I Survived! (And So Will You)
The week and a half after I hit “Submit” on my last final (Torts, if you were wondering) was the longest week and a half stretch of time in my life–largely because it came immediately after what was perhaps the shortest month of my life. Exams are, of course, somewhat legendary in the annals of law school myth and legend. Every how-to guide has a chapter written on how to take exams; every 3L has a nightmare scenario/war story to share. And (I regret to inform you) they are all probably rooted in truth.
Exams are not fun things.
Through studying more hours than I knew I was capable of and fighting down ever-increasing waves of panic, however, I somehow managed to survive the first semester of my 1L year… and these are the three most important lessons I gleaned from the experience.
1. Finals are not real life.
I start with the most important lesson: finals period is not an accurate reflection of reality. You will start studying, confident that you’ll keep it all together, stay ahead, and cruise to victory. You will not. There will be moments after classes have ended but before finals have begun where you will realize you haven’t eaten yet that day and probably should, or when you look around the packed library and realize that the sun went down a couple hours ago and you failed to notice because you were working on coming up with a clever mnemonic device for the prongs of the Second Restatement’s definition of ultra-hazardous activities. You will lurch through class notes and casebooks and be stupefied by the sheer quantity of material you covered over 14 short weeks. You will remember how confident you were that first day of class. You will either laugh at this memory, or you will despair. I highly encourage you to opt for the first option.
As the test date nears, relationships with friends will change. Everyone deals with finals stress differently. I had one friend who brought blankets and pillows to the library and set up a “Relaxation Corner” so we could take breaks. I had another friend who literally fell off the face of the earth and was neither seen nor heard from outside of the exam room. Be prepared to forgive and ask for forgiveness as everyone’s quirks and eccentricities become accentuated in the shared crucible of thousands of pages of cases.
For me, this lesson wasn’t fully learned until I arrived at the exam room for my first final. Here were my Sectionmates, the people I’d lived and worked with for three months. We were, to the man, exhausted. But we were laughing, cracking jokes as we filled water bottles and arranged our desks for optimal open-book efficiency. Once you realize this exercise is little more than a ludicrous game everyone has to play, the rest of exam period becomes far more palatable. That said….
2. It’s okay to panic. Just not too much.
I will not sugarcoat this even a little bit. Your entire grade depends on a single three-hour knowledge dump, and we (as law students) tend to be a competitive, Type-A bunch. At some point in your preparation for finals, there will probably be a moment when you look down at your half-finished outline and think, “This is the most important test I will take, and I’m not even slightly ready.”
Go ahead and sweat for a bit. Maybe even fight back tears. But realize that scattered across two residence halls, multiple libraries, empty classrooms, and study group rooms around campus are approximately 450 people who are thinking the exact same thing you are. Everyone’s in the same proverbial boat, and all of us are entitled to moments of anxiety-induced panic.
However, don’t panic too much. I cannot stress this enough. You’ll meet Sectionmates who seem completely unfazed by the notion of a high-stakes final, and others who turn ashen and start shaking every time you bring up a test date. You want to fall somewhere comfortably in the middle of those two extremes, where you can be both sane enough to sleep and scared enough to study. I fell far too closely to the “freak out always” side of the fence. Believe me, it’s not a place you want to spend your holiday season. But even if you DO freak out for three weeks solid, fear not! Because…
3. When it’s over, it’s over. High-five.
After our first final, some friends and I went to a local bar to “debrief” (read: beer and crepes). Without explicitly agreeing not to, none of us even breathed a word about Civil Procedure. Instead, we talked about holiday plans. A visiting boyfriend. How good the food was. Where to go Christmas shopping. We sat there in that bar for two hours, not once asking if anyone caught the Erie question in Part II, or whether Contracts was going to be harder next Tuesday. Instead, we celebrated: the exam was over. We’d survived!
Grades have yet to post (I pity the professors who must grade and curve 90 15-page exams), but preparations for next semester’s classes are already well underway. Syllabi have been sent. Casebooks, acquired. New highlighters, secured. When the results from my first semester in law school come out, I’m sure I’ll have all sorts of new opinions on exams and their worthwhileness (or uselessness). But looking back on each of the three mammoth tests and their aftermath, the quantity of information I took away was–frankly–unbelievable.
So when your first exam is done, grab five friends and find a bar. Sit. Eat. Talk. Laugh. And quietly celebrate your very real accomplishment: you survived!