Sitting for one bar exam is daunting. Having to work, deal with family issues, and sit through more than one bar exam is beyond brutal. In fact, this entire experience should be added to Dante’s rings.
I sat for the Texas Bar exam 3 times and, before you read any further, let me be very clear: this is my own experience. I’m telling you what I went through and how I overcame it in the hopes that one of you wonderful examinees will make use of this information and ace your own exam. This is not a playbook to get you to pass, it’s merely an account of what I overcame (and what so many of us share) to accomplish this amazing dream.
Failing the exam doesn’t mean you’re going to be a crappy lawyer. It’s not a good measure of what kind of practitioner you’ll be at all. Why? Because the Bar exam doesn’t (and cannot) test your ability to practice the law. Instead, it’s a measure of your competency and understanding of a wide breadth of law. If you failed, pull yourself up and right the ship. Don’t keep dwelling on the failure and wallowing but, by all means, use the setback as ammunition to propel you forward on this journey. You’ll get through this. If you haven’t sat for the exam yet, and are looking for tips, I highly recommend using a few of my own.
After graduating in May of 2019, I immediately started looking for a post-bar position. I was not in the financial state to simply take the bar and then let the chips fall where they may. Landing the job of a lifetime is a major reason for why I had the luxury of sitting for the exam again after missing it by about 3% the first time. [Yeah, I said luxury. The Bar exam is a gate keeper and not a true measure of competency. We all know this, but rarely talk about it. Having the means to pay for a prep course and exam supplements, take time off from work to study, and have the bills paid is nothing short of a luxury.]
Here’s the list of what I changed about my study plan and techniques to give myself every advantage to ace the Bar exam.
Analyze The Scores.
Knowing where I faltered was crucial to my progress. Determining which areas needed more dedication was imperative. I took the time to create an excel spreadsheet with my scores broken down into each subcategory for the exam. This extra step worked wonders when picking apart the subtopics for my own review and Bar prep.
I scored abysmally low on the Property and Evidence sections of the MBE. It was bleak, y’all. As one clerking for an expert real estate attorney, this was a specific slap to my ego and I made sure to deep-dive into these subjects first to work on learning the black letter law. What I’d done wrong, in my opinion, was flying through these questions and thinking in terms of what my boss would do with a client in that situation. But, what we do in practice is not necessarily what the NCBE is questioning. Instead, I needed to take a step back and look the question objectively, recognizing the point of law being tested, and then answering the question. What we end up practicing is not a perfect world scenario. If we honestly tried, each of us could make some sort of argument for each answer on the multiple choice questions. However, that’s not the point of the exam. The point is to read efficiently and answer proficiently; no more, no less.
When combining the score report analysis with my Adaptibar practice exam (cold-turkey 100 questions), it was surprising to see the correlation. In the plainest language possible: I was “doing too much” when I should have slowed my roll and answered the damn question.
Create YOUR Study Plan.
Studying during a pandemic was rough. Worrying about the Board of Law Examiners meetings and whether or not they were going to change the content (which happened), the date of the exam (yep, also happened), and the type (again, yes — this changed, too) took up more of my headspace than I care to admit. Since I’m a type-A creature with the need to assert control over virtually everything, the easiest way for me to handle my study time was to create a study plan.
I think I should also mention that, in addition to dealing with the pandemic, student loan deferment requests, and losing both of my grandparents in a matter of months, my husband and I also found out we (mostly me) were expecting our first kiddo in January. Studying while pregnant? Extra fun.
With the difficulties of nailing down time to study, working in doctor’s visits and pregnancy naps [yeah, those were unexpected and non-negotiable], especially with the change of dates and my hectic work schedule, I decided on a six week timeline. Making the plan was step one. Executing it and working through each topic was another beast entirely. [Remember, the naps?]
The changing framework and timeline in preparing for the exam made studying feel awkward and even more challenging than usual. Plus, all the random pregnancy experiences that I didn’t count on when I initially setup my plan. I was a mess, mentally and physically fatigued, and working like a mad woman to realize my dream.
In total, I utilized over 400 hours of study time. However, I’m pretty sure that was only possible due to the change in date (from July to October), and the fact that I started reviewing my outlines incredibly early [as in, May…a week or so after receiving failing results].
The key is to craft a schedule that works for you. Whatever works for your schedule is the most important aspect for a healthy study and learning experience. There’s also the theory of diminishing returns to consider — it does my brain absolutely no good to study for 13 hours straight. I felt like Barbri videos and reviews, combined with Adaptibar, and Crushendo on a daily basis was just too much for me to handle.
Instead, I made time to study, workout, and spend allotted time with my family. Up until month 5 of my pregnancy, I was walk-jogging 5 miles a day and enjoyed a standing Sunday brunch with my family (this is still very much a weekly ritual, too). This time I was determined to find a happy balance between studying law and living my life and, in my opinion, I was all the better for setting (and keeping) this goal.
Chunking up my time and studying in smaller increments was incredibly helpful to my success this time around. That’s the benefit of starting early and spacing out your study sessions. By setting up this schedule, I didn’t feel like I was cramming information during the final week or two leading up to the exam. I knew I’d put in the required effort and was much more confident walking into this examination. In fact, with closer to 13 weeks of study time, I ended up using my study plan and then dedicating time to more essays leading up to the exam date. I worked through approximately 1500 MBE questions on Adaptibar (and about 200 more using Emmanuel’s and practice with my tutor), 8 MPTs (I re-worked several of the same ones at the recommendation of my Bar Readiness professor), and more than 60 essays questions.
Use the NCBE Topics List.
The first time I sat for the Bar, I followed the Barbri plan. I read through the entire outline for each subject and honestly thought I was “getting it.” But what was actually happening is that I was reading it and not actually taking it in and sitting with the material.
