Stuck on Where to Begin? 3 Myths to Discard and 3 Systems to Adopt to Improve Your Approach to Studying for the Bar Exam

As we reflect on Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Sexy Saturday (that’s today), some difficult questions in life:

  • How do I get these damn wrinkles out of my dress shirts? (guy problems)
  • Do #nomakeup selfies actually involve makeup? Women, please be honest and tell me the truth (guy problems)
  • Effort doesn’t necessarily bring results. How do I achieve the desired results?

“Generally bad” things can sometimes be good. Normally you don’t want to be dry humped from behind while simultaneously and pumped in the solar plexus by a stranger unless you’re choking or at a middle-school dance (what’s wrong with today’s youth).

Likewise, “generally good” things can be bad for you. Water is like the holy grail of our solar system (have you seen the NASA budget?), but it will kill you if you dip your face in it for a couple minutes.

It’s not about moderation. I hate the phrase “everything in moderation, including moderation” because that basically gives me no guidance. Does it mean it’s OK to do whatever I feel like as long as I don’t do too much of it? Why do I need to moderate? How much is “just enough”? You can’t get any less specific than “moderation.”

Rather, desired results come from doing the right things at the right time. At that point, quantity or moderation matters much less than what, when and how you do something.

 

So then for the bar exam, am I saying you don’t need to put forth effort to pass? No, make the bar exam your life until the last day of the exam. But is pure effort enough? Probably not. Maybe up to a point.

Who really has all the answers? I don’t. I’m just one dude, but I can tell you about the things I did that coincided with passing the hardest bar exam on my second attempt. If you don’t want to hear what I have to say, I urge you to find someone who has the answers you seek ASAP.

You know, sometimes life and fellow humans will shit on you out of nowhere. Then insecurities you never knew you had pile up in you. You end up slouching on a chair and staring at a bowl of instant ramen as you wait for all the bad feelings to evaporate into the atmosphere.

Anxiety is a lot like Jell-O. If you think about it too much, agitate it too much, it’s going to jiggle and fall and crumble into messy blobs. Staring at your ramen is an important part of moving the Jell-O. You have to distract yourself with the fluttering steam so that you can sneak the anxiety out of your heart without it noticing. Or else you’re going to cry.

The ultimate solution? Let go. Let go of your pride and ego and should‘s driven by what your brain thinks. Better to be happy than to be right.

I bet a bowl of tears tastes just like instant ramen. But don’t eat stuff that a human body no longer wants to keep inside—it’s excretion because it has negligible value.

So let’s talk about some ideas to excrete regarding (and if possible, on) the bar exam.

We’re going to let go of the old and create something new. Until you pass, I won’t leave you lost and alone in the purgatory of bar examiners. And then you can leave me on the road when you pass. Don’t worry about it. My goal is to become obsolete to you.

But right now, you may be lost and have no idea where to even start heading from here. Like you just ran into a dead end in an unfamiliar part of town and your phone’s about to die.

So here are three frameworks that will narrow down your routes and simplify the sudoku of choices, even if you’re confused about whose advice to heed.

Isn’t that contradictory? To advise on whose advice not to take? Advice is biography. I’ll divulge insights on what I did differently to pass my second time.

But don’t expect insights to flow into your brain. EXTRACT THEM. Otherwise, you’re just eating low-calorie intellectual candy—mere information you’re just going to forget about.

These insights worked for me, and they worked for others. Maybe they will work for you too.

 

  1. HABITS

Excrete this idea: You should take Sundays/Saturdays/holidays/“me” days off.
Create this idea: Develop a daily study habit.

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”—Jim Ryun

“Rest day” is a myth if you want to win.

Getting into a habit of studying every day is crucial. I clearly remember doing MBEs on Christmas morning. If you have no life and your friends look down on you for it, here’s your chance to tell all your naysayers that you’re not giving them any free advice when you become a licensed attorney.

One missed day can lead to another missed day. Missed days create mental friction and resistance to the idea of studying—not good for your motivation or productivity.

