Bar Exam Success Rules that Buck Tradition: Keeping Yourself Mentally Sane During Bar Prep

I’m excited to share this guest article by Jennifer Duclair, Esq., a Bar Exam Mentor who specializes in mindset mentoring for powerful bar exam results, and offers regular five-day challenges to set up your own study plan. Today, you’ll learn how to work with your mind, rather than have your mind work against you on your way to bar exam success.

Bar takers could do with less suffering and more enjoyment in this rite of passage to becoming an Esquire.

However, most bar prep rules were developed ages ago and haven’t been updated much since then.  Here’s what to do to get away get from those methods that are so 1998, and do what really works today. 

Socialize through bar study season 

Isolating makes you feel deeply alone in the fight.  It makes you believe you’re the only one experiencing difficulties.  It eventually takes a toll on your mental health, especially if you are naturally community-oriented. 

I once had a last-minute mindset session with a bar taker who “needed” my blessing to not take the bar. He had taken things easy all season long because he was cut off from his classmates. No classmates or friends were around to observe he wasn’t studying. It was his dirty little secret. But then time ran out and he anxiously realized it just wasn’t possible for him to catch up. 

When bar takers enroll in a study course with set meeting times, get an accountability partner, or join a bar coaching group, not only is consistency in studies more likely, but you get socializing built in.   Just seeing others who are doing the same thing you are can make you feel like you’re not alone. It’s a highly effective form of socializing during the bar exam.  Just make sure the conversations are positive-focused.

Study less (work smarter not harder)   

You can make learning easier by using the learning strategies that suit your learning strength.  Your learning strength is the way your brain prefers to learn. You could even cut down about a third of your study load by studying in a way that is effective for your mental makeup.

Generic bar exam programs include a smorgasbord of study activities in hopes that, if you do all of it, at least 30% of the activities will work for you. But studying in a way that doesn’t work for your brain is onerous, self-defeating, and drains you of energy such that you might never get to the 30% of the curriculum that is actually helpful to you.  

Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid…”

Forcing yourself to learn through a learning mode that doesn’t suit you, not only demoralizes you, but takes up a lot of time you could be spending otherwise.  I can’t count how many times I had to rewind a lecture because I zoned out.  But when I leaned on my learning strength when studying, study time flew by.  I was highly engaged and felt like a winner at the end of the study session.  My confidence grew.  Confidence is key to passing. 

Find out how your brain prefers to learn. Are you an auditory, kinesthetic, or visual learner?  Then, give yourself permission to cut the study activities that don’t support you. In my bar study plan challenge (which I’ll share below), bar takers are supported to discover their learning strength and then pivot to study activities that support it.  They consistently score higher on practice questions than they did when they were using proscribed generic study plans to learn the material. 

When you employ methods that use your learning strength, you’ll struggle less to stay engaged, saving you time from having to re-learn material that you missed on the first pass.  This in turn shortens the length of study sessions leaving you free to spend more time to spend with family, and feel easier about juggling work during study, if that is your circumstance. 

Cutting down on the amount of study time wasted, makes this next rule completely doable. 

Take weekly mental health days (even when you’re feeling fine) 

Schools and tutors will tell you this, but often bar takers ignore this advice. It goes against the urge to push harder and do more. But even the earth takes a break every winter. There must be a balance of energetic output and energetic replenishment. Otherwise you’ll crash, lose motivation, and have less mental acuity. 

In my years of coaching bar takers, I find the ones who have trouble relaxing are running themselves ragged to avoid fear, worry, and other troublesome thoughts that crop up when their brain rests.  Work on the thing that has you too scared to truly relax. While it would be desirable to have a list of factors for reference, I’ve found that what affects one bar takers does not necessarily affect another.  So, I’d be remiss to list examples of hidden fears and cause concern where none may be warranted. It is best to speak privately with a coach or mentor to help shed light on factors personally affecting you.  These factors are mindset issues and will get in the way of top bar exam performance. 

Speaking about mindset and the bar exam…

Mix woo-woo with your bar prep 

We’re not talking about the vodka-based cocktail.

Woo-woo is how coaches affectionately refer to the mindset and inner work, the intangibles. You must involve these aspects for a complete bar prep. This is the part where many otherwise astute bar takers stumble.

Focusing only on academics is a one-dimensional and imbalanced approach to bar taking that increases the chances of having to retake the bar.  It’s painfully apparent a person’s bar prep was incomplete when they seemed to have everything lined up to pass but ended up failing.  Bar prep must be balanced.

Physical activity helps, but it’s not a substitute for mindset and inner work. Think of physical exercise as the anesthetic that allows the dentist to do the work. If the deeper work isn’t done, the anesthetic wears off and you’re back in pain.  If you’re struggling with focus, consistency, resourcefulness, or performance, exercising and a good diet will help. Even yoga and meditation will improve things. But if those alone don’t cut it, it’s more likely there are deeper things to be examined. 

In my work with bar takers I found the most recurrent reason for low multiple-choice scores is a lack of self-confidence. Self-confidence has a direct correlation to the ability to trust yourself and go with your first answer. 

In this case, confidence-building is a needed component to the person’s bar exam prep.  Higher self-confidence not only saves you time on the actual exam (not going back and forth with yourself on the answer choice), it saves you emotional turmoil all through study season. As your confidence increases, fear of failure decreases, less energy is diverted to managing feelings, and you have more energy for your studies. 

When confronted with a bar exam problem, you may switch strategies, tactics, or even bar prep courses.  For any of those fixes to work permanently, you’ll need to address the deeper factors. So, what if you’re not sure what those deeper factors are?

Talk with a professional

Over the years of coaching bar takers, it’s become apparent that certain bar exam problems directly correlate to certain underlying factors.  When we discover what those are and work on them together, the bar taker’s experience drastically changes for the better.  Consulting with a bar coach who is experienced in helping with these non-academic aspects of the bar will help you discover what areas you could improve to have a shorter bar exam journey with more definite success.

Jennifer Duclair, Esq. is a Bar Exam Mentor. She holds regular five-day challenges to help you set up a tailored study plan. More information about her and her programs can be found at https://www.jenniferduclair.com.

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