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A few tips for the bar exam

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As third-year law students, including Generation J.D.’s own Eleanor Chung roll past finals and graduation seasons into the very stressful period of bar preparation, they often look to the support and wisdom of those who have been through that crucible and come out of the other side. The process of studying for the exam, and the exam itself, are both marathons. But the pursuit is worthwhile, necessary, and at least now, a point of bonding as a ritual through which all attorneys must go.

I took two bar exams: first Arizona’s, where I went to law school, and then Maryland’s. And if I ever want to move to another state, I better be able to waive into its bar because I am not doing that again. In fact, on the dates the results were being revealed for both exams, I waited for someone else to tell me if I passed. While I did not take a formalized, all-day bar prep course, I did have a weekly, one hour, not-for-credit class focused on tightening up writing technique for the bar in my final law school semester. And from that class, and my experiences with those bars, I have some advice to pass on:

Know your comfort zone 

Do you work and think best after a big breakfast or do you start to feel sluggish? Is a big cup of coffee a necessity to get your brain going? Or does it lead to jitters and random, unproductive thoughts? Figure out what works best for you and allows for your most efficient and effective state of mind.

Work smart

In studying, focus on what is most likely to be in front of you. While knowing the nuances of seldom-discussed constitutional provisions or crimes that are almost never charged is advantageous in writing an article or in a legal discussion, that information likely will not be much help on the bar. Time in studying is limited and using that time wisely means perfecting knowledge in the areas of law most likely to be covered. Certain areas of law are covered in every bar exam, others in over half. Working on and being able to quickly discuss those concepts leads to efficient and effective studying.

During the exam, find small areas to increase efficiency. Read the question before the prompt so that your reading of the prompt can be more purposeful, for example.

Don’t throw good time after bad

Just as economists say, “don’t throw good money after bad” — meaning don’t continue to waste money on a bad investment in a Sisyphean attempt to break even — don’t waste good time trying to make up for time misused.

In the multiple choice section, instead of spending time deliberating on the answers you are not sure of, go through answering all the questions with answers about which you are confident. For answers you are less sure of, mark next to the question on the Scantron, write down your best guess and move to the next question. Once the entire set of questions is completed, circle back to the unanswered questions without looking at the initial guess. If the answer you arrive at the second time matches the initial guess, that’s your answer. Missing out on answering questions you are certain of to ponder answers you don’t know is doing yourself a disservice.

Even with the essay questions, if you feel as though you are being bogged down and cannot seem to figure out the answer, it often makes sense to move forward to an answer that seems more clear, keep working and come back in the hopes that your mind has cleared the block.

Don’t overthink it

Save the treatise for another time. Obviously, in practice, a pleadings would never be based on what the attorney remembers or his or her best guess as to the law without additional research, but bar exam essays are less a formalized motion or memorandum and more a memorialized conversation with a potential client or a quick discussion of the issues with a partner.

The purpose of the essay is to quickly digest the question and prompt and efficiently discuss the major issues associated with that information. Identifying and properly analyzing the greater legal issues is much more important than particularizing every small detail or minuscule legal implication. On a 100-point scale, discussions of subtle nuances may impact the result. On a six-point scale, those rabbit holes waste time and diminish efficiency and effectiveness.

Most importantly: Believe in yourself.

If you are taking the bar exam, it means that you have successfully navigated, high school, college and law school. Chances are that you’ve excelled. You are there for a reason. Trust yourself, and just as you have in everything else, you’ll do fine.

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