December is a strange month for students. While working folk are revving up for the holidays, attending parties, and shopping for gifts, those of us in school are hibernating in libraries with exam materials. We are loathing the Christmas carols on full blast in every café and shop. I’ve heard classmates (and myself) say, “People are just so . . . happy.” At this time of year, I personally feel more like the Grinch than one of Santa’s little helpers.
Law school amplifies this grouchiness. Law exams are some of the most stressful and difficult exams I’ve ever taken. At the very least, they require more preparation than others in my experience. December (and most of November to be honest) are useless months for anything else but studying. My non-law friends are shocked when I emerge from my study cave after being offline for so long, “Rebecca? Is that actually you calling?”
In third year, however, this pattern changes — and for the better. I definitely disappeared for a while, but not nearly to the same extent or for the same amount of time. There is work to do, of course, but somehow it didn’t require as much sacrifice. 3Ls may not be sipping on eggnog as they study, but the mood certainly shifts from years prior.
Most notable was the decrease in my stress level this year. I haven’t laughed as much during any law exam period as I did during this one. Exams were something that had to get done, yet they weren’t the focus of all of my energy, certainly not my emotional energy.
Why the shift? Well, I think many would say they don’t care as much — or the consequences are not as great. For those who have articling positions lined up, the pressure to perform for employers isn’t as heavy as before. But even for those still looking, exams seem to be put in perspective. They aren’t the “be-all and end-all” of your career and certainly not of your education.
Or maybe at this stage, law students are just that much smarter and more strategic. You know what you need to do to get the result you want and you work for that.
For me, it was a mixture of both — feeling more confident about my skills and feeling less invested in the outcome. The anxiety I felt during exams in first and even second year was not worth repeating. The time and energy I put in did not necessarily correlate with grades received. The courses I felt I really understood and learned from were not my best marks. So why put myself in that position again?
This is where strategy and smarts entered into it. By this point in my law degree, I knew what I needed to do to understand the material and how to translate that on the page. I knew I had the capacity to write a decent law exam and I was confident in that ability.
Where exactly I fell on the curve I left up to the arbitrariness of law school grading. Resigning myself to the fact exam results can surprise you really lightened my load. My focus was on achieving a solid grasp of the material, recognizing I wouldn’t become an expert in the field after only 50 hours of lecture time, and not feeling the need to.
Third year really is a treat in this regard. The perspective and understanding you gain makes everything a whole lot easier. If every stage of law school was like this, it would turn the game around. But I guess perspective comes from learning, which takes time.
However, I still think the exam experience in 3L can and should be replicated earlier. There is no need to cut yourself off from the real world for so long while paying the price both physically and emotionally. If exams weren’t the only method of grading students, if they weren’t worth 100 per cent of the final grade, if they were created to actually test students on knowledge and not the speed at which one can regurgitate a summary, then we might make some progress for the benefit of our health.
At this point, exams are over and hopefully those reading this have something warm in hand and nothing more to worry about other than the liquor store’s holiday hours. I hope this feeling of relaxation continues into 2014 and the new year is full of joy.