Stop “Studying” and Start Learning: The Underrated Practice of Practice in Bar Prep

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.

It had all the equations needed, but she got the lowest score in the class. She didn’t know how and when those equations applied. She hadn’t practiced applying those rules 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.” Okay… what’s that mean? Could you explain that a bit more bro? Any supporting statements or specific examples?

Same with “black letter law.” What does “related” mean? 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. 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.

not practicing

How to actually find out:

  • Apply what you learned as you go (you find out what’s missing)
  • 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 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.

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Everything you get wrong while TRYING can be a painful lesson you carry over to future instances.

Embarrassment is the best way I’ve found to learn a lesson.

Bar preparation is emotional preparation.

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. 

A great irony is that we crave honesty from others but aren’t willing to give it to them. Oftentimes, people will tell you a good reason but not the real reason. Many people will validate your complaints (until they start complaining about you).

That’s completely useless except to your ego. Sure, maybe we want to guard against angry critiques (even those might be useful), but maybe we should guard against sugarcoating too.

Honesty is one of the great generosities we can offer others—and 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:

After 51 failed games, Rovio created the mega-hit game series Angry Birds.

Remember: “The more you die, the more you’re learning.”

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:

what happens if you don't practice for the bar exam

(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.)

Looking back, it wasn’t very thoughtful. Now I know that effective bar prep requires thoughtfulness.

It doesn’t have to be exhausting if you position yourself to gain from the experience. Otherwise, it’s like complaining about your daily commute instead of just moving closer to work.

I spent way too much time memorizing and listening and “studying” and not enough time practicing and learning. Yes, memorizing is important, but everyone is doing that. It’s table stakes, minimum requirements, merely the cost of entry to take the exam.

"I didn't give myself enough time to master the volume of material and put off practice essays and MBE questions waiting to master the material. I think that was a mistake."
"Just took a bunch of practice essays that kicked my ass. I didn't know the law or if I did couldn't recite it."

It’ll get you to the point where 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 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 practice.

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 learn from them. Exploit your knowledge, not only to solidify what you’ve studied, but to practice raising issues, applying rules, eliminating wrong choices, and picking the correct choice.

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.

Brian

PS: Want some help with learning and practicing for your bar exam? Take a look at my condensed outlines, essay flowcharts, and other study tools here. There are plenty of samples and information so you can make an informed decision.
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4 Replies to “Stop “Studying” and Start Learning: The Underrated Practice of Practice in Bar Prep”

  1. YOU in charge of YOUR learning and YOUR success, making you feel liberated, empowered, and engaged.

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