You already know that studying for the bar exam is different from studying for law school exams. Law school exams are at the end of an entire semester of learning, they are spread out over a week or two, you can study for one subject at a time and engage in more linear/sequential learning: organize your notes, create an outline, memorize the outline, practice using it to answer questions.
This doesn’t work for the bar exam because you are tested on all the subjects (and skills) at once. You can’t study and learn one subject and then move on to the next because this linear/sequential method only stores the material in your short term memory. Your short term memory is like a file folder- it can only hold so much. It works for law school exams because you are tested on one subject at a time. For the bar exam, you need to store information in your long-term memory. It’s not about what you know but what you can do with what you know.
This is why the commercial bar prep companies assign practice problems throughout the process. Answering questions when you don’t “know” the law feels counter-intuitive. However, it’s based on proven learning theory called retrieval practice which basically forces your brain to recall information and helps develop memory cues. In order to learn both the substance and the skills, consider using your notes/outlines to answer questions. It’s not cheating. It’s learning in context and it’s a focused and efficient way to learn. Stop trying to memorize pages and pages of notes and then doing practice problems. You’ve basically created a trash bag of information in your brain that you have to sort through and file. Instead, streamline your learning by seeing how the material is tested while at the same time organizing the information in your brain.
Another method of learning and storing information in your long-term memory is the concept of interleaving. Click here to learn about interleaving and how it works.
The next time commercial bar prep assigns practice problems, resist the urge to skip them in favor of memorizing your notes. Instead, embrace the concept of learning in context and use those notes to work through the questions. Your brain will thank you.
Yesterday I wrote about the importance of learning how to construct bar exam essay responses. At this stage of bar prep, practicing the process is important and so it using your notes/outlines as you answer questions. This is learning in context which is an efficient and effective way to absorb a lot of material and develop skills in a condensed period of time. Here are additional suggestions for learning in context:
(1) Time reviewing = Time doing. After answering a question, compare it to the released response and reconcile the differences. Don’t assume the released response is correct or that you are wrong. Figure it out.
Why do this? Reviewing your work helps you learn and remember both process and substance.
(2) Build a rules outline. Go through essay responses and pull out the synthesized rules from each and add to a running list for each subject.
Why do this? Creating a complete and concise outline as you go along breaks up a big task which makes it easier to remember the individual rules and how they fit together.
(3) Create a key term bank for different subjects. As you work through the material and answer questions, certain words and phrases will show up again and again. Make a list of these key terms for each subject and make sure you use them in your responses.
Why do this? It facilitates learning because it helps organize and connect concepts, and also serves as a trigger for when your mind goes blank (and it will). If you can remember one word, you can create a rule.
(4) Answer the same question twice. Make note of which essay questions you answered early in the study process and in mid-July (when you actually know the law), answer them again without using notes. Compare your responses. You will immediately notice things you much you’ve improved.
Why do this? It is proof that you know and understand the material. It also gives you a feel for what you know well and what you don’t so you can focus your studying on the weaker subjects.
There is no one right way to study and learn. Try a few of these strategies and see what works best for you.
What does “get comfortable being uncomfortable” mean? It’s something I’ve been saying for years. When I coached swimming, I said it to my athletes all the time. In swimming, every hundredth of a second matters so when you’re five meters from the wall and you think you need to take a breath, don’t. You are less than a second from finishing and taking a breath (or lifting your head) creates drag which can mean the difference between winning the most Olympic gold medals ever or… not.
Getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable also means not being afraid to fail. Swimming great Katie Ledecky fails “spectacularly” and that is why she wins.
There’s no magic bullet…[Katie] doesn’t have this incredible wingspan. She doesn’t have webbed feet. You look at Katie, just like with Michael [Phelps], and you realize the differentiator is between the ears. And their hearts. Their appetite for competition, their unwillingness to lose, and their embracing the challenge. And not just the challenge on competition day, which is a huge part, but the challenge of the training grind.
– Bruce Gemmell, Ledecky’s coach
At the Rio Olympics Ledecky finished so far ahead of the competition that she spawned Chuck Norris-like memes.
So, what does this mean for the bar exam? It means that you push yourself past your comfort zone. It means you don’t quit when things get hard. It means you mess up, make mistakes, and fail. A lot. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable means you are prepared for and can handle just about anything. Things don’t have to go perfectly for you to succeed. You have learned how to adapt, adjust, and move forward. No one likes feeling uncomfortable but avoiding that feeling and being afraid to fail is exactly why people fail the bar exam. They are afraid to make mistakes and afraid to be wrong. They are afraid of what others will think and that their best isn’t good enough.
It’s week two of bar prep and the uncomfortable feelings are creeping in. You can avoid them and take a breath or you can hold on, push through and get to the wall first.
Bar Prep occurs in five stages. As a recent Bar Examinee, I will tell you what you’re about to experience.
