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by Brook Moshan | March 10, 2009


The night before he was scheduled to take the New York State bar exam in 1996, Michael, a Manhattan real estate attorney, went to the supermarket to buy some energy-boosting snacks to bring with him to the exam. As he paced the aisles, he considered long and hard which candy would be the best choice to sustain his energy during the long exam. After much deliberation, he chose a Hershey bar. The morning of the exam, Michael broke the Hershey bar into little squares and stowed it in the pocket of his shirt for easy access.

The Hershey bar melted, of course.

An unsuspecting Michael sneaked squares of chocolate from his pocket during the course of the exam and was soon covered in chocolate. By the time he noticed the problem, his fingers, hands and forearms, not to mention his exam book and desk, were smeared in sticky brown chocolate. Michael noticed with horror a large brown handprint in the middle of one of the exam pages and searched his pockets madly for a napkin or a tissue. He found none. In an effort to control the situation, Michael proceeded to lick his chocolate-covered fingers and frantically wipe his brown-stained hands on his pants, exerting a considerable amount of energy that would have been better spent wrestling with the rule against perpetuities.

Michael passed his bar exam. But the tale of the melted Hershey bar should alert bar examiners to one of the cardinal rules of the bar exam -- whatever can go wrong probably will.

It's bar exam time again. This week, lawyers across the country will take their state's bar exam. Here are 10 last-minute tips, sent in by real-life lawyers who have taken the bar exam, passed it, and lived to tell about it:

1. See a stupid movie.

You need to relax before the test. Laugh. De-stress. Take your mind off things. A silly summer flick is a perfect way to do just that. Sit back with a tub of buttered popcorn on your lap and forget about the bar exam for two blissful hours. Remember that your choice of movie is important, too. As one prosecutor in New York wrote in, "Don't go and see 'Blair Witch Project' the night before [the exam]. If I had to listen to that annoying girl scream 'Josh!' one more time I think I would have slit my wrists." The idea is to take your mind off the monumental task you have ahead of you by watching something mind-numbing.

2. Set two alarms.

For an event as important as the bar exam, one alarm is simply not adequate. You'll sleep better (if you can sleep at all) knowing that at least one alarm will definitely wake you from your fitful slumber. Enlisting a friend to call you in the morning to make sure you're awake gives you additional security. But be certain to give your friend strict instructions the night before. If you want a quick "Wake up! Good luck!," then tell your friend. If you'd prefer a longer chat to help calm you down, let your friend know.

3. Drink a glass of wine.

Wine relaxes you and helps you sleep, so have a glass of wine before you go to bed. But please do not exceed one glass of wine. The bar exam is difficult enough without struggling through the haze of a wine-induced hangover. If wine isn't your style, curl up with a cup of decaffeinated chamomile tea or soak in a warm bubble bath.

4. Take a car service to the exam.

If you live in a city where you commonly use taxis or public transportation to get around, consider ordering a car service to take you to the exam. The last thing you need to worry about in the morning is hailing a taxi or dealing with the subways. If you have access to a car, you still may decide that a car service is a good idea, especially if your car has a funny way of breaking down when you least expect it. And no matter how you are getting to the test site, be sure to leave yourself twice as much time as you think you need to get there. The worst thing that will happen is that you'll get there on the early side, leaving you lots of time to meditate, laugh with friends, talk on your cell phone with your mom, or whatever else calms you down.

~5. Eat oatmeal and bananas for breakfast.

We all know that eating a healthy breakfast can give you the energy you need to get through your day. On the morning of the bar exam, have a bowl of oatmeal, which is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates for a boost of energy. Adding a banana is a good idea, too; bananas provide a staggered energy release that will help give you the endurance and stamina you'll need to tackle the test. (The over-achieving lawyer who sent in this tip eats this breakfast before she runs the New York and Boston marathons!)

6. Leave the books at home.

You've studied hard enough. Or you haven't studied hard enough. Either way, bringing study materials to the test site isn't going to help you. Also, looking at your outlines (and seeing rules that you never quite committed to memory) may make you even more nervous than you already are. If you don't know the exceptions to the hearsay rules by exam time, you're not going to learn them while you're waiting for the proctor to seat you. Instead, try closing your eyes and doing some deep breathing to steady your nerves.

7. Bring earplugs.

You'd be surprised how annoying some people can be when they're taking the most important exam of their lives. That guy over there is cracking his gum. The woman next to you hasn't stopped tapping her foot for the last three hours. The guy behind you is breathing so loudly you're afraid he's suffering from some kind of attack. Do yourself a favor -- bring earplugs, just in case. If you can, do a practice test with the earplugs in place before test day in order to get used to them. The sound of your heart pounding in your chest unaccompanied by any other sound can be disorienting if you're not used to it.

8. Consider having lunch alone.

You know yourself. If you think that hearing your friends complain about that killer torts essay or the heavy-breather seated behind them (see number 7, above) will freak you out and increase your own stress level, then bow out of the communal lunch, sit somewhere by yourself, and eat alone. Your friends will understand your need to unwind in private.

9. Don't eat a turkey sandwich for lunch.

Know how you start to yearn for a nap after eating turkey on Thanksgiving? Your sleepiness may be the result of tryptophan, an essential amino acid found in turkey that causes the body to produce serotonin, which acts as a natural sedative. While some nutritionists balk at the idea that turkey can make you sleepy (they argue that tryptophan is most effective on an empty stomach), why take the risk? Save the turkey for a normal day and make yourself a nice protein-packed peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead.

10. Write yourself a note.

The bar exam in most states takes place over the course of two days, and it's essential that bar examiners view the two days as two separate tests. No matter how badly you think you did on the first day of the test, the second day is another opportunity to prove how hard you studied and how well you've learned the material. Before you leave the house for the first day of the exam, write yourself a note and leave it on your bed for when you return that evening. The note should contain reminders of how hard you studied, how you know the law inside and out, how you're a bar exam god or goddess who knows everything. Tell yourself that you're going to rip through day two of the exam. At the very least, the note should make you smile, and it may even give you comfort if you had a lousy first day.

Bonus tip.

Cake's rendition of "I Will Survive" almost single-handedly got me through my bar exam. Find the song that lifts your spirits, gives you energy, and makes you dance like Kevin Bacon in that warehouse in "Footloose." Listen to it at lunch and between test days. Then put it on and dance like crazy when you find out you passed the exam.

Good luck!


Filed Under: Education|Grad School

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