What’s so stressful about studying for the LSAT? Oh, nothing. Just that it’s a completely new way of thinking and reasoning, it can’t be learned by memorization, and it all leads up to a one-day exam that determines a great deal of your financial future for the rest of your life. Sounds relaxing, right?
Yeah. Not so much. So, whether you’re just starting your LSAT journey or in the midst of a particularly stressful passage, let’s pause for a moment and address the stress.
Let’s start by defining some of the feelings you might experience while studying, taking practice tests, and even on LSAT day. Then, once we’ve gotten the lay of the land, we’ll go over some self-care tools you may want to throw into the backpack you’re bringing on your LSAT journey.
Quick disclaimer: the tips here are intended as a starting point to help you decide which methods of self-care you may wish to incorporate into your study plan. This isn’t medical advice, and it isn’t a substitute for speaking with a mental health professional. If you’re in crisis or having thoughts of self-harm, seek medical assistance right away.
For some people, tests trigger an intense physical and mental fear response. It’s not uncommon for the LSAT to create test anxiety, even in people who haven’t experienced it with other tests. Students dealing with test anxiety may report any or all of the following during practice tests and/or the official LSAT:
- Tension in the body, especially in the chest and stomach
- Shortness of breath
- Heart racing
- Feeling suddenly warm or cold
- Words swimming on the page or a sense of “having forgotten how to read”
- Tunnel vision
- Suddenly forgetting things you have practiced thoroughly
- Difficulty sleeping before a test
- Nausea or lack of appetite before a test
- Uncontrollable, repetitive thoughts of failure
- An intense feeling of dread
- In extreme cases, hives, rashes, and other physical symptoms can occur as a response to tests
These aren’t all of the ways test anxiety can manifest, but they’re some of the most common. Any distressing feelings or symptoms that happen only leading up to, during, and immediately after a test might be related to test anxiety.
Test anxiety isn’t about how good you are or aren’t at taking tests. Even people who have always done well on standardized tests can develop test anxiety. It also isn’t an indication of whether or not you’re well-prepared for a test. No matter how much you study, if you’re prone to test anxiety, you may feel like you’ve never done enough.
It’s normal to be nervous about a big test, but test anxiety so intense that it prevents a person from continuing a test or causes them to underperform significantly may be a symptom of a clinical condition that could benefit from professional treatment. In severe cases, test anxiety can even be serious enough to qualify a test-taker for disability accommodations.
Overwhelm and its more long-lasting cousin, burnout, can happen at any time during an intense study process, not just around the time of a practice test or official LSAT. Both of these feelings relate to a sense of needing to do more than you have the capacity to do. Test-takers experiencing overwhelm/burnout may report some or all of the following:
- Feeling not just unwilling but unable to study
- Sleeping a lot less or a lot more than usual
- Avoiding people, places, and things that serve as reminders of the test
- Head, neck, and/or stomach pain when trying to study
- New or worsening difficulty focusing
- Feeling tired all the time, and/or falling asleep during normal activities despite having gotten plenty of sleep
- Intense desire to quit studying
- Making little or no progress when you study
Neither “overwhelm” nor “burnout” is an officially recognized medical diagnosis in the United States, though burnout is listed as a syndrome in the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases, 11th edition). That doesn’t mean you can’t go to a doctor or therapist to talk about it, though. Most medical professionals understand that these feelings can cause serious mental and physical symptoms.
Not to mention, a lot of items on the above list could also be symptoms of a physical illness. So, if you’re feeling this way—sorry not sorry about repeating this message so many times—please do see a doctor or mental health professional. Don’t assume you’re “just” burned out unless your doctor has ruled out other causes.
Stress can be a good thing. When you lift weights in the gym, you’re stressing your muscles to make them stronger. When you study hard for a test, you’re stressing your mind to make it learn a new skill.
