Erase the all-nighter from your studying playbook. It won’t help you here. The bar exam is unlike any test you’ve ever taken and mandates different study approaches than the ones you employed to (hopefully) breeze through law school.
There are two main reasons. The first is the singular goal to pass the bar exam, not in pursuit of a grade or a degree, but in pursuit of a career.
This leads to the second reason: Getting the answers right is just as important as knowing the subject material. Technique—both in writing essays and in approaching multiple-choice questions—is paramount.
For example, a typical law school essay prompt may include a line like, “discuss the issues.” You’ll identify every cause of action or legal issue that you can spot, consider all sides of the argument, perhaps raise policy concerns, and end up with some type of conclusion. Your responses are open to interpretation.
That’s less true on the bar exam, where the bar examiners will expect you to raise only those issues that are directly responsive to the specific questions you've been given. Sometimes there will be only one question (which will force you to evaluate more carefully whether the issues you spot are responsive) and other times there will be as many as five questions. In some cases, there will be a clear answer to the question, while in other cases, the bar examiners will give you facts that you have to balance (for example, in determining whether a beneficiary exerted undue influence over the testator). Plus, you’ll have to read the question, organize your approach, and convey your answer clearly and convincingly in an excruciatingly limited 30-minute time frame before moving on to the next question.
That’s a learned skill that requires a specific type of preparation. Once you’ve recognized the differences in studying for law school and studying for the bar, implement these basic steps.
Establish a Study Schedule That Works for You
Cramming is the word that best defines students’ approach to regular exams. The professor announces the date of the midterm; you pencil in 10 hours at the library for the day and night before.
That’s an unwise approach for the bar exam. This is the most important test of your life, and you should do everything within reason to pass. Step one is establishing a schedule.
Work backward from the date you plan to sit for the bar exam to map out a study plan that works for you.
While there is no set number of hours students should spend studying, 500 is a good threshold: 250 hours for learning and memorizing law, 250 for practice questions and essays.
How you spread out those 500 hours depends on your schedule. If you plan to treat preparing for the bar exam like a full-time job (i.e. spending around 40 hours a week plus time on the weekends studying), then start nine to 10 weeks in advance of the exam. If you have other obligations that you know will limit your availability, you should begin your prep earlier.
If you do choose to take a bar exam prep course (and you should), supplement your classes with review in your free time. For example, the Pieper Full Bar Review Course consists of more than 150 hours of lectures over seven weeks, which works out to four hours of lectures each day. That leaves, roughly speaking, 350 hours of study to reach the 500-hours standard.
Consider Hiring a Tutor
Studying for the bar exam, even in comparison to surviving the rigors of law school, requires tremendous self-discipline. Procrastinators need not apply. Still, even the most diligent bookworms could use support.
Some students prefer studying in groups where they can bounce ideas off one or another or host impromptu quizzes. But the best way to ensure bar preparation isn’t a solo pursuit is to hire a tutor. In a one-on-one setting, tutors guide students through nuances of the bar exam. Besides, the change in habit will make it clear you’re preparing for something more important than a law school test or essay.
Here are some of the benefits of working with a bar exam tutor:
- Preparing for the bar exam is stressful. Tutors alleviate some of that stress just by being present: YOU’RE not alone.
- You’re all but guaranteed quality review with direction. The material you look over with the tutor will be on the bar exam.
- Tutors supplement your own study schedule to give it a boost. If there’s a particular topic you can’t nail down, you can work with the tutor on that subject, while staying the course with the rest of your bar prep.
- Tutors can speak directly to your weaknesses and help turn them into strengths.
- Tutors maximize your chance of passing the bar exam on your first attempt.
- Tutors emphasize technique over subject material. They’ll help you craft concise, effective essays while teaching you how to approach multiple-choice questions.
Above all, tutors recognize the difficulty of passing the bar exam. They’re on your team from start to finish, to answer questions as they come up and provide motivation as you approach the test.