Constructing Bar Exam Essay Responses

You already know bar exam essay questions are different from law school exam essay questions. Bar exam essay questions are straight-forward: no unnecessary facts, red herrings, or tricks. Unlike law school exam responses which require in-depth analysis, counter-analysis, and policy arguments, bar exam responses should be simple and formulaic with shallow fact application. They are easy but different so you must learn how to construct a strong response.

The title of this post is constructing bar exam essay responses. Not answering or writing essay responses. Constructing. There is a difference. You are being graded on substance, structure, and style, so you have to learn the what and the how. Constructing a response means focusing on the process, not the product.

  • Learn in context: seeing the question is a preview of what you be tested on and how it will appear on the exam. Fact patterns repeat and question structures are often based on a basic pattern. If you identify what those patterns are, you know how to prepare for them.
  • Practice perfect: use your notes/outline when you go through the questions and don’t worry about timing. At this stage, you are learning how to learn: what facts trigger certain issues, how to develop synthesized rule statements, how to produce a response that is complete yet within the character count (3900 characters, including spaces).

Here is an example that illustrates these points:

You get a Torts essay question where the plaintiff is a repair person injured while fixing the sink. She tripped on a tear in the carpet while walking from her toolbox to the sink. You know its negligence and think, “duty, breach, cause, damages” and go to the commercial outline where there are 12 pages on the topic. This is too much information. You flip through and under “duty” you see a section on “landowner liability.” You see that the landowner’s duty depends on the plaintiff’s status at the time of injury and realize that your analysis should focus on this rule, not the general “duty, breach, cause, damages.” You confirm this by looking through the hypo again where you see facts about plaintiff’s status as an invitee as well as the open and obvious defense. You use the outline to craft synthesized rule statements and then work through the problem making sure to apply the specific facts to your rules.  

“Bad Fall”  by  Louish Pixel  Courtesy Flicker
  • Did this take a little longer than 30 minutes? Probably.
  • Do you now have a strategy for how to answer a premises liability question? Yes.
  • Is it a better response than had you tried to use “duty, breach, cause, damages?” Absolutely.

Stop trying to rush the process. It takes time but it will pay off in the end.


Learning in Context, Part II

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. question-2004314_1920

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.


Bar Exam Studying: Learning in Context

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.


Take Charge of Your Learning

“Just do what (insert bar prep company here) tells you to do.”

When it comes to studying for the bar exam, this is the advice you will hear time and time again. It is true that commercial bar prep companies provide a very detailed suggested study schedule as well as tools to monitor progress. However, the suggested study schedule assigns more tasks than you can accomplish. Trying to do it all sets you up to fail. Furthermore, studying for the bar exam should be about learning the material (and skills). This requires more than simply doing the work. You have to plan, monitor, and assess what you are learning. You must be a self-regulated learner.
Self-regulated learners are not born, they are made. It is not an innate ability that you do or don’t have. It is a cognitive skill that must be developed.

  1. Plan: analyze the task ahead, set goals. Decide what you want to get out of each task.
  2. Monitor: take responsibility for and actively participate in the process.
  3. Assess: reflect on why you did or didn’t progress.

In addition to the cognitive aspect, you can’t underestimate the role of motivation and environment. It’s difficult to learn something if you are not interested so stay motivated by reminding yourself why this matters and why you must push through. Be aware of distractions and take steps to minimize. Be honest with yourself and don’t let a situation control your behavior.
Self-regulated learners take charge of their learning. Use the commercial bar prep study schedules to help you meet learning goals. Make choices about how to achieve your goals by deciding the tasks you will complete and the methods you will use.


Interleaving: why your bar exam study schedule has you doing several subjects & tasks a day

It’s a given that skill development requires practice and it seems logical that the best way to do this is to practice one skill at a time (“blocking”). Blocking is when you repeatedly practice a skill/concept until you are proficient, and then move on to the next skill/concept. So why does a typical commercial bar prep daily schedule look like this?


