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.]


Anonymous said...

I absolutely advise NOT to take five minutes of break per hour. That is insane. You should spell check or edit if you have that much extra free time.

People, here's the attitude you need: someone could stab you the first hour of the first day, and you still will finish that effing exam! Your comfort means zero. Focus and stick to your task.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with the 6/20/10 comment about your attitude. Of course you need incredible focus, but you already have high anxiety aiding you in keeping your attention on the exam. You will not be able to ignore things like the need to go to the bathroom. I've never taken the bar exam in a jurisdiction where you can't bring food, but all I can say is if you are in such a jurisdiction don't ignore signals from your body asking for a little food. Brain activity requires glucose, so give yourself a little boost. I promise this will improve your performance.

Anonymous said...

Quite possibly the worst advice I've ever read regarding how to take a bar examination. Congrats.

Admin said...

@Anonymous 7/26 1:14pm -- Sorry you feel that way. Care to share some better advice with us? Write it in a comment or post a link to it.

Bar Advisor.

Anonymous said...

Just to let you know...the CA bar sends out a list of things you can bring into the test site. In no way/shape/form can you leave the testing area. You are locked in that room with all the other examinees. You leave, and you are not allowed back in to finish the section. The only access to "drinks" you'll have is (possibly) a water fountain. And a place to go to the bathroom. I would avoid it if you can...that's where all the stressed out people go when they're not dealing well during the exam. So yeah, the instructions are very wrong. Might as well just focus for 3 hours. Maybe stretch in your seat. By if you get up and "stroll around," you're gonna catch heat from the proctors. (At least in my experience)

Bar Advisor said...

@Anonymous 2/27/12 -- I guess I wasn't totally clear in my post. I don't mean that you can leave the entire building during a break, but you can, as you say, leave the testing area where everyone is seated in order to get a drink at a water fountain and go to the bathroom.

I agree with you that if you attempted to stroll around the actual testing room itself, you'd have a problem with the proctors. They'd probably think you are trying to cheat.

I took the bar exam in Feb 2008 at the San Diego Concourse. I got up at least once per 3-hour session and occasionally twice. The proctors watched me, true, but so what? I needed/wanted a break. I avoided looking at other students while I walked in and out of the testing area so that no one could possibly think I was trying to read answers.

If anyone reading these comments is concerned about the break protocol at your testing site, just ask a proctor before the test starts.

Finally, if you are the sort of person who can sit still and focus for three hours without a break, then I admire your abilities, and you can ignore what I say in here about taking breaks.

Bar Advisor said...

Here is a link to the California bar exam rules and regulations. Bathroom breaks permitted -- see numbers 19 and 20 on page 5.

(If for some reason the link above is broken, try and click on "Examination Administration Rules and Policies".

Technician 101 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Aastha said...

Thank you for these tips. I am about to take the exam next week and desperately needed some guidance as to food/schedule and what to do the nights between the exam. I appreciate the work you put in this post!

Bar Advisor said...


Thanks for the kind words. I am glad you liked the bar exam tips. If I could give one single tip about the bar exam, it would be this: try to relax and sleep as much as possible on the nights before the test. But, sleep is sometimes difficult (I didn't sleep very well, especially when I took the oregon bar exam), but at least try.

Good luck!

Nick said...

I took (and passed) the exam in July 2010. Prior to taking the exam, I had a friend that had taken the exam a year before tell me to try and get a little exercise after the first day. I thought he was crazy when he told me this. However, after leaving the testing site on the first day, I completely understood what he was saying. I went for a quick 30 minute run and felt 100% better afterwards. It will give your brain a chance to veg-out for a bit and a little bit of outdoor activity will feel good after sitting in the testing room all day long. Just my two cents. Good luck.

Bar Advisor said...


Thanks for the tip. I agree that it seems crazy to exercise after the exam, but it gets the blood flowing and the mind off the test, if only for 30 minutes. I think your "two cents" are worth a million bucks.

Anonymous said...

Aloha fellow examiners!

Getting ready to take the CA bar exam in 12 days (but who's counting). I appreciate this post, however, after reviewing the CA Bar exam guidelines, it seems that bringing food/drink to access when you step out of the exam is not possible. The guidelines explicitly say you cannot bring anything (other than what is allowed to be brought in the plastic bag) into the exam area (not exam room) and that if a test-taker leaves the exam area during the exam, he/she will not be permitted to return to complete the remainder of the exam.

Good luck!

Martina said...

Hi all,
thank you for the useful information. I've read the guide lines for the CA bar exam, and I understood that we have to stay in the room, no matter what, for the three hours.
My question for the ones who took the exam last time: is there a place where we can leave our backpack or are we supposed to leave it in the car? I mean, I don't want to go to have lunch somewhere, I just want to walk a little bit and have my lunch box with me.

Anonymous said...

"I recommend leaving the testing area at least once per hour." This was clearly either intended as a joke (which i personally found very amusing), or it was made by someone who has never taken the california bar exam. Either way, its pretty funny.

Bar Advisor said...

@Anonymous 10/17/2014 -- Actually, I took and passed the Cal Bar and took breaks during the test. If it seems impossible, then don't do it. It is just a suggestion.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting all these helpful tips!

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