No one starts out being perfect at a skill. For example, cooking involves a bunch of micro-skills you build up over time. Essay writing on the bar exam is a skill also.
It used to be that cooking wasn’t one of my strengths. If you asked me to cook for you, you were risking becoming a permanent resident of the toilet.
There are all these unfamiliar steps involved. Get the right amount of ingredients from outside my cave, handle each tool without creating a zone of danger, and follow an alchemical procedure to put together something that looks edible. I’m not sure if it’s the onions that made me want to cry. And then the worst part—clean it all up after.
Sounds kind of like preparing for essays on the bar exam!
In front of you, a blank canvas ready to be filled but only reflecting a harsh stillness. The cursor blinking at you, urging you for your next order.
It’s confusing, overwhelming, and frustrating in the beginning.
But like anything else, it just takes some buckling down and practice to get better.
And like anything else, there are ways to focus on the biggest levers to make this process more efficient and manageable (especially when you’re in a time crunch with the exam looming).
Over the years, I discovered a few levers for cooking and started getting comments about how good my food looks when I post it in my Instagram stories.
Am I bragging? YES. This is coming from a guy who used to boil packaged ramen and call it cooking, so let me have my moment.
OK, enough torture with food porn. Onto torture about the bar exam.
Learning how to prepare for and take the bar exam is a skill in progress. With practice, it’s very possible to see a noticeable difference in your essays too.
But wouldn’t it be nice if you could still get most of the benefits while doing much less work (and saving time, which is at a premium during bar prep)?
It often takes only a few key concepts that deliver BIG results. That’s true for cooking, and of course, bar essays!
I can show you how I was able to double or triple the efficiency of my bar essay practice with LESS busy work.
This is one of my most popular techniques. I’m excited to share some actionable steps for you here, so this is a great place for you to start doing.
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.
As it turns out, issues are king. It was necessary to get this down if I wanted to pass.
Studying for my second attempt, I found that the relevant rules 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 naturally flow out, like rainbows out of a unicorn’s ass.
That is to say, once I got the issue down, everything else cascaded down.
So 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 fact patterns 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, (2) be able to organize the issues, and (3) observe the frequency of issues. However, I couldn’t possibly do all these essays with the time I had left—about 3 weeks combined.
This is where the “essay cooking” technique (an application of deliberate practice) came in.
Simply, I chose not to do many full essays. Only about a quarter of my practices essays were fully written out to see if I still remembered how to write essays for the particular subject. Each subject has its own quirks, and I encourage you to know the approach for each subject and each major issue.
My default approach was to spend only 20-30 minutes per practice essay total (instead of 60 allotted for each California essay), writing on paper (1) the issues and (2) the corresponding rules for each issue, and then comparing the outcome with references such as model answers. [Click to Tweet]
If you’re writing MEEs, see if you can adjust accordingly: 10-15 minutes total (instead of the allotted 30) to get the issues and rules down.
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.
Over time, outlining an essay took 5-10 minutes. As you work through fact patterns and become able to solve issue patterns, you can recognize those same patterns again later.
Imagine what that will be worth when your ass is on the line and the clock is ticking on the real thing. Confidence comes from competence and preparing well ahead of time. You don’t conjure it up just because someone said “you got this!”
Feedback is critical to improvement. Notice that’s the other half of essay cooking. If you outline (or write) an essay 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 (and should) still self-evaluate by comparing your issues and rules to those from an answer that is known to be a passing one.
If available, you can also check any “bad” answers to see what you don’t want to do (for CA takers, you can find them on BarEssays.com; get a $25 coupon below).
Such answers may be immediately available via model answers from Barbri books, samples released by your state bar, actual student answers, and the like. Check out the links below. (If your state doesn’t provide sample answers, you may want to consider looking at another state bar website.)
[CA] You can download selected answers for the past 20 years of exams here. It’s the only thing you’ll ever get for free from the CA State Bar.
You could also look at several high-scoring and low-scoring answers with grader annotation at BarEssays (one of the most popular supplements for California essays). PROTIP: Get $25 off a BarEssays subscription using my coupon code (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. Here’s an editable table to point you in the right direction. Check out when a particular CA essay subject was tested here.[MEE] Here are some links to essays going back over a decade as well as selected answers. The NCBE offers score analyses for recent exams 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 still learn from the way they organize the issues. In fact, if you can get your hands on Barbri’s Essay Workbook, I’d recommend that you look to their impossible answers specifically for the way they work through the issues. Approsheets can also help you make sure you don’t leave any issues (points) on the table.
By comparing with a good answer, you’re evaluating not the entire essay but the important parts—identification of issues and recitation of rules—which are much less subjective than the combination of facts that the author of the answer chose to use. This lets you easily check how many issues you got and see what you could have included.
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 with a different pen and redid it later with what I learned last time.
By the end, you’ll have a stack of handwritten cooked essays. They’re solved roadmaps of essays that you can use to study and even bring to your hotel for quick review!
On the left is a separate cooked essay from the one on the right. The issues and rules for the essay on the right fit in that small space underneath the questions.
They don’t have to be massive or long. They can be in shorthand as long as you understand you’ll understand what you wrote later, like when you review these to refresh yourself on issue patterns the Monday before the exam.
NEW: 13 more examples of essays I actually cooked (PDF, new window). Sorry about the grainy quality. Pencil marks are really hard to scan. I tried my best. But notice:
- Issues organized and rules stated
- Incorrect or missing issues and rules added after review in darker pen—feedback (self-critique) is critical
- Timed to be done within 10-15 minutes (out of 60). Apparently, the 10th example took 21 minutes (see timestamps at top of page). I included this on purpose because sometimes it do be like that
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 essays come in.
Don’t skip those! In fact, I recommend saving essay cooking for a later part of your preparation, around the last one or two cycles of essay practice, not the beginning.
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 (and sometimes even the order of issues raised) are not necessarily the same for every subject.
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 knew 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, before you start cooking them, since there are subtle differences in the approach.
Get those full essays also evaluated by yourself (e.g., using actual or model answers), and if you want guided feedback, 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 and most important part of an essay. So do more of it.
I remember Community Property being one of my worst subjects while preparing for the California 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, closed book and then open book over time. Always check your work against a reference answer:
- Full essays, untimed.
- Once you feel comfortable with the above, full essays, timed.
- Once you feel comfortable with the above, “cook” essays and review the answers to crank out practice essays in half or even a third of the time. This by default focuses heavily on the “approach” (how to set up issues and rules, can combine with “issue checking” here).
- By the last cycle of prep (usually last 1-2 weeks), cook the essays closed book.
- If at any point you 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 and cook, the more the issues and rules will get etched into your memory. The most important thing is to actually practice and review by checking your answer/outline against a reference answer.
“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), although they may be top answers, they are not “perfect” answers. In California, for example, two exemplary 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, 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 whatever your allotted time is. You can still do well writing much less than that in an hour. It could even have been the case that someone spent more than the allotted time on those selected answers.
Regarding Barbri’s impossible model answers, again, 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 (for example, 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 peek 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…
All that to say, you can maximize the rate you test yourself by outlining issues and rules more often (“cooking” essays). As a result…
- You get to focus on the “approach”
- You have more time to practice “issue checking” and memorize (and retain) 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 is “taking the last few days off” unless they’re delusional)
Don’t take my word for it:
Reviewing and remembering the way my cooked essays looked the nights before the written days alleviated a lot of the anxiety. I would not have wanted to read a stack of fully written essay answers Monday night before the exam.
Need structured guidance on how to approach an essay? Find yourself lost on how to approach an essay in the first place?
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.