Tom* sat for the California Bar Exam several times—many (##) times.
He didn’t have any particular strengths when it came to essays, the MBE, or performance tests. It was an overwhelming ordeal from the start.
💬 “I struggled with all of them because I think the whole process was overwhelming. In law school, they told me that if you wanna pass the exam, you need to lock yourself in a room and don’t think about having a relationship. . . . I kind of believed it and subconsciously realized I’ll never be able to do that, and I think I struggled on all facets. That’s from a psychological level.”
At the same time, like many bar takers, Tom was also working to support himself while preparing. This is a common obstacle among success stories. (But as you’ll see below, it isn’t a handicap as much as you might think.)
💬 “I was working two jobs and doing some consulting work back when I took in July of 2017 and just missed it. I worked one job in February and July this time. But I’m working full-time. I mean I don’t have a lot of time.”
On top of that, he also had dad duties. But he decided to focus on what moved the needle.
💬 “I have an autistic son, but mostly it was the working. I had to put 110% at work, and do that with the practicing. I use the word ‘practice’ because to me ‘studying’ is counterproductive, which you describe in [Passer’s Playbook 2.0] about not wasting too much time.”
More specifically, “practicing” paid dividends for Tom.
💬 “When I use the word ‘practice’ in my mind, it helped me consciously . . . because I feel like every moment I’m spending is valuable and it’s giving me dividends. It’s repaying me. Whereas if I just keep going over the definition, it’s meaningless. But if I’m going over an issue in an essay and I see how it’s tested and I reverse engineer the question, or I go over an MBE question which also helps with the essays as well, that’s beneficial.”
Everyone preaches practice, but what does “practice practice practice” really mean? Tom stacked several principles that finally resulted in his passing the 2018 July California Bar Exam (which had the lowest pass rate on record for July exams in CA: 40%).
Adopting new principles for success
Breadth and consistency: With all of essays, MBE and PTs weighing him down, Tom realized that the key was to tackle all facets of the exam consistently. Or else one door would close when another door opened. A common mistake is to ignore the PT and it torpedos you on the exam.
💬 “As far as a practical level, when I worked on one part, the other part would slip. . . . I struggled on all of it until I had to realize I had to practice the entire exam on a consistent basis.”
Consistency – part 2: But how do you stay consistent when you’re tired from work every day?
Tom did something—anything—every day so as to not “break the chain.” This allowed him to stay in the game, keep it relaxed, and slowly add on other parts of the exam.
💬 “I work full-time. I work nine to five or longer, and I’m exhausted at the end of the day. I’m older now too. I cannot spend and stay up all night and take three to four hours a night. Sometimes I did, but most of the time it was one or two hours a day. And when I started out, maybe take a half hour a day or 20 minutes. I just did MBEs a year out, and I did it every day. I did not take a day off. I did at least 10 MBEs a day to keep me in the game. And when it was getting closer, I started doing essays and I did PTs. But you know, it was more relaxing, and I missed the exam in July 2017 on the first read by 0.47 point.”
Quality of time: For every moment, he asked himself, “Am I doing something that’s helping me prepare?”
It wasn’t just about the amount of time, like how it’s not all about the number of MBE questions you do (we all know people who did thousands of MBE questions and didn’t pass).
💬 “I just couldn’t put anymore into this. I had too much going on to do this again but for at least the foreseeable future. . . . I think I was more focused in my studies. I wasn’t wasting. Every moment that I was using, I’m asking myself: Am I doing something that’s helping me prepare? And that’s why there’s more practice because if I got something wrong, why’d I get it wrong? And I would look at it and then okay, which are the subjects that I need to really hone in on and get good at.”
Taking the time to get his approach right: Tom realized he didn’t need to spend hours a day, but the amount of time he spent overall was also important to rework his strategy. As is often incorrectly attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
💬 “Actually, I took a year off in the exam. I’ve taken it multiple times and realized I needed a regroup and find another way. I found your [Passer’s Playbook], and it was sort of like hearing something that was already playing in my mind. You were saying the things that I was thinking but really couldn’t. It was nothing out there like it. It’s basically what I always thought, and it’s counter to what the big courses tell you. It’s that really this is about practicing the exam. I realized that it’s like, okay, I don’t need to spend like five hours a day.”
Was it contradictory to say that he needed to take his time but also not spend a lot of time every day? Maybe, maybe not. The most interesting paths are found in between contradictions.
Tom took his time and worked on preparing consistently every day—to build dense confidence without burning himself out.
