustments cultivates a continuous learning cycle, ultimately enhancing the examinee’s overall preparation and exam performance.

Furthermore, practice tests provide an opportunity for the examinee to refine their time management skills, which are vital for successfully completing each exam section within its allocated time frame. By practicing with timed practice tests, prospective examinees can develop a sense of pace and learn how to allot their time strategically across different sections and question types, thereby maximizing their chances of completing the entire exam.

To ensure the effectiveness of practice tests, one must use high-quality resources that closely mirror the content and rigor of the actual bar exam. These may include reputable study materials, commercially available practice tests, or past exam questions. Taking a diverse range of practice tests can provide a comprehensive assessment of the examinee’s readiness.

Prioritizing Self-Care

One of the most important strategies for managing stress is self-care. Taking care of physical and emotional well-being can help prospective examinees stay focused and perform better on the exam. The following are some helpful self-care strategies.

Get Enough Sleep

Getting sufficient and quality sleep, ideally between seven to nine hours each night, is undeniably one of the most effective methods for effectively managing stress. During sleep, our bodies undergo a crucial process of rest and recovery, enabling our bodies and minds to rejuvenate and recharge from the stressors encountered throughout the day.

By prioritizing good sleep, prospective examinees can unlock numerous benefits that directly contribute to their ability to manage stress and enhance their study efforts. One of the primary advantages of quality sleep is its positive impact on stress reduction. When individuals consistently get sufficient sleep, they are more equipped to cope with the challenges and pressures that come with bar exam preparation. Adequate sleep provides a solid foundation for emotional well-being, allowing examinees to approach their studies with a clearer mind and a greater sense of calmness.

In addition to stress reduction, quality sleep plays a pivotal role in enhancing cognitive function and concentration. Rested individuals are more likely to have improved focus, attention, and mental clarity, all of which are crucial when tackling the rigorous demands of bar exam study. By prioritizing sleep, prospective examinees can optimize their ability to absorb information, retain knowledge, and engage in effective study sessions. This, in turn, leads to greater productivity and efficiency in their exam preparation, as well as a higher likelihood of retaining information for future recall during the actual exam.

Eat a Healthy Diet

When faced with stress, it is often tempting to turn to comfort foods as a source of solace. However, it is important to recognize that while highly processed or high-sugar foods may provide an immediate sense of satisfaction, they can ultimately contribute to increased stress levels in the body over the long term. Instead, opting for a healthy and well-balanced diet can prove to be a more effective approach in managing stress and promoting overall well-being.

Consuming a nutritious diet that includes a variety of whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, offers numerous benefits for both energy levels and mood regulation. These nutrient-dense foods provide the body with essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that support optimal functioning and help combat the negative effects of stress. By fueling the body with wholesome ingredients, individuals can experience sustained energy throughout the day, promoting a greater sense of vitality and resilience in the face of stressors.

Moreover, a well-balanced diet plays a crucial role in stabilizing mood and emotional well-being. Certain nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, have been linked to improved brain health and the production of neurotransmitters that regulate mood, such as serotonin. Similarly, complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, legumes, and vegetables can aid in the production of serotonin and promote a sense of calm and contentment. By prioritizing these nutrient-rich foods, individuals can nourish both their bodies and minds, fostering a more balanced and positive emotional state.

In contrast, consuming highly processed or high-sugar foods can disrupt the body’s natural balance and exacerbate stress levels. These types of foods are often devoid of essential nutrients and can lead to rapid fluctuations in blood sugar levels, resulting in energy crashes and mood swings. Additionally, indulging in sugary treats or heavily processed snacks can ultimately contribute to feelings of fatigue, sluggishness, and even guilt or regret. Over time, the negative effects of such foods on overall health can compound, further increasing stress and diminishing the body’s resilience.

Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise is a powerful method for effectively reducing stress levels. It is important to choose a frequency—daily, several times a week, weekly—that is sustainable. When we engage in physical activity, our bodies release endorphins, which are natural mood-boosting chemicals that serve as stress relievers, creating a sense of euphoria and promoting a positive mindset. By incorporating exercise into their regular self-care routine, prospective examinees can better equip their bodies to manage stress while simultaneously enhancing their overall health and well-being.

