You sit still during lectures and try to stay awake. You take notes. You read outlines.
Then nothing works. Has this happened to you?
Back in college, I gave a copy of my cheat sheet for our engineering midterm to a girl. How do you say no to a girl? Answer: You can’t.
And then she got the lowest score in the class.
It had all the equations needed, but she didn’t know how and when those equations applied. She hadn’t seen those rules applied to similar problems. She assumed that just having the rules there would be enough. (Same reason open-book bar exams would change very little.)
It’s like when someone says, “b urself” or “learn to love yourself.” Okay… what’s that mean? Could you explain that a bit more, bro? Any specifics?
Same with your “black letter law”… What does “related” mean in your rule statement? You get a better sense of what that means by looking at examples of how that rule is used until you gain an intuition.
You’d think these rules would be plug and play, but they’re not always. Context matters. Knowing when and how to use them matters.
She was my gf at the time btw. Awkward! Oh well, live and learn.
And that’s what I want to talk about—learning.
“Do I really know this? Am I really becoming ready for the bar exam?”
It’s natural to question yourself at every step when preparing for the bar exam.
What people try to do:
- Consume material to get all their “ducks in a row” first
- Obsess over every rule and get overwhelmed
- Collect more tools than is possible to look at and reconcile
- Endlessly seek the “best” silver-bullet tool
- Fill in the available time
This is when we pour our coffee, make room on our desk, organize our pens, turn on the computer… and then just stare at the words and ask random people online for yet another thing that collects digital dust.
Endlessly seeking more information is really just a distraction away from what it is we already know we need to do.
How to actually find out:
- Apply what you learned as you go (you find out what you need to brush up on vs. trying to re-review everything)
- Set up the issues in an essay (rules will flow)
- Study what’s been done in model answers (don’t reinvent the wheel)
- Simplify (get an outline or two; tack on other tools as you need)
- Plan around tasks to be done (constraints force you to get creative and focused with your time)
Tedium and busy work feel productive. They aren’t actually productive.
It’s not putting in the time itself that makes you better. Improvement comes from constant feedback and learning every time you try to solve a difficult problem.
Everything you get wrong while TRYING can be a painful lesson you carry over to future instances. These are “aha” moments that stick with you the most.
Embarrassment is the best way I’ve found to learn a lesson.
This seems obvious enough. Why aren’t more bar takers doing this? Why so overly concerned with memorizing (over recalling and applying rules and issues)? Why focus on sheer quantity of questions (over reviewing answers carefully and perhaps redoing them)?
It feels safe. It’s hard to empathize with your future self when you could avoid blows to your ego right now.
It sucks when the time comes to check your answers. You can’t bring yourself to turn to the answer key.
A key to success on the bar exam is to fail first
No one gets a perfect score on the bar exam. Therefore, everyone fails to some extent. Passers simply fail less over time.
In a situation where opportunities are abundant like when preparing for the bar exam, I think it’s more exciting to fail. Every failure comes with valuable data to correct course next time.
It’s more exciting to fail in a situation where opportunities are abundant like when preparing for the bar exam. Every failure comes with valuable data to correct course next time.
A great irony is that we crave honesty from others but are afraid to give it to them. Oftentimes, people will tell you a good reason but not the real reason.
That’s completely useless except to your ego. Honesty is one of the great generosities we can offer others—and to ourselves.
Wrong answers you encounter during bar practice are also incredibly valuable. Once you know the truth, you can fix it.
That’s why you should be brutally honest with yourself and your practice efforts:
- How can you take that failure and apply it later?
- What will you try to remember next time?
- What can you tweak and improve?
So many questions. Think of it this way:
What if success were 50 failures away? How excited would you be to bomb that next practice essay?
After 51 failed games, Rovio created the mega-hit game series Angry Birds.
Whatever you’re about to do can’t be worse than not seeing your name on the pass list… and the fear and trauma that close in around you each time that happens.
I, too, was a struggling bar taker once (and a repeater)! Nothing made sense, and I was EXHAUSTED from forcing myself to do things that weren’t helping me LEARN.
It was actually LESS exhausting to do what was helping me progress, engaging in trial and error, and feeling like I could do something next time that I couldn’t do before.
My main problems with my failed California bar attempt according to my score report: essays, raising issues correctly, and the MBE somewhat. Hell, everything was substandard:
(FYI, in California, an average raw written score of about 62.5 historically allowed one to be on track to get to the passing 1440 scaled score (back in 2013), assuming the MBE score was also on track. The thing to note here is that my written score was over 100 points away from that.)
The unifying cause of these problems: lack of thoughtful and self-aware action. (I gave my input on this in a Reddit thread here.)
Like a lot of people, I was just going through the motions of “studying”: dutifully watching lectures, filling in lecture notes, reading outlines in exhaustive detail, showing off my “stressful” life to other people, and following the regimen my prep company told me to do. (Kaplan, I’m throwing you under the bus.)
We’re not trying to transcribe overpriced lectures; we’re here to learn.
Looking back, it wasn’t very thoughtful. None of this was helping me “learn”! It just felt nice, like getting likes on social media. And it was equally as meaningful and effective as to what matters. Empty calories to fill the void. Wheels moving but spinning in place.
It got me stuck on a plateau. You know the rules in theory, but will you know when to apply which ones? Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting tomato in a fruit salad (mostly because tomatoes are gross).
Knowledge doesn’t give you experience or intuition.
On the other hand, it turns out practicing and self-critiquing your work help you accomplish everything you seek:
- Getting better at identifying issues
- Memorizing and remembering rules through active recall
- Knowing how to apply the rules you memorized (important!)
- Picking the right answer on the MBE more often (assuming you understand all explanations and learn from them)
- Gaining confidence
In other words, practicing and reviewing your work will help solidify everything, including memorization, and understanding and retaining the important concepts likely to be tested.
Once I figured that out… Now THAT was exciting. It’s only obvious in hindsight because you’re surrounded by competing advice mixed with your own uncertainties and overwhelm.
It’s so easy to read a rule statement and think, “Great, got it, that’s how an offer works, duh.” It’s a different story to know when to use that rule and how to use it.
Studying for the bar exam isn’t just about “studying”; it’s about preparation. Practice as if it were the real thing, and do the real thing as if it were
Even then, what good is practice if you don’t learn anything from it? You might as well not have done it at all.
If you’re doing questions and seeing if you got the right answer/issues/rules… but not doing anything about it, that’s busy work. That’s simply measuring your current skill level—like getting on the scale, getting off, and getting right back on again hoping to see improvement.
You might be getting spooked by all this, but it’s actually a simple fix (even if uncomfortable): Self-critique your work.
You already know what you should do. You just have to bring just enough momentum to get started.
Your task on the hot seat is to solve problems correctly, not just to read or remember or understand things.
So stop studying, and start learning. Solve problems now and proactively learn from your experience.
Exploit your knowledge, not only to solidify what you’ve
You won’t always be ready with perfect information, but you can learn it by attempting to use it anyway and filling in the gaps afterward. Using your knowledge tells you what you’re missing.
“No prize fighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue. The only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fists, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body, but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever.”—Seneca
You either learn or succeed. Don’t let the bar be a learning experience.