How should you really practice for the bar exam? “I keep practicing, but I’m not improving”

So you want to pass the bar. You’re super serious about it.

You pore over your outlines, trying to make sure you have a grasp of all the rules. There are still other subjects to review. You don’t think practice will be productive unless you “get” the theory.

It’s all so overwhelming.

But you did it. You can focus on practice now that you’ve had a good solid review of the core subjects first. You’ve been doing a few MBE questions and looked at a few essays already, but now it’s time to buckle down and get to writing those essays (you’ll get to the PTs… later).

After all, they said to “practice practice practice.”

But something’s wrong…

No matter how many times you do it, every essay is a mystery.

The blank-page syndrome is giving you irregular heartbeats and making you break out into a cold sweat.

You keep picking the incorrect answer choice on your MBE questions.

The prospect of grading your work makes you want to lie down on your bed instead.

Here’s why you’re stuck and what to do to get unstuck:

Observe the “10-40-40-10 rule” of bar preparation.

Memorizing for essays and MBE

You need to know the material. We all know this is table stakes, merely a cost of entry.

Not just be generally familiar. You need to be able to recall the issues and rules and put them down on paper (especially for essays).

Note that I mention issues and not just rules. That’s because memorization isn’t just about memorizing rules (again, especially for essays).

If bar preparation were to look like a box, here’s the first part:

Studying for the bar exam

“Studying” the source material is just the beginning. I’d say it contributes about 10% of your progress and a successful outcome on the bar exam (passing).

Another part:

Luck

Luck on the bar exam

That’s right.

Of course success is largely dependent on effort and preparation. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking luck isn’t involved.

Let’s say it accounts for another 10% of your outcome.

Maybe you’re weak in one subject and it doesn’t show up on the exam. That’s good luck.

Let’s say it does show up on the exam and you would have passed if you hadn’t forgotten that one rule on that one essay. WTF! That’s a lack of luck.

Let’s say it shows up on the exam and you STILL passed because of the training you did before you even walked into the exam room.

That’s what the next part is for:

Practice…? How do you practice for the bar exam exactly?

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.”—Archilochus

It behooves us to train as if it were the real thing, and do the real thing as if it were practice.

Is it supposed to look like this?

Bar prep practice

Thanks, I hate it.

What does that even entail? What is “practice practice practice”?

It’s vague.

Yes, we definitely do want to apply what we learned in the first 10% of preparation (outlines, memorized theoretical knowledge, etc.) in order to try to solve past exam problems.

There’s a vast difference between knowing the rules conceptually knowing how to use them.

But we’re NOT going to roar ahead with a jet-fuel diesel engine (“practice practice practice”). We’re going to take the carpool lane in a Tesla.

Smooth sailing in bar prep
(From my ‘Gram)

That is, it’s not about just working our asses off or spinning our wheels. We also want to put in smart work—putting in effort in the right places that will move the needle in preparing yourself and putting yourself in a position to pass the bar exam.

Examples:

We can hit the right spots and move the needle farther in your bar preparation by focusing on the most essential parts.

Regarding the first bullet point, though, we also want to do them fully first under timed and closed-book conditions first to make sure we can actually do them. I mention this in the link above. It is an efficient shortcut, but we also have to make sure we’ve earned the right.

Practicing is all well and good, but we need something else besides just “practice” if we want to get better faster. What is that “something else”?

It's not just "practice" in bar prep

Feedback

On top of doing the work, we must also look backward to review our work.

We’re using what’s been done before (model answers, student answers, answer explanations, etc.) to self-critique our work product:

We need feedback, self-critiquing to review our work product

Practicing exam questions is like getting on the scale. You don’t expect to see a change in measurement by getting right back on the scale.

The latter is what you’re doing when ALL you do is practice. You don’t know what need to be fixed. You’re just doing busy work.

What you do in between the measurements changes the measurements.

Improvement comes from constant feedback and learning every time you solve a difficult problem.

This could be done by yourself using reference answers or explanations, or with guidance from a coach or tutor if you need the extra help.

It doesn’t have to be hard or complicated. For instance, we could review only certain parts of our work, such as the bullet points listed above.

However you do it, the important thing is that you do the unsexy, ego-busting work of tearing apart the work you just did and figuring out what went right and what went wrong (including whether you got something right for the wrong reasons).

I generally recommend reserving the same amount of time for review and self-critique as you do for doing the problems. Hence, there’s an equal split between practice (40%) and feedback (40%).

By the way, the latter part is where you can spend time reviewing your notes and outlines to see what the correct issues and rule statements are, in the context of fact patterns.

So here’s how you practice for the bar exam:

At the beginning of bar preparation (as a complete newbie, not if you’re a repeater), you do want to spend the majority of your time reviewing the materials first. Note that I said “majority.” You’re still trying to apply what you know.

As time goes on, prioritize applying what you know, and reviewing the materials AFTER, not trying to have “built a foundation of theoretical knowledge.” That’s exactly how I failed my first time.

Practice will be productive because it will reveal what you don’t know. Knowledge removed from the facts is nothing. It’s all artificial if you don’t know how to use it.

THEN, after all that, you can review and fill in the gaps via feedback. That is how you improve. That’s how you gain a bar intuition.

That is training for the real thing.

So don’t just do the “going through the motion” kind of practice (AKA “practice practice practice”).

Instead, observe the 10-40-40-10 rule of bar prep:

10% passive learning
40% practice
40% feedback
10% good luck

But luck is also a result of preparation. If you want to increase your “luck,” sign up for my popular weekly emails. You’ll get coupons, a PT guide, and more insights straight to your inbox (some I don’t post anywhere else):

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3 Replies to “How should you really practice for the bar exam? “I keep practicing, but I’m not improving””

  1. I strongly recommended joining the Makethisyourlasttime.com bar exams prep group. Helping each other in their journey to the bar. Great articles and timely answers from founder Brian Hahn.

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