I recently had a back-and-forth with Stan, yet another reader who passed the (online/remote) 2020 October California Bar Exam on his 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
✅ Use the right approach to focus on what’s important
✅ The mental aspect (discipline, grit, fear, and doubt) can be what hinders you more than anything
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.
I loved law school. I honestly wish I could go back all the time. For me, law school represented a chance at redemption. I was a terrible student in college. I wanted to prove to myself I could be a good student again.
I learned from some amazing professors, worked with brilliant and talented students, made good friends, and did things I never imagined like mock trials. If I could relive it all, I would in a heartbeat. Law school wasn’t perfect, but I only have fond memories of it.
As an evening student, I worked during the day, went to class at night, and competed in mock trials for the majority of four years. Unfortunately, my grades took a backseat to everything else. I only worked hard when I was interested in the class or when I liked the professor. I believe I finished somewhere in the middle 30% of my class, nothing to write home about.
Point being, I didn’t develop the kind of consistent discipline with studying the exam demands. I put forth my best effort when I’m paid to do a job, it’s something I want to do, or I’m competing. But I’ve struggled with studying hard ever since college. I was about to learn just how much that would set me back for bar prep.
My First Four Attempts
By the time my first bar prep started, I thought I could “flip the switch” and put in hundreds of hours. I was dead wrong. I wasn’t mentally strong enough. My mom and I were facing difficult financial circumstances when I graduated law school in 2017, and I used that as an excuse to give up.
I wasn’t mentally strong enough to compartmentalize the anxiety of my circumstances, and after the first six weeks of bar prep, I hit a wall and didn’t get up. Even in those first six weeks, I was only going through the motions, ironically with no sense of urgency. Even though Themis’ course didn’t click with me, I refuse to use that as an excuse. I got in my own way.
I had every opportunity to at least grind it out for those 10 weeks of bar prep despite my situation. I selfishly wallowed in my circumstances rather than using them to propel myself forward. The truth is, I wasn’t ready to pass.
Needless to say, I failed July 2017 with a score of 1387. I didn’t know it at the time, but that score of 1387 would play a significant role in me finally passing. The next three years were another slow rollercoaster of recovering financially by delivering food and doing freelance work, and three more bar exams. I failed February 2018 miserably because I didn’t study, still choosing to wallow in my own pity party. I subsequently failed February 2019 and February 2020 as well.
I could easily say I failed my third and fourth attempts because I was working so much, but the truth is I didn’t want it bad enough. There are plenty of success stories online from bar takers who overcame much more daunting circumstances. They found a way by doing whatever it took. Instead, I disrespected the exam and thought I could miraculously pass by cramming.
I still didn’t want it bad enough. I still wasn’t ready to pass.
MY LAST TIME
Despite everything going on with the pandemic, I felt compelled to take the July 2020 exam. And this time, I wasn’t going to be my own worst enemy. I also wanted the fifth attempt to be my last because pass or fail, I had to stop being content rowing with one oar.
That’s what failing the bar over and over felt like. As long as I was going to continue standing in the way of my potential, I was going to keep rowing in the ocean with one oar while everyone else has two. I was sick of it. I’m very fortunate things lined up for me to where I could finally give the exam the respect it deserves.
I felt ready to do the work, and quite frankly, I wasn’t going to get a better chance.
I registered for July 2020 in May, long before all the changes and confusion surrounding the exam. I already figured I wasn’t going to take the exam in a packed convention center. While I wasn’t surprised to see the exam go fully online, I was very surprised to see the cut score lowered to 1390.
This is where I want to circle back to my first bar exam score of 1387. Once the CA Supreme Court permanently lowered the cut score to 1390, I knew this time had to be the last. I still vividly remember what a 1387 feels like. Even though I half-ass studied for just six weeks in 2017 before unravelling mentally, I boiled it down to: if I put in the time and effort, I can definitely hit 1390.
I know it sounds so obvious and simple, but there’s no secret sauce to passing the bar. Most of it is good old fashioned work ethic, as with most things in life. With a lowered cut score, remote exam, and even 100 less MBE questions, I knew I had to pass this time. I had to go all out for once.
It started with Brian.
