Many recent law school graduates have just started studying for the bar exam. As someone who was in your shoes last year, I thought I’d share what I wish I’d done differently when studying for the bar exam and a couple things that I think I did well that I think everyone could benefit from knowing.
I did pass the bar exam the first time and by a pretty decent margin, which I share only to say that this advice actually worked for me. However, what works for you may be quite different. Take what makes sense and leave the rest.
First, I wish that I had taken a vacation between law school graduation and studying for the bar. I had about a week in between, but was busy with moving out of my apartment and tying up loose ends. I started bar prep completely burnt out – like, I wanted to cry I was so exhausted. However, I was too nervous about falling behind in bar prep to take a vacation and kept myself going by imagining the vacation I was going to take. It would’ve been far more productive if I’d started bar prep a week or even two weeks later but fully rested. It would’ve made the time that I did study much more fruitful.
Second, about halfway through my bar prep course, I took a practice MBE exam. This is the multiple choice portion of the UBE. I realized through that practice test that the most challenging element of the exam was the stamina and focus that it takes to answer questions for a full day. So, I began doing the focus meditation on the Headspace app as a study break. I realized that it was not enough to learn the substance. I also had to train my mind to be able to pay attention for that long. Even during the actual exam, every 30 minutes or so, I would pause and take a few deep breaths to recenter myself and help me focus. I used a lot of the techniques that I learned through the app.
Third, I encourage you to find true ways to take breaks. It wasn’t until the end of my bar prep that I got serious about taking walks to break up my studying during the day. One weekend, I went to the beach on Sunday instead of studying. I felt guilty and had a hard time doing this because I felt like I was so behind since I’d had a hard time focusing and staying on top of work due to feeling so burnt out even as I began. Looking back, I wish I’d gone to the beach every Sunday while I was studying for the bar. Rather than looking forward to a trip after the exam, it would’ve been nice if I’d had these more short-term rewards to look forward to. Additionally, being in a happy and calm place makes it easier to retain information.
If you’re like me, thus far you’ve been “yeah yeahing” all of this advice and want some actual advice on how to make your way through so much content. So, I’ll share that now. The prep course that I took had a whole daylong seminar on how to successfully tackle the MPT. I thought it was a good use of my time because it was a skill that I could learn on a portion of the exam that requires no outside knowledge. You get a closed universe of materials to draw from and it is a test of your ability to analyze, synthesize, and discuss the problem presented to you. As a result, if you spend a little time learning how to approach it and practicing it (including grading yourself and seeing where you can improve), it is an easy and low-cost (in terms of time) way to bolster your score.
The second piece of advice I’ll give regarding content is not to wait till you’ve made your way through all of the substantive content to tackle the essays. But, rather, do an essay as you finish each substantive unit. As with the MPT, there is skill in writing an essay and a technique that helps you maximize your points. Through practice, grading yourself, and seeing what you missed, you can maximize your points on the essays.
Additionally, the essays are an opportunity for you to demonstrate your ability to make arguments well even if your understanding of the law or “rule” you’re applying is wrong. Thus, there is value to knowing the structure of a successful essay even if that cuts into the time you’d be studying the substance. Learning strategies for the essays will help you maximize the points you get on content you know and even get points on content that you’re less familiar with.
There is no magic formula to studying for the bar and there are no shortcuts. All you can do is ensure that you’re in the best mental space possible to take it. This includes starting studying rested, practicing your ability to focus, and taking frequent breaks as you study. Similarly, there are no shortcuts to learning the content. You can only choose how to allocate your time. I think allocating your time to improving test-taking skills is useful because it ensures you maximize your scores on the content that you are able to learn and understand.
All of this is based on my experience and perspective, what makes sense for you may be different. The best thing you can do for any undertaking this large and different from person-to-person is be honest with yourself and be gentle with yourself.
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