How They Passed the First Online California Bar Exam: Keep Your Bar Prep SIMPLE!

2020 was an unprecedented time for bar exam takers.

They were given extra time to study (until October for the California exam). Everything went remote/online, including the exam itself. There were only 100 MBE questions, making each one count that much more.

We all had to adapt and push through the fog and uncertainty.

I got a couple of success stories from readers who passed the 2020 October California Bar Exam and cut through the uncertainty using a simple, minimalist approach…

Jeff emailed me to let me know how he passed on his FIRST try, despite his initial unrest and reservations about the preparation process.

“This whole experience has been a total mindfuck.”—Jeff

Stephen let me know that he had been out of law school for 10 years… and how he passed on his first attempt.

“It’s damn hard to be a decade out from school and take the bar.”—Stephen

Preparing for the bar exam isn’t EASY, but it is SIMPLE. Ignore the noise, and focus on what moves the needle!

Below, you’ll see how they approached their quest to pass the (first-ever remote/online) bar exam — getting it one and done as simply as possible.

Notice how they:

Used a few select resources. Neither Jeff nor Stephen drowned themselves with all sorts of shiny objects “just in case” since “it won’t hurt.” You CAN, of course, spend time putting together various resources (and vet them and decide if you’ll use them). Do what you feel is best for your exam. Just don’t get lost in supplement hell.

Less is more. Pick one or two outlines you trust, learn how to learn, and do the mental work of learning.

“They were the only tools that worked for me (including Adaptibar).”—Jeff

“I didn’t sign up for any fancy tutoring, or listen to lectures.”—Stephen

Put theory to practice. You could stay passive or become active in your learning. Jeff and Stephen chose the latter to attack essays and memorize. There’s a vast difference between knowing the rules conceptually and knowing how to use them. There’s a difference between outlining vs. using the outline. You gain an intuition from USING what you (think you) know.

“I immediately saw improvements in my MBE score (I also used Adaptibar for practice) and felt much more confident attacking essays by walking myself through the Approsheets before putting pen to paper, or rather, fingers to keyboard.”—Jeff

“I did 1200 Adaptibar questions with an eventual accuracy rate of 66%; I issued spotted and outlined about 2-3 CA essay questions per topic and read their model answers carefully.  And that was pretty much it!”—Stephen

Kept the faith. It’s OK to feel doubtful and lost! Bar prep can seem like an overwhelming ordeal. This is why it’s important to take a step back and get a clear vantage point. Go slow to go fast. Trust your legs. Less is more.

“The books they gave us were so heavy and oversized I got headaches just looking at them sitting on my desk, and symbolically, they felt like the weights on my shoulders weighing me down. . . . After a week or so, I set the big, heavy bar prep company books aside and never looked at them again.”—Jeff

“Being 10 years out, my mind was effectively blank on bar topics and rules. . . . I felt confident going into the exam.”—Stephen

Materials used (with some overlap):

▶▶ Magicsheets + Approsheets

▶▶ Pocket Guide (17 Strategies to Get Un-stuck and Un-frustrated by the Bar Exam) available exclusively with the Magicsheets + Approsheets package

▶▶ My popular weekly emails (sign up here)

▶▶ AdaptiBar (my review if you’re on the fence) (get $30 off) (alternative: UWorld MBE QBankcompare AdaptiBar and UWorld)

▶▶ Past essay questions

▶▶ A commercial bar prep course (only initially—see how Jeff and Stephen transitioned away from this)

Scroll to Jeff’s story

Scroll to Stephen’s story

Extra: Scroll to Nathan’s story

Detailed case study: Stan’s story (goes to a different page)

Here’s Jeff’s experience on how he passed the 2020 October California Bar Exam on his first attempt

Edited only for form and clarity. Original screenshots below text.

I took the bar in California and before I even began studying I was already intimidated by the historically low pass rate (the immediately prior administration of the exam in February 2020 had a 27% pass rate).

