Using test day nervousness to your advantage

LSAT test anxiety
By Jim P.

Aristotle argues that fortitude (or “perseverance”) is not the absence of fear or nervousness. Rather, it is the willingness and ability to complete something daunting even in the presence of tremendous fear. Fear, then, is a necessary and natural part of perseverance.

Similarly, perseverance on LSAT test day does not involve the complete elimination of nerves. I would characterize it as the ability to deal nimbly and calmly with the task at hand even in the midst of inevitable nerves. This is because you are a human being and so will be nervous taking the LSAT—that is, unless you’re a non-human cyborg. There is relatively little you can do to control this. You can, however, control how to manage these nerves. You may even be able to harness them to you advantage. 

First off, the single most important factor in coping with test-day nerves is the effort you’ve put into learning and practicing this test in the months leading up to the LSAT. I think the best analogy here is that of a professional athlete. Even the greatest champions will say that they feel nervous staring down the 18th hole, lining up for a field goal, or standing on the free-throw line. But they’re able to prevent these feelings from screwing with them by relying on the muscle memory they’ve cultivated over years and years of practice. They’re not even really ‘thinking’ about their swing, kick, or shot—they just ‘do it’ because it comes naturally and almost automatically. This is exactly where you want to be on test-day. Like an athlete, you should solve Logic Games, bull-dozer through Reading Comp passages, and destroy Logical Reasoning arguments with nearly automatically precision. You get there by prepping well and putting yourself repeatedly in the situation that causes nerves. 

And this gets to my next point. The athletes with the best mental toughness are the ones who have been in make-or-break situations at several points in their careers. This is because they’ve cultivated the ability to execute in non-practice environments (often after several initial failures). Similarly, the best LSAT-takers should seek to practice the test in environments as close as possible to the actual test day. This means taking PTs at the same time as you’ll be taking the actual test, eating the same (healthy!) breakfast you plan to eat on test day, and perhaps even wearing the same outfit you plan to wear for test day. As weird as it sounds, you should also try to ‘psych yourself’ in the time leading up to a PT into imagining it as the ‘real deal’ – allow yourself to get a little bit stressed and then take the PT as a way of practicing execution in the midst of nerves. Over time, you may notice that the adrenaline rush caused by this controlled and practiced state of nervousness strangely improves your performance. This was certainly the case in my LSAT experience.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that you should let your nervousness go hay-wire. You want to be calm, not frantic. Calmness and nervousness can co-exist. Do some breathing exercises before the test, in between sections, or even in the middle of a section if you need a few seconds to regroup. Take a short walk around the block about an hour before test time. Do some light stretches and get the blood pumping just a bit. Get plenty of sleep the night before the test (and perhaps consider a warm bath, some tea, and/or a bit a melatonin to ensure you can get to sleep). Do not drink coffee if you usually don’t, and don’t drink any more than you normally do. Do not stay up late looking at screens. Do not skip out on breakfast. Do not forget to use the bathroom before your test.

But do know that nerves will come—and more importantly, that you can learn how to manage them, balance them with a sense of calm, and ultimately use them to your advantage.

Jim graduated from St Andrews with first-class honors in History and Theology. After working for the Federalist Society, he's now pursuing an MPhil in Theology at the University of Oxford.


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