How to Beat the Bar Exam (or any other test)

As I write this, thousands of freshly minted JDs are just starting the 10-week slog of studying for the bar exam. By the end of the study period, these people will come out of exile, grateful to see sunlight again and not wanting to read another printed word for the next three months. This post is in honor of them.

In my last post, I offered organizations tips to increase the success of their diversity recruitment efforts. This post is aimed at those they want to recruit – current and future students. One thing all students have in common is that taking tests is necessary to get from where you are now to where you want to be. Another thing you have in common is the wide variety of things you can do to help increase your chances of getting the results you want.

We don’t usually use a wide variety of strategies to help us pass tests. Instead, we tend to stick with what has worked in the past – often repetitive reading to remember just enough information to pass. This information is usually forgotten as quickly as it was remembered, with the student believing that it has no further use once the test is over.

But one of the reasons people become teachers and professors is because they believe the information they’re sharing is not only important, but worthwhile. This is especially true of foundational classes, where the information learned is needed to understand more difficult concepts in later classes.

Therefore, it is often worthwhile to understand new material not only to pass a test, but also in a way that allows you to apply to future tests, different classes, and life outside the classroom. To do this, or, as per the title of this post, do well on a major test such as the bar exam, you have to use multiple strategies.

You can use the following advice to prepare for any test, but I will often reference the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and bar exam because I’ve taken both tests, and it’s easy to use them as examples. Besides, anything I discuss here can be applied to any test you will take from this point forward. So, what’s the first thing we need to know?

Step 1: Understand what is expected of you

a. What kind of test is this?

The first thing you need to determine if you’re taking a test in the United States is whether the test is standardized. This is easy. Are multiple people in various locations taking the same test at the same time? If yes, congratulations, you’re taking a standardized test!

There aren’t many good ways to compare students who received their education at different schools. Standardized tests fill this role. For example, the combination of an undergraduate student’s GPA and LSAT score is highly predictive of how well that student will do in the first year of law school. (Prospective law students: note that this combination only predicts first year success, or more precisely how prepared you were for the work when you entered law school.)

One advantage of taking a standardized test is that the organizations running these tests tend to have all kinds of useful resources for prospective examinees. Among other things, you may be able to find subject guides, old tests, and answers to those old tests. Reading through these resources and using them to study can let you know exactly what to expect on the test. If you can find them, you can use them to your advantage. I strongly suggest checking.

One complaint people make about standardized tests is that schools will adjust to changes in standards by “teaching to the test.” Since I’m just talking about what you can do to do well, that’s a subject for another time.

b. What information am I expected to understand?

Additionally, some people mistakenly believe that standardized tests including the LSAT can’t be studied for. I think whoever started that rumor was watching that episode of Star Trek where the testing authority wanted to see how students dealt with fears they didn’t know they had. Of course all tests can be studied for. You just have to find out what subject matter is being tested, and then study the appropriate subjects.

In the case of the LSAT, the headings tell you the subject matter. Three sections deal with logic. Logic is usually neatly tucked away in the philosophy or mathematics departments. Oversimplification: logic is a thinking system used to solve problems. We use logic, but it’s more often the case that we use arguments that don’t work to try and win arguments. If I say the light is green and your counter with, “but it used to be yellow,” you didn’t win the argument, you changed the subject. You may even feel emotionally satisfied with your “win,” but in this specific case, you would have had to prove that the light is not green now, rather than talking about what the light was before. Learning how to use logic helps us to avoid these kinds of false wins.

Logic also helps us to build legal arguments, which fail miserably without it. It is for this reason that the LSAT tests one’s ability to use logic. But if you don’t know classes exist on this subject, aren’t required to take it, or don’t take it at random, you won’t even know it exists. With no foundation or experience in a subject it’s hard to do well on a test of the subject. But once you know what you’re expected to understand, you can start working on your objective.

c. What exactly is my objective, anyway?

Depends on the test. Is the test pass/fail or does it compare you to others? The bar exam, for example, is pass/fail. When I took the New York test, you needed 665 out of 1000 points, or a D+ to pass. To the best of my knowledge, all bar exams require a similar level of competency for one to pass.