Any difficult process begins the same: we all deny it’s happening. With the bar exam, the denial occurs passively as other big things happen in your life. You just finished final exams and graduated. Or you just relocated. You just got engaged or married. You recently had a child. You are looking for a job.
These major things will cloud your vision. You know that bar prep is around the corner, but you are not ready to accept it.
The next stage is nostalgia. You will begin your studies in earnest. You will go to classes, watch videos, take notes, etc. on topics that you studied way back at the beginning of law school. Contracts, property, constitutional law, torts, and so on.
You will have energy and your familiarity with these topics will put you a bit at ease. You will strangely feel like this is not going to be so bad.
This stage lasts for about a week—maybe two, if you’re lucky.
After a brief period of something resembling okay-ness, you will descend into discomfort. You will realize that the exam—and your preparation—will cover many topics only some of which you are familiar with and others you have never encountered before. You will feel overwhelmed and underprepared.
You will write your first graded practice essay and feel a jolt of unease as you fail to recall from memory any rule statements or legal propositions. You will feel very bad about yourself and very uncomfortable with your studies.
You will start to shift into new topics before you feel solid on the old topics. You will be tested on three topics in one day and you will forget that you had already covered the first topic that seemed so familiar only recently.
The multiple choice sets you complete will be harder than you expected. And you will struggle to hit your targets.
But here’s an important piece of information to hold onto during this time: your discomfort during this stage is the reasonyou will pass the exam. Your discomfort will drive you to study hard and focus. You will not be distracted by seemingly endless number of other, better opportunities happening in the early summer.
And here’s another important piece of information: do not let your discomfort dictate your study schedule. Follow the schedule your bar study program has for you. Do not study constantly or sprint ahead of the program. Slow and steady and uncomfortable is the path to success.
And if you are feeling especially overwhelmed, use your nervous energy to prepare in simple low-energy ways after you complete what you need to for the day: make flashcards of key terms and phrases; print out example answer essays and organize them by topic; organize yourself. Do mindless things that will help you study down the road.
I would like to tell you that things improve after ‘Discomfort,’ but I’m here to tell you how it is not how you want it to be. You will feel worse. Sometime after the Fourth of July (assuming you are taking the July exam), you will start to panic.
You will notice that there are only a few weeks until the actual exam begins. You will genuinely believe you cannot pass the exam.
You will nervously talk to friends, family, peers, and professors about the exam, about rumors about the exam, about crises arising among the ranks, and other disaster stories.
Here’s the thing: if you have been following your program and working slow, steady, and uncomfortably—and you have not been afflicted with a major medical emergency or family tragedy—you will be okay. You just have to have put in the work, keep putting in the work, trust the process, and be good to yourself.
I cannot stress this last bit enough: be good to yourself. Go see a movie, go out to dinner with a friend, get enough sleep, exercise some, watch some TV, breathe. If you put in the time and effort to study, you can take a moment to do something fun and relaxing. In fact, you really should.
In the final couple weeks before the exam, you will enter the ‘a lot’ stage. In this stage, you will feel many intense emotions. You must anticipate and prepare for this inner tumult to prevent it from torpedoing your efforts.
About two weeks out, make sure you have all the items you will need for the exam and all the logistics are worked out.
Your car is running (or whatever transportation you need to the exam)
Your computer is functional and test-ready
You have proper identification and documentation to enter the test area
You have pens or pencils (as necessary or required)
You have comfortable and test-acceptable clothes and footwear
Doing all of these little things in advance will help you control your headspace come the days of the exam.
Finally, identify the two or three topics you are most afraid of getting essays on and make attack outlines covering the major areas within those topics. And read them, study them, and memorize them. You may not get tested on these topics, but you will not be afraid of being tested on these topics during the exam.
Treat bar prep like a full-time job. Study slow, steady, and uncomfortably. Make progress each day and review topics that trouble you. Take your studies seriously, but do not allow them to consume all of your waking hours. Take time to breathe, relax, and care for yourself.
You’ve been waiting for this day for at least three years. You’re finally finished with law school and now there is only one thing left to do- pass the bar exam. The next ten weeks will be intense. You’ll make a lot of mistakes and hit a lot of road blocks. There are a lot of unknowns ahead of you. But you will keep going because it’s what you have to do. You have been given the opportunity to transform your professional life so take advantage of it and give it everything you have.
All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary.
-Astronaut Sally Ride
From here on out, every day matters. You can absolutely take a day off each week but it’s a day to rest and recharge so that you are productive and focused the next six days. Don’t let anything distract you from your goal. When you are studying, that is all you are doing. Learning all the material and skills requires real mental fortitude. You aren’t good enough to multi-task (actually, no one is) and it’s not worth it. This is the bar exam. There is no reason for you to constantly check texts, social media notifications, or snapchat.
