Advice for bar exam repeaters

If you were previously unsuccessful on the bar exam, do not give up hope. We have compiled a list of tips for students who are repeating the bar exam.

You must approach your studies differently the second time around. Many of the things you did the first time, such has watching lectures, reading outlines, and preparing flashcards for key concepts, were essential steps in the process. However, if you did these steps carefully the first time, it may not be necessary to repeat these steps in their entirety on your second attempt.

Instead, follow these tips for bar exam repeaters:

  1. Focus on your worst subjects first. Review your scores from the prior exam and begin by studying the subjects on which you scored the lowest. While most students are tempted to start with their favorite subjects, this will not get you the results you seek. Remember: no pain, no gain. Your worst subjects offer the most room for improvement and therefore represent your biggest opportunity to make up lost points. By reviewing these subjects early, you will ensure that you have plenty of time to master them, as your study time may run short as the exam approaches.
  2. Begin with practice testing. Practice testing is the key to success on the bar exam. Yet, bar review students often spend too much time reviewing lectures and outlining their course materials, saving too little time at the end for practice testing. You can avoid this trap. Assuming that you already listened to the lectures and outlined the material the first time you took the bar review course, you can begin instead by doing practice testing up-front. Refer to your bar review outlines to explain those concepts that you failed to apply correctly on your practice tests. This method allows you to fill-in any gaps in your knowledge, without wasting too much precious time on concepts you already know. You will learn more black-letter law through this active method of study than you would by passively reviewing your lecture notes and outlines.
  3. Critique your past performance. If your state’s bar examiners permit you to request your essay answers from your previous attempt you must do so and have a qualified person critique them for you. Seek honest feedback and make sure that you understand why you received the scores that you did. Check that the person who reviews your essays has taken the bar exam in your state and has experience critiquing bar exam essays. Amateur feedback may not be insightful enough. Also be sure to compare your own answers with any model answers or sample answers provided by your state’s bar examiners.
  4. Do NOT try to work a full-time job while studying for the bar exam. Before re-taking the bar exam, talk with your employer early in the process and arrange for as much time off as possible. Studying for the bar exam should be your full-time job for at least the two-months prior to the exam. At minimum, you should take off the entire month of the bar exam. If you cannot do this, you may want to consider postponing the bar exam until you can devote adequate time to preparing for it.

Should you worry about your state’s pass average?

In my opinion, law students waste too much time and energy worrying about their state’s bar passage rates.

Your state’s overall pass average for a particular exam is not the biggest predictor of individual success. Instead the factors which are actually within the control of the student tend to prove to be the more accurate predictors of success. In other words, the amount of time spent in preparation, the amount of practice testing done by the student, etc. are more significant predictors of success. So are things like whether the student studies full-time versus trying to hold down a job or handle other outside distractions.

In my experience, students who put in the necessary hours and who use their study time effectively tend to pass the exam every time regardless of the overall state pass average. So rather than worrying about factors that are beyond your control, why not focus your energy on the things you can control and make the success factors work in your favor.

Be Selective When Choosing An Elective

Should I take bar exam subjects while in law school? This is a question that most law students struggle with as they choose their elective courses. While most law schools do require you to take bar subjects as part of your core law school curriculum, your state bar exam is likely to test on additional subjects which you are not required to study in law school.

If, for instance, your state bar exam tests “Oil & Gas Law” and you already have a strong interest in taking a course on that subject in law school, then of course you should take it. But what if you have no interest in studying about “Oil & Gas Law” and no plans to practice in that area of specialty? Should you take it anyway to ensure your success on the bar exam? In most cases, I would argue that you should take that class.

Some of you may be surprised by my answer. Maybe you thought I would give you the same advice as your undergraduate academic advisor who told you to “follow your bliss” and take courses that interest you (if those people are so smart, why are they working as academic advisors?).

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not against taking courses that interest you, as long as they fit your schedule. If you have room on your class schedule for classes that interest you as well as classes that can help you pass the bar exam, then by all means take both. But as you survey the list of potential elective courses to take in your upcoming semester, if you are forced to choose one or the other, choose the one that will help you pass the bar exam.

By now you may be wondering, “won’t I learn ‘Oil & Gas Law’ (or whatever subject I am missing) in my bar review course?” Of course you can learn any subjects in your bar review course that you did not master while in law school. However, trying to learn a completely unfamiliar subject in a matter of a few days (rather than a full semester) puts you at a slight disadvantage. You will not be as familiar with the concepts and vocabulary of these subjects as someone who is merely reviewing them (they call it bar “REVIEW” for a reason). Multiply this disadvantage by the number of bar subjects you never studied in law school and you can see that you will have many gaps in your knowledge to fill. Studying for the bar exam is hard enough without that additional handicap.

