If you are a third-year law student or recent graduate, you may wonder how your experience will differ when studying for the bar exam versus studying in law school. More specifically, you may wonder if law school equipped you for what it takes to:
- implement a sufficiently aggressive yet realistic study schedule;
- review and memorize over a dozen different subject areas, all at the same time;
- survive the long hours of studying and maintain your confidence for weeks on end; and
- successfully take and pass the two or three day exam that awaits you at the end of your preparation.
That is quite a list of concerns, but you can enter the bar exam study period with confidence if you are aware of the intensity of the required preparation and the key similarities and differences between most law school exams and the bar exam.
1. The Bar Exam Requires a Longer-Term AND More Structured, Disciplined, and Intensive Approach to Preparation
By your second or third year of law school, you likely could attend class for several weeks at a time, complete a bare minimum of reading and preparation along the way, and save much of the heavy outlining and memorization tasks for the two to three weeks just before the exam. The same approach simply will not work for the bar exam.
Most bar studiers use the recommended study schedule provided by their bar review course as a starting point for sketching out the eight to ten weeks that they will spend on exam preparation. Just reviewing one of these schedules can feel quite intimidating because the daily list of assigned tasks consists of anywhere from ten to twelve-plus hours of listening to online or video lectures, reviewing and memorizing one to three subjects each day, and completing practice essays, performance tests, and MBE questions. Most of these recommended schedules extend for six-plus days per week, with little built-in time for rest or recreation. You will need significantly more stamina and resolve than law school required to stick to one of these schedules, and you will in fact need to stick to it in large part in order to have a realistic chance of passing the exam.
2. The Bar Preparation Period Requires More Focus on Your Health and Well-Being
Most law students make it to the end of any given semester without giving much thought to their overall health and well-being. Any significant stress or anxiety they encounter is fairly short-term, often centered around assignment deadlines and the few relatively short weeks toward the end of the semester and during final exams. The stress they endure is usually short-lived, and their ability to successfully tackle exams is not significantly hampered by temporary sleep deprivation; consuming a caffeine-fueled diet; suspending workout regimens; and failing to shower or keep up their usual hygiene regimens for several days at a time.
However, ignoring the importance of health and well-being during the long weeks of bar preparation can be disastrous or, at the very least, lead to burnout. You need to engage in an appropriate level of self-care and schedule mandatory periods of sleep, exercise, and restoration in order to withstand the grueling, day-after-day, week-after-week periods of concentrated study. Your body and mind need regular periods of sustained rest, and exercise rids your body of stress hormones and helps you maintain a calmer, more serene state of mind – all of which is conducive to more productive study periods.
3. Understanding the Differences Between Law School Exams and the Bar Exam will be Key to your Success
Most bar exam questions are similar to the questions students encounter on law school exams or to assignments they’ve been asked to complete in their law school courses. For example, bar essay questions bear strong similarities to the essay questions on law school final exams. Likewise, the multiple-choice questions on the MBE section of the bar exam are similar to law school multiple-choice questions, at least in courses that require traditional IRAC analysis. Bar exam performance tests also require students to produce work product similar to a memorandum or brief that would be assigned in a law school legal writing class.
However, there are a few key differences between bar essays and law school essays, and being aware of them will allow you to approach your bar preparation and the exam itself with some useful “street smarts” that will help you understand the kind of answers that bar exam graders prefer to see.
First, bar exam essays are usually shorter and require a more concise and well-organized response than law school essays. Depending on which state’s exam you take, each essay may take just 20-30 minutes to answer (up to an hour in states like California). This is plenty of time, assuming you are prepared, because you will typically need to address fewer issues and sub-issues than on law school exams.
Second, bar exam essays often specify the issues you need to address. Your task is simply answering the issues listed in the call of the question. In contrast, law school essays often end with a broader directive, such as “discuss the issues.” Thus, bar essays require a little less issue spotting effort on your part. On the other hand, bar examiners expect you to focus and sufficiently elaborate on the issues specified in the call of the question. Unlike law school exams, you will gain few, if any, points for lengthy, expository discussions relevant to the broader subject area.
Finally, bar graders spend significantly less time reviewing essay answers – just two to three minutes per answer – than do law school professors. Thus, strong organization with prominent headings, complete and precise rule statements, and factual analysis that clearly incorporates and applies all of the relevant rule components, is essential to scoring in the passing range.
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