How To Pass The Bar Exam
14 Tips to Help You Pass the Hardest Test of All-Time
I’ve taken 2 bar exams in my life. I’ve passed both. By Federal law, I’m thereby entitled to bother you with my list of tips, tricks, and hacks for preparing for your impeding bar exam. If my advice doesn’t work for you (after an honest try), please discard and forge your own path forward. Without further ado, here are my 14, twice-tested tips for preparing for the bar exam. It goes without saying that you should be taking a bar exam study course. Please don’t try to climb the Mount Everest that is the bar exam on your own. And please reach out: I’d love to hear your thoughts / what’s working for you! Tweet me @andrewbrink or find me on LinkedIn. Godspeed!
1. Card yourself→ Repeat after me: “I will buy Amazon’s entire supply of lined 3x5 cards. I will buy Amazon’s entire supply of lined 3 x 5 cards.” You brain needs more than one or two run-throughs of the material in order for it to really sink in. Drilling with flash cards will permanently etch concepts into your memory. In the heat of the exam, you don’t have time to scan the depths of your mind for an answer: you need quick recall. Flash cards make your mind nimble because they give you prompts. Your eyes see a concept: your brain remembers the multi-factor test associated with it. Boom. On to next question. Put everything on flash cards. Take them everywhere. Look at them in line at Starbucks, while you wait for lunch, and while you wait for your significant other to call you back at night. By the time the bar exam comes around, the back pocket of your blue jeans should have a 3 x 5 rectangular indentation or spot of discoloration to memorialize your commitment to using these life-savers.
2. Your alma mater will not save you → You think that because you went to a “prestigious” law school that you’ll moonwalk through this bar exam? Um, no. Graduates from “top” law schools get their hats handed to them year after year by this monster of a test. It’s really, really hard. Bar exams have mowed down smart people from “top” law schools long before you, and will do so long after you limp out of the examination room. I mean, it claimed 2 former First Ladies for crying out loud! Michelle Obama (Harvard Law) failed the Illinois bar exam on her first try. Hillary Clinton (Yale Law), the D.C. Bar. Dig this: I just checked the results from the February 2017 Texas Bar Exam. Out of the 9 law schools in the state, the University of Texas School of Law is thought by many to be the most “prestigious.” But this “prestige” did not help the takers of the most recent bar exam who hailed from its ranks. Only 66.7% of UT Law grads passed, good for 6th place out of the 9 accredited law schools in Texas. This test will bury you if you aren’t prepared for it, no matter what the ornate calligraphy on your diploma reads. (Click here to learn what I think about law school “prestige.”)
3. Meditate → did you know that some people believe that meditating can improve how well you do on a test? This makes sense to my non-scientific brain. A mind with less mental noise (or a mind aware enough to let the noise exist without attaching to individual thoughts) would probably fare better in a multi-day examination of intellectual recall, no? Give meditation a shot. But don’t tackle this new skill alone: get an app to help you meditate. I use the Headspace app. For the price of one Chipotle lunch break per month, you get unlimited access to their library of guided meditations. Plus, it’s a British dude who leads the meditations! What could be more soothing than a long day of studying dense American jurisprudence than hearing the soothing baritone of a British yogi?! Your mind is currently working 3x harder than it normally does. Give it, and yourself, the break it deserves.
4. Study how you study → don’t assume that because you have always studied a certain way, that it’s the best way to prepare for the bar exam. For instance, while many law students think that studying for 5 straight hours sans bathroom break is both noble and effective, plenty of people who study studying for a living disagree. Some experts believe that you should study for 45 minutes, then take a 15 minute break, then repeat the cycle. Others, like self-help guru Tim Ferriss, have devoted entire podcasts to learning how to learn better. I’ve found tons of helpful information on learning how to learn from books about language acquisition. (My favorite quip from Lewis’ book: you retain more from study sessions if you spend 15 minutes summarizing it for yourself, with pen and paper. The plodding nature of writing itself probably plays a role in reintroducing your mind to material, and closing the learning loop. Try it!) Clutch your current method of study loosely. All that matters is how you do on the exam. If there is a better way to prepare, don’t be too proud to correct course.
