Stop “Studying” and Start Learning: The Underrated Practice of Practice in Bar Prep

Back in college, I gave a copy of my cheat sheet for our engineering midterm to a girl. How do you say no to a girl? Answer: You can’t.

It had all the equations needed, but she got the lowest score in the class. She didn’t know how and when those equations applied. She hadn’t practiced applying those rules to similar problems. She assumed that just having the rules there would be enough. Same reason open-book bar exams would change very little.

It’s like when someone says, “b urself.” Okay… what’s that mean? Could you explain that a bit more bro? Any supporting statements or specific examples?

Same with “black letter law.” What does “related” mean? You get a better sense of what that means by looking at examples of how that rule is used until you gain an intuition.

You’d think these rules would be plug and play, but they’re not. Context matters. Knowing when and how to use them matters.

She was my gf at the time btw. Awkward! Oh well, live and learn.

And that’s what I want to talk about—learning.

“Do I really know this? Am I really becoming ready for the bar exam?”

It’s natural to question yourself at every step when preparing for the bar exam.

What people try to do:

  • Consume material to get all their “ducks in a row” first
  • Obsess over every rule and get overwhelmed
  • Collect more tools than is possible to look at and reconcile
  • Endlessly seek the “best” silver-bullet tool
  • Fill in the available time

This is when we pour our coffee, make room on our desk, organize our pens, turn on the computer… and then just stare at the words.

not practicing

How to actually find out:

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How to Know What to Do for the 2021 July Bar Exam as a First Timer

Now that everyone’s here, maybe we stand a chance against the final boss.

It’s official. We’re back to “normal” since bar exams are being held in July again (not the mess it was last year with delays to September and October with every state fending for itself).

Life goes on relentlessly no matter the state of the planet. Let’s emerge out of pandemic life with a fresh start.

Getting 20/20 foresight on how to start your bar prep as a first timer

No fortune teller would accept me as an intern because I am a terrible predictor of the future.

In fact, people in general are terrible at predicting the “best” outcome or solution. “Hindsight is 20/20.”

But imagine that you could know what you should do before it’s too late. Having 20/20 FORESIGHT would be like benefiting from a second chance on your first time.

You can still use 20/20 foresight to “look ahead” with a crystal ball so that you can avoid mistakes in your bar preparation.

Come again?

Yes, even if you’re a first timer studying for the bar exam, you actually have a crystal ball!

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The Value of Redoing Problems (You’ll See Them Again on the Bar Exam)

Am I the only one who keeps a list of cringeworthy things they’ve done in the past? Anyone?

*crickets and random cough*

We learn our lessons by doing something and getting embarrassed and trying again.

In fact, embarrassment is the best way I found to learn a lesson: actually doing things, realizing you did something wrong, feeling the pain, and using the pain to change course in the future.

I’m not saying we should “make bad decisions” on purpose (#yolo). Life is already a constant stream of embarrassment anyway.

We simply need a willingness to endure embarrassment as fodder for our growth. Opening ourselves up to the possibility that we’re wrong.

Reprinted without permission

We don’t know what we don’t know. That’s why we can’t really be too quick to judge our own proficiency. That’s why we get on the bike and try to apply the theory as we go so that we find out.

If we don’t—if we simply try things once and stop—we end up thinking we “get it” with a generalized and incomplete understanding. There’s a difference between awareness and experience.

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How Stan Finally Passed the Bar Exam Using Proven Bar Preparation Strategies (Anyone Can Do This!)

I recently had a back-and-forth with Stan, yet another reader who passed the (online/remote) 2020 October California Bar Exam on this 5th try.

When I asked to showcase his incredible personal journey, Stan offered to rewrite his emails into a more comprehensive story with approaches he discovered, his realizations, and specific study tips to help others join him beyond the bar.

Some of my favorite impressions among many:

Respecting the exam is important but so is enjoying the process

Practice as if it were the real thing. Do the real thing as if it were practice—with confidence

Bar prep doesn’t have to be expensive

Enough about my impressions. It’s time for yours. Here’s Stan’s story on what he did to finally pass the bar exam. No substantive edits made except adding relevant links and [comments in brackets] and writing out some abbreviations.

One for Five: How I Finally Passed the Bar Exam

After I told Brian about my journey to passing the Oct 2020 California bar exam, he was gracious enough to offer me a chance to share my story on his blog.  I discovered Brian’s website by searching stories on how people passed the exam.  I’d bet that’s pretty common.

Before we get into my story, please know my only intent is to show you if I can pass, you absolutely can too.  I’m not special, nor am I looking for credit or praise of any kind.  I’m just an ordinary guy from LA who took the bar exam five times, dealing with life along the way.

Everyone’s journey to passing the bar is unique.  What worked for me might not necessarily work for you.  But I would bet a quality everyone needs is discipline.  My story is a cautionary tale of why discipline should always be where bar prep starts and ends.

The October 2020 California bar exam was my fifth attempt, but I was finally ready to pass.  Let me tell you why you should never think you’re not smart enough or good enough to pass, or that it must not be meant for you.

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Myths of Memorization for the Bar Exam

Many bar takers are obsessed with the idea of memorization for the bar exam.

Understandably, a lot of students naturally panic and have concerns about it. I think it comes from a place of insecurity. There’s a LOT to remember after all.

Panic mutates into paralysis. They say, “As long as I memorize this perfectly, I will be set for the bar exam.” They end up holding a bag of theoretical knowledge they don’t know how to use, neglect the performance test in the process, and end up with a sorely lacking written score.

This may seem to be a safe approach, but it’s actually reckless. It isn’t going to work for most people. It’s not the point. But this is a common thought process, especially for those starting out.

That may be why people are excited for the open-book bar exam in some states. I eagerly await the test takers’ realization that it’s not just about having access to knowledge but whether they can use it properly. Removing the memorization requirement doesn’t really change the exam. In fact, it will probably hurt if you’re wasting time looking things up.

It’s not that I’m ragging on memorization. You should memorize—but not at the expense of learning. It’s table stakes. Everyone’s doing it. It’s a minimum requirement. Just a cost of entry. So you do want to start memorizing as early as you can. 

I want to point out what bar students miss when they get tunnel vision around memorization. Don’t miss the forest for the trees:

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