What if I Blank on the Bar Exam?

Picture this: On day one of the exam you read the first essay, an evidence question. Your heart speeds up, your palms start to sweat, and your mind starts racing.  You suddenly realize you can’t remember the hearsay exceptions.  In fact, you can’t even remember the definition of hearsay!

What happened to that information?  It was still in your brain, but you temporarily could not retrieve it.  In other words, you blanked.   Although scary, blanking is simply the result of your biological stress-response.  With a little understanding and practice, you can remedy even the worst-case scenario very quickly.

Think of your mind as a giant file cabinet.  When new information enters your brain, the information is analyzed and filed by your memory.  Your memory then retrieves the information from the file cabinet when you take the exam.

You use different types of memory to store and retrieve different types of information.  You use one type to store and retrieve the hearsay exceptions, and another when you learn to snowboard.

One type, your emotional memory, stores and retrieves emotional information such as fear and anger.  Because emotional information may signal external trouble, the emotional memory is also the body’s security guard and can sound your body’s emergency alarm – your stress response.

For example, if you are feeling fear because a lion is chasing you, your emotional memory will trigger your stress response, releasing stress hormones like adrenaline, and diverting all of your energy to escaping the lion.

When it sounds the alarm, your emotional memory also shuts off the rest of your memory, preventing you from taking in or retrieving other information.  After all, you don’t need those hearsay exceptions when you’re running from the lion.

But your emotional memory is like Chicken Little.  It cannot distinguish between fear of the bar exam and fear of a lion.  So if you feel very strong fear during the exam, your emotional memory may sound the alarm and shut down the rest of your memory, diverting your body’s resources to what it mistakenly believes is external trouble.

If that happens, your memory literally cannot retrieve the information from the file cabinet in your head – you blank.  To remedy blanking, you must learn how to shut off your stress response – to calm your body down.

If you blank on an exam, follow these steps to remedy the situation:

1. Remind yourself that blanking is temporary.  The information did not disappear.
2. Take a few deep slow breaths, breathing low into your belly.
3. Don’t pay attention to your thoughts, just focus on your calming down your body.
4. Relax the muscles in your body, melt into your chair.
5. If you still cannot retrieve the information, skip it and come back to it.

Practice makes perfect. The more you practice learning to calm your body now, especially during practice tests, the faster you can calm your body during the exam itself.

Want to learn more mental tools to rock the bar exam? Lauren Firestein is the founder of the Mind Over Bar Course, an innovative course that focuses only on the mental challenges of the bar exam.  The course teaches in-the-moment practices you can use to calm your body and clear your mind on exam day.