5. Shut it down → bar studiers often feel the pressure to chase the dragon of individual study sessions, to keep studying until they reach an imaginary threshold of productivity. I think this is a mistake. Stick to a schedule. Don’t let your feelings on an individual study session dictate your actions. Shut it down at the same time every night…no matter how bad of a study session you had. (Trust me, you will have ineffective ones where your mind just can’t get going.) Knowing when you will stop gives your brain a small Pavlovian reward to look forward to when you finish.(Narcos, anyone?) Stopping at the same time each evening helps you prepare to sleep, which helps your brain get its happy chemical bath ridding itself of bad proteins, which helps you be more effective in study sessions the next day. I shut my study efforts down at 5PM nightly, opting to wake up earlier than most. It helped me stay sane. You may be different: but not so different that your body can’t use the sleep and the routine it craves and may in fact need, biochemically speaking.
6. Hooked on mnemonics worked for me! → the bar exam is not about how deep your knowledge is on a given topic, or how long you could entertain an audience with your Socratic rendition of Con Law. The key to passing is having a semi-shallow, yet broad recall on a all the testable topics. I know no better way to memorize lists, points, factors, and balancing tests than with mnemonics, or memory devices. Use acronyms, then turn them into memorable phrases. The weirder the better. It’s juvenile, but it works. On test day, when you get your test booklet, open it immediately, and write all your acronyms down in their entirety (takes 5 minutes max). Exporting your memory in this way is better than trying to remember a multi-factor balancing test on question 127 when the pressure is on and the iced coffee has completely run through you. If you want more tips and tricks (like memory palaces, which really do work) read the book Moonwalking with Einstein, the story of a regular dude who trains himself to compete in the US Memory Championships.
7. Increase your study time by 1% per day → use the magic of compound interest to lengthen your study times without noticing. Try this: for every 100 minutes you study a day, go 1 minute longer at the end of your session the next time. Repeat this the next day, adding 1 minute per 100 studied. And so on. This will build up your study stamina, and get you comfortable with sitting still for a long time. You want your brain and your body on the same page during the Tour de Force of a bar exam. I maintain that the oft-glorified 8 hour study binges don’t help you in the long run. You end up with diminishing returns and your effort leaves you tired for tomorrow. Increasing your study time in small doses is imperceptible, effective, and sometimes fun, as you will start to compete with yourself to see how long you can go. But steady and slow wins this race: opt for a marathoner’s pace over that of Usain Bolt.
8. #NoDaysOff → study 7 days a week, even if on Sunday you can only muster 45 minutes of flash card review. I’m not sure why, but when you take a day off from an activity, it feels like you spend the next two sessions getting back to where you were 24 hours prior. A 7 day a week pace is obtainable, if you pace yourself, and don’t burn the candle at both ends. Studying 7 days a week will keep the material fresh on your mind, and will put your subconscious (or is it unconscious?) to work even when you aren’t.
9. Study in a noisy environment → It’s fine to spend most of your time studying in quiet places for optimal focus and information retention. But reserve at least a part of your bar study time for studying some place noisy. The exposure will train your brain to focus amidst random, loud, and unpredictable background noise. You don’t know what your exam test site will look like, smell like, or sound like. I shared an auditorium with around 750 other Texas test takers, all pounding away on their laptops, shuffling their feet, clearing their throats, or sniffling like we were in the midst of a hay fever epidemic. I often studied in the cafe of a local grocery store, which exposed me to plenty of discomfort and disquiet. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and don’t panic when the girl in black flip flops two rows in front of you won’t stop tapping her feet!! (Sorry: flashback.) Because you prepped in public, you’ll be ready for whatever nightmare scenario is thrown your way in the heat of the moment.
10. No News→ do NOT watch the news. I repeat: do NOT watch the news. The news is people in overpriced clothes speaking in hyperbole about the often unimportant things other people in fancy clothes said about people they have never met. (Debunk that, I dare you.) Five minutes on either CNN or FoxNews.com will send you into a flight or fright frenzy that will leave your head and endocrine system spinning. Danger, Will Robinson, danger! You may need to watch TV to relax you mind, but don’t let it be the news. Opt for quality programming on Amazon or Netflix, and send your mind into another realm (free of pundits) as it winds down before bed.