On the other hand, merely getting started will lead to more and more until you’ve exceeded that mental threshold for wanting to stop. And then you’ll want to do even more. Then you’ll establish a habit.

There’s a reason why habit evidence is more powerful in court than character evidence. We’re a product of habits (like potty training), and doing even a few manual tasks will drain us.

Try this: Study for just 10 minutes, and you’ll probably find yourself going well beyond it. Do this every day, and studying will become your second nature, your way of life until you forget how to spend your free time.

Therefore, you want to minimize bursts of motivation. Rather, bake motivation into your studies by turning studying into an automatic daily habit where you don’t even have to manually summon your willpower.

It helps to make it easy to study. For example:

  • Have your books open and ready to go in the morning.
  • Set rules on your phone so that it’s silent from 9 to 5. But I like the Google Keep app for taking notes on the go and syncing them with your browser or vice versa.
  • Get good sleep. A sleeping mask (“eye bra” as I like to call them), earplugs, a comfortable temperature, no caffeine in the afternoon, solitary confinement, or dark lighting may help.
  • Have meals ready to go so you’re not wasting time making it or buying it.
  • Exercise if you’re into that shit I guess.

You can figure out how to make this work for you in the beginning. Oh what the hell, here are some examples. You should no longer need any of them after a while:

  • a physical calendar where you can X each day (Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” method)
  • a sticky reminder where you can see it every day (don’t forget to upload a photo of it onto social media to fish for attention and likes)
  • a recurring Google Calendar reminder

“Excellence is not a singular act but a habit. You are what you do repeatedly.”—Aristotle

Accordingly, this habit framework will help you do more with less physical and mental energy. It’s like increasing your miles per gallon.

 

  1. MACRO-MANAGEMENT!

Excrete this idea: You should follow a to-do list given by someone else.
Create this idea: Formulate your own bird’s-eye plan that indicates the broad areas you want to focus on.

Speaking of excretion, to-do items are like dingleberries. They are persistent, there’s more than you think, and even if you get around to them you’ll probably never get rid of them all.

Barbri/Kaplan/whoever not only gives you a fat, one-size-fits-all list of things you should do by end of each day, it just keeps on piling on, distracting you with checkboxes, the 27 fake MBE questions you must do today, and a perpetually incomplete completion %.

The implication seems to be, “Follow our to-do list of lectures and exercises, and you’ll pass.” No! I mean, yes, the allure of doing it the “proven” way and the guilt and pressure of not doing it, but what good is it if they are not the right things to do for your situation? There are simply too many things you are supposed to do.

The completionist trap is that you’re led to focus more on how to clear the list over how you can pass the fucking bar, damn it (this is also a mnemonic I used in Remedies essays).

The former is what I did my first time. It was stressful, guilt inducing, and rigid. Going out once for a mocha Frappuccino with a classmate threw off the entire schedule that Kaplan forced on me. On top of that, I failed and so did she, so what the f.

Don’t get sucked into their pace. Instead, introduce flexibility and set broad, realistic targets (I’ll show you an example below). If it turns out you still need more work on one subject, you can lean into it the next day. If you feel better about the subject than you thought, you can get a head start on another area. If you’ve cycled through everything, you can just adjust and repeat.

Like any budget, allocate and prioritize your time based on the things you actually want, not things others say you need.

Remember that you will never run out of things to do when studying for the bar exam, so give up on acting like you have all the time in the world. If you try to do all of them, you will never get to all of them in the weeks ahead. Similarly, if you try to micromanage each day, that can often lead to unnecessary work and a waste of time and energy (and getting even less done).

On the other hand, if you “macro-manage” your time, it’s something you only have to do once in a while (e.g., monthly or just once) that will guide you the entire time! Look at the broad picture based on how much time you have, which subjects you need to cover, and where your strong and weak areas are. Take the time to do this right, and your plan will be set up at least 80% of the way. You can tweak your plan as needed, but you won’t have to waste time constantly figuring out next steps. I’ll say it again:

Once you set up your macro calendar, you won’t have to waste time figuring out what to do or deal with useless activities. It’s something you will have set up ahead of time so that you don’t have to “think about it.”

