Everyone tells you that bar exam studying will be excruciating, but no one can tell you exactly what makes the process so painful. There’s the panic and stress anticipating potential failure. And then managing bar study finances, the lack of self-care, the burden of securing/maintaining/losing post-graduate employment (have I missed anything)? But the resounding truth that probably everyone will attest to, but no one can properly articulate, is the constant state of confusion.
As law students, we always took comfort in what we did and didn’t know. If you knew the material, you focused on throwing it on your outline and then mastering it. If you did not understand certain topics, you invested in sleepless nights before an exam, dedicating yourself to learning what you need to in order to pass. It’s how we all got through. But while studying for the bar exam, the amount of material is insurmountable. Regardless of whether you have the best study resources on the market or were born a master test taker, the inevitable truth is that you can’t know everything for the bar exam. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but the sooner you accept this, the better equipped you will be to prepare efficiently for exam day.
So, repeat after me: “I can’t know everything on the exam. But I will master most of everything on the exam.” This mantra is more realistic, manageable, and if you get behind it – it will ensure your success on game day.
The Foundation: Start with What You Know
One of the common mistakes students make when studying for the bar exam is ignoring what works for them. I heard this so many times but I had no idea what it meant…what do I know and how do I stick to it? Let’s break it down.
Procedure: first, stick to YOUR process of studying. Getting to the bar exam means that all of us, to some extent, survived law school. There was some journey you took that worked for you. Were you the student that outlined all of your class notes after each lecture? Did you make flashcards for every topic? Did you sit in a study room with your friends and draw all over a marker board? Did you mark up all of your supplements to teach yourself the black letter law? Reflect on this procedure and recreate it in the context of your bar exam studying!
For example, I was the student that created a master outline. I put everything and anything that was relevant on there. Making the outline forced me to dissect, then digest, each topic. I would then add it to my final outline in a way that I could understand. It took me a long time (like it always did in law school), but eventually it stuck! And candidly, I didn’t figure out what worked for me until weeks 3-4 in my bar studying. That’s okay, just recognize when something isn’t working and change course ASAP – learn from your mistakes.
Substance: admit it, there were some subjects in law school that you were absolutely awful at. For me, it was Property. Even after passing the bar exam, I still had no idea what an easement was. But then, Civil Procedure came naturally to me. When you take your first diagnostic exam, rank your MBE subjects from worst to best performance. Do the same for your MEE/state subjects as well.
My List (from worst to best, as an example): Property, Criminal Law & Procedure, Evidence, Contracts, Constitutional Law, Torts, Civil Procedure
When you begin to build a unique study schedule, use this ranking to prioritize where you will spend most of your time. For me, I didn’t review my Civil Procedure lecture notes in detail. I outlined the subject within a few hours and moved straight into MBE practice questions. I could get a head start in recognizing patterns in my Civ Pro multiple choice. In contrast, for Property, I spent almost a week going through all the material in detail. I outlined every topic thoroughly. I reviewed my outline for days before I could work up the courage to start practice questions. That’s okay! Keeping a bar journal forced me to personalize my study plan – targeting my weaknesses while bolstering my strengths.
This is how you build a solid foundation for an efficient bar study plan. An efficient study plan pushes you to take control of your learning. In moments where you question “am I actually retaining anything,” you will be able to look back and say: “yeah, I covered all of that!” This method gives you confidence in the long run that you know most of everything for exam day.
See Everything Once
I know that for some, the “you can’t know everything” mantra is still eating away at you. It was tough for me too. Knowing that I didn’t know everything would mean I would walk into exam day feeling unprepared. I anticipated it, and it did happen on the day of the bar exam. But what helped me was sitting in the truth that I had seen all the material at least once. Keeping up with a bar course helps with this, because the schedules usually ensure that you see the historically repeating topics multiple times, but also require you to read through all the topics in your course books at least once. Knowing I had looked at all the material at some point (even if I didn’t actively make flashcards for it) meant that I wasn’t walking into the exam knowing nothing about class action lawsuits.
Ironically, I did run into class action lawsuits on exam day and even though I remembered everything I had been exposed to on the topic, the question still stumped me by asking me something NONE of my course books had covered. So again, you can’t know everything on the exam. I rest my case.