Of course you must balance the above advice against the desire to specialize in a particular area of law. For example, if you are passionate about intellectual property law and want to practice in this area upon graduation, then it would certainly benefit your career to take an elective course in this area. However, if you are just one of those intellectually curious types who always wanted to learn about the law of endangered species but have no desire to practice in that area (and it does not appear on your state’s bar exam), then you may have to forgo that class if it conflicts with your opportunity to take a course on a bar exam topic.

As for those interesting but non-essential courses you missed in law school, you can always learn about them by taking Continuing Legal Education (or CLE) classes on these topics once you are licensed. That’s right. The learning never stops, even after you graduate and pass the bar exam. Lawyers must be life-long learners by constantly taking CLE classes to maintain their law licenses. So don’t worry about missing out on learning opportunities in law school. You must be selective in choosing your electives. Your biggest priority is to pass the bar exam so that you can become a lawyer. That’s when the real learning begins.

How will I pay for the bar exam?

Bar Exam Expenses

When you first applied to law schools and sat down to budget your funds for tuition, books, etc., you may not have realized that after leveraging yourself to the hilt, you were going to need to cough up even more money after graduation for something called the bar exam. Don’t feel bad. Most students fail to account for how they will pay for their bar exam expenses.

These days, full-service bar review course can set you back several thousand dollars. Then there are the supplemental bar review courses that many students will take to provide additional preparation for the essays or MBE. Furthermore your bar exam expenses will consist of more than just bar review tuition. You will also need money to pay the bar exam filing fees, living expenses while you study full-time for the exam, as well as hotel and other travel expenses if you have to take the exam outside your hometown.

Given the necessity of becoming licensed to practice law you cannot afford NOT to take the exam. So how will you afford to take it? Depending on when in your law school career you are reading this, there are several options that may apply to your situation.

1. Bar Review Discounts

Investigate the bar review courses available for your state early in your law school career. Once you decide which course makes sense for you, inquire as to any discounts that may apply if you sign up early. Also inquire as to whether you can lock in a guaranteed price and avoid future price increases. You should also ask about scholarships or tuition assistance programs as they may provide additional reductions in your bar review expenses.

2. Bar Exam Loans

Many banks around the country offer what is called the Bar Exam Loan (BEL) which allows you to borrow money for your bar exam expenses. You can use this money to pay for your bar review course or you can use it toward living expenses and other expenses associated with taking the bar exam such as travel expenses associated with taking the exam. Be sure to investigate these loans and apply well before you need the money as it can take time to process.

3. Earn a free bar review course

If you know that you are going to have difficulty paying for your bar review course, then you should inquire about becoming an on-campus rep for your bar review course. There are usually only limited openings for bar review campus reps so you will want to inquire early. Many bar review courses hire reps starting in their first or second year of law school. Therefore, if you wait until your final year of law school to apply, you may find that all of the positions are filled. Also most of the hiring occurs early in the school year, so do not put off applying for these positions. Furthermore, you may have to sign-up a minimum number of students before earning your free bar review course. Therefore, you will want to give yourself more time to meet those targets. It will be easier to sign-up your classmates in their first or second year of law school when they are uncommitted than to wait until their third year when they may have already signed up with someone else.

I hope that the above suggestions will help you to better afford your bar review expenses. Ignoring your bar review expenses will not make them go away. So plan ahead to ensure that you can afford all of the costs associated with the bar exam. Taking the bar exam is stressful enough without having to struggle to pay for it.

Can I work while studying for the bar exam?

I train students for the bar exam. In my many years of teaching, the question of working while studying has come up often. Now given the recent economic downturn, this question comes up with even greater frequency. While I always advise students not to work while studying for the bar exam, I realize that some students simply do not have that luxury in today’s economy. Therefore, I have devised a more nuanced answer to that question.

As a general matter, studying for the bar exam should always be treated as a full-time job. That means that during the roughly two-month period from the start of your bar review course through the start of the exam you would be putting in a minimum of eight hour days, just like a real job. In fact, most students end up putting in more hours than that each day not to mention studying through the weekends.

Therefore, if you are working, you should absolutely take time off to study for the bar exam in order to give yourself the highest probability of success.

Your goal is to free up as much time as possible for studying. Talk to your employer as early as you can so that they can re-assign your workload to others in your absence. If you cannot take a solid two-month leave of absence, then perhaps you can negotiate a way to trim back your office hours and still retain your job.