💬 “I really wanna get that across. To the people who are out there taking the test, you don’t need to spend that amount of time, but you do need however long it takes to get confident. It could take a year. People need to be prepared to take the time, but it could be done.”
The secret to success is upfront preparation. To be able to prepare effectively requires you to know what you need to work on. Once you know the truth, you can fix it.
💬 “It was instrumental. I mean the Passer’s Playbook was. Your voice in there and your tone was necessary. You’re very hard on the applicant, which you should be, and it’s like the truth. It’s like you are cutting through, and I could see and I could hear it.”
Tom also made sure to aim higher than “minimum competence.” In real exam conditions, the exam will knock you down a few pegs. Tom knew he had to be prepared for those inevitable contingencies. He needed to be able to fall back on the level of training he prepared for.
💬 “I made sure that I was aiming for high scores. I don’t wanna be on the cusp. I don’t wanna get a 65. I wanted to get a 75 or 80.”
A mental attitude that is useful for the bar exam
The “physical” work of sitting down and moving your hands is half of bar prep. The mind is the other half.
While being a student means being a humble sponge, an “aha” moment for Tom was knowing that come exam day, it’s time to “be arrogant” and go all out. Being aggressive overcomes the fear that looms over you.
💬 “It’s very intimidating, and there’s a lot of noises in there. But the arrogance audio was amazing; that really helped me. Going in with an attitude, going after the prey, being the one who’s hunting, not hunted is very important. Not like, oh my God, I hope I don’t see this question. No, I hope I see the question. I hope you’ll bring it on. . . . I don’t have that in real life. I’m not arrogant, but in this exam, it’s a limited amount of time you have. It’s yourself against the exam.”
Bar preparation can be as BORING as you want or as FUN as you want. But you’ll still need to put in the hard work and the smart work.
💬 “What I got was, look, this test is hard, you’re not gonna take shortcuts and get through this test. There’s certain work that you need to do, and you need to put the time. And you are very funny. You have a lot of humor involved in it, and I think that’s helpful. I’m just saying that it’s like no BS. . . . But here’s the good news: It doesn’t have to be so hard, but you’re gonna have to do it. . . . You’re just pretty honest. You’re gonna have to sit down and do this stuff, and people need to hear that. I found it refreshing.”
Leveraging the right tools and resources around him
Outlines: Tom leveraged the power of condensed outlines. Condensed outlines allowed him to review the issues and rules of a subject in a short time. This was especially helpful to him as a repeater.
The tools Tom relied on included Magicsheets and Approsheets:
💬 “I always knew what needed to be done is condensed outlines. I don’t believe the current system of outlines out there in the big courses and these big books. . . . You do it yourself and you get a two-page outline with acronyms, or it’s done for you and I’ve never seen one done right. Yours are done right. Not only do you have the Magicsheets which are great for just, I could sit down and have two or three pages and actually go through a course in maybe a half hour. There’s a lot of confidence in that. It’s not everything, but you seem to hone in on the most important things that are involved in the essay. And then the Approsheets as far as a roadmap to how to organize the essays and how they’re actually tested. So I used them a lot, and I found them real helpful.”
A good condensed outline for Tom needed to be digestible yet comprehensive, covering the rules that are likely to show up in questions.
💬 “It’s important ones, the ones that are in the essays. And, there’s only five essays [in the CA Bar Exam]. So you don’t need to memorize the entire thesis of the Second Restatement of Torts or Contracts or the Conviser. . . . There’s gotta be a way to condense this material where it’s not overwhelming and it could be digested on a regular basis. If a person doesn’t have time to do it themselves or able to do it themselves, I found your outlines the best, for sure.”
Tom was able to cut through the fluff and get to the meat of learning. Applying instead of reading. Spending less time on low-calorie activities. Studying is different from learning.
💬 “The only thing different that I wasn’t doing that the cookie-cutter courses tell you to do is to do like three to five hours of reading and all this other stuff. I don’t think it’s necessary. . . . You need to know how these essays work. I can know the perfect tender rule, but how do you apply it?”
For essays, Tom recognized that issue identification is where everything starts. You get ZERO points for an issue that you never raise, even if you know the corresponding rule. An IRAC can’t sprout from a seed that’s never planted.
💬 “I had to really get good at spotting all the issues. And I just think going and doing that over and over again is what gains the confidence and gives me the arrogance that I needed just for a brief period of time on the exam. And then go back being humble person again hopefully. . . . If I get that issue down, then everything else flows from it.”
