Early Bar Prep: Should You Study Early for the Bar Exam?

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

  • They’re waiting for results,
  • They got their bar results and want to retake the exam,
  • They have a full-time job to juggle at the same time, or
  • It’s been a minute (years to be exact) since they’ve graduated law school or have taken the exam.

While there are benefits to studying early, there are many traps to doing so. There are benefits to simply waiting until study season is in full swing before deciding whether or not to study for the bar exam. But as always, bar prep is personal.

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
  • 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 early for the bar 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 doesn’t 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. It’s what you do with the time, 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 (illustration 📈)

Taking all of 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?

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. You still want to be several notches above minimal competence because shit will definitely happen during the exam.

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

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? You have nowhere to go but down. It’s like trying to be in your 40s while you’re in your 20s. It doesn’t work very well.

So if you’re stressing over not improving at all for the first several weeks, that’s fine! Keep watering the bamboo. Your efforts are not wasted by watering the bamboo every day. The bamboo shoots up overnight all at once. (This is one of the mental shifts you’ll learn in Mental Engines, my mini-course on organizing your mental and emotional state for the bar exam.)

That’s 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, 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.

“Backloading the work” could look like this:

  • Asking for time off work or going part-time in the last 2-4 weeks before the exam.
  • 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 a sliding scale.
  • Focusing more on highly tested areas (not predictions) near the end. Use the Tripod Approach to triage key portions of the exam.
  • Asking people around you to give you time and space near the end.

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.

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.

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)

There are a couple of 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.

If you’re studying early because you don’t have time: Perhaps while 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 just the highly tested areas by mastering past exam questions and becoming an expert on just those areas (and not the more extraneous topics).

For example, do a quick review of the material before spending most of your time solving past questions, then review the material. 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.

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

If 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 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 early “just in case” while waiting for results of a bar exam you just took: Stop. Don’t. Doing this is getting too ahead of the curve. As noted above, there are more drawbacks than benefits to doing this. Here are 21 post-bar ideas to get you going.

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, 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 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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