I have heard of employers who will allow bar applicants to have flexible hours to permit them to attend bar review lectures. I have also heard of situations where employers will let bar applicants study at their desks when the office is quiet so long as they are available to assist when needed. Every employer is different but the key to find a way to free up time for you to study while making sure that your workload is somehow being handled. So be considerate of your employer’s needs and you may find that a workable compromise is possible.

What if your employer will not let you take time off? If you find yourself in a situation where you need to keep your job but your employer will not allow you any time to study during the workday, then you must start the process much earlier. Remember, that you need to be able to put in the same number of hours as everyone else. So if you cannot do that in the two months leading up to the bar exam, then you need to start much earlier so that you can put in the same number of hours over a longer time horizon.

See if your bar review course will allow you to order their books and other materials well in advance of the start of their course to give you extra time to review. If you can get your bar review materials at least four to six months before the bar exam that will give you more time to review the bar subjects, put together your flash cards, and do the necessary practice testing. Choose a bar review course that provides a home study option which allows you to get all of the lectures in audio or video format to review at your own pace.

The bar exam is hard enough without setting yourself up for failure. Therefore, if it is already less than four months before your bar exam and you realize that you cannot set aside the hours necessary to adequately prepare, you may want to postpone taking the bar exam for six months so that you can give yourself time for effective preparation.

I learned all I know about bar exam preparation from my father, who taught his own bar review course for over 40 years. I am reminded of something my father used to say to his students: “If you unable or unwilling to put in the necessary time and effort to be successful on this bar exam, then tell your friends and family that the bar exam is given in two parts. The first part is in July. The second part is in February.” Hopefully, that advice will not apply to you. Good luck.

Bar Exam Study Tips

As you begin your preparation for the Bar Exam, here are some general tips to keep in mind:

  1. Have a plan – Before you even begin your substantive review of the materials in your bar review course, you should pull out your calendar and create a detailed timeline that will serve as your study plan for the months and weeks leading up to your bar exam. Efficient and effective use of study time is a major factor in bar exam success. Now is the time for complete honesty. If you have too many outside commitments, including work, family, social, and community obligations, you need to find a way to defer as many of these activities as you can until after the bar exam. If you want to be successful on this exam, you need to focus the majority of your time and energy on bar preparation. If you are working, ask your boss for time off. Explain to your family and friends that you will be unavailable for the next few months. Your loved ones want you to succeed in your career and they will understand the sacrifices that you need to make. Once you have cleared the decks, make a detailed day-by-day action plan for how you will spend your time. If you are taking a bar review course, don’t forget to include time for lectures and workshops, as well as time spent outside of class.
  2. Practice testing is key – While memorization is certainly a necessary step in the process, the real key to success on any bar exam is practice testing. Unfortunately, most students spend too much of their bar preparation time creating detailed outlines and not enough time doing practice testing. They lose sight of the big picture. The bar exam is not simply a test of what you know or do not know. Rather it is a test of how you can use the knowledge in your head to analyze various fact patterns and reason your way to the correct answer. In the case of the MBE, it involves using logic and reasoning to eliminate wrong answer choices so that the choice you are left with is most likely to be correct. Practice testing will hone your reasoning abilities while at the same time teaching you the black-letter law. Therefore, the bulk of your study time needs to be spent doing practice testing.
  3. Simulate actual exam conditions – Your practice testing will be much more effective if you strive to simulate exam conditions. This means timing yourself, preferably with a timer or stopwatch. When doing practice essays, be sure to adhere to space requirements by using the same amount of paper as permitted on the real exam. Do not allow any interruptions during practice testing sessions. If necessary, go to a library or other quiet place where you will not be disturbed.
  4. Spend as much time reviewing the practice questions as you spend doing them – Most students fail to spend enough time reviewing their practice tests. It is not enough to simply do practice questions each day. You need time to go over these questions and make sure that you understand why your answer is right or wrong. After all, if you merely guessed at the correct answer on a multiple choice question how can you expect to learn anything from it unless you take the time to really understand why the answer choice is considered correct? Also, many MBE questions require a process of elimination to reach the correct answer choice. Therefore, it is not enough to know why answer choice (A) is correct. You need to figure out why (B), (C), and (D) are considered incorrect before you can honestly say that you have mastered that question. So don’t skimp on the time you spend reviewing your practice questions. As a general rule, plan to spend as much time reviewing the practice questions as you spent doing them.

I hope these tips help you to put your study time to best use. Good luck.