Many 3Ls who are about to graduate from law school don’t actually put much time into researching their options when it comes to preparing for the bar exam. Of course not! You have your finals to get through, you might still be filing your moral character application or other state requirements, and your schedule is probably jam-packed — and that’s without any summer or holiday vacations.
For this reason, it’s easy to go along with the crowd and sign up for the review course that everyone else in your class seems to be taking and figure you’ll be just fine. The problem with taking this kind of one-size-fits-all approach is that you might not even realize you need more help (or a different kind of help) until it’s too late. Regardless of which state’s exam you’re taking, if you’re wondering whether you may benefit from some extra guidance, materials or advice as you prepare for your first bar exam, consider the following warning signs:
Is your GPA or percentile ranking at the low end of your class?
If your GPA has a lot of room for improvement, consider how the final exams that earned you those grades have gone for you over the past three years. What were your grades in the core 1L and 2L classes like Torts, Contracts and Evidence that will be on your bar exam? Obviously, the bar isn’t exactly like a final exam. Not even close—it’s much worse! The stakes are extremely high, the stress as you study and while you’re actually taking the test itself can be incredibly overwhelming, and the results are binary: you’re either a lawyer at the end or you’re not. It’s basically like reading week for two months and in the end, you get tested on ten or twelve subjects instead of just one.
Remember, the average bar review course is designed for the average law student. If your grades are below average, figure out your weaknesses and find a way to supplement in those areas. Are you consistently terrible at multiple choice? Is it your writing or organization that needs help? You might not need to supplement everything, but at least consider bolstering the areas that might need it.
Does your law school generally have low bar pass rates?
If you go to a law school that is unaccredited, ranked on the lower end of the spectrum, or in some way non-traditional, e.g. the school is brand new and there are no bar pass statistics, or the curriculum is entirely online, etc. or if the usual pass rates for the 3Ls who graduate from your school are below average for the state you’re in, you might want to consider getting some extra help. Low pass rates could mean that a school is not adequately preparing its graduates to pass the exam in your state on their first try. If that’s the case, extra guidance beyond the program everyone in your class is using can go a long way toward giving you the edge you need to succeed.
How many bar preparation electives did you take in law school?
If you never took Community Property in California or Business Associations or Corporations, you could still be just fine on the bar exam (but see below). A lot of students who pass the bar did not take every single bar elective. And, you will have to learn a lot of material from scratch for the test anyway. However, if you took very few classes which covered subjects that will actually be on your exam, or if you got bad awful in the bar elective classes you did take, you might think about getting some extra assistance. Depending on the state in which you will be taking the bar, you might find that some subjects have a lot of nitpicky and brand-new terminology that can be challenging to learn from square one (e.g. Wills and Trusts or Community Property in California).
Ask yourself whether you feel confident enough to teach yourself the material if needed for the subjects you’ve never seen before. Lectures and outlines can go a long way, but it will ultimately be your job to make sure you understand all those rules so you can memorize and apply them effectively on exam day. If this idea sounds terrifying, think about getting some additional materials and support to help you out.
Are you taking the bar in a new state?
If you went to law school outside of California for example, and will be taking the California bar exam, there are some subjects you probably have no exposure to which can be difficult to learn on your own with just a typical California bar course to back you up. Remember, the students who went to school in the state where the bar is being administered have a leg up on state law distinctions and state-specific subjects (in California, for example, there are actually a lot of important California-specific rules to learn for the bar!). If you feel like you’re going into bar season with the deck already stacked against you, ask yourself if you might need some help from a tutor or company that is based in the new state where you will be taking your exam. See if you can get some help figuring out all the nuances you might not have covered in your law school classes.
Do you struggle with anxiety, time management or handling stress or depression?
No, that’s not a trick question. I realize many if not most law students probably fall into at least one of these categories, and that’s ok. The tricky part is that as you’re studying for the bar, these issues have a strange way of getting magnified to the extreme. Even if you take a fantastic bar prep. course, if you’re just one test-taker in a sea of many, it can be easy to fall below the curve and get bogged down without anyone noticing or reaching down to help pull you back up.
