When I graduated from law school, there were maybe three known options for bar prep. I went for the easiest one. The most obvious. The one that probably 75% of my classmates were using. When it was time to study, I went to the lectures, I did the writing assignments, I followed the schedule. I passed, so I suppose it did its job. Given the choice, however, I think I’d take a different route. The thing is, I’m really not a social studier. Do I like to have a person to bounce ideas off of? Certainly. Do I benefit from sitting in a giant lecture hall with tons of people listening to even more law lectures? Not so much.
OK, the hardest thing about studying independently is knowing where to actually begin. There are basic questions that we ask our tutoring students in order to make sure that their work with us is as productive as possible. But if you’re thinking about the bar, it can be hard to still your mind long enough to actually think about what questions you should be asking. So I’ll give you a few things to think about.
- How do you learn best? Are you a visual learner? Auditory? Kinesthetic? What techniques have worked best for you in the past, and what would you like to try?
- When do you study best? Are you a night owl? Morning person?
- What motivates you? Is there some way that you can reward yourself to keep yourself on track during a long study day?
- Where do you think you’ll get stuck? A lot of students can spend hours reviewing material, but panic when faced with a bar question, so they perpetually avoid practicing (which leads to more fear of questions, which leads to increased panic about the bar exam…see the problem?).
- If you’ve taken the bar and failed before, do you know where you went wrong? What can you do differently this time?
If you’re having trouble with this step, it doesn’t mean that independent bar study is a non-starter for you. You might just need a little jump start! Consider getting in touch with old professors, former classmates, or colleagues to use them as a sounding board. Or, consider looking into our self-study program. One of the most valuable parts of this program is the fact that one of our tutors reviews each student’s self-evaluation to provide study strategy suggestions.
A study strategy is great, but you still have to move from strategy to implementation. I’ve talked about this before. You have to get the right blend of substantive review, writing practice, MBE practice (unless you’re in Louisiana!), and reviewing your practice (yes, it’s necessary). The optimal blend will depend on your strengths, weaknesses, and available time. All of the major commercial bar prep companies include study schedules, but some are more realistic than others, and none are particularly flexible. Here we have both a benefit and a drawback to independent bar study. The drawback: without a rigid schedule, many people flounder. If you need that framework, it may not be for you! The benefit: if you are designing your own schedule, you can make it fit your own life. You’ll still have to force yourself to stick to it, and you still need to make sure you’re devoting enough time to bar study, but the arrangement is more up to you. We have lots of blog posts on this subject, but if you get stuck this is another place where our self-study program might be of help. Self-study includes study schedule templates that you can adapt to suit your needs. Or, you can pay a little extra to have one of us design a schedule for you based on the availability that you report (note that you’ll still be responsible for holding yourself to that schedule!).
Most people don’t actually learn particularly well from lectures. If you do, you’re golden. Find the program that best fits your budget, with the amenities that you think you’ll need, make sure there’s lots of practice (or check out one of our courses for supplemental practice!), and go for it. We’ve done reviews of some of those programs if you want to check those out.
If you don’t learn well from lectures, you might do better studying on your own. Collect bar prep materials, but not so many that you get overwhelmed. If you do well with words on a page, consider buying books from one of the bigger commercial bar prep companies. If you deal better with pictures, look into something more visual, like Sketchy Law. Consider using Lean Sheets, Smart Bar Prep (which is what we offer with our self-study and tutoring packages), or another commercial outline to help you organize your thoughts as you study and provide you with a basic framework for the information you need to learn.
Another place where many bar students, whether they are studying independently or with the help of a commercial bar prep company, get stuck is practice. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to practice ALL question types. We’ve discussed this before, and we’ll keep doing it, because it’s that important. And no matter how you’re studying, you need to learn how to self-evaluate your writing. The reason for this is twofold. First, very few bar students can afford the kind of help that would get them feedback on every single practice essay. Second, even if they all could afford that kind of feedback, it wouldn’t actually help very much. You still have to take the test alone. You need to learn not only how to write your answers but also how to evaluate your answers and learn from them. The process of writing an essay and self-evaluating it can be much more valuable from a learning perspective than watching hours of substantive lectures. If you have a trusted friend or colleague who can review a couple of writing assignments to give you feedback, that’s ideal. But you also need to take the time to self-evaluate and make the most of your practice time. This is why, when we developed our self-study program, we decided to include cost-effective modules on improving your writing and doing self-evaluation rather than the much pricier (and more limited!) tutor feedback.
Is It For You?
You’re the only one who can answer this question, but you need to be honest with yourself. Can you assess yourself well enough to figure out the best way forward, or would you need a little boost? Can you develop your own schedule? If not, can you stick to one that’s been adapted for you? How do you learn? Do you need the lectures offered by major commercial bar prep companies, or will you do as well or better with written materials? Can you rely on yourself to do practice and self-evaluate without someone looking over your shoulder? And how social are you? Do you need the interaction of attending lectures or working with a study group, or will you do better on your own? Whatever you choose, make an effort to make your path the best one for you.