You know me. I’m a proponent of self-studying for the bar exam.
Not just me. Many retakers who pass come back to tell me that they wish they’d abandoned the bloated courses in the first place. I hear this every year.
But that’s not the point of this article. While going solo can be effective not just in terms of cost but by virtue of its emphasis on learning, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes we want everything laid out and be told what to do.
You understandably feel lost with seemingly no other option other than a bar review course when you first start out. It’s such an important exam that you want to do it right. I’d lean towards taking a course if you’re a first timer and want a structure.
Most people start with a traditional commercial bar prep course like Barbri, Themis, Kaplan (if you’re a masochist like me), or BarMax — or even a smaller independent course like that offered by JD Advising, Studicata, SmartBarPrep, or many others.
In other words, there are many ways to study for the bar exam. They can all work. Instead of debating for days which program is the “best” and ending up undecided, worry about being a good student.
Bar prep, at its core, is self-study. Courses and materials are merely there to support YOUR studies.
That said, let’s talk about how to pick a bar prep course and how to use it to move the needles that will help you learn.
Which bar review course should you pick?
The big-box courses are all pretty similar in their approach. You get video lectures, huge books, a daily checklist, and maybe some type of grading service.
You might characterize them like this:
Barbri: The gold standard. You get what you pay for. Glossy pages, outlines with rule statements that are used by the most number of applicants (so you’ll blend in a good way on the essays), longstanding reputation in the bar prep industry.
Themis: The progressive cousin of Barbri. Its founders left Barbri with a vision for better bar preparation. Recently acquired by UWorld so Themis students are in good hands at least for the MBE portion. Generally less costly than Barbri (may depend on the state).
Kaplan: Like going to an Olive Garden that offers dozens of bland menu options that all suck (and you get diarrhea back home) because the main ingredient for each dish is butter. Kaplan has a course for everything. With their efforts diluted, you shouldn’t expect anything great. There’s a reason you barely ever hear about them (and when you do, it’s mostly complaints).
Also, I failed both the MPRE and the bar exam once each, after trusting my fate to Kaplan for both. My eyes opened the moment I opened a Barbri book for both. So I’m kind of biased.
I know. Fool me twice, shame on me.
BarMax: Not sure this qualifies as a big mainstream course. The only person I know who used this failed along with me. BarMax offers an MBE platform that gives you unlimited access to licensed questions, though, so that’s cool.
Don’t stick out. Don’t be a hipster. Don’t be a beta tester. If you’re set on spending for a course, use what’s been proven before.
Just pick Barbri or Themis if you’re going to take a traditional course.
If you’re thinking about the smaller independent courses…
I don’t have any specific recommendations. Often, the advantage here is a lower cost.
Check for testimonials and results. Evaluate any free samples they have. See if they provide free quality advice that’s reflective of their premium content.
Since they must beat out the reputations of the bigger players, they should prove that they can help you.
How do you use your bar prep course to study effectively for the bar exam?
Realize that the big courses are designed for the lowest common denominator. It has to work for the most number of people. But I don’t want you to be merely average.
1) The first thing you want to avoid is focusing on catching up or completing tasks rather than actually learning.
It feels nice when you check off items and filling up the completion meter, getting a sense of progression.
I wish I had optimized for learning my first time — rather than farming tasks for my own self-satisfaction or playing catchup just to not fall behind.
Use the daily tasks as a guideline but not a requirement. Just like reading news headlines and email subject lines, they are just invitations and not mandatory events.
Do you see the issue with this study schedule (click to enlarge)?
Tailor the tasks to your needs, weaknesses, and strengths. You can tweak the schedule to your liking.
“What? Y— you can do that?!” That’s right, friend. Choose your own adventure.
If you know you need to work on the MBE, do more MBE questions.
If it doesn’t make sense for you to do three days of Torts since you aced it in law school or the last time you took the bar exam, then shrink it to two days and come back to it the next time you cycle through the subjects.