I remember coming across Brian’s materials about a month into my studies with a mainstream bar prep company. I was basically at a loss after watching the lecture videos day-in-and-day-out for weeks and trying to read and retain the very long and wordy outlines. The books they gave us were so heavy and oversized I got headaches just looking at them sitting on my desk, and symbolically, they felt like the weights on my shoulders weighing me down.

The lectures were fine as an introduction but they were in no way sufficient for achieving a passing score; and in retrospect, a bit of a waste of time having us fill out those worksheets like I was a 4th grader.

Overall, I was flustered and found it impossible to digest, memorize, and regurgitate the materials as they were presented to me — presentation is everything when it comes to learning for me. I tried to create my own outlines, mind maps, and even tried to bullet journal but it was simply taking too much time; it takes away from the precious hours I could have spent on practicing and not to mention it was incredibly frustrating trying to be the author of my own study materials when I was also the student.

I needed something that was succinct and accessible but still somewhat fulsome and gives me the confidence that I won’t miss anything medium-to-major in essays or the nuances in MBE questions. 

Then came Brian’s materials which were pretty much 100% what I was looking for.

I must confess I wasn’t immediately sold — at that point I was paranoid and fully convinced nothing would help me and it was my destiny to dredge through the long outlines and dreary lectures and eventually gamble on a pass or fail — so I downloaded the Evidence sample set from Brian’s website and tried to use it on a couple of MBE questions and an essay, open-book style.

I was immediately impressed by the way everything was laid out. They condensed the most important points you need to know for the exam (for both MBE and essays) without sacrificing the more minor details (especially for California’s state distinctions).

What Brian did just makes sense: there are tables where tables are useful, there are lists when you need them, there are acronyms when they are actually meaningful, there are different formatting styles when things need to be called out/straight up rote-memorized… everything was just so intuitive and, dare I say, visually interesting and intellectually stimulating, because you’re no longer trying to make sense of things on your own by flipping through hundreds of pages of poorly written outlines from people who are, while well-intentioned, trying to condense the materials for you but also want to cover their asses by squeezing every little minor rule in there just so you won’t sue them if you fail.

With Brian’s Magicsheets and Approsheets, he has already studied and made sense of the materials for you, and he’s laying them out in a way that also makes sense for most people, with added emphases for common pitfalls and tricky concepts, so you can focus on the more important tasks of practicing and memorizing (and even self-care).

After a week or so, I set the big, heavy bar prep company books aside and never looked at them again and solely (I repeat, solely) relied on Brian’s Magicsheets and Approsheets as my study materials.

I immediately saw improvements in my MBE score (I also used Adaptibar for practice) and felt much more confident attacking essays by walking myself through the Approsheets before putting pen to paper, or rather, fingers to keyboard.

I also found Brian’s weekly emails leading up to the bar very helpful. You do get frustrated and beaten down during the week of studying and practice, and every weekend Brian would pop up in my inbox reminding me what I was feeling wasn’t uncommon or unusual and I was, in fact, on the right track.

The law is the law and rules are rules, and you just have to learn them or even memorize them but that alone won’t take you very far — you also need to learn the tricks of the trade to pass this exam, and when it comes to that, Brian is the expert.

The pocket guide that comes with the Approsheets and Magicsheets is (very helpfully) written in an FAQ format and it covers all the questions I had for bar prep, from how much I should be studying vs. practicing, to tackling the PT, and even getting myself motivated after bombing a practice test… everything Brian does just has a personal touch to it that does not feel mass-produced — sure, it wasn’t one-on-one coaching but it was pretty damn close.

With COVID last year, Brian didn’t just rest on his laurels but actually created new posts and adapted existing materials to what was perhaps the longest bar prep season in history and the first ever online bar exam.

The bottom line is that when it comes to the bar, Brian knows what he’s talking about. Thank you Brian, I wouldn’t have passed on the first try in a dumpster fire of a year without you! 

I appreciate your earnest work, Jeff! Here are the tools he used.