Passing the bar exam doesn’t happen by accident or because of luck. It happens because you work hard and you work smart. So figure out what you need to do and then make it happen.
If you’ve ever been around anyone studying for the bar you’ve heard them complain. If you didn’t know better, you’d think studying for the bar exam is the worst thing a person has ever gone through. If studying for the bar exam is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do then you have lived a very charmed life, indeed. I envy you.
Yes, bar prep is hard but it’s not impossible. You need to study 50-60 hours a week but you’re going to work at least that much when you’re a lawyer so why is bar prep so much more dramatic and awful? One reason is that we make it that way by not taking responsibility for anything other than bar prep. However, there are 168 hours in a week so there is no reason you can’t maintain a healthy and balanced life and still study for the bar exam. Whether you want to do this is another story…
If you’d like to make bar prep a little less miserable, there is still time to make plan. Start with the basics:
Create a daily and weekly schedule. You can do this on paper or electronically but do it. Not only does a schedule keep you accountable but it lessens the stress. You’ll start studying at 9am (instead of 11) because you want to go to the Clippers game at 7. Then you actually enjoy the game because you know you got done what you needed to do.
Wake up at a professional hour- no later than 7:30am. The first few days will be hard but your body will get used to it and you’ll wind up going to bed earlier and getting better and more consistent sleep.
Drink water and eat fruits and vegetables. It’s just as easy to go to the store and buy an orange or apple as it is to go to a fast food restaurant and order greasy, oversized food. Not only is it healthier, it’s a lot less expensive.
Shower on a regular basis. Personal hygiene is not optional. I shouldn’t have to say it but I’ve worked with enough students studying for the bar exam to know that I have to. At the very least you can cry in the shower and let your tears wash down the drain. A good 10 minute cry can do a lot of good.
Do laundry every week. The reason you’re not washing your clothes, sheets and towels on a regular basis isn’t because you don’t have time it’s because you don’t feel like it. Don’t even try the “I don’t know how” excuse. You graduated from law school so you can figure out how to wash your clothes.
Keep your living space tidy. Thanks to modern technology, there are these wonderful things called disinfecting wipes. You can use them to wipe off counters, sinks, showers, tubs, etc. It takes less than five minutes to do this. You know what takes even less time? Washing a dish after you use it. I’ve done it before and it can be done in about 30 seconds. It takes about 5 seconds to put clothes in a hamper or on a hanger. Yes, I’m being sarcastic but you get the point. Fifteen minutes a week is all you need to keep your living space organized and clean.
All of this should be common sense but the overwhelming nature of bar prep tends to suck that right out of us. Decide that you want life during bar prep to be as *normal* as possible and then make a plan to actually do it.
You’re still focused on law school exams and graduation so the bar exam is the last thing on your mind. But it’s there. Looming in front of you. Waiting…
You don’t have to start bar prep but you do have to get into the right mindset for it. Ten weeks is a long time to do only one thing so to go into it without some sort of mental preparation is a bad idea. You will get tired, overwhelmed, discouraged. It’s going to happen and you will have to push through and keep going. Ignoring it makes things worse because then you are in denial and you’ll have to spend time accepting you’re a bit of a mess. Then you have to figure how to get yourself back on track and in control.
Lawyers plan for the worst and hope for the best.
You want to be a lawyer and lawyers plan for the worst and hope for the best. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of material you have to learn and feel like there is no way you can learn it all? Regain control of your thoughts by making a list (but not of things you need to do):
things that inspire you
things you are grateful for
things you love about yourself
your happiest memories
your favorite people and why
a meal plan, a shopping list
Feeling discouraged because you can’t seem to make any progress? Identify and address the roadblocks in your way:
Perfectionism: stop waiting until something is perfect and just do it. You have to learn from your mistakes so go ahead and make them and then move forward.
Comparing yourself to what everyone else is doing: this is unproductive because it leaves you bitter, jealous, and insecure. Focus on yourself and what you can do.
Complaining about the amount of work: this rarely changes anything. You still have to do the work and the more you complain, the longer you have to work.
Feeling stressed because you aren’t getting anything done? Identify the time sucks and what you can to do boost productivity:
Focus: silence your phone (and hide it from yourself); black out background browser tabs/notifications; write distractions down for later; go for a short walk.
Increase efficiency: use a productivity tool like the Pomodoro Technique; quit multitasking (it doesn’t work); step away from social media during study hours.
Prioritize: don’t check email first thing in the morning (or every five minutes); make a to-do list each evening; sort your to-dos by “musts,” “shoulds,” and “wants.”
Get motivated: bribe yourself with a reward; keep a “done” list; strike a power pose; make sure you’re getting 7-8 hours of sleep every night.
The bottom line is that you are going to do this. You are going to study, prepare, and pass the bar exam. Pretending that it won’t be hard is unrealistic and frankly, it’s immature. It’s time to develop the right mindset and start acting like the lawyer you want to be.