If it doesn’t make sense to review Professional Responsibility for only one day (given that it’s particularly important in California), add some more days for review and solving past essays.
And while we’re at it, since we’re committed to committing first-degree murder of Kaplan, here’s me throwing their daily regimen under the bus (click for video):
2) Use lectures judiciously.
Should you “Go through each one filling in all the notes!” or “Skip lectures entirely!”?
Honestly, it really depends on your goals and learning style. If you learn better from listening to audio or video, be my guest. Watch everything you want. Or watch what you need and leave the rest. No need to go one extreme or the other.
Just keep these pitfalls in mind:
Avoid using lectures as an excuse to sit back and relax. Learning is supposed to strain your brain. Another way to get value out of these passive audio or video experiences is to go through them after you’ve done everything else, before bed (doubles as a sleep aid), or while you’re doing other things.
Avoid taking the default path just because you’re supposed to. Are the lectures actually helping you? Do you need to listen to ALL the lectures, including the subjects you’re really good at? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Avoid busy work. If you catch yourself rewinding to fill in lecture notes, STOP. After 6 hours of trying to soak up every word of the lectures and meticulously filling in the blanks, you’ll feel very satisfied with your work, basking in the sunset streaming through your windows. But you’ll be exhausted and ready to go to sleep rather than USE what you think you learned from the lectures.
Remember that the tools are here to serve YOU, not the other way around. Courses and materials are merely there to support YOU. Don’t give any more attention to them than you think is necessary.
3) Reference the raw materials such as outlines, workbooks, and practice questions.
Bar prep courses tend to have very good base materials put together for you.
There’s a lot of overlap between the written material and the lecture videos. You could still get through a lot by reading their outlines and model essay answers (except the ones Kaplan writes), especially if you learn best through reading.
One of the best examples of this is Barbri’s Conviser Mini Review (also known as the Conviser or CMR). This book strikes a good balance between depth and coverage. You can learn a good 85-90% of what you need to know for your exam from this outline.
You’re going to forget 99% of what you’ve seen in their lectures and even in their outlines. The real fun happens as you struggle and not try to “minimize brain damage.”
Make use of any questions and problems they offer that you can solve. For MBE practice, Barbri has simulated questions. Themis has UWorld baked into it. Kaplan has PMBR. BarMax has unlimited access to licensed questions.
Look at their selected essays and PTs and the model answers that go with them. For more, use past questions for essays and PTs.
That’s how things will stick in your head. The batter gets sticky and bakes into an Instagrammable waffle only when you add water to the flour.
4) Don’t rule out supplementing your course with other resources designed specifically to support your bar prep.
I know things can seem expensive and costs can rack up.
But how are you going to spend $100k on law school, $3,000 on a bar prep course, and $2,000 already set aside for your post-bar trip… and then all bets are off when it comes to a few bucks for tools that will actually support you in passing the bar exam and leaving it all behind you?
There’s a reason bar takers pass the bar without any courses.
Here are some examples of useful supplements:
- While the raw materials are great, you’ll eventually want to streamline the information contained in those 800+ page outlines so that you can memorize and practice efficiently.
If you’re interested in condensing the key issues and rules so you don’t get overwhelmed, check out Magicsheets outlines (full samples here).
- If your bar prep course doesn’t come with past MBE questions, consider Emanuel’s Strategies & Tactics for the MBE and/or UWorld or AdaptiBar.
- If you’re taking the California Bar Exam, consider BarEssays to compare your practice essays with low- and high-scoring answers.
There are many other resources out there. Too many, in fact. That’s why I’ve curated the most effective bar prep supplements, and even made recommendations according to your budget level in this report.
These are all optional of course. Even your bar prep course is optional, after all.
But there’s nothing wrong with using the right tools to accelerate your progress instead of doing it the hard(er) way. Preparing for the bar exam is hard enough as it is!