Original unedited screenshots (click to enlarge in a new tab)

"Your materials are brilliant — pretty much the only thing I’m relying on at this point. This whole experience has been a total mindfuck and I do find your email encouragements helpful. Would love to write a testimonial for you (if I pass…)!"
"I passed the CA bar! Wouldn’t have done it without your Magic Sheets and Approsheets! They were the only tools that worked for me (including Adaptibar). Thank you!"
"You also need to learn the tricks of the trade to pass this exam, and when it comes to that, Brian is the expert. . . . The bottomline is that when it comes to the bar, Brian knows what he’s talking about. Thank you Brian, I wouldn’t have passed on the first try in a dumpster fire of a year without you!"

Again, here are the tools Jeff used.

Here’s Stephen’s minimalist preparation for taking the California Bar Exam for the first time in 10 years

As far as the studying, lemme give you a summary of how I went about it.  For background, I graduated in 2010, and failed both times with a 1387 score, back when 1400 was needed to pass.  Failed the writing section both times.  I was also a piss poor law student, so chuck any notions of a dude with a photographic memory.

I signed up this time because the remote admin was a novelty to me and I had been wanting to do this for a while.  I had no materials except for Magicsheets, Adaptibar and CA model answers from the past few years.  Magicsheets were the only black letter law I had, aside from reading the answer explanations in Adaptibar.

I started in earnest with about 7 weeks before test day.  I would read and highlight each Magicheet top-to-bottom.  Then I would do a “blank space” exercise, where I would handwrite as much of the outline as possible in proper structure and order.  I did that at least 2x for each topic.  I did 1200 Adaptibar questions with an eventual accuracy rate of 66%; I issued spotted and outlined about 2-3 CA essay questions per topic and read their model answers carefully.  And that was pretty much it!

I was so impressed with the Magicsheets because being 10 years out, my mind was effectively blank on bar topics and rules.  It was very common for me to be reading an MBE answer explanation, or read a model answer and find the Magicsheet had the rule, element, or exception tucked away right there.  I think it is totally accurate to say they have enough content depth to pass on their own — I had nothing else to reference!

One thing emotionally that I liked about Magicsheets is taking it on faith they had sufficient depth to pass.  Instead of mindlessly thumbing through a Conviser mini review, or some other tome, it was mentally easier to set aside a few hours and just focus on the 4-5 pages of a Magicsheet. for the day.  The ~40-50 pages in total seemed like a very surmountable amount of information, so I felt confident going into the exam as well.

Hope that provides a snapshot of my “technique” — very minimalist, no fuss, no muss — and successful this time around.  Big thanks to you Brian!

Love the minimalist no-fuss approach. Nice work, Stephen! Here are the tools he used.

Original unedited screenshots (click to enlarge in a new tab)

"It's damn hard to be a decade out from school and take the bar.  Magicsheets were a god send for me.  I didn't sign up for any fancy tutoring, or listen to lectures.  Just your outlines, read diligently.  Some review of model answers, and Adaptibar -- and I got it done."
"I was so impressed with the Magicsheets because being 10 years out, my mind was effectively blank on bar topics and rules.  It was very common for me to be reading an MBE answer explanation, or read a model answer and find the Magicsheet had the rule, element, or exception tucked away right there.  I think it is totally accurate to say they have enough content depth to pass on their own -- I had nothing else to reference!"

Here again are the tools Jeff and Stephen used:

▶▶ Magicsheets + Approsheets

▶▶ Pocket Guide (17 Strategies to Get Un-stuck and Un-frustrated by the Bar Exam) available exclusively with the Magicsheets + Approsheets package

▶▶ My popular weekly emails (sign up here)

▶▶ AdaptiBar (my review if you’re on the fence) (get $30 off) (alternative: UWorld MBE QBankcompare AdaptiBar and UWorld)

▶▶ Past essay questions

▶▶ A commercial bar prep course (only initially—see how Jeff and Stephen transitioned away from this)

Nathan’s “less is more” approach to passing the California Bar Exam on his first try

Nathan, too, kept it simple and USED the select few tools. Often times, you start out with a bunch of tools and end up focusing on a few.

Nathan only used:

▶▶ Magicsheets

▶▶ JD Advising QBank (alternatives: AdaptiBar or UWorld MBE QBank—compare)

▶▶ BarEssays

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