After finding MTYLT, I checked out Brian’s bar prep tools, blog posts, and success stories. I decided to get the Magicsheets+Approsheets bundle and the Passer’s Playbook because I liked the formatting and reviews. Once the dust settled and the exam date was set for October 2020, I renewed my AdaptiBar account and dug into Brian’s Playbook.
I built my study schedule based on the Playbook and calendar templates that come with it. Of course, this is what worked for me personally. I made study calendars for every bar prep but never followed through. This time was going to be different. I intended to execute every day, and I’m proud to say I did.
Outside of four days I took off for errands, I worked out and did whatever my calendar required every day. For those nine weeks, I didn’t indulge in any vices, and I really took care of myself. But more importantly, I felt like I mattered again, like I was on the path to doing something big.
I started bar prep thinking I had to trick myself into enjoying it, but as I went through it, I genuinely did. Maybe it was the stakes and pressure of the pandemic, but I liked who I was for those nine weeks of studying.
Bar prep 2020 was the kind of ultimate discipline I lacked in previous attempts. When I studied, I studied. Deep down, I loved it.
As for the actual prep, here’s what I did (everything under timed conditions):
2) Wrote out at least 3-4 full essays per subject and cooked (Brian’s technique) about 80+ essays total (self-graded through model answers from CA Bar’s archive [see also a collection of past essays and selected answers going back to 2001 here])
3) Practiced 5 full Performance Tests (pulled from CA Bar’s archive)
I have no problem saying I wouldn’t have passed without Brian and Make This Your Last Time. Whether through his check-in emails or his tools, his voice was just as much a part of my prep and anything else. Brian’s emails kept me focused, mentally balanced, and empowered me to believe I could pass.
I have to be honest too. Studying 8-10 hours a day wasn’t realistic for me. I committed myself to about five hours a day, and I was very consistent. For me, consistency was always the key. That was a crucial missing ingredient until 2020. I knew what subjects scared me the most, so I also confronted them the most until I felt comfortable.
As funny as this sounds, following stimulus and election news every day was like a crash course in Constitutional Law. Honestly, until the pandemic, I had very little insight into what Congress and the president actually do and the power dynamics therein. Con Law was one of my weakest and scariest subjects in law school.
However, following stimulus and election news was like watching a live fact pattern every day. Con Law suddenly opened up in a way I never imagined. The rules started making way more sense, and the fact patterns became clearer than ever before. Con Law went from being my weakest subject to my favorite and strongest MBE subject (70%+ consistently).
Studying MBEs the right way really opened up my understanding of essays as well. I dissected every question, even the ones I got right. I always felt like MBEs were impossible. But I had never done 1800+ questions during prep until 2020. I didn’t see the magical pattern some people talk about, but I noticed how the issues tested were repetitive. The range of issues was also more limited than I thought.
As I reviewed MBEs, I kept adding to a separate outline on Google doc, including both things I got right and wrong. I wanted it online so I could easily access it on my phone. Many nights, I’d be trying to sleep as my mind jostled with a certain issue, as if it was a rubix cube. I’d pull up my outline on my phone to repeatedly review certain rules.
I often got MBEs wrong because I didn’t remember the rule, or I made a careless mistake like reading the fact pattern too fast. I made notes reminding myself of such mistakes, and while I didn’t end up reviewing every page of the outline, it really helped me find my rhythm with MBEs.
Brian’s essay cooking technique was exactly the kind of efficient approach I was looking for. The Playbook made me realize how much more important it was for me to work on the first 15 minutes of an essay rather than the entire hour. I also had to finally accept bar essays are more science than art. A mistake I made with bar essays in the past was thinking I needed to get a standing ovation from the graders.
The phrase “get in and get out” could not be more true with essays. As Brian emphasizes, you check for issues, not spot them. If you do the set up correctly, you’re honestly kind of on auto-pilot the rest of the way. Again, it’s more science than art. I would not have made it through essays on game day had I not cooked so many. You’ll see why in a bit.
With Performance Tests, I simulated five full practice sessions. Brian really stresses how crucial it is to respect the PT. I’ve never finished a PT with confidence and time has always been an issue. I didn’t want it to be the difference. Even though I had already done some of the PTs in past exams, I still didn’t finish a single one in time during practice. But I felt like all the practice helped me mitigate the damage on game day.
