Bar exam preparation tips
Today’s post was created especially for those planning to sit American bar exam. Many of us, London based young professionals in particular, plan international career, usually in the US. How to prepare for bar exam in order to qualify in the States? Here are some tips on how to study and be mentally ready for probably one of the most difficult exams in the world from the hard-working and extremely motivating Adriana.
My name is Adriana. I am a double, Polish and American, law graduate. I am also a freshly sworn-in attorney in the State of Illinois. I took the Illinois Bar Exam twice, failing by 4 points on my first try in July 2019. I passed it in February 2020. I am writing this post to share some of my thoughts on the bar exam itself, as well as some of my study tips that I found useful during the long months of bar preparation.
Let me start by saying that bar exam is the examination administered by each jusrisdiction’s (each state’s) bar association twice a year. Every law-graduate needs to pass it prior to being admitted to the bar and being able to practice law.
The exam itself differs depending on the jurisdiction. In Illinois, there are three components to two-day bar exam: The Multistate Performance Test (MPT), The Multistate Essay Exam (MEE) and The Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). Illinois requires a passing score of 266 (combined score from all sections).
Preparation to the bar starts with choosing the bar review course. There are multiple options to choose from, such as Barbri, Themis, Kaplan, etc. Since I wasn’t very familiar with any of those at the time, I followed the crowd and chose Barbri, which was recommended by most of my classmates. I started studying for the bar a week after my graduation (the end of May). I dedicated a lot of time and effort but also made many mistakes. As I mentioned, I failed by four points in total—scoring exactly 131 points on both sections. Sure, it hurt a little, but at the same time, I was extremely proud of it. I knew I did everything in my power at that time, even if that wasn’t enough. My second try was not only successful because I passed, but because I passed with a great score, which means I really did learn from my mistakes. And that’s why I’m writing this post - to help you avoid them and make the best possible use of your time when studying for the bar.
Here are my tips:
1. Find out what you’ll need beforehand. One of the mistakes that I made was choosing the bar review without doing thorough research first. I had absolutely no idea how to approach the bar, what to choose, how to study, what I would need to study. At first, I thought Barbri would be a good choice, since it was recommended by most people in my class. I am not saying it’s not a good bar prep course, but it’s expensive, and for me, it wasn’t enough. I ended up spending a lot of money on additional materials - AdaptiBar, books with real Bar questions (all Barbri’s questions are simulated, created by the company), flashcards. If I had known it before, I would have chosen one of the cheaper courses and supplement it with AdaptiBar, which I found tremendously helpful with MBE part. I barely used commercial flashcards, I didn’t read all of the books that Barbri sent me. So here’s my advice: research the materials and bar reviews that you’ll need. Find out what methods work best for you. Some people like handwritten notes, others like studying from outlines or flashcards… Read blogs, posts, watch YouTube videos and decide what methods and materials would be most helpful to you.
2. Don’t be picky, be determined. There are eight areas of law on the MBE section of the exam and additional eight for MEE part. Do not choose your favorite subjects and don’t spend more time than necessary on those you feel strong at. Instead, devote more time for those you don’t like or you find difficult. I know it’s hard. I loved Torts, Civil Procedure and Contracts, but wanted to cry every time I saw Property or Constitutional Law outlines. I enjoyed doing tests and readings on my “favorites,” but my scores from the other two weren’t good. I decided to change it and I (literally) told myself that there was absolutely no way that I’d give up because of some stupid Property law. I started working on it, day after day, every day, reviewing Rule Against Perpetuities (every law student’s nightmare) again and again until I finally understood it. I did the same with Constitutional Law. Guess what subjects were my strongest on the bar? Not Torts, not any of my favorites, but PROPERTY and CON LAW. So be determined. Don’t let some subjects take the points away from you just because they seem difficult or because you’re not interested in them.