By incorporating exercise into their regular self-care routine, prospective examinees can better equip their bodies to manage stress while simultaneously enhancing their overall health and well-being.Moreover, regular exercise can have numerous long-term benefits for stress management and overall health. Physical activity helps the body to better adapt and cope with stressors by strengthening the cardiovascular system, improving blood circulation, and enhancing the body’s natural stress response mechanisms. Regular exercise can also boost energy levels and enhance physical endurance while helping maintain a healthy weight, strengthen muscles and bones, and support the immune system. It can aid in promoting restful sleep as well. These physical benefits contribute to a greater sense of vitality, resilience, and overall quality of life.

To incorporate exercise as a stress management tool, prospective examinees can explore various forms of physical activity to find what suits their preferences and schedule. Whether joining a fitness class, following online workout videos, participating in team sports, or simply going for a walk or run in nature, the key is to engage in activities that bring enjoyment and can be sustained.

Practice Relaxation Techniques

Practicing stress-reduction techniques is crucial for prospective examinees. By incorporating simple yet powerful techniques into their study breaks or daily routine, they can experience quick and effective stress relief. Several relaxation techniques have proven effective in reducing stress levels and promoting a sense of calm and focus.

Deep breathing exercises are a popular and accessible stress-reduction technique. By taking slow, deep breaths and focusing on inhalation and exhalation, prospective examinees can activate the body’s relaxation response, calming their mind and reducing tension.

Progressive muscle relaxation involves systematically tensing and releasing different muscle groups to promote physical and mental relaxation. By intentionally tensing and then relaxing each muscle group, from head to toe, prospective examinees can release accumulated tension and experience a deep sense of relaxation.

Visualization techniques enable individuals to create mental images of serene and calming scenes or situations. By vividly imagining themselves in a peaceful setting, such as a beach or a forest, prospective examinees can transport their minds to a tranquil state, promoting relaxation and reducing stress. Additionally, prospective examinees can benefit from practicing positive test-taking visualizations. Vividly imagining themselves confidently navigating the bar exam, and visualizing themselves answering questions with clarity and composure, can enhance their mental preparation and bolster their self-confidence.

Incorporating these stress-­reduction techniques into their routine empowers prospective examinees to take proactive steps in managing their stress levels. By practicing deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization, examinees can create a toolkit of relaxation strategies that can be easily accessed during study breaks or whenever stress arises.

Mental Health Support

Use Positive Self-Talk

Negative self-talk can significantly affect stress levels and undermine the confidence of prospective examinees during bar exam preparation. Rather than succumbing to self-doubt, it is essential to cultivate a practice of positive self-talk to foster motivation and bolster confidence. Embracing affirmations and constructive self-statements can be instrumental in shifting examinees’ mindset and reinforcing a belief in their abilities.

Prospective examinees should consciously replace negative thoughts with empowering affirmations regarding their capability to succeed. By repeating affirmations such as “I am fully capable of passing the bar exam” and “I am steadily progressing each day,” they can reframe their self-perception and reinforce a positive outlook.

For repeat test takers, who may face additional pressure and self-doubt, it is especially important to address any lingering negative self-talk from previous experiences. By acknowledging past challenges they have encountered and reframing them as opportunities for growth, they can break free from the cycle of self-limiting beliefs. Repeating affirmations such as “I am more and more prepared because of my experience” can be helpful.

It is worth noting that building a habit of positive self-talk requires consistency and patience. The prospective examinee should actively challenge and replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations on a regular basis. Integrating positive self-talk into their daily routine, such as through morning affirmations or affirmations before study sessions, can reinforce a positive mindset that supports their success.

By harnessing the power of positive self-talk and affirmations, prospective examinees can cultivate a resilient mindset, bolster their confidence, and reduce stress levels. This will help them navigate the bar exam preparation process with increased motivation, self-­assurance, and an unwavering belief in their ability to succeed.

Stay Positive

Although it is natural to feel overwhelmed and discouraged at times during bar exam preparation, cultivating and preserving a positive attitude is essential for success. By consciously shifting their focus toward progress and achievements, prospective examinees can effectively boost their confidence and alleviate stress.

