How I survived GDL exams

Photo: My first sips of freedom!

So, I did it. I completed the GDL! For the past three months I have seen myself pushed to my absolute limit and then witnessed myself stretch and grow. Personally for me the biggest take away of this GDL experience is that I have definitive proof that I can do anything. I survived the GDL, and that is an achievement that can never be taken away from me.

Beating exam anxiety 

Before this course I had been unable to sit one of my final exam papers because of exam anxiety. By the end of this course I’d successfully sat seven papers and felt more calm and in control than ever before. There are so many things that I’d been wanting to share with you all but I knew it would be useless for me to try to write another post until I’d actually finished the course. Now that I’m done, I’m ready to share what I’d learned and all of the exam preparation advice I have for those of you that choose to tackle the GDL.

The results are in…

The day results came out I immediately called my Mum and she stopped the car so we could find out what the verdict was. It reminded me of A Level results day which was probably the origin of my deep-seated fear of exams. I remember opening my results to discover I’d been placed in clearing. I’m a Virgo who strives to attain perfection in every single thing I do, so you know it’s not an exaggeration when I tell you I spent the rest of the day crying in my car. Many phone calls later and after a pep talk from my Mum, I got myself together and phoned Warwick. I got in straight away and the rest is history.

I knew I wasn’t going to manage to open them alone so I needed my Mum there. I was stressed and my hands were shaking. I do everything for my Mum because I want to make her proud with everything I do to show how grateful I am for the opportunities she’s given me. The thought of letting her down is paralysing.

After saying a little prayer, I opened my results and saw that I’d been given a Commendation (a high one at that!) I also got two Distinctions in Criminal Law and Equity and Trusts! I fought tooth and nail to battle through my anxiety and fears; I even had multiple mini-panic attacks mid-Contract exam and still finessed my way through. I’m punching the sky now because I sat every paper and I didn’t disappoint my Mum. She was super proud of me and really happy which is all I wanted.

What would I do differently?

Honestly, I don’t think I could have given more than I gave. I definitely could have done more practice questions, been in a better head space at times and I know that there are about 100 other ways I could have done things differently. But all the way through my one aim was to keep myself together and carry myself like a student who wants to get 70%+. Whether or not the examiner agreed was up to them but that’s the level of effort and energy I brought to everything even if I was struggling to breathe before I got into the exam room! So that’s my first advice, carry yourself like someone who wants to do well and push yourself to stay in that focused mindset.

“Failure to prepare is preparing to fail” – Do all of your work, attend every lecture, prepare for every tutorial!

Before I begin talking about how I survived studying the exams and managed to keep myself together in order to sit each paper, I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t stress to you how essential it is for you to have done all of your work during the year.

My mum’s favorite phrase is “failing to prepare is preparing to fail” and honestly that couldn’t be more apt for the GDL. From the first day of lectures prepare like someone who is going to be consulting those same notes seven months later in order to revise for the exam (because you will be). Remember that the future version of yourself is going to be really annoyed if when it comes to crunch time all you have in place of lecture notes are a few scribbles or incoherent notes. Invest in yourself by working hard from day one. One regret I had from final year of my undergraduate degree (and which probably contributed to my anxiety) was having to type up notes when I would have much rather been making ‘crib sheets’ and using them to practice answering questions before the exams.

When it came down to it, two months to revise seven modules was never going to be enough. I saved my own skin by making (mostly) clear notes all year. I always tried to make sure that my lecture notes were complete (if you can get your hands on lecture recordings/notes do not neglect to take time every week or two to ensure that your notes are complete). Don’t sleep on preparing for tutorials. Please take the time to read the relevant book chapter or  a journal article discussing the relevant issues at hand. Leave useful signposts for yourself and whilst you do not have to read all of the cases, ensure that you have made notes on the ratio for each and how it clarifies/affects a particular principle.

Remember, City is one of the few GDL providers that will ask you to sit all of the papers at the end of the year, so please be ready for what you signed up for and factor that into where you decide to sit the course.

“I’m too old to be stressing about exams, I’m 24!” – Avoid stress by having a game plan

The above quotation came from a friend of mine just before our Contract Law exam and I made a mental note back then to include it in this blog post! As I mentioned earlier and in other posts/YouTube videos, exam anxiety was my personal Goliath and the GDL was going to be opportunity for me to become David and slay it once and for all. It had to be. I couldn’t be serious about becoming a barrister if I still had confidence issues over assessments.  So from day one I had a game plan.

What do you want from me examiner?!