Too much stress can turn into overwhelm (see above) pretty quickly, though. So, if you know you’re under extra stress, it’s a good idea to check in with yourself and make a stress management plan. Here are some possible signs that you’re dealing with a potentially unhealthy level of study stress:
- Increased frequency of self-critical thoughts like “I’m never going to score well” or “I’m just too lazy to study properly”
- Feeling unable to turn off “LSAT brain” even during days off from studying
- Getting angry about minor study schedule disruptions
- Feeling unhappy more often than usual
- Inability to enjoy things that used to be fun
- Only wanting to study things that feel easy, avoiding challenges
- Finding excuses not to study, then feeling guilty about it later
- Magnifying the scope of problems—missing two more questions on one practice test than the last one becomes “I’m just not smart enough to be a lawyer”
Once again, while “stressed out about the LSAT” isn’t a formal diagnosis, you should still see a doctor or mental health professional if you’re feeling this way. They can help you differentiate between study stress and farther-reaching mental health conditions that could require a more intensive treatment approach.
Now, let’s discuss some free and very low-cost tools you can use to improve your well-being either in conjunction with professional advice or after confirming with a medical professional that your symptoms are mild enough to manage on your own.
These are options, not a to-do list. Most people focus on one or two self-care strategies at a time. Do what makes you feel better, in consultation with any applicable medical providers, and forget about what doesn’t.
Yes, you do actually have to rest while you’re prepping for a big test. Yes, even if you could fit in an extra practice test each week if you slept six hours a night instead of seven. LSAT students tend to be high achievers with mottos like “no pain, no gain” and “if you want something you’ve never had, you must do something you’ve never done.” But what if the “thing you’ve never done” is give yourself enough rest to learn optimally?
You have the rest of your life to take the LSAT and go to law school. Even if getting enough rest means you need to push your exam date forward, that’s a better outcome than making yourself sick with overwork.
The Two-Letter Life Hack
“No.” When you’re prepping for the LSAT, you get to say that beautiful little two-letter word a lot more. Most people understand that you can’t say yes to every social invitation when you’re in the middle of a time-consuming, mentally exhausting study process. So, consider treating your LSAT prep period as an opportunity to get rid of some unwanted obligations.
You’re on the board of a student group that stresses you out and doesn’t make your life any better? “Respectfully, I must step away from this position in order to focus on studying for the LSAT.” Your friends always want to go out three nights a week, but you’re more of a one-night-out, six-nights-in person? “Thanks for inviting me, but I’ve decided to only go out on Saturday nights until after my LSAT.”
You get the picture. Simplify your life by saying no more. Lean on the LSAT as an excuse. Not only will it cut down on your stress levels, but you actually will have more time to study.
You’ve probably already heard that you should be meditating. “Try meditating” is one step above “drink water” in the painfully obvious self-care lexicon.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of reliable research suggesting that meditation can improve executive attention (the kind of brain function that allows you to focus on something like the LSAT). It’s also shown potential for addressing various forms of anxiety, including test anxiety. Even a couple of minutes of mindfulness meditation each day correlates with statistically significant positive effects in some studies.
Most meditation apps offer some short, guided mindfulness meditations for free. YouTube videos and meditation podcasts are another free option. Students who don’t like sitting still can meditate while standing or lying down or try alternatives like walking meditation and mindful painting.
People with serious mental health diagnoses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) should not start a meditation practice without consulting a medical provider.
Frequently used in the ADHD community, body doubling is a productivity method that involves using another person for motivation and accountability without actually asking them to do anything. Many people find that simply having another person quietly working in the same room during a planned study session makes them more efficient, more focused, and even less anxious. Some people even find that this technique works remotely, either by logging into Zoom with a friend or watching a body-doubling livestream.
One caveat: if your friends keep distracting you when they’re in the same room, using them as body doubles won’t help you study!
“Touch grass” is actually, quite literally, a great way to cut down on your stress and improve your ability to learn. Many studies suggest that exposing yourself to natural environments can improve cognition, increase working memory, and promote a more positive mood. This seems to work about equally well in “green” environments, like parks and forests, and “blue” environments, like walking paths near rivers and lakes, and snowy landscapes.
Interestingly, nature exposure seems to work just as well in unpleasant weather as when it’s nice out. So, even if it’s freezing or hot and humid, consider taking a walk/roll outdoors, away from concrete and asphalt, as often as you can. Put your phone on airplane mode or turn it off when using nature as a self-care strategy—it’s not going to work if you don’t actually see the park/woods/beach.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Developed in the 1930s, this muscle tightening and release technique has been studied as a means of relieving both physical and psychological pain. You can find podcasts, YouTube videos, and more that guide you through PMR step-by-step, but the basics are pretty simple: starting with your toes and moving gradually up to your head and face, clench each muscle group in your body as hard as you can for 5-10 seconds, then release.