In contrast, tests like the LSAT test your skill relative to other people taking the test. I don’t want to bore you with a dissertation on statistical transformation methods, so let me explain using the LSAT as an example. The test has 100 questions. The average of all scores is about 50 questions right. Most examinees get near 50 questions right – let’s pretend that the range is from 40 – 60. This range would be where you place a bet if you’re choosing a student at random. Fewer people will get below 40 or above 60, and even fewer will get below, say, 20, or above 80. Needless to say, the more questions you get right, the better you understand the subject.

On a test like this, your objective depends on what you want. Some schools will accept a person who gets half of the questions right. Others will only take students who get 90 – 100 right. Information regarding what students a school or organization accepts is usually available. If you’re taking a test like the LSAT, find this information first so you can have a goal to work toward. Setting goals increases your chance of success.

d. Got it. By the way, why am I taking this test?

Usually, we answer this question “to get into [business, law, med] school.” That’s not what I mean. If someone is asking you to take a test, there’s a reason for it. Admittedly, this reason can sometimes be hard to find. But understanding why a school or association thinks the test in question is important can be useful. As I mentioned above, the LSAT tests the basic skills needed to do well in law school. Schools choose students from a narrow range of GPA and LSAT score because people learn best when they learn with people of similar ability. Too far ahead or behind and the outlying student is not well served by the school.

In contrast, states started administering bar exams for reasons unique to each state. Common themes for instituting bar exams are concerns about incompetent lawyers and a variety of standards across a state. This means that lawyers in one part of a state had to meet higher standards that lawyers in another part of the state. Pennsylvania even used to have a weird situation where a lawyer could only practice in the county the lawyer was admitted to practice in. So, if your client had legal needs in another county, the client might have to find a new lawyer.

In any case, knowing why the test was instituted in the first place gives you an idea of why you’re being forced asked to take a test. Of course, some people disagree with using tests as a gateway to a career, especially where schooling can cost upwards of $150,000, but the arguments for and against are a subject for another time.

With these preliminary factors out of the way, I turn to

Step 2: Studying harder by studying smarter

Usually, when you hear the phrase “work smarter, not harder,” someone is about to tell you about an amazing new shortcut to make your life easier – for $19.95. I’m giving this information away for free, so I’ll be telling you about amazing ways to learn that actually work – but I’m happy to take donations.

By “studying smarter,” I mean that you can use what is known about how the brain works to increase the effectiveness of your study sessions. This allows you to learn more information in a shorter time, giving you a better chance of getting a higher score on your test.

a. So, what’s going on in our heads?

First, an extreme oversimplification: we learn and remember new things because the neurons in our brain make, and then strengthen, connections to other neurons in our brain. This occurs on a surface level through repeated exposure, and on a deeper level through trying to remember and use the information. At the deepest level, you make connections between the new information and other things you’ve learned, allowing you to build on top of your previous knowledge.

calvin-hobbes-numbers-in-mortal-combat
Probably not the kind of connections I was talking about

For example, when you first started walking, your parents told you to stay away from something hot. But, being two years old and all, you had no idea what they were talking about and laughed at them while they tried to stop you from experiencing “hot.” And as they ran to stop you, you put your hand on the radiator and started crying as you finally understood the definition of the word “hot.” Later, as young kids do, you repeated the word “hot” repeatedly anytime you looked at the radiator, your parents confirming that the radiator was indeed hot.

But that isn’t all you learned about “hot.” It comes from the sun, the stove, car engines. It can keep you warm, make you sweat, cook food, iron clothes. These connections between your idea of the word “hot” and the various things it’s connected to helped to cement the idea of “hot” in your brain.

b. That’s cool and all, but how does that information help me study?

The key thing here is that attempts to use information helps cement ideas in your head. With that in mind, you can add retrieval practice to your study to give your brain the best chance of remembering what you’re supposed to be learning. Need an example? Here’s my daily study schedule for the bar exam. You can adjust the hours according to your needs:

Retrieval Practice (4 hours, with one 15-minute break)

  • Write one essay from a past bar exam, open book and untimed
  • Attempt to answer 30 multiple choice questions from past bar exams (six areas of law were tested, so this was five questions each)
  • Review flash cards (see below)

Lunch (1 hour)

Reading, aka “Studying” (6 hours, two subjects per day, with one break)

For those unfamiliar with bar exam study, yes, that’s right, I studied ten hours per day almost every day for ten weeks. And there were 27 subjects on my exam. Here’s the rationale for each of these decisions:

Reading

I had no choice. Out of the 27 subjects on my exam, only six of the major topics were required classes in law school. I took those six three years before, and without use, I would only remember some of what I was taught. So, even though I was enrolled in a bar exam prep course, I still had to read a semester’s worth of a subject to be fully prepared for one or two questions on the topic. Most subjects had enough information that they could not be read in less than three hours. As a result, I read for six hours a day.

