Test Day Tips for the Bar Exam

The big day has (oops, I mean big days have) arrived: the bar exam. For the next two or three days, you will be a test-taking robot. You have diligently studied, you have practiced under test-like conditions, and you are (relatively) relaxed and at peace. Don't let the self-imposed pressure of taking the actual test destroy everything for which you have worked.

The following is my list of tips gained from having taken two bar exams. I hope that they will prevent you from making some of the mistakes that I made.

If you don't feel like reading this post, you can watch this video instead:


1. Where to stay

I am a believer in staying at a hotel. If the bar exam is being held at a convention center with an attached hotel, try to stay at a different hotel. The hotel you chose should be reputable enough to guarantee a clean room and responsive staff if there is a problem. It should also be close enough to the test site that you can walk or would be able to walk there if your car won't start.

Will you fail the bar if you stay at the same hotel as the majority of takers? Not if you have studied. However, staying at a hotel with a bunch of stressed-out people, some of whom are only now starting to realize that they did not study enough and are likely going to fail, is not pleasant. When I took the bar in Oregon, the test site was a horrid old Holiday Inn near the Portland airport. The rooms were small and noisy; my room had an air conditioner that sounded like a out-of-tune V-8. I could hear people pacing the hallway outside my door in the middle of the night. They were reviewing their notes and muttering to themselves. It was utter insanity. Add to that a decent level of stress and anxiety, and I probably only slept 3 hours the first night of the exam. (Note: If you are having trouble sleeping in the days leading up to the exam, you may want to try some melatonin to reduce your stress and assist you with sleep.)

Flash forward to the California bar. I took the bar exam in downtown San Diego. Fearing a repeat of my Oregon experience, I did not want to stay at the "test hotel." I looked for nearby hotels in downtown San Diego, but all were either full or exorbitantly expensive. So, I booked a room at the test hotel. It was actually fine. With the exception of a few police sirens and the surprisingly loud SD Trolley rolling by, there was little noise. The only real distraction was the mini-bar, which, upon noting that the cost of 1.5 ounces of Maker's Mark was $8, I avoided.

So, stay at a hotel, preferably one near the test site, but not the hotel designated by the bar as having the "special discount rate." Don't worry about getting stuck in traffic or about your car breaking down . . . stay in a hotel, even if you think you can't afford it.

2. Arrive Early to your hotel

If check in time at the hotel is 2pm, get there at 2pm. Set up camp in your room. Make sure everything is comfortable. Unpack your clothes and arrange them. You should not study anymore. You know enough. If you are in an urban area, get out of the hotel and explore. See a movie. Maybe a friend, spouse, significant other, relative (who is NOT taking the bar) can drop you off at the hotel and stick around to see a movie and have dinner with you. This will help ease your mind. If you are a drinker, have one beer or glass of wine (but not more than that) to help you relax.

By 7pm, you should be alone. Plan out tomorrow (the first say of the exam; see below) and arrange everything you will need. Double check and then forget about it. Watch TV or read a book until 9 or 10, and then turn off the lights and sleep.

Some of you will have a hard time sleeping. I don't think I ever got more than 6 hours of sleep on any exam night. That is why it is important to lie down and try to sleep. Don't stay up until 3 am because "you're keyed up." You may be able to survive the first exam day on adreniline and coffee, but you will be screwed for the second day.

3. What to bring to the testing site

The answer will depend on your jurisdiction. Most jurisdictions will allow you to bring pens, pencils, and a watch, and oftentimes a pillow to sit on the extremely uncomfortable chairs that seem to plague bar exam administrations. Some jurisdictions will allow you to bring in food and drinks. This was the case with the Oregon bar at the time that I took it. The California bar examiners are much more uptight: no food or drink inside the testing area! You must place all of your belongings in a tiny plastic bag and leave your backpack or other bag outside of the actual testing area. Nevertheless, you may bring food and drink if you leave it in your backpack. Therefore, if you get hungry or thirsty, you must stand up, exit the site, and go to your backpack in order to eat or drink. Even though the California system shows a complete lack of trust for the bar exam examinees, it is a good system in the sense that it will force most people to get up at least once or twice during the three-hour testing sessions in order to stretch their legs, take a break, and drink some water. (I'll discuss break taking and its importance below.)

Okay, give me some specifics, Bar Advisor. First, you need to bring all the tools necessary to take the bar examination. Therefore, you will need to bring your pens, pencils, laptop computer, and watch (for keeping time). Second, you'll need to bring some snacks and water. And if you're a coffee drinker, I would advise bringing a thermos of coffee so you can get a little boost halfway through each three to four-hour testing session. (This brings up an important issue. Although each testing block during the bar exam is typically a given number of minutes, such as 90 or 180, there is normally some administrative task(s) to be taken care of before the start of each session. Therefore, always add 20 to 40 minutes to the official test session duration in order to budget for bathroom breaks, etc.) For snacks, I would advise things that can be eaten quickly and provide great energy: CLIF bars, bananas, trail mix, nuts, et cetera. That, and your wits, is really all you need to bring to each test day.

