Wednesday, December 12, 2018

You've Messed Up on Exams -- Now What?

It's inevitable. Coming out of any law school exam, someone will know they messed up -- or feel like they've messed up. The list of things that can go wrong in an exam seems endless, from random quirks of fate to "I knew better than this but did it anyway" scenarios. Sometimes folks already have the sinking feeling coming out of the exam; others are filled with confidence over their performance until they start discussing the exam with others.

If the person who messed up was you, what do you do?

Unlike a lot of people, I'm not going to tell you to ignore that sinking feeling. You want a pity party? -- go ahead and throw it. Whether you know you messed up or whether you merely feel bad about your performance, it's disingenuous for those of us on the outside to tell you not to worry. It's like someone sitting in a warm dry house advising you not to panic when you get lost in the woods. So feel free to wallow in your misery, as long as you follow these ground rules:

  • Only one person is invited to the pity party. You.
  • You have ten minutes to wallow. Period.

Your ten minutes is up. Feel better? I thought so. Your emotions may still be running high, however, going in one of two directions:

  • It's not really my fault. The professor / the proctor / the tech person  /  the ________ (fill in your favorite scapegoat) messed up. I shouldn't have to pay for their mistakes.


  • I am such an idiot. I don't belong here. I deserve to be thrown out. I should just disappear and not come back next semester.

Whichever is the case, now is your time to act like a lawyer. Be calm, be analytical, and spend your energy on solving problems, not on brooding about them.

Let's say the problem was caused or exacerbated by another person's actions. Was it a problem that's likely to recur? If by speaking up you can help prevent it from recurring during this exam period, by all means speak up, recognizing as you do that intelligent persons of good will can make mistakes. So focus not on blame -- "S/he did this which messed up my exam!" -- but on identifying a problem which might affect you or other test-takers in the future and on suggesting ways to prevent the problem.

Can you identify something discrete you personally did wrong? ("I skipped Question 5 but I didn't skip the scantron bubble for that question, so all my multiple choice answers are off by one"). After you have finished the exam, there will rarely be a chance of fixing the problem for that particular exam, but don't hesitate to calmly explain your problem to the exam coordinator in case there is a solution you hadn't considered. Communicate only with the exam coordinator -- writing a direct note to the professor, either in the exam itself or by a message after the exam, is never fruitful and may actually constitute an honor code violation by violating anonymity. Knowing that you made mistakes, accept yourself as a human, learn from the mistake and vow to not repeat it, forgive yourself, and move on.

In addition to things you know you messed up, you may feel you messed up based on your emotional reaction coming out of an exam ("I just flailed around and did awfully") or based on hearing others talk about the exam ("I didn't spot the same issue everyone else saw in the second essay"). Especially for 1Ls, neither one of these is an especially reliable way of analyzing your performance. Group post-mortems often get off track and usually freak people out unnecessarily, and your subjective reaction to an exam is rarely reliable. Step back from your own emotions (your pity party is already over, remember?) and view your reaction from the vantage point of a sympathetic outsider. Acknowledge that your very emotion shows that you care deeply about what you're doing. and practice self-compassion.

If you have a tendency to mull over your mistakes, real or imagined, now's the time to learn the lawyerly skill of harnessing those feelings toward improved performance. If you are still in the middle of exams, think about how you can apply what you learned from your mistake towards doing better on the next exam. If your semester's exams are over, practice empathetic self-reflection where you identify the type of mistakes you tend to make during exams and brainstorm ways of preventing those mistakes. Realize that worrying cannot help your grade: it will only distract you from paying attention to those ideas, experiences, and relationships you should be concentrating on now. Know that your both your successes and your mess-ups have the potential to move you along the path of becoming a better lawyer.  (Nancy Luebbert)

Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink


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