Double Your Bar Essay Practice with Essay Cooking

So cooking isn’t one of my strengths. If you ask me to cook for you, you’re risking becoming a permanent resident of the toilet.

It’s hard for me because there are all these unfamiliar steps involved. I have to get the right amount of ingredients from outside my cave, process each ingredient, follow an alchemical procedure to put together something that looks edible, and then—the worst part—clean up and store everything. I’m not sure if it’s the onions that make me want to cry.

But check this out. So far, I’ve invested $600+ in a book and two courses to learn the lifetime skill of cooking (teach a man to fish). I made this stir fry last night. At least it looks sort of legit??

 

It looks sort of like legit cooking at least

 

Ugh, I hate this. DON’T laugh… I won’t burn the tofu next time. No, I’m not vegan (anything but that).

Like learning how to take the bar, it’s a skill in progress. Act, try, and do—instead of simply reading articles and letting interesting emails wash over you like a warm shower. I have some actionable steps for you today, so this is a great place for you to start doing if you aren’t already.

Although with great responsibility comes great power, wouldn’t it be nice if you could still get the benefits without doing as much work? For example, using paper plates to make cleanup a bit easier (ignoring the guilt that comes with destroying the environment).

I can’t teach you to cook, but I can teach you how I was able to at least double or triple the efficiency of my bar essay practice with LESS work.

 

Have you seen someone talk about “cooking” their essays? This is what they mean…

 

My biggest problem with essays was, hands down, getting all the issues and sub-issues.

Studying for my second attempt, I found that the relevant rules (to the extent understood) would flow out from a proper foundation of issues. Reciting the rules was the logical outcome of an established issue. Then facts from the given fact pattern would then flow out by virtue of applying the rules, like rainbows out of a unicorn’s ass.

That is to say, once I got the issue down, everything else cascaded down.

Thus, I needed to practice getting down as many relevant issues as I could. The more relevant issues I planted, the more IRACs would sprout, and the better my scores would be.

Speaking of issues, what the hell is “issue spotting,” and did anyone ever teach it to you?

If I tried to instinctively “spot” the issues, I’d inevitably come up short. So I crafted a condensed outline that combined a list of preexisting issues and associated rules so that I could systematically “check” for issues.

That’s good and all, but I still needed a lot of practice to (1) get exposure to various combinations of issues and (2) observe the frequency of issues. However, I couldn’t possibly do all these essays with the time I had—about 3 weeks combined.

This is where the essay cooking technique (an application of deliberate practice) came in.

Quite simply, I chose not do many full essays. Only about a quarter of my essays were fully written out to see if I still remembered how to write essays for the particular subject (yes, each subject has its own quirks, and I strongly encourage you to know the approach for each subject and in fact each major issue).

My default approach was to spend only 20-30 minutes per practice essay (instead of 60), writing on paper the issues and writing the relevant rules for each issue, and then comparing the outcome with references such as model answers. [Click to Tweet]

That’s “essay cooking.” Usually, I would outline within 10-15 minutes and spend another 10-15 minutes looking at model or sample answers to see if I had put down acceptable issues and rule statements.

If you’re taking the MEE, see if you can adjust accordingly: 10-15 minutes total (instead of 30) to get the issues and rules down.

Feedback is critical to improvement. That’s the other half of essay cooking. If you outline but not evaluate it with a reference, you may as well not have done it at all.  

Even if you have a tutor to give you feedback on your practice essays/outlines, you can still self-evaluate by comparing your issues and rules to those from an answer that is known to be a passing one (as well as any “bad” answers to see what you don’t want to do).

Such answers may be immediately available via model answers from Barbri books, samples released by your state bar (free or purchased from NCBE [MEE only]), BarEssays.com [CA only], and the like. (If your state doesn’t provide sample answers, you may want to consider looking at another state bar website.)


[CA only] If you’re in California, you could also get selected answers for recent exams here. It’s the only thing you’ll ever get for free from them.

Or you could look at several high-scoring and low-scoring answers with grader annotation at BarEssays.com (one of the most popular supplements). Protip: Get $25 off a BarEssays subscription using my coupon code (which I’m not allowed to post publicly—sign up for my weekly emails below to get it emailed to you immediately).

Need to know where to find essays for a certain subject? Got you covered. A donor has graciously provided a handmade table to point you in the right direction. Check out when a particular CA essay subject was tested, at the bottom of the page here. You can also check BarIssues.com ($20 off with code BRIAN2742).

