BY ERIN ARCHERD
This is a true story. I’m still here to tell it, so rest assured, 1L, that you will likely survive finals, sanity intact. I don’t tell you any of this to scare you, but to help you avoid my pitfalls and to enjoy your winter break.
1. Do What Works for You.
Take what follows as general guidelines and not holy writ. Everyone has different study habits and comprehension levels. While you certainly can, and will, compare yourself to others, you don’t need to hold yourself to the same standards. I recall my first semester of college, when a boy in one of my classes came running up to me the day before our Great Books final practically foaming at the mouth because he’d only read the books twice. I put down the novel I was reading – I was taking a study break in the dorm lounge – and looked at him like he was insane. Read the books twice? Whatever for?
There will be people who have outlined all the cases throughout the semester. That doesn’t need to be you. And don’t worry about the guy across the hall who has read all the cases twice, and then produced a 100-page outline. Law school exams are not about spouting off case details, but about applying legal reasoning. Being able to compare and contrast cases is helpful, but if you can’t lay out an argument clearly and quickly, then knowing the legal percentage of horse meat in a can of dog food (was it 49.5 or 50.1 %?) isn’t going to help you.
Some people love hornbooks. Yes, your professors tell you not to use them, but people do. I found Glannon’s for Civil Procedure to be helpful in clarifying how to apply the rules. On the other hand, my property course was more policy focused than rule based, and I didn’t need a hornbook at all. I would skip the commercial outlines, but it’s your call.
2. Relax, Don’t Goof Off.
Unless you’re a machine, and I know that some of you are, you will need to take study breaks from time to time. Eat meals with your family. Go to movies with your friends. Walk the dog. Don’t spend two days lying on the couch watching BBC America.
Study breaks are an important and necessary part of studying, but don’t let your breaks run away with you. It’s easy for a two-hour break to turn into a four-hour excursion to turn into a weekend. If you need a weekend, take it, but don’t let the fear of finals and ennui lull you into a two week long avoidance pattern of trashy novels, soap operas, and partying with your friends.
3. Schedule Frequent, but Short, Breaks.
Taking frequent, but less than two hour, breaks works well for me. I can get in a study zone for about three to four hours at a time, but after that, I need to watch some TV or grab a meal. Your own style might be different, but don’t feel like unless you’re studying 12 hours a day you will fail your exams (more on that later).
4. But Give Yourself a Few Days Off.
It’s the holidays. You need to work, but you also deserve some time off too. Your first semester throws a lot at you personally and academically. You may have broken up with your girlfriend. You may feel like the stupidest person in your class. You may decide once you get home that you’re never coming back, or that you can’t wait to come back to Cambridge.
It’s not a bad idea to take a day or two over break to reflect on the past semester. Go around your hometown and remember what the world is like away from Harvard. It might just make you appreciate your peers and the vibrant intellectual community at HLS. My parents, for example, live about 15 minutes outside a town in eastern Washington state. The biggest chain there is the Shell Station. There’s not even a Wal-Mart – not that I would shop there, except to buy those fuzzy posters that you color in with markers.
5. Preserve Your Health.
Get lots of sleep and drink your water. Take some vitamin C. Once you get back to HLS it’ll be crunch time. Your cortisone levels will skyrocket and you’ll be in for a huge hormonal let down once your finals are over. It’s best to start in as robust health as you can.
It’s also smart to nip illness in the bud. The pre-finals break was an awful time for my health last year. I figured I was stressed and breaking out in hives. By the time my parents finally dragged me into the local clinic, it turned out I had a flesh eating bacterial infection common in preschoolers and had to be put on a strong course of antibiotics. Lesson: if you think you’re sick, go to the doctor.
6. Spend Time with Family and Friends.
You owe these people. They are providing the emotional and, perhaps, the financial support to get you through law school. Yes, you will have some time after finals to hang out with people, that is, unless you plan on chilling out in Jamaica or trying to write a note for your student journal. However, you should make an effort to take a day or two to show the people you’ve spent the entire semester whining to, lashing out at, and ignoring a little bit of personal attention.
My 1L New Year’s I flew out to Chicago to spend a few days with a friend from college. It was worth it. I didn’t study for three whole days. My flesh-eating bacteria had subsided. I was well rested and well fed by the time I returned to Cambridge for three days of massive cramming, just me, Glannon’s, and my growing sense of impending doom.
7. You Pay Your Fees…
You will not fail. You are unlikely to get a C. You have heard the rumors. I’m not advocating that you don’t study hard. After all, what are you here for but to learn about the law? Besides, you got here because you were either incredibly bright, incredibly hardworking, or a combination of the two. You might even surprise yourself, as I have done, and realize that you’re actually interested in the material.
Law school has given me some valuable lessons about dealing with stressful situations…don’t panic and bring a towel (oh wait, that was Douglas Adams). Well, don’t panic anyway. If you review the cases, make some semblance of an outline, and take a few hours to think about the issues, you will pass your exams.
You’ll only get to take your first 1L finals once. Do or do not. There is no try.
Erin Archerd is a 2L.