So “macro-scheduling” is a way to design your own flexible schedule that lets you go at your own pace. You’re doing what will help you actually learn and improve your skills, no longer driven by merely checking off the task list issued to you.

The difference is that you’re focusing on long-term themes over short-term goals. You’re focusing on the process rather than the specific outcome. We can’t control outcomes, but we can control what we do.

Themes: “I want to get better at identifying issues. Cook more essays with Approsheets.” “I want to get better at Property MBE questions. Do more Property questions and review each answer explanation thoroughly.” This is within your control.

Goals: “I want to get 70% on the MBE by two weeks before the bar.” This is outside your control.

As long as you stick to your themes, you won’t be disappointed that you didn’t meet your goal (which you’ll either not meet and be demoralized about or likely surpass it anyway if you are consistent with the process). The more you do your best, the fewer regrets you’ll have.

So let go of FOMO (the fear of missing out) and embrace JOMO (the joy of missing out—lectures, flashcard arts and crafts, filling in notes, etc.). It’s easier to exceed expectations when you have fewer of them, and this time, you’re the one setting them. Let’s plan around themes specific to you that will get you to your destination of passing the bar.


Consider the following as you plan. This is assuming you have about 10 weeks at your disposal; adjust proportionately. In fact, adjust it however you need to:

Batching: There are two types of “tunnel vision” you can employ… (1) based on the portion of the bar (MBE, essays, PTs) and/or (2) based on subject.

In the beginning, when you’re just getting started on your studies, I would batch MBE and essay studies separately in order to make studying for each section effective. (See also the bullet points at the end for an overview reference.)

For example, study 1-2 MBE subjects a day and do corresponding MBE questions for two weeks, and then study for and do mostly essays for two weeks for 1-2 subjects. I did just that to become familiar with the law at least for the MBE subjects. Although doing closed-book essay questions can help you learn the law, it’s wasteful to jump in when you know nothing at all.

Once you’ve laid out a basic understanding of the law, you can start blending in portions (such as doing MBE questions and essays on a given day). Here, divide your schedule by subject.

For instance, you can work only on Contracts for a period of time. Allocate the number of days depending on (1) how confident you’re with the subject and (2) how much there is to know for the subject. When you gain an insight from doing an essay, that will carry over to the MBE and vice versa. This is how commercial prep programs do it from the start.

Later, you can combine multiple sections and subjects according to your needs and weaknesses. However, avoid switching your attention too much among subjects, review/memorization, MBE, essays, and/or PTs within the same day.

Staggered repetition: Work on your weak areas early and late in each batch (e.g., in the first couple days and the last couple days of a two-week period, such as one described above).

For example, if you suck at Torts, PR and Remedies like me, ease into each batch with those subjects, then end the batch with them as well.

Why? You tend to remember the beginning and the end of a series.

Alternatively, you can intentionally overlap a subject over two or more days having other subjects, for repeated exposure. For example: Crim Law and Torts one day, then Torts and Evidence the next. You need the extra practice, right?

MBE: Figure out your weak subjects (as you go along or if you know them already). Do and learn from real questions every day or almost every day (if you’re tired, just skip a day).

Performance tests: Do one every week or almost every week, e.g., every Tuesday or a lazy Sunday (if you really want to do something else, just skip a week). See also my free guide on killing the PTs (sign up to the right to get it).

Essays: Figure out your weak subjects. Apply the Essay Cooking Technique (more on it below).

Focus on the macro, the big picture. You can and should customize your syllabus.

