First things first, I’m sorry you failed the bar. I really am. I know it’s horrible and frustrating, it really is. But if you’re serious about passing this time around, you’re going to have to let that go completely or risk getting hung up on it and wasting time. Take your time to feel bad, grieve, stay in your pjs all day, maybe even listen to our podcast about what to do if you failed the bar, but then get over it because you’ve got a lot of work to do. I mean that with love, but seriously, get past this so you can move on productively.
I try to be as optimistic as possible with my bar students, but there are some hard truths that you’re just going to have to face if you want to conquer this exam once and for all. I’ve seen it all, and I can tell you that there is no comfortable, easy way to study for this exam as a re-taker. It’s going to be difficult. You will be exhausted sometimes. You’re going to have to do things you don’t want to do and you can’t cut corners. The students I’ve seen who embrace this idea perform better. What do I mean about cutting corners? How exactly should you attack this test? Here are my top tips:
You Have to Memorize the Law and Know it Cold
There’s no way around it. Knowing the general concepts is not enough, especially now that the MBEs will count for half your score—there’s a lot less of a writing cushion now. What do I mean by knowing the law cold? For example, when I say you need to know hearsay, I don’t just mean you need to know how to identify it in a fact pattern. You also need to know every single hearsay exception, which ones require declarant unavailability, which ones are different under the Federal vs. California rules, and you need to have a clear, one sentence rule you can spit out from memory for each one. If you can’t rattle off all this information without notes, then you don’t really know hearsay yet—not the way you need to know it for this exam.
I tell my students that you should know the law the way you know your home address. That level of specificity, putting pieces in the correct order, with the right words. You will do yourself a big favor if you follow these steps when it comes to memorizing:
- Condense each rule before you try to memorize it (short things are easier to learn)
- Get the wording you want to use on the real exam and memorize that so you can say a rule the same way every time it comes up (teach yourself by repetition and practice)
- Start memorizing early (get this material into your long-term memory)
You Must Review Each Essay and PT Critically
One of the biggest problems I see students running into is that even if they do the writing practice, they’re not critical enough of their own work. I don’t mean critical in the sense that you beat yourself up—there’s no point in that. What I mean is, it’s your job to find what’s wrong with your essay and then take active steps to fix those things.
For example, if you write a PR essay and you miss the crime/fraud distinction between the ABA and California rules, you can’t just tell yourself, “oh, well, I missed that, better luck next time, I will read the rule a few times so I don’t miss it again.” This doesn’t work! Here’s what you should do instead:
- Look up the rule, make sure you understand it completely, if not, teach it to yourself or get help
- Once you get the idea of the rule, put it into concise language
- Try to memorize it
- Go back to the fact pattern and ask yourself why this rule was triggered, which particular fact was the tip-off?
- Review what the two sample answers said about just this issue
- Re-write just this issue so you can get more practice using facts you already know
- Test yourself a few days later to see if you still remember the rule
- Practice applying this rule to other essays that trigger the same issue
This second method is much more difficult and time consuming. But, if you go the first route of just saying “oh well” and moving on, you just threw your practice out the window. That PR essay was largely pointless and a waste of time.
Your goal should be to practice in a way that forces you to search for errors and actively try to fix them. Otherwise, you’re just going through the motions. I really can’t emphasize this one enough. You’re not an exception to the rule. I know everyone thinks they are because they’re too busy, too smart, or they “would have gotten that issue” if they thought about it more, knew the rule better, read the facts more carefully, etc. Stop making excuses. Everyone needs to go through these uncomfortable steps. The students who do really see it pay off. They improve much faster and have a better chance of passing.
You Need Attack Plans and Headers for Essays
Believe me, I don’t just talk about attack plans all the time because they’re interesting, they’re really not. But, they absolutely help essays. Same thing goes for headers. The beauty of a good attack plan is that it gives you a short-hand way to memorize rules (you’re basically just learning the elements of each rule without all the in-between words). Don’t get me wrong, you need to know full rule statements you can actually write in a complete sentence too, but if you know at least the elements, you can get a passing score on an essay.
Think of it this way: the headers and sub-headers on an essay are not random. They directly correspond to the attack plans for each topic you’re writing about. For example, if you memorize all the possible topics and sub-topics that can come up in a negligence analysis, then when you go to write an essay on negligence, you just have to pick and choose from a predetermined list and fit the pieces where they belong. This is much easier, and it will get you many more points than guessing and winging it.
Plan Each Essay and Use Every Fact
I’ve written about this at length before, but suffice to say, the students who do a good job with essay planning and fact usage have a much better chance at passing. I’m not saying “every fact” in a general sense. I mean you should be incorporating each and every little fact into your essay. Even more than that, you need to tell the grader why each fact matters. What does it mean? Why was it given to you? Which rule element does it go with?
One of the biggest mistakes I see on essays is discussing facts generally instead of specifically. It’s not enough to include facts or gloss over them, you need to show your thinking process. For example, if the fact pattern says “homeowner kept a loaded gun on his bedside table to protect himself,” you should be thinking: why did they tell me a table and not somewhere else? (are there safer options?) was keeping a loaded gun on the table a reasonable thing to do? (no). You should be fitting these facts into negligence, but even more specifically than that, you should be fitting them under breach and even negligence per se once you notice there’s a statute about gun storage in the fact pattern (practice this essay here).
You Should Track Your MBEs
The same advice from above about the essays applies to MBEs as well. What’s the point of cranking out hundreds of MBEs unless you’re actively working on capturing all those questions you get wrong and learning from them? If you’re not memorizing the rules from each and every single question you get wrong, then you’re going to have a much harder time getting those questions right next time you see them (or questions like them). Think of it like this Rubik’s cube analogy.
It doesn’t matter how many MBEs you do, that’s not as important as how many rules you actually learn from them. And yes, I mean actually memorizing. Know these like your address too, not just the general concepts. Keep track of each rule and commit it to memory. Work on this early, because if you’re doing enough MBE practice, that means you’re going to be getting a lot of questions wrong over the next couple of months—which means you will have a lot of rules to teach yourself.
You can probably tell when you really know something—really understand it, and when you don’t. If you have doubts, keep working at it. And ask yourself, are you taking the easy way out? Remember, it doesn’t matter how many hours you spend studying if you’re not studying smart and course-correcting as you go. Stop cutting corners and do the hard work it takes. You won’t be sorry when you see your name on that pass list!
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