Many people study for the bar exam by reading outlines and watching lectures, then re-reading and re-watching. This is a mistake, and here’s why: the bar exam is not a test of your ability to read an outline or watch a video. It’s a test of your ability to answer questions.
To effectively prepare for the bar exam, you have to practice answering questions. This can be unpleasant—doing practice questions forces you to confront what you don’t know, under uncomfortable time constraints. But if you were learning a new sport and had a game to play at the end of July, would you prepare by re-reading the rulebook and watching other people play? Or would you get out on the field and practice?
Why practice questions?
Aside from the fact that you should practice doing the thing the bar exam requires of you, practice questions help you in two important ways: They show you what you know and what you don’t, and they help you learn the material (even if you get the question wrong!)
Testing yourself, whether by doing practice essays, multiple choice questions, or MPTs, gives you concrete information about your strengths and weaknesses. Score a 70 percent on a set of Torts questions but a 36 percent on Constitutional Law, and you know where your efforts need to be. (You should aim to be equally competent in all subjects tested on the bar exam—do not give up on any one subject! I’m looking at you, Property.)
In the book Make It Stick, the authors summarize a huge number of empirical studies about how students learn best. The research shows that testing is more than just a “dipstick” to see how much we already know—instead, testing itself is a learning tool. Testing yourself forces your brain to recall and reconsolidate information, strengthening memory and retrieval. This is true even if you get the question wrong! Cognitive scientists have found that students who are tested, even if they give the wrong answer, learn material better than students who were just given information to review.
Some people shy away from practice questions because they don’t feel ready. These folks want to review a little more, spend some extra time with their outlines or flashcards. Outlines and flashcards feel safe, because there’s no risk of being wrong. But a student who procrastinates this way may be wasting valuable time reviewing material they’re already competent with. The only way to determine which topics and subtopics you are competent in is to test yourself.
The bar exam is not a test of your ability to read an outline or watch a video. It’s a test of your ability to answer questions.
And if you do badly on an essay or a set of multiple choice questions, there’s no punishment! Simply review the material you missed and test yourself again. Studying is not a linear process in which review comes first, practice questions next, and success naturally following. Instead, studying is recursive: review, test yourself, review again, test yourself again. If your performance on practice questions shows you’re competent, move on to a different subject.
How to study from practice questions
I encourage students to spend the same amount of time studying the answers and explanations as they did answering the question. So, if you spent an hour on practice questions, spend an hour reading the explanations carefully and learning from them. Some specific advice for different components of the bar exam:
MBE—It will be time well-spent to read the entire explanation to each multiple choice question you miss. It is very, very common for a student to narrow the possible choices down to two and then pick the wrong one. This isn’t a bad place to be, but you will need to understand why one of those two answers was stronger than the other.
Essays—You should write out a response to the essay prompt. Don’t just skim the question, tell yourself you’re “issue spotting” and then congratulate yourself on how much work you’ve done. It is very easy to read a model answer and think, “Yeah, that’s what I would have written,” but you won’t learn much that way. After you’ve written your answer, spend a good amount of time comparing it to the model answer, asking yourself, “How can I make my answer look more like a model answer next time?” Break down your answer into the rule statement and the application, and compare each part to the model answer, always looking for ways to improve.
MPTs—Try to complete 8 or 10 MPTs before you sit for the bar exam. This will give you the chance to see lots of different ways you can be tested, whether by different kinds of assignments, different rule structures, or different areas of law. The MPT doesn’t require you to memorize law ahead of time, but you should practice plenty so you know the rhythm of the exam and how to write down the most important points first.
What if I don’t know the law?
Make your best guess and proceed. You will learn more from guessing and being wrong than if you just skip ahead to read the explanation.
What if I do badly?
If you do badly on a practice question, celebrate! First of all, you got a bad score when it didn’t matter, which is a lot better than doing badly when the stakes are high. Secondly, embrace the opportunity to learn. The practice question obviously identified a weakness in your knowledge, and now you are not only aware of the weakness, but you have the opportunity to address it. Study the explanation or model answer, review an outline for the specific material you missed, or keep a running list of rules of law you didn’t know.
The last month of bar prep should be spent testing yourself repeatedly to assess what areas and subtopics are your strengths and your weaknesses, so you can shore up the weaknesses. Brace yourself—it’s hard to ask “What am I not good at yet?” for a month!—but keep pushing yourself.
Good luck on the bar exam!