Essays

Writing the essays served two purposes: (1) improving my skills to the point that writing was automatic, which left me more time to consider the legal issues at hand; and (2) using the legal rules in context, so that I could remember them better. Fighting to learn information, in this case by digging though pages and pages to make sure my answer was complete, helps you to retain information better. Additionally, this allowed me study subjects that weren’t part of my reading that day.

The bar exam prep company gave us essays that they made up for us to practice on. I skipped those and went straight for the old NY bar exam essays. After all, NYS provided years of old essays on its website (Note: NY has since moved over to the UBE. You can find old UBE essays here), and it made more sense to use the real thing rather than something that someone else made up. This gave me direct experience with the kind of essays I’d be writing on the exam.

Writing the essays untimed gives me another advantage – no additional pressure because I’m trying to beat a clock. There would be plenty of time for beating the clock on the day of the test.

If you have time, find someone to give you detailed feedback on your work, so you can write the next essay with that feedback in mind. This is part of the idea behind deliberate practice, which I’ll have to explain in more detail at another time.

Finally, writing an essay every day allowed me to see my improvement, and celebrate small wins. For me, a small win was any noticeable improvement. Understand the form of the essay better? Win! Got through the essay a little faster? Win! The first essay took me about an hour to write. The final essay took me about 20 minutes to write. But celebrating with each noticeable improvement (about once a week or once every two weeks) let me know I was on track, and inspired me to stay on task.

Multiple choice

The year I took the bar, I had to answer a total of 250 multiple choice questions. Therefore, seeing what they might look like was also important. Here, I looked at the question, tried to figure out what the correct answer was and why, and then chose an answer. When I saw whether I was right or wrong, I went back and read the reasons why all of the answers were right and wrong.

Again, this allowed me to cover multiple subjects that I might not have been reading up on that day, celebrate small wins, and gauge my progress. Here, I was shooting to get 75% of the questions correct, because that would mean I wouldn’t have to take the bar exam if I wanted to get a law license for two or three other states. Also, the higher I scored on this section, the lower I could score on the other sections and still pass. Again, setting a goal helps you achieve what you want.

Flash cards

The old school, hand-written flash card is the ultimate retrieval practice tool. First, you write down the information you want to remember on one side, and what it refers to on the other side. Writing things down on paper helps your brain to remember things. So does trying to remember what you wrote.

Next, you take either side of a card, and try to remember what’s on the other side. Over time, your brain makes those connections, and it’s easier for you to remember what’s on either side of the card.

I had to deal with 27 different subjects, though, so this could have easily gotten out of hand. Therefore, I limited the number of cards to a maximum of 25 per subject. I further limited the content of the cards to things I didn’t know or couldn’t easily remember. After all, is there a point in putting a lot of effort into what you already know? Finally, because even with these limitations, going through all the cards could take over an hour, I found a way to review the smallest number of cards on any given day. This is called the Leitner system.

To do this, you’ll need three boxes (or bags – it doesn’t matter, as long as you can separate the cards).

On day 1, review all of the cards. Remember what’s on the other side? Put it in box 2. Don’t remember it? Put it back in box 1. Do this every day until day 7 (Note: day 7 is arbitrary. I used day 2 here).

On day 7, pull out box 1 and box 2. Start with box 2. Remember what’s on the other side? Put it in box 3. Forgot what’s on the other side? Put it back in box 1. When you’re finished, review the cards in box 1 that you haven’t looked at yet. Do this every day until day 28 (Note: day 28 is also arbitrary. I used day 3 here).

