If you’re anywhere from thinking about law school to just graduated, you’re probably scared of the bar exam. With good reason. You know you have to learn everything in each subject. However, don’t be afraid of the sheer volume. This page will tell you how to prioritize.
STEP 1 | Get bar prep materials on day one of law school.
If you’re reading this after graduating, you probably didn’t do this. That’s fine; this is about getting an edge not a requirement.
When something comes up in class, you cross-check it against the bar review course. This won’t make it that much easier to learn. But it will mean you see where it fits into the rest of the course. You’ll know what’s going to be important three years from now. You’ll notice that Pennoyer v. Neff isn’t in the bar review course and that the minimum contracts doctrine is. And then when you’re studying for the bar, you’ll be more familiar with the parts you need to know.
STEP 2 | Pick a bar review course.
There are a lot of these. Themis, Barbri, Kaplan, etc. The big name bar review courses are pretty interchangeable; if you have a friend who swears by one then you might as well go with that. All of them are crazy expensive. You can save money by using last year’s edition. The bar exam changes from year to year, but it doesn’t change too much. If you bought a set coming in to law school, you might just be able to use the same set.
Do not worry about following the course’s review schedule. Their schedules are impossible. They guarantee you’ll pass or you get the next year’s course free, and they want to make sure they don’t have to pay out. If nobody “completes the course” on schedule, nobody’s covered by the guarantee. Do look at their schedule once to see just how much stuff there is. It’s a lot. Then you can toss their schedule out.
I did use Themis’s video lectures. (At double speed to save time.) This wasn’t really necessary— the lectures were the same content as the books. And aside from the rare really good lecturer, the video format doesn’t help that much with retention. Watching the lectures was mostly about not feeling underprepared. It helped avoid panicking. If you are using an earlier year’s review books, don’t worry about not having the rest of the course.
STEP 3 | Prepare for the exam.
1. Do practice questions. Lots of practice questions.
Partly this is to get you used to the format. What an essay looks like. What kinds of answers they’re looking for. How hard the multiple-choice questions are. But it’s also a pretty good way of seeing what content gets on the exam. Do enough practice questions and the exam itself can be just another day.
You might be able to find earlier years’ essay questions on your state’s bar website. Multiple choice questions are harder. Some are included in bar review courses, but bar review courses also do weird things with difficulty. They’ll start with simpler questions, build up to questions harder than the real test, then have your last practice test be easier to make you feel confident. Some of these will be actual bar exam questions, but most won’t. If you want just the real thing, you have to buy from NCBE or someone who paid NCBE.
There’s a short list of sources here (current as of 2020). But note that they’re selling and obviously want you to buy from them.
2. Focus your efforts on the multiple-choice rather than essays.
The reason is simple. Essays usually don’t get a perfect score, and they usually don’t get a zero. If it’s graded on a hundred-point scale, you’re only really looking at maybe 55 for a bad essay and 75 for a good one. Unlike multiple choice, where you get one point if you’re right and zero if you’re wrong.
So you care more about the multiple choice than the essays. Normal test-taking suggestions apply here.
- Try to understand why each choice could fool someone. If you know the material well, you’ll figure out or just instantly know what’s going through the head of someone who picks each answer. (Even if it’s just “they know about ___ but not ___.” Doing a lot of practice questions will help you develop this, and also show you how close you are.
- There is exactly one right answer. If you know choice A can only be right if choice C is also right, then you can rule out A. This works less well than it did on the LSAT, where you only cared about which choices were true. But it still kind of works. You just have to worry about which choice is more specific or more applicable as well as which has the right bottom line.
- Go with the majority. Answer choices are given as “Yes, because ___” or “no, because ___.” Usually two of each. If you see three yeses and one no, the answer is probably yes. They don’t want to give a point to people who are right for the wrong reason. If you’re sure it’s the minority answer, go with that. But do think twice.
- If you don’t have time, eliminate the obvious wrong answers and guess. Like any other test.
3. Focus on learning the basics in every field rather than a few in detail.
When you’re a lawyer, you won’t need to know all of this. You’ll have some area of practice and most of the bar will be irrelevant. So the exam itself is just about the basics of each subject. This means it is not worth your time to memorize every detail of any field. Just get the general rules and move on. Yes, you are forfeiting a couple of points every time you do this. But you don’t have the time or the memory space to not do it. You need to know what the rules are, not the exceptions to the exceptions.
If you’re using a bar review course, you have a book on each subject, followed by a single shorter book’s worth of mini-review. The important part is the mini-review. Do learn everything in that part.
4. Weigh every fact in each question.
If the bar examiners put something in the question, it’s for a reason. This doesn’t mean every fact affects the outcome. But you should still address it in your answer. “Wanda will argue that the house was in her name, therefore it is her individual property. But community property is determined by the source, not the title. The house was bought with earnings while she and Hal were married, so it is their community property.” If there’s any fact that you didn’t mention at all, you probably missed something.
This is true on multiple choice questions too, but you can’t act on it as much there. Every fact is still there for a reason, but the reason might just be to make one of the wrong answers plausible.
5. Take at least one full-scale practice test.
Almost everyone should do at least one. But this has more to do with your confidence than your knowledge.
The bar is long and intense. You don’t want your first exposure to the multi-day test to be the real deal. Set aside some days while studying for doing the whole thing, all at once. You need to know you can handle the endurance as well as the knowledge. The drawback is that practicing endurance isn’t quite as good for practicing the material. Any time you do a full-length test, you aren’t focusing on your weakest subjects.
So if you are very sure you aren’t worried, you can skip this. If you know you’re fine with extended high-stakes brain-intensive work, focus on subject matter instead. The default should be that you do full-length tests, but feel free to make yourself an exception.
Pass the CA Bar in 100 hours. The California bar is one of the strictest ones. This blogger passed it in 2012 not by studying harder, or even studying smarter, but by using common sense to figure out which parts didn’t really matter. He does not recommend you use his approach. Not unless the bar exam has lower stakes for your career than it does for most test-takers. But you definitely should read his point of view.