The bar is hard. It is time consuming and it requires a sound strategy. But it absolutely can be done, and you want to get it right the first time. With that said, I am writing this post for a few reasons:
- I’m a former educator and like distributing information that I personally found helpful. I heard some great advice as well as some pretty bad advice in preparation for the bar. I’ve tried to lay out the strategies and habits I found most helpful here.
- The bar exam places unique strain on students from working class and even middle class backgrounds. It is very expensive, and I’ve tried to include information to help pass the first time and general tips for being economical in the process.
- I’ve had friends ask about tips and I hope this post can serve as an organized breakdown for those in my circle and beyond.
I’ve divided the structure of this post into two main buckets: (1) explicit bar prep strategies and (2) more holistic advice for keeping your mind sharp through the process. I am leading with category one because it is directly on point, but I can’t overstate how important the mind-set component of bar studying is. I break down these strategies for building strong habits in section two and I definitely recommend considering them even if you just are looking for the brass tacks of test prep.
PART I: BAR PREP STRATEGIES
1. Tips for getting started
Generally people study for the bar exam for 8–10 weeks. In my case I did 9 weeks, which felt like a good middle ground. I did a morning, afternoon, and brief evening study session Monday-Saturday, with Sunday as a full day off. I will get into this more later, but I strongly encourage you to take one full day off at a minimum. It is really important to have a day that is a mental reset, where you can recharge your batteries and do (mindless) tasks to set yourself up for the next week. My study schedule was pretty time consuming, and was possible by virtue of being able to completely devote my study period solely to studying (I have no children, no current job, etc.). Consequently, I would not take my schedule as a given, but in my case it did help my confidence to feel that I was being thorough and it helped facilitate staying on track with the Barbri course schedule (which I completed in 8 weeks, with a last week for test prep and endurance). You can certainly make do with less from a timing perspective.
One tip I definitely recommend when starting out is having several conversations with friends and family you trust who passed the bar. These conversations will help you get different perspectives, and you will be able to identify common themes in preparation. You can hold on to advice that clicks for you and ignore tips that do not fit your learning style. Having these conversations early will also allow you to reach out to these folks if you have questions or need advice along the way. I know in my own case, several of these conversations were really helpful (and in one case convinced me to purchase Adaptibar, which proved really helpful).
I also recommend making your study period of 8–10 weeks as disruption free as possible. If you can avoid moving in that period and limiting your external responsibilities as much as possible, you will find that it really helps with building routines and your focus. Whatever you can resolve beforehand, do so so you can have tunnel vision during your study period.
2. Bar Prep Services
I can only speak to the services I utilized. There may be plenty of other good options, but I am only going to break down those I took advantage of and why I found them helpful.
Bar Prep Service: Barbri
I was pretty satisfied with the Barbri prep course. The service is extremely thorough and the user interface is intuitive. The course includes many different modalities, including lectures, outlines, questions, and tests. You can also get a discount on the course if you are planning on working in public service, and it can be worth reaching out to a representative directly to see if they will cut the price further (other prep companies have even more robust discounts if you pair with a student going into big law). You can learn more about their services on their website and other forum, but here are the main advantages and disadvantages I identified:
-The full length test midway through the course gives you really valuable data on how you are doing and where you should focus your prep efforts. It proved fairly predictive of my actual bar performance.
-Many of the lecturers are effective in distilling complex courses to the most important testable concepts.
-The outline materials are concise and accessible.
-The tracker can help keep yourself accountable for staying on track and evaluating your own progress.
-Many of the multiple choice questions from Barbri are either stylistically distinct from NCBE bar questions or harder than them. While there may be some merit to this approach (i.e. train for something harder, be pleasantly surprised by the actual bar being a bit easier), I think there is also merit to getting comfortable with the level of difficulty and format of actual bar questions. In this regard, I found Adaptibar (which provides actual NCBE questions, unlike Barbri which makes its own) helpful. More on that later.
-Barbri’s course may be a bit excessive in terms of the practice materials provided. I think you need to be careful to not overly focus on finishing your tracker and–instead–tailoring your study needs to the activities that will provide you the biggest dividends on your performance.
After I had paid an arm and a leg for the Barbri course, I was not exactly enthusiastic to pay for another service. After conversations with two good friends who vouched that it made a significant difference, I looked into it. And I have to say after utilizing the service, I think it is worth the investment.