On day 28, pull out all three boxes. Start with box 3. Remember what’s on the other side? Put it back in box 3. Forgot what’s on the other side? Put it in box 2. Continue with the cards in boxes 2 and 1 as before. Still having trouble? See below:

Leitner_system_animation

Continuing in this fashion will help you reinforce your memory only when you need to – when you’re at the edge of forgetting. It will also help you concentrate on learning only the things you don’t already know, which saves you time. Along those lines, when reading you can also skim parts of subjects you know very well, allowing you to concentrate on reading the things you don’t know very well.

Note that all of this is in contrast to what many of us usually do to prepare for tests – read entire passages over and over in an attempt to memorize information. As you may remember from your seventh grade Spanish class – or more to the point, not remember – simply rereading information helps you memorize for the short term, not learn. If you want to learn, you have to be in Spain, at the store, looking for cookies but not knowing how to say the word. You then run down the hill to the store at the bottom of the hill, pick up a pack of Oreos and ask the clerk in Spanish how to say cookies. When he responds galletas and you run back up the hill to tell the other cashier that you’ve figured out that you were talking about galletas and he responds that he didn’t have what you were looking for anyway…that memory will never fade.

And as an FYI – learning doesn’t feel like anything – other than a big headache (to me) as your brain tries to make connections between the one concept you’re trying to learn and its applications. We mistakenly expect learning to feel a certain way, but it doesn’t. We also expect to remember everything on the first try, but we don’t. We only think we do, and we are rarely tested on that assumption.

Rest, the real hero

Rest is important. We need rest. Our brains need rest. Did I say “rest?”

As you can see, I included rest periods in my schedule. I also included rest outside of my schedule. I left early when it was clear I wasn’t going to be able to take in any new information. I stayed home when I woke up and my brain told me, “no!” I slept well every night, and took what was probably a total of two hours a day to walk around, eat food, crack jokes, and talk to people.

Your brain needs this downtime to build connections, store information, and prepare you for the next task. Without it, things go haywire.

Unfortunately, too many examinees make the mistake of not getting rest, or cramming all night rather than letting their brains do the work that they do. It’s understandable because that’s what’s been passed down to us. However, we’ve since learned that rest is essential for memory formation and brain development.

So, if I didn’t say it already, get some rest!

You didn’t mention study groups

I haven’t mentioned study groups because I didn’t use study groups while taking the bar. It was only after I took the test that I learned the best way to use a study group – everyone in the room should have different strengths. Those who are unclear on some issue that their friend understands well try to explain, and the ones who know clarify. This is so much better than just sitting in silence in a room full of other people, laughing from time to time about random stuff.

calvinandhobbesmath-4
This Calvin and Hobbes strip accurately depicts my experience in study groups.

What about multitasking?

We’re not good at it. Cut off the music, TV, email, internet, and phone. Do one thing at a time.

Step 3: Preventing test anxiety before it starts

Please take a minute to compare the various things I’ve discussed so far. Hopefully, you will see what binds them all together – these are all things you have control over.

Anxieties, however, concern things we either don’t have control over or think we don’t have control over. Two oversimplified examples: “I can’t control what’s going to happen to me next” = learned helplessness. “People like me don’t do well on this kind of test” = stereotype threat. In both of these psychological phenomena, a person believes (for different reasons) that what’s about to happen next is out of their control for some reason or another.

As noted above, the interesting thing is that people can experience these phenomena even when things are actually in their control, causing our stress response to kick in. Constant stress, even when it’s psychological, can make it easier to associate different factors with fear and turn them into long-term memories. When this memory is activated, we can become anxious even if there’s no objective reason to be. And to make matters worse, this process has to be unlearned, but the same factors that make fear associations easy to learn make them hard to unlearn.

Let’s say, for example, that you’ve come to believe “people like me don’t do well on this test.” It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, female, or a high school sports star, every group you identify with is subject to some version of this belief. You may start to prime yourself for failure in advance, saying something like “this test is biased against us.” For the record, this is a real biased test. Please take ten minutes to see what it feels like. Seriously. I’ll wait.

With this priming in mind, you may not study as hard as you would otherwise, ignoring all of the tests you passed since kindergarten, and all of the factors noted above that are completely in your control. Even if you do study well and are fully prepared, incorrectly assessing the situation can cause you to second guess yourself, failing a test you would otherwise pass, because you thought some immutable characteristic about yourself was important when the only thing truly important was how much work you put in to understand the material.

