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Tips for Taking the Bar Exam. . . Again

February bar takers just got their bar exam results, and unfortunately, a lot of students were not successful. So, if you are one of those students, understand that while it really sucks to have to take the bar exam again, you are NOT alone. It is a very common experience for bar takers across the country, and approaching your next study period the right way is absolutely key to success this time around.

In the past couple of years in bar support, I've read everything I can about the bar exam and what it takes to be successful. I have worked with bar takers on their first and subsequent attempts facing different struggles and barriers. Through these experiences, I've gained some insight on what it takes to be a successful bar taker after a bar failure & compiled a list of 5 tips (and in true lawyer style, lots of sub-topics) for bar exam success.

Top 5 tips for repeat bar takers:

1.Get your head right.

  • Take a break. Take a few days to NOT think about the bar exam. Do something you enjoy...a hike, a quick trip, spend time with friends or family...whatever it is that will make you happy and distract you from the news. Then, you just have to move on, it sounds harsh, but trust me, it's a skill that will help you in practice when you experience injustice. There is no reason to feel guilty about taking a few days to yourself-- Keep in mind that rest makes us more productive, strengthens the brain, and enhances learning. If you want to learn more about the positive effects of Rest, I highly recommend the book Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.

  • Shift your mindset. Focus on the fact that you are starting this bar exam ahead of other bar takers, having already spent time memorizing bar topics. Focus on the fact that you know what to expect. You have new insight into what worked and didn't work for you. Understand that your initial failure is NOT a predictor of your future success. On the contrary, the bar has little if no relation to a person's worth, or intellectual abilities and questionable relation to a person's competency to practice law.

  • Be Gritty. Grit is defined as the combination of passion & perseverance. It enables a person to maintain resiliency through bad times while continuing to work toward a goal. Convince yourself that you can study again and pass this time. Learn from your mistakes and know that your mistakes do not define you.

2. Analyze your actual performance & study habits

  • Order your essays & Look at your score report to understand why you didn't pass. Time has passed since you took the exam. Looking back on your essays might surprise you. Review your answer against the sample answers and figure out what changes you need to make. As you review your essays, you should be comparing issue statements, rule statements, analysis, and conclusions. Were there subjects that you just didn't know? Did you run out of time completely? What does the sample answer contain that yours does not? In your haste, did you miss an entire issue on an essay? It's only when you know your weaknesses that you can really improve your score.

  • Be honest with yourself. What did you do last time that worked? What didn't? Be sure to keep doing what works and eliminate those that did not. Look closely at your study habits:

  • Memorization- What did you do to memorize the law? Did you actually know the law on exam day? Was your issue with memorization or with application of rules? If you truly did not know the law, you should probably re-evaluate your memorization techniques. I highly recommend checking out the book Make It Stick for great tips on memorization based on learning science.

  • Practice Questions-How many practice questions did you do? There are A LOT of topics on the MEE--did you do practice essays for every subject? Did you familiarize yourself with every kind of MPT? Did you actually write full Essays and Performance tests under timed conditions? Did you compare them afterwards to model and sample answers?

  • Review-How did you review the practice questions? Did you do both self evaluation as well as getting feedback from a grader or bar exam expert? What did you do to implement the feedback? A lot of bar takers avoid review and feedback and instead just check the percentage correct, which does not help retain new material. A simple push to learn more from your wrong answers may be all it takes to up your score the next go-round.

  • Time-Did you spend enough time studying? Really be honest with yourself. Bar study is a full time job, and if you did not prioritize your time, that may be all it takes to be successful this time around. If you are studying just 30 minutes less than you should every day, that can add up quickly and you end up going into the bar exam days behind in studying. How did you spend your time? Were you looking at your outlines or were you doing practice questions and filling in gaps when you reviewed the answers?

  • Other barriers-What other barriers were there to your success? Consider stress, anxiety, work, life circumstance. Can you change these things to focus better this time around? If you were working last time, can you take more time off? Can you get child care for longer hours?

  • Overconfidence- Do you understand why you didn't pass? Did you do well in law school so you think this might be a fluke? Did you "barely fail"? That's good--but realize that a vast majority of bar takers fall in the middle, so a lot of students "barely passed." Don't fall into the over confidence trap. Every bar exam is different, but make sure that you don't just barely pass, and instead be confident that you are going to greatly improve your score so you never have to take a bar exam again.

3. Make a new study plan.

  • Do NOT study less, instead study differently. A new approach is required. Be sure your plan does not over focus on one self-identified "problem area" of the bar exam. First, every exam is different so doing this might short change your knowledge in an area that is more highly tested the next time you take the bar. Second, sometimes your own assessment is just wrong, so it is important not to neglect any portion of the exam completely.