Keeping the above in mind, here’s an outline of my schedule when I restarted my studies:

  • 2-3 weeks MBE review and real questions from Emanuel’s Strategies & Tactics for the MBE Vol. 1
  • 2 weeks continuing to shore up weak subjects including essay subjects, studying with Law in a Flash cards
  • 3-4 weeks studying all the subjects, each with an alternation of 1 day of learning and review (and trying problems) and 1 day of practice (and reviewing the corresponding law)
  • 2 weeks essay practice leading up to the bar arranged so that subjects I wanted to retain better were toward the end (Professional Responsibility last because it’s practically guaranteed to appear in CA)
  • MBE questions throughout (mostly from Emanuel’s Strategies & Tactics Volumes 1 and 2, and a few Barbri questions for drilling problem subjects)
  • PT every Tuesday for 7 total (this many PTs may not be necessary for you, depending)

I like to think of it as a sliding scale. As you progress further into your studies, the focus shifts from mostly reviewing the law and trying problems, to mostly practicing and reviewing the corresponding law. Over time, going from roughly 2/3 review and 1/3 practice to 2/3 practice and 1/3 review.

Click here for the macro calendar I actually used.

And here is a sample monthly calendar that you can use. It doesn’t even need the specific number of MBE questions, but I put it there for your reference (click to enlarge):

sample bar study schedule

Click here to get your own free macro-management Word template. Print it, draw on it, make Monday the start of the week to fit your preferences… It’s your personal schedule that works for you.

This is like zooming out of Google Maps and getting an overview of where you want to go. When you see that other routes are possible, you’ll see that your overlord doesn’t always know best.

You know what? I’ll do you one better. Here’s a chapter out of my new self-study guide, Passer’s Playbook. This chapter is all about pacing and scheduling.

Next, I’ll show you how to use less time to get more out of your studying.

 

  1. DELIBERATE PRACTICE

Excrete this idea: You should study everything equally in order to achieve minimum competence across the board.
Create this idea: Lean into discomfort to achieve competence several notches above minimumcompetence.

I wrote too many words and am tired of talking already, but let’s keep going because I’m a “positive masochist” (long story).

I’ve already hinted above at the concept of deliberate practice—forgetting the fluff and focusing on stuff that matters. What is stuff that matters?

Your weakest link: If you polish just the parts you’re already good at, you miss the opportunity to surgically treat your weaknesses, essentially sweeping your problems under the rug. It’s going to be uncomfortable to face your greatest weaknesses, but it’s better to do it now than on exam days.

Take the intentional path to cater to your own needs.

For example, you could tweak your MBE regimen because you see that your Crim Law average is 80% while your Contracts average is 40%.

For example, maybe your biggest weakness is getting the material down in the first place. You could try carrying flashcards everywhere you go. You could skip lectures because you learn best by reading outlines. Or you could listen to lectures as review as you fall asleep (at the least, it will help you sleep).

As another example, you could do less than the typical number of MBE questions and instead do more essays because you bomb all your practice essays.

Immediate feedback: You want to know your state of performance as often as you can.

If you just “practice” but never check how you did out of fear of disappointment, your ego may end up paying that disappointment with interest when you get your results.

My favorite technique for improving essays is the Essay Cooking Technique.

Chances are, the difficult part of an essay for you is identifying issues and remembering the relevant rules. If you already know how to apply the rules to the facts that frequently appear in a particular subject (within permissible time), the application part of IRAC becomes fairly automatic. At that point, it’s a matter of whether you saw the issues and recall rules, and the rest is open book.

The Essay Cooking Technique can be summarized as this: For each practice essay question, list the issues, write the relevant rules for each issue, and check your work against model answers. (Answers may be available via model answers, real graded answers at BarEssays.com [CA only], and the like. Sign up to the right to get $25 off BarEssays.)

This should take no more than 20-30 minutes (if doing California essays), allowing you to practice and receive feedback for two or three essays in the time to do a full one (60 minutes)!

Results are immediate. You’re evaluating not entire essays but the important stuff—issues and rules—which is much less qualitative, letting you easily see where you messed up and even count how many issues you got.

Furthermore, this technique is highly repeatable. You can redo the same essay later and compare your performance vis a vis your earlier work. I remember learning how to approach transcript-style Evidence questions by cooking those essays again and again. Is there a generalized method to identify issues? Sure, but it’s outside the scope of this article. Oh well.

Pursuing your weakest link and seeking immediate feedback on the most important portions (stuff that matters such as identifying issues and rules) constitute deliberate practice, whereby you climb past the plateau and quickly learn to cover your openings. In fact, you may become more than minimally competent, which you’ll need to be in order to account for real exam conditions that tend to knock you down a few notches.

