Graduation, May 2012. One of the happiest days of my life, which was promptly followed by two of the most intense months of my life.
A little over a month ago I spent 18 hours in a ballroom in Century City completing the California Bar Exam. The exam capped off two months of intense studying. The bar exam is a unique experience. I took a prep class to prepare and get me ready for 18 hours of testing. My law school experience helped as well. Especially after my grueling finals schedule last winter (4 exams and a 40 page paper in less than 3 weeks), I knew I could handle the studying portion of the bar exam. I blogged back in early July that I actually felt pretty good about where I was with preparing for the exam and staying positive. Obviously there were some low moments (like calling my Mom at 6 pm on a Tuesday to ask for permission to take a break. Adulthood fail.) Overall I felt good about the bar prep.
The exam itself was an intense three days. Three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon were devoted to the test. I was really intense about protecting my sanity and sticking to a routine that I was comfortable with. I don’t get my results until November so who knows how successful I actually was. Yes, that is your disclaimer to take everything I’m about to write with a small grain of salt.
Beyond the “marathon” three day exam there were many aspects of studying that tested my mental endurance. Sitting in class listening to lectures for several hours then coming home to 5-8 hours of additional homework. Writing practice essay after practice essay. Sitting though all day simulated exams. Studying day in and day out, feeling like I wasn’t making very much real progress. Waiting to see scores increase on multiple choice sections and then seeing them plummet again. Hearing and seeing social media updates from well meaning classmates berating themselves for “low” scores (I refuse to believe that they were all low. Remember, law students generally perfectionists). Going back to barbri day after day and thinking “dear god no, not more material for me to internalize”. Constant monitoring of my mood, food and caffeine intake and sleep to make sure I was OK. Oh and dealing with everyday life. I learned this summer that the bar exam does not exist in a vacuum. Life is still happening and you still have to deal with it.
Wash, rinse, repeat over and over for two months. That is what preparing for the bar exam is all about.
By far the best thing I did to prepare for the bar (besides going to law school) was running the Chicago Marathon last fall. Hands down.
When I first got the marathon itch I knew that I wanted to complete it before the end of law school for several reasons. The main reason was that it’s easier to work a training schedule around being a student. However, it was also critical in my mind that I hit my marathon goal before embarking on the bar exam process. I knew that the bar exam was going to be the most challenging academic task of my career to date. The bar exam was my academic Everest.
The thing about running for me is that it has the power to remind me what I’m capable of, even in the midst of self doubt. Running for me is largely mind over matter. If I tell myself “you can finish this mile, race, etc”, I do. Finishing my first half marathon was a big ah-ha moment for me in that respect. I believe that most people can do anything they put their minds to and finishing half marathons, setting new personal bests, and completing the marathon is a reminder that I can do anything I want to do.
So I set out last October to run a marathon.
And I did.
Over the weekend while lazing around my apartment, half writing this post and half trying to decide what to put on my grocery list for this week (priorities), I decided to re-watch Spirit of the Marathon. I had watched it several times while I was training for Chicago to pump myself up but I hadn’t watched it since the race. During my re-watching several quotes from the movie rang truer than ever: “the marathon gives you an extra layer” “it reminds you that anything is possible” “when you cross the finish line, no matter how fast or how slow, it changes you forever”.
I also went back and read several blog posts that I wrote around the time of the marathon and found this from my marathon recap: “I’m proud that I finished but I’m even more proud of myself for never doubting my ability to finish and staying strong. I know that I will take that into everything I do in the future.”
While preparing for the bar exam, there were moments where I hit the mental wall. I distinctly remember one awful day in June where I cracked my crown eating sushi (HOW? This stuff only happens to me) and promptly panicked about maybe having to go to the dentist. I had a brief melted down and then put on my shoes and went out for a run as I typically do when anxiety hits. While running I thought back to how I felt running the marathon and I remembered how proud I was of myself for going into the race KNOWING I was going to finish. I had been so confident. I remember telling myself that no matter how tired I was I wanted to look strong when I saw my family and friends along the course. Through wanting to look strong, I became strong. The marathon, like the bar exam, came down to a mental game.
Throughout the rest of the bar exam, I approached the preparation as if I was training for Chicago again. I even compared test preparation as if I was running the marathon course again. I walked into the full day multiple choice simulated exam with calmness and confidence. I listened to my favorite running anthems on the drive to the testing facility. Half way through the first set I went to the bathroom, splashed water on my face and said to myself: “ok you’re at mile 8. Remember mile 8? You were in Boystown. There were ROTC cadets out. There were Lady Gaga impersonators. You felt so good you clapped and cheered on their performances from the course”. I went back out there and kept working. Towards the end of that simulated exam I was mentally exhausted and just did not care anymore. Again, I took a short break to reinvigorate and said to myself: “you’re at mile 23. Brenna and Claire and about to jump in with you. It’s time to finish strong. You can do this”. Total cornball move but, you know what, it worked! I went back to the exam feeling much better and looking back, I got more right in that section of the exam than I did in any other.
On test day I drove myself to the test listening to my favorite running songs. When the exam was about to start I had adrenaline was coursing through my system like it had before the marathon began. I thought to myself “You ran a marathon. How hard can this be?” and was off.
Here’s the thing: when it comes to the bar exam, you need to put in the work. And you know what? If you worked hard enough to graduate from law school, you WILL put in the work. It’s just who you are. Putting in the work isn’t the hardest aspect of the bar exam in my mind. The hardest thing is staying positive and knowing that you are capable of passing. The best tool I had to help me stay positive, outside of my network of family and friends, was the knowledge that when I want to do something I’m generally able to do it. Like finishing a marathon.