I mentioned earlier how preparing well for the revision period involved taking good notes. Another element of the game plan was taking time to understand exactly what the examiner wanted. Those of you who’ve watched my GDL Vlog with LawCareers.net will be familiar with the video where we (me and Christianah, an LLB student) unboxed/reviewed revision guides. These guides were ESSENTIAL in clarifying exactly what the examiner wanted from me and also where the very specific areas of debate/problematic areas in the law lay for each topic. My revision process would always start with reading over the introductory chapter to the Q&A revision book where they would set out what examiners were looking for. It was here I got to grips with the ‘IRAC’ structure and developed an idea of exactly where the examiners would be looking to give marks.

Don’t neglect past papers

The next step was skimming through each of the past papers for each topic with the mark scheme alongside. I looked at the questions and the corresponding notes one the mark scheme and organised questions into thematic areas. This allowed me to see where similar questions were being asked and all of the different directions questions on a particular topic area could go. I created a word document with all of this information and when it came to picking topics to revise I had this to turn to.

Pick your topics…choose wisely and check your selection against past papers

The final stage of the game plan was to pick topics. There are many ways you can make this process easier for yourself (because honestly Professors can be completely useless in this regard…no shade). The first way is to listen to what your Professor has said is not examinable or not in their interest to put on the exam (there will always be golden eggs like this, sometimes you have to push them for the info, but get it).

Looking through mark schemes and organising questions thematically is an essential step. It allows you to see which topics crop up in different questions and where topics are standalone. Consider what you have to do for the paper, if you have four questions to answer then you’re going to need five topics for the exam. Which five are coming to you easier than others? Which questions do you like the look of and wouldn’t mind answering? Check the mark scheme –  some questions ask for straightforward application of the law and are much less ‘up in the air’ than others. Once you’ve picked five topics, go back through the past papers and ensure that if you were to have sat the exam with those topics prepared you would have had four questions to comfortably answer.

Learn your cases, flashcards are your friend

If it wasn’t for Quizlet, I never would have been able to finish these exams. Flashcards are your best friend during these exams. The best thing about Quizlet is that it helps you learn cases through various memorisation exercises. Once you’ve learned them, they are really stuck in there for good. I can’t recommend it enough!

Don’t overwhelmed – keep track of your game plan with an Excel spreadsheet

Once this is done, find a way to keep track. I created an excel document and colour-coded it (you’ve heard about my love for colour-coding before). Red meant I had sparse/unfinished notes, orange meant notes are done and the topic is ready to revise, green meant the topic had been revised, crib sheet had been made and I was ready to answer questions. This helped me visually map where I was at with my revision and meant I wasn’t overwhelmed. At all times I knew what I’d done and what I wasn’t firm on yet.

“I’m addicted to winning and I can’t be benched” – Nicki Minaj

A critical element of my exam preparation process was constantly meditating upon how I am a strong and powerful human being and it is not in me to fail. Boundless self-love is so essential to keeping any anxiety at bay. Being prepared is one thing, being nervous is another (and perhaps is inevitable) but being confident that despite the nerves and despite the pressure you will persevere is critical. Do whatever you need to do to feel like LeBron James at the beginning of the playoffs. Or, in my case, to feel like Nicki Minaj in her iconic Summer Jam 2014 performance when she popped a squat, screwed up her face and emphatically declared “BITCH I’M ME!” with the sound of an assault rifle playing in the background. Hip Hop is perhaps the most braggadocious genre there is. It’s impossible not to feel 10/10 after listening to a high-energy Rap track. Before my first exam I was listening to 2Pac ‘Hit ’em up’ (the iconic Biggie diss track) and it worked wonders. (Disclaimer, don’t listen if you’re easily offended).

Whatever it is that makes you feel unstoppable, embrace it. Be it a playlist, going for a run, boxing, meditation – be sure to tap into that part of yourself that knows you can do anything. Because if you believe you can do anything, the universe has no choice but to accept that energy. This is a personal ritual you will need to be doing for the rest of your career. I have seen barristers doing the same thing before they go to court. I once watched a barrister go through her pre-court ritual, part of which involved putting on a really vibrant lip colour before striding into court and owning it.

Don’t just wait to psych yourself up before the exam. Do it before you study. Tell yourself ‘today I will slay easements’ or ‘by the end of the day I will have mastered incorporation of exclusion clauses’. To see examples of me doing this just scroll through my twitter feed during exams. I would tweet out something like “by 3pm my notes will be done” and it feels really great to hit that goal.

