I’ve heard every student complaint imaginable about studying for the bar exam: there aren’t enough hours in the day! It’s exhausting! There’s just too much black letter law! I get it. Studying for the bar exam can be an all-consuming and incredibly draining process. It doesn’t have to be, but it often is, especially if you’re enrolled in a one-size-fits-all program like Barbri.
Over the years, I’ve worked with many students who have either taken Barbri in the past or are currently taking Barbri. As a former Barbri student myself, I can relate to some of the frustrations particular to this program. Barbri has its pros and cons, just like any other study regime, but there are some typical gripes that always seem to surface from Barbri students, so I wanted to address how to deal with the most common among these in case you are feeling overwhelmed.
1. Falling Behind on Your Schedule
The Barbri schedule is pretty intense. It can feel like every hour of your day is scheduled. Some students like this because they don’t have to decide how to spend their time. What happens more often than not, though, is that what started out great gets overwhelming and students inevitably fall behind. Once you lose ground with a schedule as detailed as this, it can be challenging to build in catch-up time to reorganize. Plus, without knowing how to prioritize the various tasks, deciding what to limit and what to focus on can be a source of anxiety for some people. You’re not alone, don’t freak out. Here’s what to do:
Prioritize the graded essays. These, after all, are likely one of the more useful parts of the Barbri program. Put these on your calendar, highlight them on your schedule, and be sure to turn these ones in on time so you’re at least getting the benefit of someone looking at your work. Whether the feedback you get will be substantive enough for you to find helpful, I don’t know (see more about this below), but some feedback is always better than none at all. And, this might force you to do some practice, which is always a good idea no matter which bar study program you follow.
Second step, reflect on what helps you the most. I know it’s easy to sit there watching videos, and this time can even feel productive in the moment, but how well do you actually know the substantive law after listening to it for an hour? For most people, the answer to that question is: not super well. So ask yourself, what helps you the most? Do those tasks that give you the most bang for your buck in terms of learning. And, if you want my advice – this will almost always be the ones that involve practice. Practice the essays, PTs, and MBEs. Anything that you’re not learning from, cut it from the list – at least until you can catch up on your calendar. Then, reassess later and ask yourself if you want to add these items back in or not.
2. All Those Videos!
Most students do not learn well just by listening. Why? Because most people are not purely auditory learners, and even if they are, just listening is not very active and engaging – especially not for hours on end. I’ve told some of my students in the past to just stop listening to substantive law videos altogether. At the end of the day, if you have a few weeks left to study for the exam, which one is more important: that you learn some basic attack plans for each subject and practice a lot? Or, that you sit there watching a bunch of videos and never actually try out your skill set? Well, the first one will obviously test you in a way that the actual exam will test you, and the second one won’t so ditch the videos if they’re not helping, if they’re taking up too much time, or if the only reason you’re watching them is so you can check some items off your list. I’ve found that most bar students are better served by doing actual practice and “actively” memorizing. And, you can get the black letter law from a lot of sources, you don’t need all those filled-in Barbri lecture outlines to make sense of the concepts that will be tested.
If you do opt to watch your Barbri videos, that’s fine too, but consider being choosy. Prioritize the ones for subjects you did not study or excel at in law school. Or, focus on those that are based on writing and MBE strategy rather than substantive law. Just because the Corporations video works for you does not mean the Evidence video will be equally helpful. So, it’s okay to pick and choose. Finally, consider watching the videos on higher play speeds so they won’t take as long. Or, like I said, if they’re not getting you anywhere, ditch them!
3. Is this Busywork?
One question I have gotten a lot is, “Do I really have to do everything on this schedule?” Well, no, you can do whatever you want, it’s your bar exam. And plenty of people passes the exam studying on their own or with other bar study programs. The tasks you engage in should be tailored to the type of learner you are: Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual—some combination thereof? And you should also consider your own weaknesses and strengths. Do you tend to procrastinate? Do you need motivation or goal-setting help? Not sure? Well, what worked for you in law school?
Chances are, you won’t have any earth-shattering revelations about yourself or your study habits during bar season. You’ve been memorizing things your whole life. So, ask yourself how you’ve memorized large amounts of information in the past? And, be precise. Sometimes something on your schedule as simple as “review” could mean a lot of things. Does it mean saying the law out loud to yourself? Handwriting out rule elements? Turning a longer outline into a short attack plan? Experiment and see what helps the law stick for you. Everyone is different.
That said, busywork almost always feels like filling time. It feels complacent rather than slightly uncomfortable. So, watch out for this, because frankly, bar study should be a little uncomfortable. You should feel like you’re pushing some limits and stretching your understanding and abilities. Are you just watching videos and filling in lecture notes so you can say you did it? Are you cranking out MBEs on your iPad but not actually reviewing them substantively? If so, stop and do something more productive with your time.
4. Sparse Feedback and Model Answers That Are “Too Perfect”
I’ve heard these ones quite a few times: “I got a 70 but I’m not sure why” or “I got a 50 but no information about how to fix my writing problems or rules.” I said above that some feedback is better than no feedback, but not all feedback is created equal, and not all styles work for all students. So, how do you deal with getting a number and not much in the way of specific instructions?
First, use the sample answers provided by the State Bar. You know the real graders scored these real answers very highly, so they can give you a good benchmark for what the graders wanted on each essay. If the model answers from Barbri seem unrealistically good, don’t worry. They should seem close to perfect since they were not written by students, not written under exam conditions, and compiled by multiple professionals, not just one person. If these models stress you out, don’t use them as your gauge. Use them as your gold standard but take them with a grain of salt and compare them to the real student sample answers on calbar.org that you can get for free. For any issues, facts, or rules you miss, be sure to ask yourself why. Then, it’s your job to go back and fix the problems.
No bar study program can watch over any closer or get you to work any harder than you can yourself. You’re in charge of your own study process! And, you are your own worst enemy and your own greatest asset. If you don’t understand an area of substantive law, it doesn’t matter whether you already completed the video or checked 100 MBE questions off your list, you have to retrace your steps and figure it out. This needs to be part of your process, or you will never improve. You have to teach it to yourself. No program is a guarantee of success, so you have to use common sense with how you’re spending your time. If you feel like you don’t quite get something, chances are, you don’t. Fix that. If your analysis doesn’t use all the facts, you’re in dangerous territory. Fix that too. If you’re not finishing PTs on time, no one can correct this but you and the way to do that is to be disciplined and strict with yourself.
If you are having trouble or need help, don’t go it alone. Ask your friends and classmates what they’re doing to review, get advice from colleagues who already passed the bar. Get an MBE tutor or help on your essays and PTs. But mostly, be sure to honestly (and ruthlessly) assess your own progress and your own weaknesses. Reflect on whether what you’re doing is actually working for you. If not, start making adjustments now while you still have time. Use your resources and time wisely and prioritize the basics first. At the end of the day, remember this: there are several key ingredients to passing this exam: (1) you have to know enough law, (2) you have to be able to answer questions correctly, and (3) you have to manage your time and follow instructions. If you’re spending your time on anything right now that is not getting you closer to proficiency in all three of these areas, stop and try something else. Above all, practice under exam conditions. You can never do too much practice!