If PMR works well to help you relax, you can try it before study sessions and practice tests. If it keeps helping you, there’s no reason not to use it before your official LSAT—as long as you set a timer for when you need to log on and start your test, just in case you get so relaxed you stop watching the clock.
Unlike the stage hypnosis you may have seen at magic shows or renaissance festivals, clinical hypnosis is a well-studied technique of deep relaxation. It’s even been used as an alternative to anesthesia for simple surgeries. While having a professional hypnotize you can cost beaucoup bucks, the Internet is rife with guided self-hypnosis tracks you can use to try out hypnosis with nothing more than a pair of headphones. It’s definitely not magic—you can’t actually “hypnotize yourself to never procrastinate again”—but it can be very soothing.
Don’t worry, a YouTube self-hypnosis relief video isn’t going to subject you to mind control or out you in a trance. It’s just a visualization technique. You may feel intensely relaxed, but you’ll be able to come right back to full alertness anytime you want.
Some of us need to embrace a slight change to our perspective when studying for the LSAT.
We'll want to make a slight change to our perspectives because … well, as you study for the LSAT, you'll probably answer a lot of questions incorrectly. Way more than you're used to.
While we all can, eventually, get better at the LSAT, we can't change that overnight. It'll take some time. What we can try to change right now is our attitudes. Even if it feels a little contrived, we can start by embracing the mistakes we make on the exam. We can try to view said mistakes as a necessary part of the learning process.
Of course, that's easier said than done. If you miss a bunch of questions in a row or a practice test goes poorly, whatever sound argument I can make in favor of "embracing mistakes" is going to pale in comparison to the emotions you'll feel in that moment.
But, our friends over in the cognitive behavioral therapy field have a simple, easy-to-implement technique that's been proven to improve people's mindsets, even in adverse situations. It's called "thought labeling." We'll adjust it to our purposes.
If you ever answer a question incorrectly on the test and you feel upset, just say "I only made a mistake. I can learn from this." That simple act of labeling a wrong question as merely a "mistake" from which we can learn can keep our minds from drifting to darker, unhelpful, and false thoughts like, "I can't do this" or "I'll never get better at this."
And if our minds do start to drift there, that's OK. Don't beat yourself up about it. If you start to experience thoughts directed toward yourself or your capabilities, just say, "That is just a thought. It's not reality." Labeling negative thoughts as just "thoughts" can increase our ability to understand and manage our emotions and decrease our feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.
Journaling to Defang the Inner Critic
Speaking of managing negative thoughts, you can also keep a journal to challenge your negative thoughts with objective evidence. For example, if you catch yourself constantly thinking, “I don’t have what it takes to be a lawyer,” you could try writing out all the reasons you think you won’t make it in the legal field, and then asking yourself if you’ve seen proof in the real world that people with those traits can’t become successful lawyers.
For example, if one of your reasons for thinking your future legal career is dead in the water is “My LSAT diagnostic score was only 140,” you could challenge that belief by writing down an objectively verifiable truth, like: “Studies find that even students’ final LSAT scores only predict 1L grades, not career success. Initial diagnostic scores are probably even less predictive of legal success or failure.”
One caveat: if your brain is really, really mean to you, you might need to do this whole challenging negative self-talk thing under the guidance of a professional, so you don’t wind up just using your journal as another way to beat yourself up. (“I have so many negative thoughts that don’t turn out to be based in reality, man, I must be stupid!”)
Of course, maintaining a healthy mindset isn't just about avoiding negativity. It should also be about appreciating the positive developments we'll experience on our study journey. Eventually, these positive developments will result in an increased score. But that can take some time.
So, we should appreciate progress in all of its forms. We can find little things along the way to get excited about. If you hit any of these benchmarks in your study plan, don't ignore them! Give yourself a little reward if you'd like.
- Multi-day streak of sticking to your study plan
- Increased accuracy on a certain question type
- Successfully incorporating solutions into practice
- Finishing a section within time limits for the first time
- Enjoying logic games
- Identifying flawed logic in the real world
We’ve noticed that the students who learn to enjoy the process of studying — with all of its ups and downs — are those who stick with the LSAT and, ultimately, make the most substantial score increases.