Adaptibar focuses on MBE questions and has a huge bank of questions which actually come from past bar administrations from the NCBE. The interface is very user friendly and allows you to track how you are doing in every core MBE subject. You can custom tailor your studying to focus on areas where you need improvement. As mentioned earlier, Barbri has similar functionality but I found that Adaptibar’s use of real NCBE questions was important. Focusing on MBE subject areas where I was not doing as well in addition to the Barbri course also helped me significantly improve my performance in those subjects.
-User friendly interface allows you to track your progress in every MBE subject
-Uses real NCBE questions, which helps you become comfortable with the difficulty and formatting of bar questions (which is important for confidence going into test day).
-The service is fairly pricey, and it can be frustrating to shell out more money beyond your core bar prep course.
-The civil procedure questions are a bit wonky and not entirely indicative of the difficulty of actual bar questions (civ pro questions were added fairly recently the bar).
Supplements: Critical Pass Flashcards
I am generally old school with my study methods, and I’ve always preferred paper copies of my materials. Critical Pass Flashcards are old fashioned flashcards for the MBE and MEE subjects. I was lucky that I had a friend who had an extra set they no longer needed that they gave me, and I purchased the MEE flashcards myself. Overall, these flashcards are useful as a less cognitively demanding activity and you can go over concepts you are having difficulty with by recycling through those cards more frequently. I also utilized these cards to create a final “one pager” at the end of the bar prep, which I found really helpful (more on that later). It can also be good to diversify the sources from which you are learning the concepts beyond Barbri, so I think these flashcards are a good investment.
-Flashcards are aesthetically pleasing, helpful ways of reviewing material in a way that is less cognitively demanding.
-Helpful to diversify learning core material beyond Barbri
-Fairly expensive for paper flashcards.
I recommend saving up as much money as possible ahead of your bar prep study period. Studying for an extended period without income coming in can be very difficult, and I am convinced differential economic starting points have a significant impact on bar passage rates. With that said, there are certain steps you can take to help take the financial edge off. If needed, you can look into bar loans related to your law school (which sometimes participate in larger credit unions). As mentioned earlier, there are also certain discounts for law school graduates going into public service which are worth looking into. If you have friends and family who may be able to help support you during the bar exam period, it may be worth having those conversations as well. Lastly, doing extensive meal prep for the week can also help you save money as well. This is definitely a period to cut down on unnecessary expenses.
4. General Study Strategies
Here are the four core studying strategies I found most helpful in studying for the bar.
- Be strategic with your energy: You will hear many people say that bar prep is a marathon and not a sprint, and they are right. You need to be very strategic in boosting your energy reserves and deploying them in the way that will maximize your performance. In my own case, I am at my mental sharpest after a workout, meal, and coffee in the morning. As a result, I frontloaded the hardest tasks for the day in the morning. This allowed me to take on these tasks when I felt most energized and it helped provide the confidence that I had taken on the hardest task right up front. The flip-side of this advice is that it allows you to take on less cognitively demanding tasks later in the day as your energy is starting to fade. For me, this was watching Barbri lectures and doing flashcard review, which I could engage in functionally when I was at my lowest reserves.
- Engage in Active Learning: A lot of bar prep can become overly passive and–frankly–boring. Engaging in this manner can become a matter of going through the motions, which leads to your not actually retaining the material. I found it really important to stay active with my learning, through note-taking, figuring out where I made mistakes in multiple choice questions, and doing tons of actual exam style practice for multiple choice questions and essays. One strategy I found particularly helpful was writing out a “one pager” of the most important concepts for each core MBE subject. Rather than simply reading the same outlines over and over again and hoping the concepts sunk in through osmosis, actually physically writing the most important concepts out and limiting myself to one page really helped with remembering the concepts and having them make sense for myself. Really reviewing how and why I made mistakes on multiple choice questions, by writing out my mistake and how I would avoid it in the future, was also really helpful for improving my performance. Don’t assume that just reading the answer explanation will be enough to avoid the same mistake in the future. Lastly, there is no replacement for actually doing MBE questions and essays. Functional practice matters much more than perfectly understanding the lectures or memorizing outlines, and do not short change the former in favor of the latter.
- Address Weak Points: This is an obvious one, but you really want to focus on the areas that are giving you trouble. I think this is important for going into test day confident and it is often the best way of boosting your score (not simply aiming for perfection in areas that come more naturally to you). As is the case for many people, I really struggled with property at the beginning. But by doing a lot of supplementation through property questions on Adaptibar and reviewing property concepts on critical pass, I was able to improve significantly. Taking on and overcoming the areas that give you anxiety is going to help give you the mental fortitude to similarly take on and overcome the bar exam. And as you practice, you will see the dividends of increased focus on initial problem areas.