11. Exercise → I know, I know. You know you should work out. But try not to view daily exercise as a duty or as a study-time sapper. Think of it as a study-time enhancer. I heard on a podcast that Martin Scorsese was once asked what he thought was the most important habit for becoming a good director. He said exercising, noting that the one hour he spent working out was worth multiples of itself in creative output. Come on: if this dude can make time to pump iron, none of us has an excuse. My recollections of past-podcast hearsay aren’t enough to persuade you to close the laptop and move? Try this New York Times article about how exercise can improve your memory. Hmmmm, if only you had an important and daunting test of memory on the horizon! Feeling froggy? Check out this article on how exercise on the day(s) of the exam can boost your scores.
12. Get audible → Don’t limit your information uptake to the written word. Engage multiple areas of your brain. I found that if I put bar lectures on my iPhone, I was prone to listen to them for the 5 or 6 extended periods per day when I wasn’t really “doing” anything else. The 17 minute drive to lunch (and back). The hour long walk or workout you take in the afternoons. The 30 minutes you spend eating breakfast or dinner, otherwise just fiddling with your phone. Remember, every moment you spend doing something else, technically you could be using that time to engage in some form of exam preparation, even if it’s passive. Don’t let this lead you to panic, or a bout with bar exam preparation FOMO. Cut a compromise. Fill up those mindless spaces of time with audio or video lectures, even if they are just background noise. Your brain is soaking it in, even if you can’t tell.
13. Cut carbs → the blood that courses through they tiny vessels of your neocortex helping you remember the characters in Game of Thrones as well as the factors which make instrument negotiable is pulsing with the stuff you put in your mouth. You can either give it nutrients…or you can tell me you don’t have enough time to eat healthy, eat sandwiches, and tell me you feel bloated when you sit to study. A year ago, I lost 42 lbs. I followed the slow carb diet propagated by Tim Ferriss from his book The Four Hour Body. Don’t have the time to read it? Here are some loosely adapted high points from the diet. (1) Drop all non-legume (bean) carbs. Even whole wheat stuff. No white carbs OBVI.(2) No sodas, diet or otherwise. (3) Stuff your face full of veggies. This one is crazy important. (4) Decrease dairy. (5) Eat 30 grams of protein 30 minutes after you wake up (That’s around 4–5 eggs: my wife can’t do this, so don’t feel bad if you can’t either). (5) Eliminate alcohol (Tim says you can drink small amounts of red wine: I found that eliminating wine entirely sped up weight loss). (6) Eat nuts, seeds, and oils. (6) Have one cheat day where you go nuts, where nothing is off limits. Make it Saturday so we can do it together. (I still follow this diet 90% of the time, and feel better when I do.) This diet is designed for weight loss, but it will clear up your mind, make you sharper, and give you more energy for whatever your task may be. Just in time for Game of Thrones, Season 7.
14. RELAX → Read my lips: you got this. I mean that. You will do far better on the bar exam if you prepare for it (and take it) relaxed rather than tense. Anxiety is normal: accept it as part of your body’s reaction to a stressful situation. Approach your fate like Maximus in Gladiator. You’re going to a battle; don’t panic when you taste blood and hear the roar of the Coliseum crowd. You’re a solider. An academic alpha. A bipedal brainiac. Lord of the Laws. Walk into the exam room with swagger. Passing bar exams is your bizniss and bizniss is GOOOOOOD. Prepare as best you can, sleep, take breaks, stay confident, breathe, smile, do your best, and don’t pay attention to that stupid voice inside your head that critiques your every move. You’re doing great. Keep it moving.
I’ll see you on the other side.
If you would like to contact me directly, hit me up on Twitter @andrewbrink or message me on LinkedIn. Thank you for reading! I hope my ramblings help you. I also consult law school applicants with their applications: contact me for more information. I also love to help law students come up with ways to prepare for post-graduation life. Read my other Medium articles and contact me to set up a time!