So, to prevent anxiety, you have to remember how much is in your control, and how much you’ve done with that control. You may not have control over the time, place or content, but you definitely have control over how well-prepared you are before you take most tests.

There is one caveat to all of this – losing a loved one, breaking up with a significant other, or having an undiagnosed learning disability can derail your success, even when you’re fully prepared. I’m sure that people pass under these circumstances, but the first two definitely take away from your mental energy.

Conclusion

At some point, we all have to take tests. These tips got me through 24 hours of testing over three days to pass two bar exams. I trust they can help you, too.

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3 comments

  1. This post was extremely helpful. I do have a question about your schedule. You stated that you used a bar prep course, but the required bar exercises or classes were not mentioned in your schedule. Is this schedule reflective of after you attended your class for the day? How close to the companies suggested coursework did you stay?

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    1. Hi Greg, thanks for writing. My apologies, I should’ve been more explicit. My routine evolved over the course of the summer. At first, I was doing everything the program asked of me. My first change was early in the program. They started us off slowly, and it took a few weeks for the program to give us a lot of work. So, I started putting more work into my study instead of sitting around watching TV.

      My second change was after I took a supplemental bar course. The instructor was one of the people who wrote and graded essays. I took his advice to read two subjects per day, write one essay per day, and do a number of MBE questions per day. Note that these little things add up. One essay per day 5 days a week for 10 weeks is 50 essays (200 if you count the fact that there were four mini-essays in each essay). 24 MBE questions/5 days/10 weeks = 1200 MBE questions.

      In the beginning, I still had to go to class, so I incorporated this new information by going to class in the morning, and utilizing a truncated version in the evening. One essay, the MBE questions, and 3 hours of reading a subject other than the one taught in the morning – which took three or four hours alone. Once class ended, I added in the second three hours.

      With respect to the essays, I switched over to using only the old essays from past tests pretty early. One of the professors had said something along the lines of “you’re not ready to take the old bar exam tests yet. Besides, ours are better.” My reaction to that statement was to take a look at the bar exam essays. They were shorter, and besides, this was actually what we’d be tested on, so I started doing them exclusively.

      I turned in a few of the essays, but my friends and I all felt the company was not only undergrading, but not giving any useful details. So, I went to my writing professor instead to ask if I was doing my essays correctly. I turned in at least one sample per week, and stopped submitting essays to the company.

      I didn’t start the flash cards right away, either. I started using them after reading an article on “brain hacks.” The article in question talked about the use of flash cards to memorize, and the use of the Leitner Method. I would recommend writing the flash cards as you go, because it took me the better part of two days to write the flash cards.

      I also remember there was one exercise the company created that involved retrieval practice that I kept and I used their MBE prep software (which also gave you more of the questions you got wrong so you could study what you don’t know). There was some exercise that involved filling in blanks that I thought was useless. I also thought that typing out the entire day’s lesson was of little value, partially because I couldn’t re-type the entire lesson in those last three hours. It turns out that handwriting is better for your memory than typing, so, I’d definitely vote for handwriting a limited number of flash cards rather than typing an entire lesson.

      So, in short, I stumbled into doing what has been shown to work – deliberate practice (by having a professor give me detailed feedback on my essays), retrieval practice (by doing essays open book, flash cards, etc.), studying using the actual test to the extent that I could, etc. I also did Lumosity brain training every day, first, because I thought it would help. It was only after I went back to school for psychology after the bar exam that I learned why these things work. I adjusted my methods as I learned, keeping a few things from the paid program and trashing the rest. I definitely got lucky when it came to choosing the right activities from conflicting options.

      My advice here is the same – the information I’m providing works because it’s based on research. But the bar prep courses provide a structured learning environment – which many people need. Because you have a limited amount of time, doing one thing means not doing another. So, I’d suggest incorporating my advice piece by piece. For example, you could start with the post-lunch essay and MBE questions. And as you read new subjects, you can write at most 25 flash cards for things you don’t know or don’t understand from each subject. As the summer wears on, you can come back to this article to see what you can or can’t incorporate into your schedule.

      Hope this helps!

      Dwayne

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