“Don’t lock yourself in your bedroom when March comes around” – Have a study buddy

I would be lying to you if I said there weren’t times I laid down on the floor with a problem question projected onto a whiteboard with no will or energy to move or continue. If it wasn’t for my absolute angel of a study buddy Aqsa I wouldn’t have made it through. Simply having someone who understood what I was going through and could sympathize at my frustration when family or personal drama was draining my energy was incredible. There’s nothing like meeting up with your friend who can instantaneously understand exactly what you mean when you want to have a vent about a particular module.

Studying together allowed us to support and encourage each other, as well as ensuring that we both understood the topic and any complexities within it. We would prepare separately and then come together to practice questions and make essay plans before the exam. Honestly, when your energy is low and you feel overwhelmed having your study buddy there to join forces with and push over the finish line is amazing.

“Teamwork is essential on the GDL” – Make a Facebook group for your GDL Course

In one of my earliest GDL blog posts where I reviewed my first week on the GDL, I mentioned how the head of the course stressed the importance of working together and he didn’t lie. Teamwork is at the core of the GDL. It is a ridiculous and rather stupid course (I don’t think any of my professors mind me saying so). They do their best to help us to meaningfully  engage with the content as much as possible but it is frustrating for them and for us. Nine months to learn an entire law degree is painful and we are humans. The GDL isn’t the only thing we have going on. There’s applications, work, family life, personal issues, sickness, bereavement, hospital visits and so on. You’ll do your best but at some point your focus won’t completely be on the course and you need some help to catch up with notes or grab a lecture recording.

The best thing to do is to have a Facebook group for your GDL course. We used ours for everything. During the year people generally used it to clarify where a class was being held, to pass around some lecture notes and so on. Towards the end of the year we got together and created a Google Drive where we put all of our coursework submissions (intended to be pre-exam practice) and we were all able to see the whole course’s work for every module throughout the year (we anonymised the submissions but kept the grades and feedback). As exams drew closer, the group was like a forum where people would ask a question like “What answer do people have for Question 2 on the 2011 exam paper? I am struggling to figure it out” and everyone who could help would comment. We’d test each others’ ideas and between us figure out the best answer. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week we were all there for each other.

The group is also a great way to stay motivated. We were always sharing memes and funny posts to keep our spirits up as well as motivational messages when everyone was feeling drained towards the end. It was all love and really made a difference. Anyone who tries to tell you that Law School has to be like the hunger games is lying to you. It really doesn’t. Me sharing notes with a course mate isn’t going to affect my journey to the Bar in any way. What I want to achieve is still mine to achieve even if I work with others on my course.

Memes

Humour is essential during exam period. I thoroughly recommend you join a law meme page. Two of my friends on the course launched a fantastic meme page Carbolic Smokeball Memes for Unilateral Teens which was bloody hilarious and some well-needed comic relief. Find one, or if you can’t, make one yourself! It’s good to have a laugh and you’d be surprised how well law memes can actually help you revise and consolidate knowledge.

Prepare your friends and family

 The last piece of advice I have is prepare your friends, family, partner etc. for what’s about to go down. The person they know and love is about to undergo a gruelling period of time and is probably going to go a little bit (very) crazy. All they will be able to do is recite cases and ratios. All they will care about is being ready for the exam. It’s selfish, but irrelevant and trivial issues really do not need to be discussed during your GDL exams. I don’t know what it is about exams but it will make the people around you start coming up with the wildest things to distract you. Boyfriends start acting out of sorts, Mums are yelling you on the phone because you didn’t come home for your Auntie’s birthday BBQ…

This is your time. Sit your family and loved ones down and explain to them what’s going to happen and what you need from them. You need love, support and understanding. If you’re not confident you can get this, cut them off and focus on yourself. They’ll understand eventually even if they are a bit offended at the start.

YOU HAVE GOT THIS

Trust and believe that you will come out of this experience unscathed and stronger than before. Your confidence might take a knock, especially if you’re used to smashing it academically at school and in your undergraduate degree. This may be the first time you’ve really felt shaken. But just because you’re shaken doesn’t mean you have to break. Focus on the finish line and the end goal which is to become a lawyer and fulfil (what I assume) is your dream. Keep going and when you get through to the other side be proud of yourself and CELEBRATE.

Ps, it’s always okay to have a little cry if things get tough. Talk to someone and be sure to make good of counselling and support services if you need them. There is absolutely no shame in being overwhelmed.

Until next time,

Ps, Don’t forget to watch my GDL VLOG with LawCareers.Net on Youtube! Link here: (http://bit.ly/BATBYT) and follow me on Twitter! (@blessingmukosha)