All I remember is feeling my stomach drop. Article IV Privileges and Immunities and the Dormant Commerce Clause were the topics of the fifth and final essay on the July bar exam. Those are topics that the test prep companies say, “These probably won’t show up on the test. Don’t worry about studying them too much.” So, naturally, they showed up.
I remember just staring at the prompt trying to figure out if I was missing something. I thought to myself, “Am I really about to try and write an essay on topics I barely studied?” I was. But I had to break through that initial panic. This post is about how you can do it, too, by planning ahead exactly how you’re going to start any essay that comes your way.
How to Plan Ahead
I started typing. “The issue is whether the plaintiff has standing to bring his claim.” It was the start of a paragraph that I had pre-written during my studying. I had planned ahead for how I could start any essay about constitutional law. On almost any essay for constitutional law, you can write about whether the party has standing to bring a claim. So that’s what I did.
A great way to get through the initial panic of an essay is to prepare for the panic before you even sit down for the test. For almost every topic that will come up on the bar, there is an overarching, threshold concept that you can write about to kick off your essay. If you prepare paragraphs in advance about these threshold issues, you can always get something down on the page to start the flow of writing a difficult essay.
Specific Examples of Pre-Planned Paragraphs
For constitutional law, you can prepare a paragraph about standing. In an essay about evidence, you can always write a paragraph about relevance. In contract law, you can always write an initial paragraph about how every contract requires an offer and acceptance. Sometimes, you’ll need to get a little more specific with how you plan ahead. For example, in a criminal procedure essay, there isn’t necessarily an overarching topic that is always relevant to every criminal procedure essay. But if you see an essay that has Fourth Amendment implications, you can always write a paragraph about what the Fourth Amendment says and about how a warrantless search is presumptively unconstitutional.
Let me flesh out an example. Assume you get an evidence essay that is really about whether certain text messages are hearsay. Your inclination might be to jump right into a hearsay analysis. But if you’ve planned ahead, you’ll remember that you always want to start your evidence essays with a discussion of relevance. So you could write an initial paragraph that says, for example:
“The issue is whether the piece of evidence is relevant. Courts must determine if a piece of evidence is relevant as a threshold inquiry. If a piece of evidence is irrelevant, other rules of evidence are inconsequential to the analysis of its admissibility. A piece of evidence is relevant if it is (1) material to the case and (2) makes some fact in the case more or less likely. Here, the text messages are relevant because they tend to suggest that the defendant was in communication with the victim before the crime was committed. As such, the text messages are relevant.”
This pre-planned paragraph requires relatively minimal effort on your part during the actual exam. You’ve already planned exactly what the bolded part of the relevance paragraph will look like. All you need to do is add a sentence or two applying the facts of the prompt to the rules of relevance. Now, you’ve got something down on the page. You’ve earned points from the graders and started the process of writing what might have looked like an intimidating essay at the beginning.
We’ve all heard that putting something down on the page is one of the best ways to get through writer’s block. But it’s also a way to deal with initial panic on the bar. When an essay seems daunting, take a breath and think about the paragraph you’ve pre-planned for that topic. Write that pre-planned paragraph down on the page. Add a sentence or two of analysis. And then tackle the rest of the essay. You’ll earn yourself points, and you’ll start to feel more confident that you can get through the essay, no matter the panic at the outset.
Write these paragraphs in advance as you are wrapping up your studying. Commit them to memory. That way you’ll have a head start no matter what topics turn up.
My friend who was sitting next to me during the bar said in regards to that fifth and final essay, “I noticed you just froze. I snuck a peak at your face, and I thought, ‘Oh good, he’s not panicking, he’s just really, really mad.” She was right. I was mad that I had to write this essay about these crazy topics. But I wasn’t panicked. I had my pre-planned paragraph ready to go. “The issue is whether the plaintiff has standing to bring his claim.” And I figured it out from there. You can too.