Rather than solely fixating on the enormity of the task at hand, individuals must celebrate the incremental steps they take toward their goal. Acknowledging and rejoicing in even the smallest victories can serve as powerful motivation, fueling a sense of accomplishment and reinforcing their belief in their abilities. Whether it is completing a challenging practice exam, mastering a difficult legal concept, or adhering to a consistent study schedule, each milestone represents a significant stride forward.

Moreover, adopting a growth mindset is vital in navigating the ups and downs of the bar exam preparation journey. Embracing the belief that intelligence and abilities can be developed through dedication and effort allows prospective examinees to view challenges as opportunities for learning and growth. Rather than succumbing to setbacks, they can approach them with resilience and determination, seeking valuable lessons and identifying areas for improvement—reframing obstacles as stepping stones to success. Refraining from dwelling on past mistakes or negative experiences, and instead focusing on the lessons learned and the progress made, allows individuals to maintain a positive outlook and sustain their motivation.

Seek Support

Creating a supportive network of peers, mentors, or study groups is an invaluable asset that can profoundly shape and nurture a positive mindset during the bar exam preparation journey. Surrounding oneself with individuals who share similar goals and aspirations cultivates an environment of encouragement, motivation, and belief in the possibility of success.

Engaging in open discussions and sharing personal experiences with peers who are also preparing for the bar exam creates a sense of camaraderie and solidarity. Through these interactions, individuals can find solace in not being alone in their struggles and challenges. Exchanging stories, tips, and strategies allows for a rich exchange of knowledge and insights, inspiring one another to persevere and remain steadfast in their pursuit of excellence.

Mentors, on the other hand, bring a wealth of experience and wisdom to the table. Seasoned professionals who have successfully passed the bar exam can offer valuable guidance, advice, and encouragement. Their mentorship provides a source of inspiration, helping individuals maintain a positive outlook, overcome obstacles, and stay motivated during challenging times.

Study groups, with their collaborative nature, create a dynamic and supportive environment that fosters collective motivation.Study groups, with their collaborative nature, create a dynamic and supportive environment that fosters collective motivation. Coming together as a cohesive unit, individuals can draw on each other’s strengths, offer assistance, and celebrate shared achievements. Engaging in group discussions, solving practice problems, and taking mock exams together enhances learning and reinforces the belief that success is attainable. The collective energy and synergy within a study group inspire and uplift each member, boosting confidence and reinforcing a positive mindset.

Within this network of peers, mentors, and study groups, the power of encouragement and belief becomes a driving force. By sharing their journeys, celebrating progress, and offering support, individuals reaffirm their own capabilities and potential for bar exam success.


Law students dream of the day they pass the bar exam. But the process of preparing for it can be stressful and overwhelming—and the stress, if left unaddressed, can negatively affect performance.

Managing stress while preparing for the bar exam is essential for maintaining focus, confidence, and overall well-being. By acknowledging the common causes of stress and implementing effective strategies, prospective examinees can navigate the rigorous preparation process with resilience and success.

The strategies and methods outlined above all contribute to a balanced and productive approach to bar exam preparation. By cultivating a positive mindset, embracing self-care practices, and harnessing the power of support and encouragement, individuals can minimize stress, optimize their performance, and approach the bar exam with confidence, ultimately paving the way to passing the bar exam.

Author’s Note

My YouTube channel, @stressintel, provides information and practical tips on effectively managing stress, from sleep hygiene techniques to relaxation exercises and mindfulness practices, which can ultimately bolster examinees’ overall well-being and exam preparation. Resources include the following videos:

Portrait Photo of Sandra Thébaud, PhDSandra Thébaud, PhD, is a seasoned professional in the field of psychology and mental health with 30 years’ experience as a clinical psychologist. Dr. Thébaud has dedicated her career to researching effective strategies for managing stress and optimizing performance, and she has extensive expertise in areas such as stress management, resilience, and well-being. Dr. Thébaud’s work has been widely recognized and published, and she has been invited to speak at various conferences and conduct numerous seminars on the topic of stress management. She is the founder of StressIntel, where she offers online courses, organizational training, and free live webinars.

This article originally appeared in The Bar Examiner print edition, Summer 2023 (Vol. 92, No. 2), pp. 9–17.

Contact us to request a pdf file of the original article as it appeared in the print edition.

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