To that end, Tom used the tried-and-tested supplements for California essays: BarEssays. (California bar takers can see patterns in what makes a good essay and a bad essay by studying the essays posted on BarEssays.)
For the MBE, Tom recommends AdaptiBar (which includes study aid questions that used to be offered by the NCBE).
💬 “I’d use BarEssays as well. And I really like AdaptiBar a lot. I would encourage people to get other supplements for Civil Procedure. I also suggest that students get the National Conference of Bar Examiners questions on Civil Procedure.”
By the way, NCBE questions are now included with AdaptiBar. Here are my in-depth reviews if you’re on the fence: BarEssays review + AdaptiBar review.
You can snag a $25 coupon code for BarEssays and a $30 coupon for AdaptiBar here.
Surprising aspects of the bar exam
Tom realized the importance of his psychology. Bar preparation isn’t just about “what to learn” (memorizing outlines, filling in lecture notes) but also the “how to learn” (focusing on needle movers, feedback, focus). The mind and the mental attitude make up half of this journey.
💬 “The attitude going into the exam is very important. It’s a very intimidating exam, not an easy exam. That was helpful because the mindset is so important. That was a lightbulb moment. I think reading your Passer’s Playbook was something that I can identify with. That was important, and I really liked your outlines, especially the Magicsheets. They were really helpful for me. I think it gave me confidence. And the fact that you are not charging and arm a leg out there for this stuff also, it shows that you care.”
But Tom didn’t stop himself from introducing a bit of humor into his prep. It doesn’t always have to be serious! Enjoying the process is important for avoiding burnout and staying motivated.
💬 “I think I read all the emails. They all were helpful. I liked your humor, and I think they all are helpful.”
The grass is indeed greener on the other side
The bar exam might be the driest subject on the planet, but it’s also full of emotions. Joy when you pass. Sorrow when you fail. Frustration, hopelessness, anxiety, and overwhelm in between. (Warning: Crying may occur at any stage.)
💬 “My name came out, and I thought I would say congratulations. It just says, your name appears on the pass list. I was in shock. I fully expected to pass this time, but still, of course, I cried a little bit, called my wife, and I called my parents. It was real emotional, yeah.”
The bar exam may seem daunting until you pass, but once you do, it’s a whole new world with doors flying open around you. The grass is greener on the other side. That is a Free Life.
💬 “When I got the letter from the examiners, what was really interesting is that . . . what they talk about is ethics. They talk about giving back. They talk about, yeah, it’s a great achievement, feel great about it, certainly, but they talk about pro bono work. I mean it was a beautiful letter. And they’re not out to get you. I wanna put that out there.”
Tom’s Free Life was about being in a position to help himself and others. Your Free Life might be about being able to support the people you care about, accomplishing prestige and status, paying off your loans, taking over the family business, pursuing your passion, or simply never seeing another hypothetical fact pattern in front of you again. What drives you?
💬 “It’s not so much about the money or anything like that. It’s about being happy, emotional almost happy and help other people.”
Tom felt the fear and did it anyway. The limbo between law school and your Free Life will only happen if you face the obstacles and push through them.
💬 “It’s what you say. You know, you’re like, look, if this is what it is, you just can’t change it. You gotta face it. I think that’s what your [Passer’s Playbook] is doing the most. It made me face it, for whatever reason. It made me face what I had to do.”
Final advice based on years of bar preparation
First, Tom reiterates how effective practice is and not to just memorize. Memorizing is indeed a minimum requirement. But if you rely too much on “feeling ready first,” it can also trap you into a quicksand of complacency.
💬 “Don’t just memorize but just practice the exam. You’ll get the most out of it practicing the problems, and memorization is not as important as practicing.”
Second, and complementary to the above, Tom did better when he had less time. This is a common theme among bar takers: Constraints force you to get creative and efficient with your time. So if you feel that your other responsibilities are interfering with your preparation, consider whether Tom (and other successful students) passed despite or regardless of limited time.
💬 “That’s my experience. . . . Less time is better. Less time is better for me because it helped me focus. So I had to adjust my way of doing things and have the practice when I have the time. It was the practice that really did it.”
Congratulations, Tom! It must feel amazing to free yourself from the bar exam.
* For privacy reasons, Tom declined to publish his real name, number of attempts, and the recording of the interview. However, the quotes are real (edited for flow, similar to the other case studies).
2 Replies to “Tom goes from many-time repeater of the California Bar Exam to passing after changing the “how to” principles of bar preparation (while working full time)”
Great post! Thanks for sharing this. It was very insightful and inspiring.