[MEE only] The NCBE offers some older exams from the past for free here. You can also purchase recent ones in the NCBE Study Aids Store.


While detailed model answers from Barbri are unrealistic to produce in the allotted time, you can learn from the way they organize the issues.

By comparing with a good answer, you’re evaluating not the entire essay but the relatively important parts—identification of issues and recitation of rules—which are much less qualitative than the combination of facts that the author of the answer chose to use. This lets you easily check count how many issues you got and see where you messed up.

And by immersing yourself in the repetition of identifying issues and reciting rules, you don’t expose yourself to everything evenly—but rather more to what the bar actually tests.

Furthermore, this technique is highly repeatable. You can redo the same essay later and compare your performance vis a vis your earlier work. I remember learning how to approach transcript-style Evidence questions by cooking those essays again and again.

If I didn’t “get” the essay or an issue (e.g., how to approach a negligence issue or a transcript-style cross-examination), I marked up my outline and redid it later with what I learned last time.

Click to enlarge.
My stack of cooked essays. Click to get a closer look.

 

How’s that for cooking the essays? (You know… like the phrase “cooking the books” except not as sinister? Never mind.)

Somehow the phrase “essay cooking” has stuck with readers to describe this approach, so we’re going with that.

“But when do you practice the application and conclusion?”

That’s where the fully timed, 60-minute essays come in. (Or however long you get to write a full essay.)

Remember the horrible movie Easy A with Emma Stone? I only had to endure watching it once to be able to forever escape it. Like in the performance tests, which test your ability to find and bring in relevant facts (and rules), the A (application) part of IRAC (or CRAC) is skill based.

This means that once you endure the learning process and know how to do the “easy A” for each subject, you can escape it. In other words, once you know how to approach a subject or an issue, you don’t need to spend as much time on writing out full essays.

To be clear, though, it’s not a matter of just knowing “how to IRAC” but more of knowing “how to IRAC for this subject.” The approaches and nuances for each subject (and sometimes even the order of issues raised) are not necessarily the same; you don’t become an essay master by “just knowing how to IRAC.”

If you are consistently getting a low score on a subject you thought you knew (“b-b-but I know all the rules by heart!”), you may be able to remedy that by knowing how to raise the appropriate issues and apply the rules for each subject to the respective fact patterns that appear in those subjects.

So you should still have some full essays under your belt for each subject since there are subtle differences in the approach. Get them evaluated by yourself (e.g., using actual or model answers) or by someone else. Once you “get” how to approach a subject and apply the rules, you can focus on cooking the essays (i.e., identifying issues and writing rule statements).

The goal is that the issues and rules will become more familiar, and you’ll be able to set them up more quickly. That’s the hardest part of an essay.

I remember Community Property being one of my worst subjects while preparing for the bar because I never took it in law school. I didn’t prepare as well as I could for it, and of course it had to appear on my repeat attempt! But I think knowing the approach for it helped to at least set up the big issues and rules.

So to get the most out of your practice essays, do these for each subject, open book or closed book as needed. Always check your work against a reference answer:

  1. Full essays, untimed.
  2. Once you feel comfortable with the above, full essays, timed.
  3. Once you feel comfortable with the above, “cooking” essays and reviewing the answers to crank out practice essays in half the time. This by default focuses heavily on the “approach” (how to set up issues and rules—can combine with “issue checking” here).
  4. If at any point feel like you “don’t get it” or you run out of essays, redo them.

What’s “comfortable”? It’s a flexible guideline and by no means a strict rule (none of this should be). For example, you can introduce some outlining (“cooking”) to get more practice in, but mix in some full essays to make sure you can complete an essay in time.

The framework of issues and rules is important even if you end up with minimal analysis. If you’re stuck or running out of time during bar week, even a barebones essay with an outline (potential for partial credit) is preferable to an incomplete essay with missing issues (zero credit).

If you feel better doing it open book, you can do that. If you want to try it closed book, that will help you remember the rules better because you’ll be struggling to recall them. In either case, the more essays you write, the more the rules will get etched into your memory. The most important thing is to actually practice

“The Barbri model answers and the released sample answers look ridiculously thorough! I can’t possibly type something like that during the exam!”

That’s right. Let’s talk about each of them.

Regarding selected answers (if your state bar releases them), I don’t think they are “perfect” answers. In California, for example, two “passing” answers A and B are released. Although the core issues and rules are correctly identified in each sample answer (important), there is some variation in some issues, organization and/or the discussion.