3. Practice, practice, analyze and practice. You can find this mantra on any bar-exam related website. Why? Because that’s the best advice anyone can give you. It’s the one thing to memorize something, but you need to understand and apply what you learn. In July, I focused on “actual studying” and reading rather than practicing and that was a mistake. Sure, you need to know something first before doing tests if you don’t want to feel frustrated, but don’t waste time on going over and over again through the same outlines. You’ll learn more by practicing questions and making mistakes than just reading. The other piece of advice is: analyze your answers, no matter if right or wrong. Get back to the tests you’ve already done and analyze scrupulously every answer. Only then will you understand your strong points and your weak points, the areas that are likely to trick you, and those that aren’t. That is very important in the process of learning. Plus, I can’t really explain it, but there IS a pattern/scheme or whatever it may be called in the bar questions. I promise you, if you practice enough, there will only be likely a small number of questions on the real exam that can surprise you. So do as many tests, essays and practice exams as possible.
4. Study at your own pace. There’s an advice within advice here, because finding your own pace means you can’t compare yourself to your classmates. I studied for 12 hours a day sometimes because that’s what I was told I should do. It’s impossible to maintain the same level of focus for such long periods of time. Try planning your study days and the amount of material you want to cover. Also, take breaks, get your mind off studying for a while and don’t feel guilty about it. You’ll get back to books with new energy and refreshed focus - it’s for your own good.
5. Try study group. Now, that’s not a method for everyone. Personally, I prefer to study on my own, but doing tests with someone can be a huge help. They say you really understand a concept only when you’re able to explain it to someone, and that’s true.
6. Focus. Studying for the bar is different than studying for a regular test. You need to be focused, organized, and focused again at all times. That’s why the most important thing to do is to eliminate distractions. Put your phone away—you really don’t need to know what’s going on in the social media every minute. I noticed that every time I was trying to study, there was something super urgent to check on my phone: Facebook, news, weather on Madagascar. I just needed to know, needed to check. And so I was losing my focus easily and had to start all over again. So leave your phone and whatever distracts you in the other room. Also, find the place where you are really able to focus, whether is it a cafe, library, your room, school.
7. Don’t stress during the prep. Even before my graduation, I constantly heard that the bar exam is so hard, that I need to study all the time, that I’m not allowed to have life during the prep, that I should eat this and that and avoid this and that, that everything should be on hold, that I have to delete Facebook/Insta/everything, preferably move into a cave, away from everything and everyone. Please, ignore such advices. If you like eating healthy, do it. If that makes you h-angry and distracts you—don’t. Working out helps you? Great! Do it. You don’t exercise normally? Forget it for now. You know yourself best and you know exactly what you need, so just follow your instincts.
8. Don’t stress on the day of the exam. I know it’s hard, but whatever happens, do not let stress and negative emotions get to you. Stressed = not focused and scared. I was so stressed in July that my mind went completely blank on my first day. I couldn’t remember even the rules I was reviewing the day before. Just remember: it’s your time, you’ve done everything in your power, you’re smart enough, you should be proud of yourself and you can do it.
9. Failure is not a shame. Even if you don’t succeed on your first try, that is not the end of the world. It may seem that way, but it really isn’t. It’s hard, that’s for sure, because you probably have people who believe in you, maybe a job lined up for you, maybe some other possibilities. Failing the bar exam doesn’t mean you’re not smart enough to be a lawyer. It only means that something didn’t work for you this time. Maybe you should have studied differently, maybe the stress got to you badly, or maybe there were some other circumstances. It’s okay to fail, life happens, we all know that. Learn from your mistakes, try again, try better, but never be ashamed of that.
Good luck with everything!”
As a person who wants to sit Cali bar exam I find Adriana’s advice eye-opening in many points. Remember that we study differently, and not one study technique is the same. Don’t let other people’s progress stress you, or even make you quit. Remember that there are many people studying for bar exam at the moment, you can always reach out to them. Search for blogs and websites of those who have already passed the bar. They can provide you with many useful tips. Look for people still preparing – you can always exchange your experience and maybe organise study sessions.
What I find helpful, apart from Adriana’s advice, are stories published in groups like globallawyersconnect on Facebook or on their Instagram account. Even today at 3pm BST, GLC founder Gordon Chung will speak with Hrideja S., an India-qualified lawyer and LLM graduate from UC Berkeley who passed the California Bar Exam. In this session, they will give an overview of the entire qualification process, and some tips to pass the New York and California Bar Exam more easily. They will also answer live questions from aspiring lawyers across the world. Check their live on Instagram!