- Build endurance in the final stages: This last piece I can’t overemphasize. The bar exam is a really long exam, and your endurance and confidence going into test day is key. For myself, I budgeted the last week of bar prep to do 100 question MBE sets on Adaptibar and multiple MEE / MPT essays back to back. This served two functions. I got much more comfortable with pacing on multiple choice questions and with how it feels to complete 100 MBE questions in the set 3 hour period. I also was able to build up my stamina, so that when I took the actual test I wouldn’t become fatigued or lose focus towards the end of the test period. By the time I got through this stage, I was just ready to take the damn test and wasn’t as intimidated by the format. There are various sayings in mixed martial arts that you should make the training more difficult than the fight, and that principle applies to bar studying as well. If you push yourself in your last bit of prep, “game day” will simply feel like an extension of your training. Muhammad Ali put it best: “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”
PART II: MINDSET, HABITS, AND ROUTINES
You have likely gleaned this from some of the previous content, but your mindset, habits, and routines make a huge difference for bar prep. Here are some tips I found helpful for developing a strong and positive mindset towards bar prep, along with some habits and routines that can help maximize performance.
There is a huge amount of research on how much of a difference a growth mindset, versus a fixed mindset, can make for performance. Dr. Carol Dweck’s research is particularly instructive, and this chart provides a helpful summary of both concepts.
Having a growth mindset towards bar prep is absolutely critical. Here are some strategies that helped me stay positive and disciplined through the process.
- Read positive and inspiring material for a few minutes in the morning. This kind of morning reading can help you set an intention for the day and start on a positive, inspired note. A few books I found helpful: Discipline Equals Freedom, Striking Thoughts, The Daily Stoic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Can’t Hurt Me, Code of the Samurai, etc. Easily accessible collections of aphorisms and digestible wisdom can be helpful in this regard.
- In the alternative, inspiring Youtube short clips can also be really helpful. Here is a collection of my favorites. David Goggins, Jocko Willink, and Eric Thomas have a ton of great, free material. I made a habit of watching a few of these each morning.
What if — David Goggins
Denzel — consistency
No regrets — Goggins
One drop — Goggins
Push to the end — ET
Tyson Fury — I’m not lucky
Jocko — Reaching goals
Be remembered — Steve Harvey
Enjoying sacrifice — Arnold
You build in the dark and you announce when it’s finished
Calm with success
The harder path
Gratitude — Denzel
Bouncing back — Kobe
Learning from failure — Obama
Here’s a chart I had printed out from the godfather of motivation, David Goggins.
On the flip side, I highly recommend generally cutting off from social media during bar studying. There are a lot of facebook groups that encourage venting and negative, disaster thinking during bar prep that is actively unhelpful and generally a waste of your time (yes, I’m looking at you edgy memes for T14s). Social media is also generally a distraction, and I found cutting it out altogether during bar studying by deactivating my accounts to be helpful.
Next, I found exercise absolutely critical during bar studying for working through stress and feeling mentally sharp. I made a habit of doing 20–30 minutes of cardio every morning, and strength training in the evening. I found that cardio in the morning helped my body wake up and feel ready for the day (Dr. Andrew Huberman has confirmed the science of this). Strength training in the evening helped me get the frustration out of my system and provided a helpful mental reset before getting ready for bed. Exercise also boosts mental performance and gives you more stamina, and by pushing myself physically I felt I was also strengthening my mental endurance. Relatedly, getting consistent and high quality sleep on a regular schedule makes a huge difference. I made sure to try to get a minimum of 8 hours a night at a consistent time, to develop a good circadian rhythm.
I mentioned this earlier, but I think one full day off a week at the minimum is really helpful. In my own case, I always started Sunday by sleeping in and doing a really long run. This long run would help me feel like I could cleanse myself of the previous week, collect my thoughts, and meditate. It was time for me, and it really recharged my batteries. I would also do my cooking for the week on Sunday, which helped me save time during the week and was pleasantly brainless. It is really important to allow your body to recharge and to nourish yourself with the activities that give you joy and energy. Give yourself time each week to engage in those kinds of activities–you do yourself no favors by cutting them out and you will feel better for doing them.
Good luck! Push yourself, do your best each day, and you absolutely can do this.