The thing about reality is that your brain doesn’t notice it until it’s wrapped tightly around your brain like a sheet of aluminum foil, crinkling and making a polygonal mess.
0 minutes remaining. I slapped in my applicant ID, my entry ticket to three seconds of pristine agony. Then two, three more times. I made sure I was reading correctly. For once, I wasn’t delusional.
I could feel the heavy air of TRUTH closing in around me. Light fading quickly. But I wanted to believe. No, the silvery foil pushed its way around the noodles of my brain, turning into TV static. It was wrapped around the potato, and my brain realized it then.
In some other universe, I passed. But in this one, I failed. I failed. I failed.
2013 was the worst year of my life. My brain convinced me to break up with my friend of ten years and girlfriend of three. My dad screamed at our family on Christmas morning and night. I failed the July bar and haven’t since posted a status on Facebook out of supreme shame. 16 months and counting since becoming Facebook celibate. Facelibate.
I lied down on my bed. Then I got up.
The experiment was a failure. It was time to change the variables. This was how I would prove I was not insane. Then 2014 became the best year of my life.
Having experienced both outcomes of the California Bar Exam, I’ve distilled the following insights that were instrumental to passing the bar. These are things I did the second time but not the first time. Do you like clickbait? You won’t believe #4!
Make this the last time you have to walk the line between heaven and hell with these 5 things I did differently the second time to pass the bar exam.
- Don’t break the chain
- Practice real MBE questions
- Lectures are worthless
- “Issue checking” and issue statements
- Get a room
1) Don’t break the chain
If you spend the time up front to approach the bar methodically in a way that works for you, you’ll find yourself in a flow that helps you calm down and control your emotions.
To do that, my first advice to people asking me for help is, before anything else, try not to “break the chain.”
Get into a habit of doing something bar related every day, even if it’s one MBE question. Don’t feel like it? Just open your book and let it sit on your desk for the day. The next day, you can do the first page. Then two pages, four pages, 12 hours a day will become doable. No wonder habit evidence is more powerful in court than character evidence!
It might seem overwhelming for first timers. You have to deal with all these lectures (see #3 below), homework, maybe a job. But get into those habits. Keep a consistent schedule. You’re developing a systematic process that doesn’t bog you down because you won’t have to make decisions all the time.
Corollary: Know what you’re going to be doing every day. That means developing a schedule that works for you.
You don’t want to be like me last July where I was frazzled, didn’t know what I was doing, and stressed even though I didn’t study as hard as the second time.
2) Practice real MBE questions
You should devote most, if not all, of your MBE practice with real questions.
Would you practice for bar essays using your old law school finals? Do you remember getting those $8 PrepTest booklets to study for the LSAT? Would you have used questions invented by commercial prep courses instead?
There’s something off about that. It’s like telling everyone you love law school~ but you know deep down you hate your school and yourself. It’s like telling yourself you can always look for a new girl, but you’re still thinking about the one you had to let go.
You don’t know whether the impostors are an accurate reflection of the format or the law that is actually and frequently tested.
That said, the MBE is getting harder and less predictable (the day Mark Zuckerberg gets a software patch, we’re all doomed). The trend is that scores are going down, and questions are longer and trickier.
So it’s not a bad idea to mix in different styles to anticipate ridiculously convoluted questions. You’re mitigating the surprise factor.
You could do, say, 25% of your questions from your prep course and 75% from a source of past MBE questions. You could also use “fake” questions for drilling specific weak subjects if you don’t want to feel like you’re waste your limited supply of authentic questions.
So where can you get real MBE questions?
I personally used Emanuel’s Strategies & Tactics for the MBE Vols. 1 and 2 (Vol. 1 is highly recommended and should be at the top of your shopping list). The NCBE offers sample questions for Civil Procedure.
Whatever you do, review all the answers (i.e., explanations for choices A, B, C and D for questions you got right and wrong). Each question is an opportunity to learn the concept (why your answer was wrong and why the credited one was right) or to validate your understanding of a concept (why your answer was right and why the others were wrong). Just because you were correct doesn’t mean you were right
Ran out and want more to do? Do them again. This is to test if you REALLY got why you were wrong last time. You wouldn’t expect to remember something in full after reading it once.
If you feel like you can do them only because you memorized the answers, that’s also good because the real thing will look similar and you’ll see a pattern (especially those mortgage questions). It’s almost like you’re memorizing the law! If you really got the material down, you should get 100%, right?
