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Your GPS to summer bar success

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A bar exam expert shares key ways to make your bar exam journey a successful one.

Imagine driving across the United States without a GPS. Unless you’re taking a route you travel regularly, even short journeys require road maps.

Intensive bar preparation is a “long, strange trip” (apologies to the Grateful Dead). You need your Bar Success GPS—something you don’t want to be frantically pulling together in June and July. Start early. Start now.

Become a critical reader

If I had to identify one factor as the most important to bar success, I’d say without hesitation: critical reading. Critical reading isn’t an art; it’s a skill you can train.

Many students fail the bar simply because they’re reading too fast or not carefully enough. Get into these five good reading habits now.

  • Read slowly and carefully; even for an MBE question, where you have only an average of 1.8 minutes to answer, take the time to read and understand both the question and answer choices. Circle the words and and or.
  • Underline key terms.
  • Look up words you don’t know, and make certain you can define and say in your own words all critical terms and phrases that make up elements of black-letter law.
  • Read aloud when you don’t understand what you read silently.
  • And reread passages you don’t understand.

The following is a quiz to evaluate whether you’re an active reader and learner. Read the list of law school habits and statements and ask yourself which are true for you.

  • I read the table of contents before I read my assigned cases to see where they fit into the course as a whole. (I’ll read the table of contents of my bar review materials before I jump into reading discrete sections.)
  • I read hornbook passages about assigned cases to help put the case law into context within the subject as a whole and to help understand concepts I don’t get.
  • I brief every case myself (rather than relying on canned briefs). Remember, you must brief cases under timed conditions to pass the MPT.
  • I write my own course outlines rather than (or in addition to) studying from commercial outlines.
  • I try to restate case holdings in my own words.
  • I look up words I don’t understand.
  • I create flash cards for myself with definitions of terms I look up.
  • I’m in a study group or have a study buddy, and we explain rules and concepts to each other.
  • I’ve tried to explain what I’m learning in law school to friends and family who are laypeople.
  • I draw a diagram of the scene or relationships between the parties in cases or practice exams as I read them.
  • I write my own notes and thoughts in the margins of my casebook; I don’t just highlight.
  • I note points I don’t understand or don’t agree with when I read.
  • I read in a well-lit area and try to do most of my reading when I’m not too tired.

The more statements above you find to be true, the more engaged you likely already are in critical reading and active learning. If you find many not to be true, you may want to adapt certain reading and study habits now to be sure you get and stay on the road to bar success.

Work on your weaknesses

Do you understand the reasoning in the cases you’re reading? Are your reading and writing skills weaker than you’d like them to be? Have your grades put you in the bottom quarter of your law school class? Do you know how to take effective notes that help you when you return to them? Are you having a hard time concentrating in class?

You can positively counter all these challenges with strategic hard work and reliable assistance. Train weaknesses that are easy to improve on your own, such as taking a typing course to type faster and more accurately. (Good typing skills help a lot on the bar exam.)

And seek help from a trusted advisor, perhaps a professor in the academic success program, legal research and writing, student affairs, or maybe the professor you click best with, to assist with some of the areas that are more complicated or that you don’t know how to improve on your own.

Make a list of bar-tested subjects you didn’t take or didn’t understand or do well in. Plan to do your own pre-review of each subject so that bar review is truly review and not bar learning. Do this during the lighter parts of your spring semester and during spring break. (Ask your law librarian or ASP faculty for recommendations for short, easy-to-read guides such as the Nutshell series.)

Take care of your physical health. Get your eyes checked. (You’ll need to see the clock in the bar exam room, and it may be far away from where you’re seated.) If you have an exercise routine, continue it. If not, start one. Exercise helps relieve stress, increases energy and acuity, and often makes you sleep better. Sleep is another key to success on the bar.

And tell your doctor if you have other health concerns so they can be addressed right away. (A student came to me during 3L describing back pain she feared might prevent her from sitting for three-hour blocks during the bar exam. She’d been tough and suffered all through law school. I urged her to seek treatment immediately to relieve the pain, if possible, and, if not, to begin documenting the condition in case she needed special accommodations during the exam.)

Take care of your mental health and wellness, too. If you need or want to talk over well-being, anxiety, or substance-related issues, ask someone in student affairs, ASP, or your law school (or main campus) counseling center. And read the ABA’s Mental Health Toolkit.

A word on testing accommodations: Being granted accommodations for a disability in law school doesn’t mean you’ll receive accommodations on the bar exam. The documentation requirements are stringent. If you have a disability that might entitle you to accommodations on the bar exam, research what your jurisdiction requires and how and when to make such a request.

Also talk with your law school or university’s disability officer, dean of students, or ASP faculty, and check out the ABA’s Bar Information for Applicants with Disabilities. Don’t wait until the last minute.

Practice tests are key

Get used to the idea that bar exam success requires regular, extensive practice under timed conditions of all three testing formats: MPTs, MBEs, and essays. Wrap your head around the reality that you’ll write many failing exams during practice and that, to pass, you’ll work to continuously to improve every day between now and your bar exam.

Practice tests are like exercise: Continuing the habit is easier than starting it. So start now.

First, if you’re currently taking any bar-tested subjects, locate copies of released bar questions on that topic. Don’t study these as a substitute for studying your professor’s past exams; bar exams differ from law school exams. Rather, use them as a preview of bar prep.

Second, begin reviewing 1L subjects by taking five practice MBEs each morning: your “daily 5-with coffee.”

Don’t worry about not knowing all the law yet. Learning science shows that you learn best by testing yourself before you’ve mastered everything you need to know. (Study explanatory answers after you finish the question set.)

Costs, character, and more

There are a few more matters to cover. Don’t be blindsided by unexpected costs. You’ll have many expenses during bar prep—after graduation when there are no more student loans. Plan ahead so you can spend two months studying full-time without working, if at all possible. Talk with your law school’s financial aid office today to make a plan.

You also need to pass the MPRE and complete your character and fitness applications. There will be fees, fingerprinting, and forms—detailed forms that take a long time to complete and process. So start early.

Seek assistance from your dean of students if your background might raise concerns, for example, if you have criminal, financial, mental health, or substance issues. You may need a referral to an attorney, physician, psychologist, lawyer assistance program, financial counselor, or other professional.

Also line up summer housing and care for children, elderly relatives, and pets. Plan to wrap up work projects, pass along responsibilities, and hand over the leadership reins to others in organizations for which you’re working.

As I said in the beginning, bar prep is a long, strange trip, indeed. But congratulations—you’re in the home stretch. You can do this. And when you do, with J.D. in hand, you’ll pass that bar exam and earn a license that opens doors for a lifetime of professional success.

Sara J. Berman Sara J. Berman is a legal education thought leader specializing in student success, teaching and learning, and bar exams. Her most recent book, Bar Exam Success: A Comprehensive Guide, was published in 2019. After decades in faculty and law school leadership positions, Berman is now leading student success research initiatives at the nonprofit AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence. The views expressed in this article are Berman’s own.