– Read Corporations outline
-Watch Corporations lecture
-Write Corporations practice essay
-Practice Evidence MBE questions
-Write Contracts practice essay

At first glance, this seems counter-intuitive: you need to focus on one subject at a time in order to master it. You can’t learn when you mix them up. However, this “mixing-up” is better for overall learning. It incorporates the concept of “interleaving,” which is when you mix practice of several distinct yet related skills. For example, if you want to learn skills X, Y, and Z:

Blocked practice would look like this: XXXYYYZZZ.
Interleaved practice would look like this: XZYXYZYXZ

Again, interleaving seems counter-intuitive: how can you learn Z if you haven’t yet learned X? Although it is true that learners using interleaving will initially perform worse than learners using blocking in practice sessions, interleavers will outperform blockers in the long-run (i.e., on the bar exam).

Studies consistently show that when we mix up the study material, our ability to sort and connect information is enhanced and the result is a better and more complete understanding of the concepts. Interleaving does make learning more difficult but this is a good thing because we learn more effectively when challenged. Your mind is less likely to wander because you brain continually has to focus and re-focus on different material.

Tips For Integrating Interleaving Into Bar Prep

  • First, study the material. This is why bar exam subject lectures are sequential. You have to know what you are supposed to learn before you can acquire the skill.
  • Mix up material. Incorporate spaced repetition and focus on one concept/task at a time but then cycle back to previously learned material. Warning: don’t confuse this with multi-tasking. What you think of as multi-tasking is actually task-switching which is not effective for learning. It wastes productivity because you have to expend brain energy to switch gears and you never allow your brain to really focus on one thing. What is more effective is to focus on one concept/task at a time
  • Make deliberate connections. As you practice different concepts, identify connections between them so you see the relationship of the parts to the whole.
  • Interleaving is more effective in the long-run so don’t get discouraged if things don’t automatically “click.” Easy doesn’t equal effective. Know that you are making progress and keep pushing through.

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Practice (& Assessment) Makes Perfect

It’s no secret that preparing for the bar exam includes doing lots of practice questions. However, if all you do is practice question after question, you will not improve your ability to do well on the bar exam. Practice is one part of the learning process. In order it to enhance learning and promote skill transfer you must assess your performance and adjust accordingly. Simply answering questions without assessing what you did and how you did it focuses on remembering content from the past. This will not change your future performance. Your goal is to learn the material and transfer skills from practice to the actual exam- this requires you to look forward.

The Learning Process:


You can assess essays by comparing your response to the model response and identifying similarities and differences. You can assess multiple choice questions by comparing your process for reaching a particular answer it to the provided answer choice analyses. Yes, this takes time but when it comes to learning for the bar exam, think quality over quantity. The time you spend reviewing bar exam answers should equal the amount of time you spend doing bar exam questions.

Learning is a constant process of discovery- a process without end.  Bruce Lee


Use Brain Science to Manage Bar Exam Material

Bar Exams v. Law School Exams

Law school exams and the bar exam both test analysis and problem-solving. However, this is where the similarities end.

  • Law school exams are sequential in that you take one exam at a time spread out over 1-2 weeks, and each exam tests one subject. Therefore, studying tends to be “massed practice,” where you focus on one subject at a time and let go of that information once you are tested on it.
  • The bar exam is one exam that tests multiple subjects (and skills) at the same time. Although the depth of material might be less than a law school exam, you don’t know what will be tested or how it will be tested (MBE or essay). Therefore, you have to store large amounts of material and be able to retrieve it on demand. You must prepare for everything and anything.

Cramming Doesn’t Work

Cramming might *work* for law school but it won’t work for the bar exam. Your brain needs time to learn and retain the material. 500px-forgettingcurve-svg_In 1885 German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus published his ground-breaking study on memory and learning where he described the forgetting curve (decline of memory) and how spaced repetition decreases its effects.

Spaced Repetition Works

Every time you recall and review information, it becomes more embedded into long-term memory. Your brain is able to organize and “file” information which builds connections between and among concepts. This is what makes it possible to store and retrieve more information over time. Therefore, massed practice (repeating something 10x in one day) is less-effective than spaced repetition (repeating something 10x over ten days).
On the bar exam, you not only need to know information but you also have to retrieve it. Repeated engagement with material spaced over time is the most effective way achieve this. Spaced repetition provides context, which in turn provides cues for retrieval. Being able to access information then makes it possible for you to engage in higher level reasoning (i.e., legal analysis). Therefore, stop making excuses and start studying.