Notes of a Bar Exam Repeater

As someone who has taken two bar exams within 19 months of each other (Oregon, July 2006; California, February 2008), I have something akin to the perspective of a bar exam repeater. The best part about repeating a test is that you learn things about the testing process that make it easier the second time. This post examines several of the things that I learned the first time I took a bar exam that helped make it easier for me pass the second time:  I was able to reduce my study time and avoid studying after 5pm on weekdays and I almost never studied on weekends.  It is my hope that you can use this advice to make your first time easier.

Practice Until You Feel Comfortable

As I have written about before, one of the most important things you can do to prepare for the bar exam is to practice under test-like conditions. But, you do not start there, you work your way into it. That is, when you first begin practicing essay responses, you should give yourself extra time and you should consult notes and outlines. After a couple of weeks, you should try to write essays within the time allotted by your state's bar and without consulting notes. At some point before the bar exam, you should feel comfortable enough under timed, test-like conditions that you can answer most essay questions.

When you get to this point, you are ready. I over-practiced for the Oregon bar exam. I wrote practice essays until my mind was numb. While this may not have hurt my bar exam outcome, it certainly made significant portions of my life boring to the extent that I would call them “wasted."

When I took the California bar, I was able to realize about 2 or 3 weeks before the exam that I had mastered subject X sufficiently to answer just about any essay. At that point, I realized that I was “comfortable” with the subject and did NOT need to continue to practice writing out complete essays. At that point, I began simply to outline essays (which takes about 10 minutes including reading the fact pattern). I knew how to fill in the blanks, so why waste time writing a complete essay? I just wrote it in my mind, and confirmed that I had spotted all of the issues by reviewing the sample answer provided on the California bar website. [You can review the sample answer provided by your state's bar website or by your bar prep course materials.]

A similar approach can be applied to the Performance Test.

As to the MBE, you cannot really practice in any way other than answering questions or doing flashcards based on prior questions. In terms of “getting comfortable”, once you feel you have learned a concept, put aside any flashcards relating to that concept. Tell yourself: “I know this.” Then, you do not need to obsess about that topic.

MBE is as Much about Technique as Knowledge

As I have written before: The MBE is really a test to see how well you take a test. It is not a test that truly tests knowledge. If bar examiners only wanted to test knowledge, then the essay portion would be sufficient. After all, if you cannot explain something in writing, then (absent some sort of disability that leaves you unable to express your thoughts in writing) you likely do not understand it.

So, in addition to learning the elements of crimes and torts, the prongs of various Supreme Court tests, and the steps in various legal analyses, be sure to pay attention to how the authors of the MBE try to trick you.

During my studies, on the MBE questions where I could not pick a definitive answer, I typically could narrow the choices to two. I normally had legitimate reasons for picking either of the two answers. Whether I got the questions right or wrong, I always spent extra time on reviewing the answer explanation. Why had I thought either of two answers was possible? Why did the test writers conclude that one of the answers was preferable?  Was there a word or clause in the question that tricked me?

It is the understanding of these nuances that will make passing the MBE portion of the exam possible.

Stress Should Decrease

In many ways, the bar exam is a stress test. Although you do need to have a lot of actual knowledge at your fingertips during the exam, plenty of very smart people fail the exam because they get stressed-out and are unable to recall the concepts during the exam. Therefore, you need to make sure that you are calm and able to recall everything you have worked so diligently to learn.

When most people first begin studying for the bar exam (and I am no exception), the magnitude of the information that one needs to learn is so overwhelming that it is easy to become highly stressed. In fact, it is understandable that some form of panic sets in. The important thing is to realize that hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people have passed the bar exam. Most of them are very ordinary people. You can do this.

So, your stress level should decrease the closer you get to the bar exam. You are learning more each day. You are practicing more each day. The exam is simply a forum through which you can demonstrate your knowledge of areas of law to a third party. The bar exam is a way for you to show that you have learned the basics and that society should allow you to practice law.

If your stress level is increasing during the final weeks before the exam, ask yourself:  Am I stressed because of the idea of taking the bar exam? Or am I stressed because I do not know enough to pass? If you do not know enough, then you need to study more.

If you are stressed simply because you have the bar exam approaching and you have built it up as some sort of uber-monster, then you need to relax and convince yourself that the bar exam is but a demonstration of your knowledge, not some 13th-century ordeal to prove your faith. You can do this.  Check out my strategy guide for lots of strategies for beating bar exam stress and anxiety.

Finally, if you feel yourself becoming completely overwhelmed by stress, you may want to seek professional help from a therapist.  Your law school or state's bar association may even have counselors available for you to call at little or no cost.

Maintain a Steady Schedule

I have noticed that some of the people I am following on Twitter [I'm @barexammind] and who post under the #barexam or #barbri hashtags seem to be studying VERY late at night. For example, several people claim to be studying after 8 pm on Friday nights.

Maybe these late hours will work for some people, but I believe that one should maintain a steady study schedule and that one should study during the hours when the bar exam will be administered. That is, since the bar exam is typically given from 8:30am to 4:30pm (approximately), you should concentrate your studies during these hours. Do not begin studying much earlier than 8am and do not study much past 5:00pm. This is part of anticipating the conditions of the bar exam. By preparing your brain and body to “think LAW” during these hours, you will do better on the exam.

[Of course, it is probably possible to pass the bar exam by studying at all hours of the day. I just do not think that I could have done it. Know yourself. Could you pass a test of this magnitude if you have random study habits?]

If you are studying at 10:00pm on a Friday night, it seems like you would not really have much focus and you would increase your resentment toward the bar exam. The increased resentment may eventually lead you to question why you are taking the bar exam at all. This could create a downward spiral making it increasingly difficult to study.

Think of studying for the bar exam as a job. There is a reason people work from 8am to 5pm during the week and (usually) take the weekends off: if they worked everyday at all hours, they would go insane. Try to keep your schedule regular.

[NOTE:    If, however, you must work a job during the day, then you have no choice but to study at off hours.  If this is your situation, it seems to me that it would be wise to take a few days off from work prior to the bar exam and shift your study time to the 8-5 schedule so that you can have at least some practice during exam time.]

[Photo: nestor galina]


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