4. Taking breaks

Please do not underestimate the power of taking breaks during the examination. Unless you are an automaton, you must get out of the test area in order to relax and clear your head. I recommend leaving the testing area at least once per hour. This is easy during the essay portions of the California bar examination because each essay is timed to last one hour. Therefore, after you complete each essay, get up from your spot, walk outside of the bar test area, get a quick drink of water, eat something, go to the bathroom if necessary, and return to your seat and start working on the next essay. A little five-minute break like this serves two purposes: (1) it allows you to stretch your legs and replenish your body's energy reserves and (2) allows you to take your mind off what you just worked on and change to a new topic.

Also, if you are working on an essay or PT and are drawing a total blank and there is no other task to move on to, get up and take a short walk. If you can get near some windows, look out at the trees, grass, buildings, cars, people . . . whatever is outside. Take deep breaths to help get oxygen to your body and brain. This should help clear your head and may get your mind working again to enable you to respond to the question at hand.

During the MBE, I always took at least one break at the 50-question point. I would recommend doing at least that, though a break after each third of the test (at 33 and 66 questions) would probably be ideal since you'd be getting up and stretching each hour. If you don't feel you have the time to take two breaks during the MBE, make sure you take at least one.

Finally, for those of you who feel you absolutely cannot spare 5 minutes to get up and leave the testing area, at least take a one-minute break. Sit back, close your eyes, and think about something other than the bar exam: the ocean, your favorite food, your significant other, nothingness, etc. Just try to focus on something else and relax.

5. Lunchtime

The day of your arrival at your hotel, you should locate a two or three restaurants near the test site that look like they serve a good lunch. You need to choose multiple restaurants in case one is extremely crowded. When you get lunch, I would advise ordering something that is fully cooked and avoiding any cut fruits or uncooked vegetables unless you are eating a washed, unsliced apple or a banana or something similar. Call this paranoia, but it would be awful to fail the bar examination because you're in your hotel room vomiting continuously due to some sort of foodborne pathogen.

An even better option would be to bring food from your home and keep it in your hotel room and then return to the hotel room for lunch. (One bar taker reported pre-ordering breakfast and lunch room service so food was waiting at the hotel room in the mornign before the exam and during the break. Good idea, even if a bit pricey.) I did this during the first day of the Oregon bar exam, and I think it was a good idea. The benefit is that eating lunch in your hotel room by yourself allows you to stretch out on your bed and relax while avoiding the crush of anxious bar examinees in the restaurants who are wolfing down a sandwich and convincing themselves by speaking out loud that they just failed the bar exam because they did not know a single answer during the morning session. Avoid such talk and such thoughts.

My choice for lunch out during the bar exam is a grilled chicken sandwich or chicken burrito, a banana or an apple that I brought with me from home, a glass of water, and a cup of coffee (to keep the energy up).

NOTE: If you are a vegetarian or a vegan, you will need to be especially diligent with preparing for your meals. Make sure you have that figured out well in advance so that it does not become another source of stress during the bar exam itself.

6. Nighttime

After you complete the afternoon session of the examination, go back to your hotel room and relax for at least 30 minutes. If you're a bit stressed out about your answers, feel free to run through them in your mind, but do not obsess about them. Once the 30 minutes is up, try to completely forget about the test that day. Your mind needs to relax. Go out and get some dinner (same rules for food choices apply from lunchtime). If you are a drinker, definitely have a glass of beer or wine, but no more than one. If you're staying in a hotel where there are nearby attractions such a mall or a waterfront or a movie theater, take advantage of them.

Be sure that you are back in your hotel room by 9 p.m.. Organize the supplies that you will need for the next day of the exam. I would advise not reviewing any notes, outlines, or flashcards. If you simply must do some review, I would advise doing it before 8 p.m., that way your brain can have a chance to slow down and relax by 9 or 10 p.m..

You need to be as relaxed as possible and try to get as much sleep as possible so you can perform at your best during the next bar exam day.

7. Repeat for each day of the bar exam.


[UPDATE: Here is another post with links to test day tips from other authors.]


Bear in Mind the Rules of Grammar

I am currently working on a detailed post about how to deal with the actual test days of the bar exam (e.g., what to bring, how to budget time, where to stay, etc.). In the meanwhile, here is a basic refresher course (and a comedy break) for those of you now deep in the preparation phase for essay and performance test writing. For the older among you, I hope these bring you fond memories:


Time to Build a Belief Board?

Check out this great post from Steve Pavlina about creating a "Belief Board."

I think building a "Belief Board" while studying for the bar examination is a great idea. Your belief board could be some notes posted on your study carrel, on a bulletin board, or even on your computer screen (using some sort of digital Post-It note).

The best part about the belief board concept is that it can be applied to any goal in your life at any time in your life.
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