The night before day 1, I couldn’t sleep a wink. More than nervousness, I was anxious. I couldn’t wait to see if the prep would make the exam feel different. Not sleeping stressed me out, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I had come too far.
The biggest moment of my life was upon me.
Once I started Essay 1, the adrenaline kicked in a bit, but more than that, the prep kicked in. I got through Essay 1, pure PR, pretty nicely (another former scary subject that became an asset from following the news). Cooking a bunch of PR essays really paid off. My grasp of the subject was never stronger.
I thought Essay 2 (Business Associations Corp) was a trainwreck, but looking at the model answer, I wasn’t that far off. I made the mistake of thinking there was no way they’d test Business Associations again since Partnerships was tested in Feb 2020. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Don’t ever assume. I studied Business Associations, but chose to devote more time to other subjects. Luckily, it looks like I got through it better than I thought.
The rest of the essays are a blur, but I remember being in the zone. As I marched through each essay, it was actually pretty fun because I knew what to do for once, thanks to cooking so many essays. I didn’t have to think that much, just do.
Doing MBEs on a laptop was so much better than bubbling scantrons. I never understood why we were still using scantrons in the last decade. The funny thing with MBEs is, even though I studied them like never before, when I do them in big batches like 100, it still feels 50/50. But my two mock exams during prep were 71% and 73% so I figured if I can hit 68% or better, I should be in good shape. I guess I did enough.
The Performance Test was challenging as expected. I felt solid with the first issue but struggled with time for the last two. But the prep really helped me keep it as tight as possible and stay poised. I must have done enough.
After it was all over, I had no regrets. I felt like I left it all out there, and if it turned out to still not be enough, I was satisfied knowing I finally learned how to study for the bar. If I had to do it all over again, I was ready to embrace the challenge.
I mean it when I say I would not have passed without Brian. I will always be grateful for his dedication to teaching everyone how to conquer the exam, but more so, ourselves. Passing the exam surely represents something different for everyone, but I would imagine “conquering demons” is part of it for some. It certainly was for me. But I realized you can only win this fight if you have the right tools and mindset.
Discipline and grit are par for the course. I’m speaking for myself here, but I think it’s also important to take the exam off the pedestal. I wanted to share my story because if I can even help one person avoid the pitfalls I experienced, it’s well worth it. Yes, it’s true life can get in the way of the bar. But if you have a chance to give the exam everything you got regardless, please do not give into fear or doubt like I did.
Seize the opportunity when you have it.
As anyone who’s failed the bar even once knows, you essentially lose a year of your life. Best case you pass the second time, but a whole year will still have gone by between graduating and passing. Don’t get stuck in the mud for three years like me. It’s not worth it.
There’s just no feeling quite like passing the bar, and the sooner you feel it, the better.
I would also be remiss if I don’t recognize the constant support of my family and friends. I definitely did not get here alone. Even though there were many times where I felt alone and wondered “why am I the only one going through this,” I was just being selfish. I had to check myself and remember everyone in the world faces adversity every day, overcoming unimaginable obstacles.
Only after I passed, did my mom admit how heartbreaking it was for her to see me going through everything I did in the last three years. That actually broke my heart too because I realized through all this, I hadn’t considered her pain. Every time I failed, my dad would say “you’ll get it next time.” He’d obsessively call me and ask when I’m getting results. I never considered his pain either.
When I finally passed the exam, my mom and I broke down in tears immediately, and my dad and his wife joined us on the phone. I felt like I was standing on the moon. A common refrain from people who’ve passed is that you feel relieved more than anything. I couldn’t agree more.
The bar exam has beat me up, stripped my ego down to bare bones, but also rewarded me with experiences I’ll never forget. If I can pass, so can you. I also wanted to share my story as proof that Brian’s tools absolutely work, and as proof you don’t need expensive prep courses or tutors to pass. It’s not going to be easy, but you shouldn’t want it to be.
The end result wouldn’t taste nearly as sweet.
If you have the will, resources that work for you, and discipline, you can pass. You just have to be ready for it.
Stan, thanks for generously sharing your story on how you finally passed the bar exam!