  • Should you re-do your entire bar program? It depends. Most commercial bar companies have you spend your time watching lectures, filling in blanks, and doing practice questions. Did you do 100% of what the bar course assigned? If you didn't, then you should take your course more seriously this time, trust the process, and DO THE WORK. Did you watch all of the lectures and feel confident that you know the law, but application is more difficult? You probably don't have to re-watch the lectures.

  • Don't repeat the same mistakes from last time. If you did everything your commercial bar course told you to do, doing the same thing probably isn't going to get you a different results. Some students take a different commercial course that fits their learning style better the second time around. Of course that can be costly, so if you've done all the practice problems, get some more MBE questions from the NCBE website, or see if your school can provide you with additional questions. Don't forget to be honest with yourself-- if you did 100% and did not pass, you still made a mistake somewhere, so be sure you have new strategies for success.

  • Practice under timed conditions, and during exam times. If you do all of your bar studying at night, your body is not going to function efficiently during the bar exam that is always given during the day time. Likewise, if you've never practiced doing two performance tests back to back, you might accidentally use 2 hours for one and leave only 1 hour for the other. Not just the test itself, we all know that sitting for three hours straight four times in two days is pretty hard, and not something we are usually used to in day-to-day life. Just like you wouldn't run a marathon without first running shorter distances, it's a good idea to train your body how to perform under these conditions.

  • Perfect Practice Makes Perfect. Practice questions are essential to bar success. Reviewing your outlines and "recognizing" what you see is NOT understanding. Can you explain these concepts to someone else? Do you consistently answer questions right on this topic? Don't fall into the trap of imaginary mastery. It's worth repeating (again) that perfect practice means learning something from your wrong answers, so don't make the mistake of neglecting that step.

  • Study Smarter, Not Harder. You can't know everything on the bar exam. Focus on the most highly tested areas--it's easy to find charts online. You can also figure out which topics are most likely to be tested on the MEE (at your own risk), and focus your time where you might have the most payoff. As a word of caution, it's probably best to postpone looking at MEE predictions until the final weeks after you've had the chance to practice at least 30 essays in all MEE subjects.

4. Self Care

Don't forget about your health and recognize if you could use some help.

  • Pay attention to your food. All nutrition tips aside, you should spend your bar period eating foods that help you concentrate all day. The last thing you want is to crash mid-Performance Test and have no ability to raise your blood sugar. You should avoid snacking during studying (think Pavlov's dog), and you should try to focus on a diet that will help you perform at your best during the bar exam. A great read on brain foods is Genius Foods by Max Lugavere & Paul Grewal.

  • Don't sacrifice sleep. Your brain makes memories in your sleep. If you are sleep deprived, you aren't doing yourself any favors on an exam that tests your ability to memorize massive amounts of material. Sleep also helps improve focus, attention, and decision making. All things that need to be tip-top at exam time.

  • Move Your Body. It has been proven that exercise improves memory and cognitive function, is a huge stress reliever, and helps prevent illness and disease. These health benefits are even more important during stressful times in your life, but so many people make excuses about their lack of time or energy during bar study--to their own detriment. Taking a 20 minute walk around the block can help keep your brain more sharp for your next three-hour study block. Lifting weights or playing a game of basketball with some friends can provide stress relief and increase your self confidence. And these benefits only scratch the surface to the multitude of ways that exercise can improve your performance on the bar exam (and later in practice, too). So be sure you are moving your body for at least 20 minutes each day while you are studying for the bar.

  • Be Mindful.- Mindfulness practices help us decrease stress, improve focus and gain insight and is proven to increase cognition. You don't have to be a yogi or meditation guru to benefit from the power of mindfulness. Mindfulness includes anything that allows you to put your thoughts on pause, clear the mind, and focus on one thing at a time. There are many paid apps available to help you develop a meditation practice. Mastering the art of concentrating on just one thing can be life-changing for a bar taker.

5. Get Help

  • Do you need accommodations? I have found that some students don't even bother applying because they know that the bar exam has different rules that most law schools. If you had accommodations in law school, you should definitely apply and work with the bar examiners to see if you qualify.

  • Would seeing a professional help? Do you have anxiety or engage in self defeating behaviors? Sometimes fear is a re-taker's biggest hurdle, especially if you think you did everything you could. There is nothing wrong with seeking therapy or medication to help with whatever barriers are keeping your from being successful on the bar exam.

  • Sometimes a good tutor can help. They can build you a schedule that fits your needs and keep you on track. Tutors can subjectively evaluate your skills and give you strategies, tools, and methods for improving your score and guidance on where to focus your energy. If you can't afford a tutor, many law schools have Academic and Bar Support Professionals (like me) that can help.

Just seeking out articles online about how to be more successful this time is a step in the right direction. Do some self-evaluation, change your habits, and overcome this moment of adversity. In the end, you will end up a stronger, more resilient lawyer because of it.

Contact Me: Amanda Bynum: stressfreejd@gmail.com

Amanda Bynum