As you practice, see if you can keep track of what you got right and wrong in each subject. Here are my analytics from February.
For me, property, torts, and contracts tended to be worse. Crim in general was good, but Crim Pro was horrible.
This is useful data to surgically treat your weaknesses. Fake questions from commercial prep material could be helpful in drilling weak areas since they are conveniently separated by subject and are generally harder.
3) Lectures are worthless
Yes, I know you’re tempted and your default mode is to watch the lectures. We are not going to follow the one-size-fits-all approach for the average student because you’re not an average student if you got this far down.
Lectures add perceived value to your overpriced course but provide miniscule actual value. Bar courses in general provide a sense of security partly because it feels like someone else has done the heavy lifting.
A lot of people feel anxious studying for the bar, and maybe that’s better than taking it easy. Barbri is really good at scaring people, but you don’t really need to do everything they tell you.
Everything you need to know should be in your written outlines. What’s important is actually seeing the concepts in action in practice essays and MBE questions.
This is especially true for repeaters!
If this is your first time or if you learn better aurally you can listen to the lectures to get a broad idea of what’s going on. But use them for what they are for—listening. Don’t pause the lectures. Don’t go back and try to fill in your notes.
“I actually only remember little from the lectures.”—Erica L. (a reader)
Even if you spent 6 hours a day trying to get all the notes down (like I did the first time), you still won’t know what the hell is going on, and you’d be too tired to do anything else as you suffer from a vague feeling of malaise.
Actually, let’s go one step further. Who says you have to waste your precious mental energy listening to lectures in the morning? Here’s an idea that flips the idea around: What if you listen to them at night as review? It might even help you fall asleep faster.
Don’t actually try that random idea if you don’t want to, especially since I’ve never tried it. In fact, you don’t have to listen to me or anyone else in general. I’m merely writing an autobiography.
That said, if lectures aren’t too helpful, how do you start improving now?
Practice + Feedback.
Not just memorizing rules all day. Not just “going through the motion” kind of practice. Improvement comes exposing yourself to constant feedback and learning every time you solve a problem. If there is one truth to realize in this endeavor, it is that preparing for the bar exam is a learnable skill.
In balancing memorization and review vs. application (practice), I recommend a sliding-scale approach depending on how far you are in your prep:
Feel free to learn and read outlines in the beginning—2/3 studying the material, 1/3 practicing. By the end of your studies, you should reach a steady state where you mostly test yourself on your knowledge—2/3 practicing, 1/3 studying. It slowly moves from gathering knowledge to exploiting that knowledge.
So what are some specific ways to practice with greater efficiency?
Essays: Use the essay cooking technique to double or triple your practice efficiency. The byproducts of this technique can also be used as quick review material including during bar week.
MBE: Rather than keeping track of your overall win rate, analyze trends in your answers by subject and/or subtopic to determine where to prioritize your efforts. This idea was touched upon earlier, but see here for more discussion.
Performance tests: It seems that if you practice even a few fully timed PTs/MPTs, you’re ahead of most people. You can further pin down areas of concern by practicing just those areas. For example, if you have trouble pulling out the law in time, solely practice identifying the rules in the library without ever opening the file.
For a free, comprehensive guide to killing the PTs/MPTs, let me know where to send it to you.
4) “Issue checking” and issue statements
This is the biggest game-changing insight I had for February: Within IRAC, the MOST important is finding all the issues and sub-issues. Do you really know how to “spot” issues?
Since essays are not real life, you don’t need to be inventive or creative with issues. What you want is a finite list of testable issues. The best thing I did for myself was to parse out the available issues and weave them into a study tool.
Rather than thinking of it as spotting issues, you are now checking for issues. “Spotting” to me implies that you’re coming up with issues rather than matching the facts to all known and preexisting issues.
So now you know that you can know and expect the essay will ask for something from those lists, like you’re in Minority Report. Once you get an idea which major area is being tested, you can then mentally check your list of sub-issues against the facts.
How do you know which facts trigger which issues? This comes with practice (see #3 above). Once you do several essays within a subject, you’ll notice a pattern. Facts drive the rules, and rules drive the issues, and a pattern can fall into one of two categories:
- “This issue comes up frequently and is likely one to discuss. Be on the lookout.” Examples: confidentiality (PR), state action (Con Law). You’ll learn the statistically likely issues through sheer exposure.
