Early Bar Prep: Should You Study Early for the Bar Exam? (When and How)

Some bar takers wonder if they should study early for the bar exam (ahead of the traditional 10-week schedule), whether…

  • They got results months ahead of the next bar exam.
  • They want to get a head start on studying
  • They deferred the exam (from July to February, February to July, or even a year or more)
  • They’re waiting for bar results and want to study “just in case”
  • They have a full-time job to juggle at the same time and won’t be able to take much time off
  • It’s been a minute (or years) since they’ve graduated from law school or taken the bar exam

While there are benefits to studying early and giving yourself a lot of time, there are many traps to doing so. There are also benefits to simply waiting (if your neurotic anxiety can handle it) until study season is in full swing before deciding whether or not to study for the bar exam.

But bar prep is personal. You’re the dean of your own studies.

To help you decide when to start studying, let’s discuss all of this—who early bar prep is right for and the best way to study early and effectively—so that you’re making the most of your time and energy.

Benefits of studying early for the bar exam

There are many scenarios where starting to study early can help get you rolling:

  • If you’re working full-time and need to stretch your studies out over more days and months than the traditional schedule
  • If you’ve been out of school for a long time and it’s been years since you’ve last studied for the bar exam. Maybe you had a different career in the meantime and now want to challenge the bar exam again
  • If you’re a foreign-trained attorney studying for the first time
  • If English isn’t your first language and you need to take your time going through the materials

In these cases, studying early for the bar exam can be a fine way to (re)introduce yourself to the latest rules and issues tested on the bar exam. You’ll get some peace of mind.

So the obvious benefit is that you give yourself more time to expose yourself to the material. Early study gives you a “head start on the competition.” This is generally good for you if you need more time to pick up the material.

BUT if you’ve taken the bar exam recently (say you’re waiting for results on the most recent exam) and want to study “just in case,” put your books down and do something else. This is just your anxiety taking over and annoying everyone around you.

If you end up passing, you’ll have spent time worrying over nothing. Yes, it would have been insurance against failing, but you can still begin after you’ve gotten your results. You’d still have 10 or 12 weeks or more, with the added benefit of having studied recently. This means you’d already be ahead of bar takers studying for the first time.

And btw, if you do end up failing, don’t start over and retake a course all over again from the beginning… That’s the worst thing you could do as an immediate repeater.

Drawbacks of studying too early for the bar exam

I’m considering “too early” to be studying before May for the July exam, or before November for the February exam.

In any case, there’s a risk of falling into this kind of thinking:

“I have a lot of time. Therefore, I can study slowly and do busy work like reading outlines over and over, or watching all the lectures, or doing endless research on the ‘best’ resource, or making flashcards, or doing other busy work.”

All these so-called benefits of studying early can be a trap if you don’t study properly. “Properly” means you’re learning and retaining, not just “studying” and going through the motions (wasting precious time).

Putting in the time by itself doesnt always translate to better learning. You think solely putting in more time will help you learn, but that’s only from the perspective of someone who hasn’t learned how to learn.

There are two main drawbacks of studying (too) early:

1) You’ll probably forget what you studied now by exam time.

Let’s say you want to take a February bar exam and start studying in August or September. You want to get a head start!

That’s all well and good, but the further away the exam, the harder it will be to remember what you study now.

2) There’s a very real possibility of burnout and plateauing.

The maximum length of time I typically recommend for any bar study is 5 months. Any longer than that, things will start to blur, your energy will be sapped, and you won’t perform as well. In other words, you’d be better off focusing on what’s important within a shorter period of time than trying to simply study longer.

Ever heard of Parkinson’s law? It says that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Its what you do with the time you have, not how much time you have.

With too much time on your hands, it’s possible that you’ll end up doing things randomly and without varying the type of activity you do. In the worst case, you might end up doing busy largely useless work (that doesn’t support your learning) for your entire prep period from beginning to end—exactly because of the complacency you feel from having more time. While this kind of background review is helpful for later, too much of it will make you feel stuck and exhausted before you get to the real work.

Have impatience with yourself, but have patience with bar results and the bar prep process. I know it’s tempting, but don’t blindly create more study time on purpose and fall into the trap of complacency (unless you have the right reasons such as the two scenarios I describe below).

First, I’ll show you how to use your study time effectively while studying early.

How to make the most of studying early or long-term (illustration 📈)

Taking the above into consideration, I recommend a ramping-up approach where you ramp up the intensity of your bar prep over time.

This is different from going at a constant speed or even hammering it in ahead of time (going all in from the start and then later running out of steam).

You’re backloading the work rather than frontloading the work.

How to study for bar exam early
Click to embiggen

What do you notice in the graph above?

1) You still want to be several notches above minimal competence because shit will definitely happen during the exam. Expect that something WILL throw you off during the exam no matter how prepared you are.

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.”—Archilochus

2) Notice how much later in the process you’ll be ready for the bar exam. It’s often a week or two before the exam when things finally start to click.

If you’re able to recite all the rules and score sky-high three months before the exam, why the hell are you even studying (let alone early)? You have nowhere to go but down. It’s like trying to be in your 40s while you’re in your 20s. Act according to your season.

If you’re stressing over not improving much for the first several weeks, your efforts are not wasted. The bamboo shoots up overnight. Keep watering the bamboo. (This is one of the mental shifts you learn in Mental Engines, my mini-course on organizing your mental and emotional state for the bar exam.)

This is why you want to work backward and create a plan.