I found them useful as a treatise because whatever nerd wrote them had the motivation to write pretty good rule statements and analysis in exhaustive detail. For example, I saw one Civ Pro answer where the examinee almost started talking about the history and policy of the FRCP 12(b)(6) rule (helpful for me to understand but not necessary on the exam). Of course, all of the main issues and most sub-issues were there—very important. These model answers are not necessarily the best organized (although they tend to be) since the actual exam setting has its limits.

You don’t have to write like the selected answers in one hour or whatever the allotted time is. You can still do well writing much less than that in an hour. It could have been that someone spent more than the allotted time on those selected answers and had less time for the others and still passed.

Regarding Barbri’s impossible model answers, I actually found them to be best for studying as exemplars of which issues and rules should be included in my answer. The more impossible, the better. Reach for the stars and land on the moon. Those model answers are crafted to go through a full analysis of all the relevant issues in an organized fashion, which is what you want to do on the real exam ideally.

And to be clear, I am talking about Barbri specifically. I don’t like Kaplan’s answers at all, and I have no direct experience with Themis, BarMax, or other prep companies.

By the time you get to the point of mainly “cooking” the essays (stage 3 above), you will have learned how to write good analyses and won’t need to write it out every time.

When, upon comparison, your outline (e.g., a “cooked essay” without all the application paragraphs) looks like the headings and rule statements of a Barbri answer, you’re in good shape. It’s a useful measure to see whether you’ve included the most important parts of the essay accurately.

Maybe you won’t need to look up the rules anymore either. If you secretly need to look at the rules, that’s fine. I wouldn’t be too concerned about being able to memorize until the month of the exam. Sometime during the last few weeks, a good chunk of the law should have been baked into your head through the practice you’ve done, and become retrievable when you see types of facts that you’ll notice have appeared yet again…

Accordingly, you can maximize the rate you test yourself by merely outlining issues and rules more often (the Essay Cooking Technique). As a result…

  • You get to focus on the “approach”
  • You have more time to practice “issue checking” and memorize/upkeep rules (by frequently writing them down in context)
  • You can review your work quickly, whether it’s right after you write the outline or you’re in your hotel room Monday night trying to review all your cooked essays as a refresher (btw no one ends up “taking Monday off” unless they’re delusional)

Don’t take my word for it:

Essay Cooking 1

Essay Cooking 2

Essay Cooking 3

Reviewing and remembering the way my outlines looked the nights before the written days alleviated a lot of the anxiety. I would not have wanted to review a stack of fully written essays Monday night before the exam.

If you find yourself lost how to approach an essay in the first place, you can try Approsheets, which are two-sheeters for approaching an essay using issue checking.

By the way, now that you know how to cut down on your essay practice time by at least half, you don’t have to follow your bar prep company’s one-size-fits-all schedule. You can deviate from the typical student’s calendar since you’re not a typical student anymore.

That is, you have more flex time than you might think to surgically treat your weaknesses: You could do 5 essays instead of 3. You could do 1 essay and 100 MBE questions. You could do 10 essays for one subject and 2 for another. You could play with your kid/pet/SO/self instead of rewatching a lecture.

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7 Replies to “Double Your Bar Essay Practice with Essay Cooking”

  1. Brian, as usual, your posts provide genuine advice that is actually applicable. Everyone says “do practice essays” but I have no idea how anyone can physically write up more than 3 essays a day and review them. Your method provides a means of reviewing substantive law, essay writing, and seeing model answers. I really appreciate the advice. Im off to outline!

  2. “It’s hard for me because there are all these unfamiliar steps involved. I have to get the right amount of ingredients from outside my cave, process each ingredient, follow an alchemical procedure to put together something that looks edible, and then—the worst part—clean up and store everything. I’m not sure if it’s the onions that make me want to cry.”

    You are a such a great writer! What are you doing now that you passed that bar? lol

    1. Why thank you, Kristi. Since passing the bar, I’ve been a full-time patent attorney and part-time maker of last times. Master plan is to do the latter full time, but we’ll see!

    1. Hey Sandeep, I’m actually in the process of overhauling that article and took it down yesterday. It will be back up on Saturday. Thanks for your patience.

  3. I am retaking the TX Feb bar and I am using barbri again because its offered for free and I can’t afford to pay for another course. I’m trying to figure out if I should the CMR or the lecture handouts to memorize the rules for the essays. what did you use to memorize the rules when you used barbri?

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