It occurred to me that there may be people who are planning to take the bar exam in 2009, or who didn’t do as well as they’d hoped in July. Here are some of the tips that worked for me, an average student who did well in some classes and not so well in others. Some of them may or may not work for you, but I couldn’t have made it through the last few months without them.
1) If your study strategy isn’t working, change course. I did it twice. I took BAR/BRI over the summer, and started off by merely taking notes in the workbooks and reading over them later. After about a week, it was clear that I wasn’t retaining anything – and pure retention is an absolutely essential part of bar prep. You want to remember the key concepts of each subject and be able to spit them out in the exam room, and if one study method isn’t working, you need to find another.
So I switched to an outline format – I’d attend class in the morning, grab lunch, and spend the afternoon outlining my notes. This helped, but toward the end of the lecture cycle, I had literally two dozen outlines and no way to readily access information from them. Then I saw one of my classmates taking notes on notecards, and I got a bight idea. I knew people who did the flashcard method in law school, but never tried it myself. Over the next couple of weeks, however, I filled nearly 1000 index cards and referred to them when doing practice essays. Bingo! The flashcards worked where notetaking and outlining did not. Not only did the cards force me to break down legal concepts to their basic elements, but the very act of going through my notes for the third time, and writing in longhand, is what finally cemented ideas in my head. I don’t know if I would have passed without them.
2) Don’t sweat the MPT. Unlike the essay and MBE sections, there’s nothing to memorize for the MPT. The bar examiners will provide you with a fact pattern, a library of cases, and a specific assignment to write a memo or jury instructions. Your only job is to analyze the details and craft a halfway-decent piece of writing. If you’ve taken a legal writing class or written a seminar paper, you can handle the MPT with very little sweat. Do one or two practices to familiarize yourself with the format, but spend the bulk of your time on the essays and MBE.
3) Visualize success and failure. I pictured the best- and worst-case scenarios. First I imagined myself getting my results back, seeing my passing grade and feeling happy and successful. Then I imagined the opposite possibility: my name doesn’t appear on the list of bar passers, and I have to explain to my wife and my family what happened and why we have to go through the whole process all over again. Whenever I got bored or jaded, I imagined writing BAR/BRI another check and going back to long study days, got scared, and put my nose back to the grindstone. Now, this is terrible advice, and probably counterproductive to all but the most diehard pessimist (uh, hi). But I simply did not have the time or the money to take the bar more than once, and I did whatever I needed to do to keep my eyes on the finish line.
4) Use more than one source for bar prep. Although BAR/BRI was my primary method, I also bought a couple of books of sample MBE questions and essay-writing strategies. I also used the sample exams on the Missouri Board of Law Examiners’ website; it featured actual passing answers by real law students, which definitely calmed my nerves about what kind of essay I needed to write. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should go broke. I know people who supplemented their BAR/BRI classes with PMBR and Micromash, which together might add up to $1,000 to your bar prep bill. If you’re going to go this route, at least try to get used materials on eBay.
5) Don’t randomly search the Internet for advice. You’ll get contradictory and unreliable information, which will make you confused and panicky. Your self-confidence is already at its lowest ebb; you don’t need strangers on the Internet psyching you out.
6) Resist the temptation to ask your friends for study advice. You should not be comparing yourself to your classmates right now. Your ideal study method may be different from theirs. Note what I said about visualizing failure; for most people this is a recipe for disaster, but it perversely worked for me. And if any of your classmates suggest that they’re “putting off the real studying until the three weeks before the bar,” they are either lying or delusional.
7) Do sweat the MPRE. In addition to the bar exam proper, you’re going to have to sit for a separate sixty-question ethics test called the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam. You’re going to have to get above a certain grade – it’s 80 in Missouri – in order to be admitted to the state bar. The MPRE has a reputation for being ridiculously easy. Do not be fooled; the MPRE isn’t exactly “hard,” but it is tricky. I bombed it the first time with a score of 56. That’s almost as low a score as you can get. Spend some time preparing for the MPRE; take practice tests and familiarize yourself with how it works.
8) You aren’t going to retain much until the last few weeks. It’s frustrating, discouraging and soul-killing. Then you suddenly realize that you’re starting to remember things. Keep at it.
9) Do practice essays even if you’re not off book. My Essay Advantage teacher called this “a waste of time.” My Essay Advantage teacher was wrong. Start doing essays right away. It doesn’t matter if you understand the material yet; you need to know how the essays are presented, what kinds of answers are expected (it becomes formulaic after awhile), and how to use legal terms of art to your advantage. Remember: this isn’t a final exam. You will be graded by bar examiners who don’t have a lot of time to spend on your well-crafted answer. Learn the format and practice getting to the point quickly, and you’re well on your way to a passing score.
10) Visit the testing site in advance if you can. I did this the night before the exam and was glad I did. Make sure you know how to get there. Get a feel for the room itself, where you’ll be sitting, how much space you’ll have to yourself. Eliminate any surprises.
11) Bring earplugs to the exam. I can’t stress this enough. The earplugs helped me focus like I’d never focused before. I was able to blot out all background noise, coughing/sneezing, chatter, and utterly the rest of the world.
12) Sequester yourself until you’ve completed the entire exam. No post-mortems until you’re done. You need your self-confidence. I literally ignored friends in my rush to get back to my hotel room.