My suggested schedules (in Passer’s Playbook 2.0) have a final review period that lasts 1-2 weeks. This is where you consolidate and check that you understand the material. Before that happens, you’re slowly building up the foundation, making sure that you’re understanding and remembering the issues and rules, and that you can answer essays, MBE questions, and PTs within the allotted time. A house without a strong foundation will be vulnerable to earthquakes.

“Backloading the work” could look like this:

  • In the last 2-4 weeks before the exam, asking for time off work or at least going part-time.
  • Focusing more on practical application near the end, instead of focusing too much on reviewing and memorizing outlines, notes, or lectures. In contrast, you can do more passive work earlier in prep. It’s not “give up all outlines; practice only” or “give up all practice; memorize only.” It’s a sliding scale.
  • Focusing more on highly tested areas (not predictions) near the end. Reviewing several essays per subject gives you an intuition of which issues and rules are tested often. Using the Tripod Approach to triage key portions of the exam.
  • Asking people around you to give you time and space near the end.

Remember, with the ramping-up approach, the goal is to hit minimal competence near the end of your studies (about 1-2 weeks before the exam), not as soon as possible. Otherwise, you may be tempted to rush, risk juggling your attention in too many places, or do things you’re not prepared for.

Yes, you still want to be improving exponentially like the graph shows, but you don’t want to be putting in the same kind of work constantly. In earlier phases, prepare for the later phases; prepare to prepare. Change what you’re doing over time. What got you here won’t get you there.

So that’s HOW to study early (and end strong). Now, is this even right for you? SHOULD you start bar prepping early?

Two scenarios and two ways to approach early bar prep ahead of the next exam (and when not to study early)

Depending on your situation, there are different ways you could approach studying early for the bar exam. It depends on how much time you actually have and comfortable you are with the material.

There are two scenarios where studying early (before May or November) may be appropriate:

You’re studying early because you don’t have time: For example, you’re working full time and are using nights, mornings, and weekends to prepare for the bar exam.

In this case, you could focus on learning the highly tested areas. For example, let these highly tested MBE areas guide you. Master past exam essay questions and become an expert on issues that come up often (and less so on the more extraneous topics).

Do a quick review of the material before spending most of your time solving past questions, and then review your work. You’re learning by example, not by theory. Memorization is baked into this, so you don’t need to stare at outlines.

Knowing how to use a rule is different from memorizing a rule. This approach of focusing on “how to use” generally gives you a fair shot at doing well, whether you’re studying full time or not.

Yes, you may be missing out on some details and nuances, some review time, and some memorization time. I can’t create time for you out of nowhere.

This is a more practical 80/20 approach that will involve diving into questions sooner, and less trying to memorize entire outlines (although this will help too if you can fit it in). This may be suitable for you if you have full-time work or family obligations where you only have a few hours every day.

You’re studying early because you need the time: Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve touched bar prep, or you’re a foreign-trained attorney who isn’t quite yet familiar with the American legal system.

This approach is closer to the traditional “review all the outlines fully, and spend as much time as you can on all things from beginning to end” approach. Here, you’ll want to spread out your time to push the background learning (outlines, lectures, etc.) toward the front and push the practical application and active studying toward the end.

The concern with this is burnout. Since there’s a lot to cover and you’ll need more time, you’ll need to spend more days and months than the typical fresh grad. But again, I don’t recommend spending more than 4-5 months on bar prep, and I recommend using the off season (before most bar takers prepare two months from the bar exam) to take it easier and then ramping it up as you approach the exam.

If you’re studying months ahead “just in case” while waiting for results of a bar exam you just took or because you think you need the time: Stop. Don’t.

There are more drawbacks than benefits to doing this. Instead, here are 21 post-bar ideas to get you going if you’re feeling too neurotic to relax.

If you just want more time, remember that more than 5 months is too much. You won’t benefit from the extra study time. Relax, have more trust in yourself, and come back to it later.

In the meantime, you might consider refreshing yourself with some background review, researching the logistics of the next exam, and just “preparing to prepare.”

Figure out how much time you have, and allocate your time to ramp up

Either way, count backward from the next exam to see how many full days and partial days (mornings, nights) you’re realistically willing to spend given your obligations at work, holidays, family, etc. Add extra buffer days because you’ll probably have days where you have to step away from bar prep unexpectedly.

And remember to ramp up the intensity like the graph above so that you end up doing the most practical or active work near the end of your preparation, not at a constant speed.

Scheduling is highly personal. Bar prep is personal.

So I can’t tell you what to do, but taking stock of your time and getting a rough idea of your time will give you a start. I have more guidance on creating your own study schedule here:

Conclusion: Is studying for the bar exam early worth it?

Early bar prep is worth it in some situations.

Namely, two broad categories of this are (1) if you don’t have the time (e.g., you’re working full time or have other obligations) or (2) if you need the time (e.g., you’re a foreign-trained attorney, or you need to catch up after years of not studying for the bar exam).

Early bar prep is NOT worth it if you’re a bundle of anxiety waiting for the results of an exam you just took. Relax, and cross the bridge when you get to it.

How do you effectively study for the bar exam early?

Having too much time makes it harder to plan. But you can use your time effectively, rather than filling it with busy work and getting stuck until you cram it all in the end anyway.

Do this by ramping up as shown in the graph above. You want to plan backward to increase intensity toward the end (backloading) and hit minimal competence near the end of your studies.

Wherever you are in your bar prep process, you’ll eventually want a streamlined outline such as Magicsheets (CA and UBE).

If this helped, share this article with your study group and tell them about ramping up instead of going all in and petering out later (also tell them to chill out if they’re waiting on bar results).

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