In discussing a study plan with a repeat bar taker yesterday, he brought up an interesting question. He mentioned, “I was thinking of doing the really intensive memorization during the last two weeks before the exam, what do you think of this plan?” Well, first of all, some of the big, commercial bar prep. companies take this approach, so it’s not like this is a novel or totally crazy idea. On the other hand, I would also strongly advise against it. Here’s why.
Finishing essays on time is much harder if you don’t know the law
This same student brought up an interesting and common complaint. He said, “I am still taking too long to write each essay, but, at the same time, I also don’t know the rules well enough to do it without peeking.” Therein lies the big problem when it comes to timing. Basically, not knowing the rules by heart means your scratch paper essay planning will take longer, your analysis will take longer, and overall, your essay may end up to be more like an hour and a half rather than just shy of 60 minutes. And that additional 30 minutes can be hard to cut down.
The situation that often arises when you reserve the intensive memorization for the last two weeks is that you never give yourself a chance to practice essays where your scratch paper outlining is a well-oiled machine, your analysis flows quickly and easily, and you finish each essay on time. It’s really frustrating to try to write fast essays when you’re lagging behind on the skills such as: memorization, analysis, or essay planning. So, these are all things you should work on improving incrementally little by little throughout the study period. Balance your time between all three. Do some of each every day.
You will run out of time for closed-book practice
Writing a good bar essay needs to be a perfect storm of (a) using (mostly) the correct law, (b) formulating good analysis where you match up that law with the precise facts you are given, and (c) finishing on time. If you fail in one of these areas, your essay will probably fail too.
The reason waiting to do memorization until the final two weeks of bar study is a bad idea is because that means that up until that point, you will probably be doing open-book essays and relying on your notes as a crutch. You might be thinking, as a lot of students do, “Great! I can still learn from open-book essays.” And it’s true—to a point. But what you want to do is start off with open-book essays while you are still learning the law but then plunge yourself into the harsh reality of closed-book essays part way through your study period so you get the benefit of struggling the same way you would have to on the real exam if you didn’t know the rules. There is no substitute for doing this practice, even though it’s really uncomfortable.
Sometimes students ask, “Well, what’s the point of doing a closed-book essay if I don’t know the law well enough to write it yet?” First, if you’re looking at the “point” of the essay as how perfect your essay turns out, then I can see what you mean. The essay won’t look very perfect, so it can be hard to see the point.
However, when you first start to write closed-book essays under time conditions, the essays are often pretty terrible finished products. And that’s okay—so long as that happens in enough time to fix all the shortcomings. Where the real “point” occurs is not just in your writing but in your review of each essay. That’s the time you dedicate after the one hour is up to go back and ask yourself, “Okay, which rules did I falter on?” and then you go and look those up and memorize them. You pick up the pieces and you fix them in the moment.
If you’re waiting to do this kind of practice and “pick up the pieces” memorization/review until the last two weeks, you likely won’t have enough time to turn around bad habits—like spending too much time writing each essay and reaching for your notes. And you will have lost the opportunity to really learn from each essay you wrote up until that point.
Your MBEs scores won’t get good until too late in the game
Could you feasibly memorize enough law to crank out passable MBE scores in just the last two weeks? Sure. In fact, I tutored a student for the most recent bar exam who only studied in total for 10 days at the end, and he still passed. I’m not saying it’s impossible. My point is that it’s tough to get enough practice that late in the game. It’s not an ideal situation. Your MBEs will progress better and more steadily, and you will be able to learn and retain more if you not only crank out some practice each week, but then also go back each time and learn from each wrong answer. Each time you miss a question, take the extra step of memorizing the rule that would have helped you get the question right. I’ve found that’s the very best way to learn from your mistakes and improve your MBE score the most.
More memorization over a longer period of time makes the material stick
As anyone who has ever crammed for a test knows, the stuff your professor has been saying every single morning day in and day out since the beginning of the semester is ingrained in a way than the stuff you drill only on the night before the exam. This has to do with a phenomenon called spaced repetition. In short, exposing your brain to material at shorter intervals over a longer period of time (say half an hour every day) is a more effective way to remember that material than packing it all in at the end.
The same holds true for the bar exam—especially since there is just so much information to learn. Also, memorizing this information can be a lot simpler if you attack it in small modules rather than all at once. For example, it’s much more manageable to memorize dependent relative revocation from Wills and Trusts if you know what that phrase actually means first. Similarly, teaching yourself the rule elements of DRR and then fleshing out what each one of them stands for is easier than trying to memorize one big chunk of law about some concept called DRR that you’ve never heard of.
You can fix your problem areas faster
The added benefit of starting earlier is that you find out earlier what topics or rules don’t make as much sense to you. Bar students are often surprised how many topics they have to re-learn. Even if you took a class in law school about something, things may be completely different for the bar exam. If you wait to memorize until the end, you could potentially come up with a list of 20 or 30 nuances that you don’t know what to do with. If, on the other hand, you’re learning where the gaps in your knowledge are as you go along, you will have more time to reinforce these and make them stronger and then build on them further.
Bottom line: What should you do instead?
Rather than smash a bunch of rote memorization into the last two weeks, I think a better plan would be to start off learning the big building blocks of each subject at the very beginning of your bar study. What does personal jurisdiction actually mean? How can you make this concept make sense to yourself? What is the basic question the court is asking? What does the concept of parol evidence look like in an essay? Make sure these ideas make sense in laymen’s terms.
Then, after you understand the basics, go straight to rule elements. See if you can boil down each smaller topic within each subject into a short list of elements you can memorize. That way, even if you forget a nuance, your essay will at least flow in the correct order, and your headers (based on those elements you memorized) will look right to the grader. You can make up little details if needed, but if your headers and major rules look out of whack, that will be hard to come back from. Plus, added bonus: if you force yourself to boil rules down into simple elements, that’s a really effective way of making sure you actually understand the rule. If you can’t pick out the most important buzzwords from the rule and turn it into a checklist, you need to go back a step and understand the concept better.
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Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- Steps to Making Your Own Bar Exam Schedule
- Why Really Wanting to Pass the Bar Exam Isn’t Enough
- What You Can Do Now to Prepare for the Bar Exam
- Can Studying Early Help You Pass the Bar Exam?
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Daniel de Vera
Thanks for your article on making our own outline.
I am a long time California Bar repeater.
May I know if making my own outline out of sum and substance like Finz’ and Emanuel’s plus Bar Bri and Celebration outlines will not be too time consuming to prepare for California Bar?
Daniel de Vers
Thank you, Ariel for your article on making own outline.
I think making your own outline is a great idea if you start bar prep. early enough (since outlining can take a lot of time!). If you’re just starting to make outlines in Jan., or Feb. for the Feb. exam, though, I think this is too late, and you should focus your time instead on practice and memorization using commercial sources.