How Not to Study for the Bar Exam

This is it — after 12 years of grade school, (at least) four years of undergraduate studies, three years of law school, and maybe even an additional couple years of graduate specialization, you are finally ready for the last exam you’ll ever take: the bar. Lawyers all over the country still shake at the idea of retaking the bar exam because for many of them, it was the absolute worst experience of their lives. Encompassing two whole days of rigorous testing, the bar is arguably one of the most difficult examinations in the country.
However, just like any other examination, people who pass are not necessarily smarter than those who fail; in reality, it is all about how aspiring lawyers study the material and practice the routine. After all that schooling — 20 or more years, in total — you should know how to study for the bar exam, right?
Just in case, here are the absolute worst things you can do to prepare for the bar.
You need to learn the material, so you figure there is no better way than just to sit down and power through the texts. However, after only a few minutes, your mind starts to wander, and after a few more minutes, your eyelids start to droop. Passive reading isn’t enough to transfer the crucial information from the page to your brain.
Some bar exam preparation guides produce audio tapes covering material expected to be on the test. These tapes can be exceedingly useful, but only as review after you’ve properly learned and studied the information. Listening to these tapes is most often just another tactic used by lazy law graduates looking to passively absorb material. The simple fact is that you cannot passively review information you haven’t yet learned.
Many students attend law school online, which is a cost-effective, time-efficient way to seek a law degree or specialization. Instead of taking hurried notes during one-time, in-class presentations, students can leisurely enjoy online lectures which are capable of rewinding and rewatching.
However, some students abuse this ability come bar-exam season. Instead of hitting the books and developing winning study strategies, they simply watch their professors’ old lectures again and again. Just like reading and listening, watching will not drill the material into your brain, which is what you need come exam day.
You probably have old outlines and notes that cover a good amount of the material you’ll need to know for the bar. The good news is that these old resources can be repurposed for useful study; the bad news is you’ll need to do more with them than reread and rewrite them on a new sheet of paper.
Writing may feel like a more active way to study — after all, you’re producing something — but in truth, by copying your old outlines and notes, you aren’t writing, you’re rewriting. Even taking new notes from your old notes, or shortening long outlines, is detrimental to the study process. You aren’t using any brain power to create connections; instead, you are letting your mind wander as your hand furiously scribbles useless words.
If the bad study strategies explained above are difficult to accomplish, good study strategies explained below will feel painfully impossible. However, the bar is a rigorous test — almost a quarter of law grads fail during every examination, and that statistic has only risen in recent years — and it takes blood, sweat, and tears to study for it properly. Here’s what you can do to be truly active in your studies and pass the bar exam with flying colors:

  • Ask questions. Before, during, and after you read, quiz yourself about the material. You should be able to recite the concept from memory in language that a child — or your potential future client — can understand.
  • Make flashcards. Each card should contain a certain rule, and you should be able to explain how certain rules of law fit together. Don’t be lazy and download pre-made flashcards — creating them is at least half of the study process.
  • Understand the test. This is true of any exam from the bar to the spelling tests you completed in first grade: If you don’t know what kind of questions you’ll face, you won’t be able to answer them correctly and efficiently. The bar exam rarely contains traps or tricks, but in truth you simply need to fully understand how the law applies to the facts.