Tips on Taking and Passing the Bar Exam

You can successfully take and pass he bar exam. These basic facts and tips will help.

First, understand the context: about 2/3 of those taking the bar exam pass. Those are decent odds. Depending on the state you are in and the law school you go to, those odds can get even better. Before you even taken the test, understand that the odds are in your favor. Now that some of the stress is relieved, here are some basic tips to help you along the way.

If you are completely anal (an attribute that will get you through the exam) and reading this before you even choose a law school, then consider a law school in the same state you plan on taking the bar. While a significant portion of the bar exam is the same throughout the country, an important portion relies on the law of the state in which you are taking the exam. Most state law schools focus from day one on getting its students to pass the exam. Thus, throughout your law school experience you will here professors say things like, “this is the type of question you’ll see on the essay portion of the exam,” or “this is a favorite topic of bar examiners.” You’ll also learn a great deal of state law in law school. Since state law differs from state to state, it’s obviously helpful to learn the law of the state you plan on taking the bar exam in.

Take more than the required legal writing courses. When I went to law school (1997-2000), there were only two required legal writing courses. I took four. Not only has it helped me in my legal career, but those classes provided vital knowledge and confidence to get me through the essay portion of the bar exam. If you don’t have to worry about your writing, but can focus instead on the WHAT your are writing, you’ll breeze through this portion of the exam. Furthermore, even if you know what you are saying, if you don’t know how to say it properly, it might not be conveyed in a way that impresses the reader. Remember, there are real people reading your exam essays. These people have lives, good and bad moods, and other things competing for their attention. Make sure your essays don’t irritate them.

Take a test prep course. You will spend a lot of time studying on your own. Everyone does. You should also take a bar exam prep course. Most people do and the pass rate for those who do is much higher for those that don’t. The course is expensive, but so is having to take the test twice and delaying your law career by 6 months to a year.

Studying for the bar exam is a full time job. Don’t underestimate this. Some people are both naturally good test takers and blessed with brains, and can take and pass the test without putting much time in. You’re probably not one of these people. I wasn’t either. Like most people, I treated the studying in the months between law school graduation and the bar exam as a full time job. I was either in the bar exam course or studying 4 to 6 hours a day, five days a week. I gave myself the weekends off, mostly, to charge my batteries and spend with my family. I aced the exam because I knew the info backwards and forwards and wasn’t burned out by the time the test day came around. There are bar exam loans you can get to help finance your studying during this period. If you can’t take the time off from your real job, make sure you put in at least 4 hours a day. This, in addition to the course, will get you through. You can probably get by with less studying, but why take the chance?

In addition to studying the law passively, study the test actively. As part of my studying, I took practice tests. Of course, I didn’t spend three days taking the entire test, but I broke it down into sections and learned how to take them, before moving on to a new section. Not only will this help you understand what type of material you need to know, but it will help you understand how you will be asked to recall it. You will also begin to understand test strategy. For example, I knew which subjects would be tested on the exam and to what extent. Thus, after the first day of the bar exam, I was able to focus my refresher studying for the next day on the remaining subjects.

Prepare test review material. As part of studying, I prepared flash cards and summary outlines. I kept whittling down my notes until I had short, tight, but meaningful summaries of all the areas of law tested. Not only did this help me understand the law I had to learn, but it provided me with great review notes I could use up to the day of the exam and in the evenings between the exam.

In addition to learning the law and how it will be tested, be prepared for the experience. Understand that you will be in a huge room with lots of people. Realize that there will be lots of potential distractions, from chairs squeaking, people coughing, people getting up to go to the bathroom, people’s annoying nervous ticks, etc. If these things will distract you, make sure you bring things with you that will help. For example, you can bring cotton to put in your ears. But, primarily, understand that it will not be a quite, serene setting. If you are prepared for this in advance, the shock of the realization won’t affect you on test day.

As with any exam before, during, or after law school, avoid the post mortem. Don’t hang out to debate the exam with the other people taking it. It will only stress you out. People will misremember questions and their answers, and so will you. You probably did just fine, but will think you totally bombed. And that will not put you in the frame of mind to attack the next day. Take the test, go home or to your hotel room, relax, eat, rehydrate, study a little bit for the next day, and relax some more. Don’t spend important energy analyzing what you’ve already finished. Focus on making sure you are in the right frame of mind and on what you need to do to get through the next day.

The same advice goes for after the exam. Get out of there. Feel the sense of relief from finishing the ordeal. Don’t hang out and get depressed talking with people about a test you probably passed anyway. Remember, a lot of people think they bombed the test. You probably will too. And, you probably did not. There’s nothing you can do now, but wait. So, go take care of yourself and your family. Recharge your batteries and get ready to begin your new career.

My last tip is to take the bar exam in other states soon after you take your first one. If you think you might want to practice in another state, take the bar exam in that state in the first couple years of your practice. The test-taking and multistate knowledge will still be fresh and the strain of taking the test will be lessened. Also realize that being admitted into multiple jurisdictions is a good resume builder, particularly if you can get into a state that has reciprocation with other states. After taking a couple tests, you can be admitted into 3 or 4 states. On the other hand, you might want to focus on depth in your state rather than breadth among states. In other words, there are other bar exams to take in your state, such as being admitted into the various districts of the federal district court. With your recent mastery of the federal rules of civil procedure, you shouldn’t have any problem passing those exams soon after you passed the big bar exam.