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Studying for the Bar Exam

published July 16, 2013

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Studying for the bar exam is, in a way, like becoming reacquainted with old friends. Viewed in this light, it can be a very positive, uplifting experience. Further, it should serve to build rather than decrease your confidence because you will be amazed at how much law you already know.

Nevertheless, do not expect all candy and flowers. The review course will be hard work, and you may feel like screaming after having taken your second practice test and read your third outline of the day. Because of the review's intensity, we reemphasize that students preparing to take the bar exam should not work if at all possible. Many employers offer stipends to offset in whole or part the costs of reviewing for and taking this rigorous but necessary test.

Once you begin bar review, the basic tenets of hard work and good sense that got you into and out of law school will serve as fine guides. Stick to the course program faithfully and be sure not to fall behind- eight weeks is very little time considering the range of materials that must be covered.

Although you will be deluged with an assortment of different extras allegedly designed to improve your performance and increase your chances of success on the "big test," exercise a cautious restraint. If it is really in your best interests to take a supplemental course on essay writing, multistate multiple-choice test-taking strategy, or performance exam skills, by all means take the course or courses if you have the time, money, and energy. If, however, the practice tests you are taking indicate you are doing just fine and have no special weaknesses in any of those areas, do not fall prey to propaganda or paranoia that might ultimately cost you in terms of fatigue and burnout. In other words, follow the age-old maxim: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Followed faithfully, the standard bar review regime is taxing and challenging enough, and it should prove to be a thoroughly adequate review for the great majority of students.

It is best to purge your social calendar of major events during the period of your bar study. Do not be antisocial, just extremely flexible. Do not plan any major events like weddings, weekend fraternity reunions, extended trips, or anything else that would impair your ability to study when and as needed. This does not mean you should hole up in your tiny apartment, store up a cache of food, paper your walls with outlines, and lock yourself in-far from it. As discussed previously, if you take a fanatical "study till I drop" approach, you will most likely burn out, decrease your absorption and retention, and increase your chances of failure.

Regular exercise and healthful, regular meals will help ensure that you do not experience mental fatigue. These respites from the grind of studying also provide welcome arenas for mentally refreshing non-legal conversation with friends and family. It is important to be mentally and physically fresh and prepared for the bar exam; you do not want to be a nervous wreck or sidelined with a flu or cold that you acquired while burning the midnight oil to the point of exhaustion. You simply cannot pass the test if you are not well enough to take it.

Another important principle that is a key to your success is "Don't procrastinate!" Do not waste time-it is a precious commodity you have much too little of in preparing for the most important test you have ever taken. Take an hour or two out now and then to play handball or run (it will refresh you and decrease your anxiety), but do not hang out afterward for booze and beers, which will consume precious hours and leave you fuzzy-headed, hung over, and unable to perform the important task of studying. Do not put off until tomorrow because during bar study, if you do, you will be one day behind. Try to follow Aristotle's principle of moderation in all things; too much or too little study can prove fatal to your success. Basically, be diligent and responsible, and use the good sense that got you through law school to guide you through the bar review period.

It is also important to maintain a positive attitude throughout your study. Approach the test with the attitude that you will give your best effort and that it will be enough. If you do, it will. Avoid getting down on yourself if you are giving your best efforts. You will not do well on (and this may be a shock) or even pass every practice test you take during the review period. In fact, some review courses purposely grade the initial practice tests by extremely harsh standards to jolt their enrollees into taking the matter seriously. Likewise, there will almost certainly be a point during the actual bar exam when you feel you have failed or done poorly on at least one section. You must put aside this feeling, realize that all bar takers feel the same way, and, doing the best you can, finish the entire exam.

Do not harp on failures or gloat about successes. It will all average out in the end and one practice test will not make or break you. Work on improving your weaknesses and maintaining your strengths. Hang out with friends who are serious students, not blowoffs or pessimistic naysayers who will bring you down and make you doubt your ability or purpose. Also, to further the end of fostering mental balance and a positive attitude during this trying time, avoid hopelessly neurotic classmates at all costs; study peacefully by yourself if that is the only feasible alternative.

As your formal bar review draws to a close, you should begin to see the big picture and your preparedness should be peaking. Develop a study plan for the final few days before the test and mark your calendar accordingly. If you have followed the preceding program and faithfully (though not fanatically) studied all the materials provided, you should approach the final few days with minimum anxiety and maximum confidence. You will be satisfied you have absorbed as much as you are capable of and as much as you will need to pass, and you will view the last few days as a tune-up, to be spent reviewing your capsulated outlines and perhaps working on a few sample problems.

If you are confident that you are well-organized and current in your studies, you may even want to skip the final few scheduled lectures and follow your own study plan to avoid exposing yourself to the "nervous Nellies" you will begin to encounter among your less-disciplined classmates. If you choose this option, you can make special arrangements to listen to the taped lectures you will miss in advance.

After you have prepared the best way you know how for the test, reinforce your sound perspective of the whole process by reminding yourself once again that it is only a test, that the worst thing that can happen to you is that you will fail it and have to take it again, and that many fine lawyers practicing today have done just that. Your essence and identity are not wrapped up in passing an exam (if they are, they should not be). Having put forth your best efforts to prepare for the test, and having accepted that the worst-case scenario is nowhere near the end of the world, be calm and confident. Know that the statistics are on your side (and, if they are not, that your excellent preparation is the unknown variable) and that you will succeed. After all, you do not have to ace the bar exam; you just need to pass it. So be calm, confident, and alert, but not cocky. Cockiness and overconfidence can prove fatal to success if they lead to under-preparedness.

As the date of the exam approaches, leave nothing regarding the mechanics of the actual exam to chance. Plan your rides to and from the testing area, your living quarters during the test (perhaps a hotel if the drive is too far), and whether you will stay on or leave the test premises for meals during lunchtime. Make sure you have enough pens, pencils, erasers, timekeeping devices, and whatever else you need for the test. Finally, if you have prepared properly, you will not need it, but "Good luck!"


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