This is like finding the shortest route on Google Maps and eliminating the detours.

(Btw for PTs, I would actually practice by writing them out entirely. Also, unlike essays and the MBE, PTs are better learned through exposure to a variety over trying to deeply understand the answer. Can you think of how you can apply this technique there as well?)

 

SUMMARY

Now you have the tools and frameworks to know where to begin. It’s time to actually put them to use.

  1. Habits: Develop a daily study habit.
  2. Macro-management: Formulate your own bird’s-eye plan that indicates the broad areas you want to focus on. Embrace JOMO. A downloadable template is available above.
  3. Deliberate practice: Lean into discomfort by pursuing your weakest link and seeking immediate feedback on stuff that matters.

But will I ever get those wrinkles out? These wrinkles are tougher than two of those flat Lego blocks stuck together!

In the meantime, comment below and tell me which one of the three systems you think is most promising for your study. I look forward to hearing what, if anything, is helping you.

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4 Replies to “Stuck on Where to Begin? 3 Myths to Discard and 3 Systems to Adopt to Improve Your Approach to Studying for the Bar Exam”

  1. Wow, I am so grateful to have found your website Brian! I am terrified of the bar exam, I graduated from law school two years ago, and due to a break between 1L and 2L, it’s been almost seven years since my 1L year! Honestly, I’ve tried studying for the last two bar exams, but ended up giving up because I felt so overwhelmed. I am determined to pass it this coming July though. I am taking Barbri, and have heard from multiple people that the lectures are somewhat a waste of time, and to focus on outlines and such. Any advice for someone who has been out of school for a while, and so doesn’t remember too much from school (especially 1L)?

    1. Hey Maggie! I would have to agree with those multiple others.

      In particular, practicing and getting feedback from reference answers will help a lot. Memorizing, watching lectures, reading outlines, writing flashcards — all fine and dandy but do you know what that rule actually means? Theorizing the law won’t get you as far as actually applying the law, even the law you don’t know yet. Because that’s what they will test you on.

      By failing now and learning from model or sample answers, you’ll learn how the law fits into fact patterns. Notice they’re called “patterns” for a reason. Do enough essays or MBE questions enough times, and you’ll likely be able to see similar patterns on the real thing. You gain what separates average students from competent ones: intuition.

      Make incremental improvements, and break through plateaus now so you don’t have to treat the next exam as another mock exam. Also, use your score report (if you got one back) to focus more on weaker areas…

      Actually, since it’s been fairly long for you, lectures may still help you gear up. Perhaps you could use them as review instead of using your well-rested morning state on listening to things you’ll forget 99% of anyway?

      1. Thank you so much for your quick and insightful response Brian! I’m still a bit unsure as to how to BEGIN to study, though I will definitely take your suggestion and use the lectures as review. Do you have any suggestions on how to begin studying for a specific area? For example, for Torts, should I memorize the rules such as the basic Prima Facie Case elements and sub-elements for battery, assault, etc. and then begin answering questions? Or writing out my own basic Torts outline first and then answering questions? I just looked at your Passer’s Playbook, would you suggest I get this or is it too late now (I’m taking the July 2017 bar)? Thank you again!

        1. I would begin by looking at all the rules to get an overview (but not memorizing). Then test yourself open book. I like starting with MBE questions first because you can get the hang of the law (you don’t have to create words on paper). Then do essays open book. Pretty much what I wrote above under part 2 above.

          As you understand the law by repeatedly using the law and identifying the issues, you will naturally remember it and reduce time taken to rote memorize. You will still have to try to memorize rules you don’t use often, in case the issue shows up on the bar.

          As for the playbook, earlier is better in my opinion. The more time you give yourself to learn how to approach the exam effectively and efficiently, the less time you’ll spend reinventing and spinning your wheels. However, two weeks before the bar would be my suggested cutoff point because by that time you should be practicing mostly, not trying to figure things out. Hope this helps!

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