This time around? I took the NCBE outline and matched it up with my Barbri book outline. Then, I scratched out every single topic in the book that was not on the NCBE topics list. I refused to fill my mind with excess information. There’s already too much to review, no need to add extra crap.
After removing the topics that weren’t going to be tested, I read through the table of contents and the outline itself. Making notes here and there in terms of how the outline was organized, as well as highlighting exceptions or minute rules that I didn’t know or remember.
Once I read through each outline fully, I started in on practice MBE questions. No more than 33 per day, typically (see the schedule, above). While working through each question, I read through the answer choices, picked the one I felt was best, and then would flip to the section in the outline where that answer should be and confirm my choice. If I were wrong, I took the time to write the proper rule of down on a notepad and make a note of the page number where I sourced that rule.
I spent 1/3 of my MBE time practicing the questions and 2/3 reviewing outlines and the actual law behind the answers. I highly recommend this method. It came in handy when I worked with my tutor, who would consistently change facts and ask me whether a slight change in circumstance would end in a different result, making another answer choice more likely. Taking the time to really sit with the rules made my approach to the MBE that much stronger.
Hire a Tutor.
That job of a lifetime I mentioned…well, this is where it came in clutch. My boss also happens to be an amazing mentor and he really kept me centered and grounded through this stressful year. When I failed in February he let me know that he didn’t want to start over with another clerk, and that he believed I could pass this exam. I felt entirely crushed after receiving those results, but he helped me keep my head above water and I will be forever grateful. He also convinced me to utilize a tutor for Bar prep. If he hadn’t set this up and made the introduction for me, I’m not sure I would have considered it a viable option.
Working with Keith made the biggest difference in my Bar prep. I had a weekly check-in with him, where I was expected to have reviewed the material and work through practice MBE questions. Keith was my accountability partner, in a matter of speaking, which was exactly what I didn’t know I needed. I asked him to not only help prep me with question review, but also to create study aids to help me work through subject areas, particularly those more nuanced exceptions in the NCBE topic list.
Unlike working through questions with friends and other examinees, Keith kept me on my toes and forced me to analyze questions from multiple perspectives, constantly changing the fact patterns and asking me to explain my rationale. He helped me improve my MBE score by more than 15 points, and ultimately helped me improve my overall exam score by more than 50 points, which made all the difference in overcoming this career hurdle.
Block Out Virtually Everything & Everyone.
My biggest impediment studying for the Bar exam also happened to be my loudest fans and support system. My family went through a whole helluvalot this past year. We lost both of my grandparents to cancer, months apart. Their treatments were harsh and witnessing them slip away was awful for each one of us. Losing them nearly broke me, but studying for the Bar exam and making them proud was the singular focus of my Bar prep life. At least, it was until I found out I was pregnant — then I knew I just had to pass to support this little nugget.
With all the worldly chaos, I had to set boundaries with my family members. I was explicit with my time and autonomy, even going so far as to demand that no one visited our home unless invited. I drew a line in the sand and explained exactly what I needed from them. Thankfully, despite the harsh step I took, they listened. I was granted the space to study, free from the constant messages and calls from them at all hours.
My brain appreciated the time to step away from the family drama and concerns, just for a few weeks. They probably didn’t find the ice-out comical, but…it was necessary.
Focus on the Effort, Not the Time.
The amount of time you study does not matter. Time is relative. I can say I studied for 13 hours and make someone else feel like crap when they only got 9 hours in. How insane does that sound? What you do has no real bearing on what Cindy does to prepare for the exam. She can smoke you on exam day and the amount of time she put in does not necessarily correlate with her likelihood to pass or fail. Sure, there’s always someone who says they only studied for 2 weeks and passed, but the likelihood is that most people put in about 10 weeks of prep time to get through this exam. None of that time matters though if you’re just going through the motions or checking off a box.
The effort you put into the study is what truly matters. I got more out of effective, short-burst studying than I ever did with the marathon sessions using Barbri. I found myself actually sleeping through the night, experiencing fewer night terrors (maybe two or three, where I overslept and missed the exam entirely), and feeling less overwhelmed about taking the exam. I was literally growing a human and focusing on my health first, this exam second. I hadn’t prioritized myself that way before and gosh did I notice the change.
I focused on getting through what needed to be reviewed, sat and took the time to understand the material, and refused to shovel down as many questions as I could handle. That militant study style simply does not work for my study habits, and why I attempted to do that previously is a testament to what I was willing to buy into (stupid bar prep companies) without any regard for how I handled my study time in law school.
Getting the material down, truly understanding it, is key to passing this exam. You’re shooting for minimum competency, which doesn’t sound so hard, but it’s much more difficult than one might think.
Focusing on improvement is much better than setting a goal of 80% or better in each subject for Adaptibar or whatever other Bar Prep course you’re using. I set my sights on achieving a comfortable balance with my health and my study efforts. I think I placed too much emphasis on the idea of studying the first time I took the exam, without any regard to what my actual take-away was. This time around, I made sure to speak about what I learned to my husband, out loud to myself and the bebe, and then again to my tutor. The effort was incorporated across multiple avenues and the material really stuck in my mind. I cannot tell you exactly how many hours I studied, but I can sure as hell tell you I used those hours to my advantage and made each one of them count.
Review & Practice!
I think the key to succeeding on this exam is to keep reviewing and churning through the material in different ways. Look at the MBE questions from different angles and think through the problems. Don’t simply try to memorize the fact patterns, you’ll just end up pissed off and dizzy.
There is a way over the hurdle, but it takes patience and a metric ton of hard work. Don’t let anyone stand in your way. Focus on yourself, your needs and, more importantly, this goal. Set your sights high, friends. You can pass the Bar! I look forward to welcoming you into this amazing profession.