- “It’s as if these particular facts were intentionally placed here with this issue in mind.” Example: A building was “blackened” → discuss whether Δ committed arson (an element of the relevant rule is that a building must be “charred”). A simple example but one that hopefully shows how a fact, indeed a word, can trigger a known issue. FACTS → RULES → ISSUES.
According to legends, bar graders will skim your essays at the red light, in the bathroom, etc. It’s to your advantage to blend in with hundreds of other essays and make your essay easy and relatively pleasing to read.
Get in, get the points, and get out. This isn’t the time to get creative! The only way you should try to distinguish yourself is by the number of relevant issues you identify + quality of your fact application.
Also, if you don’t use IRAC with a simple issue statement, switch to it now. For example, check out my issue headings from one of my essays from July:
Contain your laughter. This is not IRAC.
Whatever this is, it either has too many Cs or the C came too early (that’s what she said). I thought this would help the graders by telling them the bottom line up front. But like many things in life, especially anything related to law school, bad things happen if you try too hard. Be an overachiever, not a tryhard.
Notice the rule statements are pretty good, but telegraphing the result of your analysis ahead of time detracts from a good experience for the graders:
- Graders may already have their own conclusion about the issue. Moreover, your conclusion may be wrong in some situations. Even if your conclusion and the grader’s conclusion happen to match, it wouldn’t really add much anyway. So you have nothing to gain and everything to lose.
- If the issue is broad (e.g., validity of will), you’d be jumping the gun by skipping the likely many sub-issues and analyses involved in arriving at a conclusion, instead of showing the graders how you got there. The conclusion is a result of your analysis, not a hard assertion. Show your work!
- The conclusion is worth the least amount of credit. Also, a given conclusion may simply prove an element for a broader rule. Underemployed graders just want to get through your teary-boring essay to confirm that you found the issues they’re looking for, the relevant rules, and application of it that looks rational, and then breathe a sigh of relief instead of cringing like with the previous essay.
In February, the above heading would have simply been “Validity of Will”, typical of a model answer. You want to blend in so the graders can check off issues and move on with their lives. No creativity allowed—this is supposed to test your aptitude for real practice of law. Corral the facts to the appropriate rule elements; hold their hands like they’re lost children because they don’t know where the hell they are.
After fixing my issue statements my second time, I bet they had fewer things to complain about.
5) Get a room
A hotel room.
Well, that didn’t really resolve the double entendre, but in any case, I had to reserve a hotel room because my test center was in another city. It turned out to be a big help for the psychological differences that made.
“B-but I don’t need a hotel! I got my parents’ basement for free! It’s only 20 minutes away (not counting the time my mom spends fixing my shirt)!” you might be thinking.
It’s an investment: I was able to eat whatever I wanted. I could be alone without being conscious of people I knew asking me about the test. I could get to the test center with a 5-minute walk instead of dealing with traffic and parking with other cars piled around you. All things I didn’t get my first time.
A late checkout for the last day is highly recommended. I was able to negotiate a 5:30PM checkout for half price. By the third day, lying down on a bed during lunchtime felt like a luxury. Make sure the janitors chattering outside know you’re trying to nap (because I don’t have the social acumen to assert my needs).
The exam isn’t just however long you spend in your seat. It’s continuous from Monday until you upload your answers. You want to be focusing on it with minimal distractions. For this reason, arrange your itinerary ahead of time.
- What are you going to do for lunch and dinner? Bring from home? Cook? Find restaurants nearby? Eat a snack?
- If you can, go to a test center where you can avoid people you know. Solitude will help you focus instead of being conscious of classmates or relatives. It’s up to you, though. Some people welcome the break.
- That said, I think it’s beneficial to have some sort of community support, like from forums or the private MTYLT community you can check into between or after sessions.
- Bring earplugs because you never know if you will be subject to noises from a garbage truck in the other building banging on metal from 3 to 5 AM that you hope will end soon. Oddly specific? It literally happened.
- Bring a pillow if your back or ass bones will hurt from days of sitting in tension like a statue.
If all else fails, rely on adrenaline and bullshit and the fear of becoming a social pariah who is unable to join your classmates in starting your career in golden handcuffs.
So what are the 5 things I did differently to pass the bar exam the second time in February? [Click to Tweet]
- I got into a habit of consistent study.
- I practiced real MBE questions and targeted my weaknesses.
- I avoided lectures in favor of practice.
- I realized there is a finite set of issues to know within the bar universe. Instead of creating and spotting issues, I checked for issues.
- I stayed at a hotel during the bar.
Now I want to ask you: Which of these resonated with you the most? Let me know in the comments.