You will be in charge of your own day-to-day progress. You are the one who will need to take care of yourself and get the exercise, healthy food and relaxation you need so you don’t stumble into the test as a frazzled mess of nerves and caffeine. If you think you might need some extra attention in any of these areas—whether it’s psychological or emotional counseling, a life coach, therapist, tutor or another support system, make sure you figure that out long before the study process begins so you have time to get these issues (or potential issues) under control.
How is your memory?
If you’re the type of person who is always leaving the grocery store without the one thing you went in there to buy, or if you have trouble keeping track of facts, figures or other uninteresting details, you might want to think about how you are going to ramp up your memory for the bar exam. Have you ever taken a completely closed-book exam? How did that experience go for you? Remember, on the bar, you won’t be allowed to bring in any notes at all. Similarly, if you’ve always relied on flash cards to learn the law—or some other technique that takes a tremendous amount of preparation time, consider whether you will even have the time and energy to prepare in the way you’re used to when you have to learn so many different subjects all at once. If your memory or memorization strategy needs a boost, consider finding some other advice, tools and tricks to help you as you study.
Will the bar be your first big exam without the testing accommodations you’re used to?
Law schools can be fantastic at offering many various accommodations to law students who need them. Depending on their individual situations, some law students are able to take exams with extra time, or in a quiet empty room, or with a reader, typist, service animal or even comfort pet next to them. However, the bar exam requirements for test taking accommodations can be really stringent and really different. This can come as a big surprise to law students who are used to taking their exams in a particular way. If you have been getting exam accommodations in law school and you’re not sure whether the bar exam will allow the same accommodations, you should find out as early as possible so you can prepare accordingly.
The bar exam is usually administered in a huge room with many, many rows of tables and chairs, and the noise from everyone typing can be distracting even to students who have always taken their exams in big, crowded lecture halls. If this sounds like something that will present issues for you, you might need to start planning some new strategies for this exam, and you might want some help doing it. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Talk to your school, doctor, therapist or tutor and make sure you’re able to get what you need.
Will you be working, caring for children or otherwise occupied while you study?
Most students preparing for the bar exam feel that they need every second of every day to study. In reality, this isn’t true, but it can feel like any demands on your time are taking away from your ability to focus and learn what you need to pass. If you’re working a full time job, raising kids or doing anything else that requires full-time commitment, you will likely feel this pressure even more when you start to study for your exam. Standardized bar review courses usually come with general schedules that can get pretty overwhelming if you’re not studying all day every day. Obviously, life doesn’t stop for the bar exam, though, so it’s important to figure out which method of bar review works best with the non-negotiables in your life. If you think time management (or just finding enough time!) is going to be an issue for you, you might want to work with a person or company that knows your schedule and the demands on your time and can help you effectively work around them.
I mentioned this above, but the idea of getting lost in bar prep. is not to be overlooked. Especially if you’re planning to study with a big bar prep. course that does not offer much oversight, individual feedback, check-ins or accountability, ask yourself whether these are things you might need. Do you stay on task better if you know you need to e-mail your essay to someone at the end of the night? Do you respond well to individualized advice about your situation and the areas you as an individual test-taker need to improve upon?
Bottom line, you know yourself best and you’re the only one who can tell first-hand what works well for you. There’s no need to conform to what everyone around you is doing if you think it won’t be the most efficient or effective plan for you. By all means, take a traditional bar prep. course if you think that will work best for you. It might be fantastic and just what you needed! Mix and match your bar review programs if you want to and find ways to supplement your weaknesses. At the very least, check out all of the options available to you so you can choose the one that suits your needs best.
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Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- Bar Exam Study Resources Other Than BARBRI?
- Are You Next to Take the Bar Exam? 5 Tips for You
- Are You Studying the Right Way for the Bar Exam?
- Should I Start Studying Early for the Bar Exam?
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