Ask The Edit: 14 Tips for Bar Exam Takers
Jul 18, 2017
Next week, the newest crop of aspiring lawyers will walk into convention centers and lecture halls to take the 2017 Summer Bar Exam. To those about to rock, I salute you. Yesterday, one of your fellow
victims test-takers asked for some advice about preparing for the exam. So I’ve compiled the best advice I received and the best decisions I made (or didn’t) below.
To those who have no interest in this post, check back tomorrow for new fashion content and return to your blissfully bar-free lives. If you intend to read on, be prepared, this is the longest post I’ve ever written.
Pack Your Suitcase Now. The stress level during the 72-hours before the exam is high. Small tasks feel monumental. Packing your suitcase today ensures that you have everything you want to wear and bring ready to go. Just make a list, and check things off of it. Then, double check that everything is packed the night before.
What to Pack. Some items I would not be without:
Bring medication. Tylenol, antacid, antidiarrheal, anti-constipation, allergy medicine, band-aids, etc. You may need it, you may not. But if you need it, you do not want to be hunting for a pharmacy.
Bring one bar prep book. Yes, just one. If you’re doing BarBri, the Mini-Conviser is the book to bring. I tell you this not so you will study, but because you will likely not be able to stop yourself from studying. You will leave the exam and be suddenly overcome with an earth-quaking desire to know the difference between a modification and an accord. And in that moment, it is far better to look up that information than to allow the thought to fester.
Bring two test-center packs. The WA test center asked exam-takers to bring pencils, highlighters, erasers, etc. in a Ziploc baggie that could only contain those items plus one room key, one ID, and one credit card. Pack your Ziploc baggie now, in fact, pack two of them.
(Maybe) Bring an analog watch. You will not be allowed to bring your phone into the testing room. If you use your phone as a watch, go buy a watch, make sure there’s a new battery in it. You don’t want to leave the test center for lunch without a way to know what time it is. Can’t wear a watch inside your test center? Buy a cheap one you don’t give a damn about and leave it in the area where people store their bags.
Bring your glasses. Contact wearers, do not forget spare pairs, and bring your glasses.
Do Not Do Anything New. I don’t drink coffee regularly. On the morning of the exam, I was dead tired. But I did not drink any coffee because I did not know how it would affect me. This advice goes for new medications (sleeping pills included), beauty products, food items, and anything else you might be tempted to do for the first time. This is not the time for an adverse reaction.
Make Everything a Habit. In the week leading up to the bar, I got up at 6:15am. I showered. I ate a granola bar and drank one glass of water. I did not eat or drink anything else all morning. I then went upstairs to my office, put in my earplugs and studied for three hours, non-stop. I took a one hour break, came back and did it again in the afternoon. I also put my phone in the other room while I was studying.
I wanted my actions on test day to be routine. I wanted my body to be prepared to sit for long periods, to not get hungry for a snack at 10am (my usual breakfast time), and to be ready for bed at 11pm. Sounds easy, but it’s surprisingly difficult to stick to a rigid schedule when you don’t have to.
Travel 24 Hours Before, at Minimum. I was planning to fly over the day before the Wednesday bar. A LOT of readers jumped into the comments to say I needed to go Monday night, and I am so glad I did. Yes, it cost me another $150 for a hotel, but it was so worth it. It gave me a cushion in case there were travel problems. It let me visit the convention center the day before to get the lay of the land. And it gave me time to relax, study a little, and not feel stressed about traveling. A+ advice.
Do a Reconnaissance Mission. Visit the test center the day before. Time the drive/walk. Find the parking lot you’re going to use. The building you’ll be in. The door you’ll walk through. Locate the registration tables. Ask if you can just look inside the room. Find the nearest restroom. Don’t let where you’re parking, where you’re going, or where you’re using the restroom to be a surprise on test day. You can’t afford to be lost.
Also, take note of the temperature of the room. You don’t want to be wearing shorts if the room is going to be 50-degrees. Nor, do you want to be wearing a sweater if there’s no AC.
Read the List of Probitied Items List 10x. Read it today, right now, I’ll wait. If you need special permission to bring your inhaler/cough drops/extra contacts/etc., make sure you have it.
There is typically no food allowed in the testing room. My colleague got a doctor’s note to bring in four Jolly Ranchers for “low blood sugar.” He was concerned he might need a jolt half-way through to keep him awake, and sugar works just as well as coffee. They approved it, but he had to remove the exterior wrappers. Seem crazy? If you get a petty tyrant checking your pockets and Ziploc bag, you don’t need the stress of having to throw things away or be without them (esp. if you can’t be without your meds or glasses). You may get a reasonable person, and it may turn out okay, but why risk it?
Make Sure Your Tech Conforms. Do you have a Macbook with a touch bar? You better make sure that’s allowed. In WA, you had to inform them in advance and prove you’d disabled the touch bar on the day of the exam. You also need to download Examsoft and make sure it works far in advance of the test. There will be tech people in the room (at least there were in WA) but you don’t want to need them for anything.
Do Not Study the Night Before. Like I said above, you likely won’t be able to stop yourself from studying. But skim, don’t cram. I downloaded the BarBri app and did multiple choice the night before. It helped me stay in the zone, but if I didn’t learn anything, no big deal. Some of you might be able to ignore this all completely, if so, you’re mentally stronger than I am.
On the Topic of Food and Drink. The night before the bar exam, I ate an egg sandwich from Starbucks’ that I’ve eaten 100x before. After the first day, some classmates and I went to a restaurant that one of us had been to before and had cheeseburgers. Do not eat sushi. Do not eat potato salad. Do not drink alcohol (or if you must to decompress, limit yourself to one drink and drink what you usually drink). Do not decide that this is the night to try Thai food from an unknown source. You get the picture.
If you’re going to bring your lunch, do not bring anything that must be refrigerated, as you may not have access to refrigeration. Same goes for microwavable things. Do not bring anything spicy or that may force a trip to the restroom. I would bring PBJ, a mandarin orange, some Cheez-Its, and a bottle of water. Think boring and bland but filling. If you’re the kind of person who gets a mental boost from having a specific treat (all hail the Fudge Graham), pack it. You’ll need/deserve it.
If you intend to go out, know where you’re going the morning of. Know what’s on the menu. Ask the server what will take the least amount of time, and order that. Give him your credit card when he delivers your food. Leave before you think you need to. If you’re really concerned, order your food to go and eat it in the hallway outside the exam room.
Build in Fail Safes. I was taking the bar at the same time as some of my classmates. We all agreed we would meet in the lobby at a certain time. We swapped room information, so that if someone was missing, we could go get them. I got a wake-up call in addition to my cell phone alarm and my iPad alarm. Every year, someone sleeps through the start time, don’t let it be you.
You Will Think You Failed; This is Completely Normal. In the weeks leading up to the bar, I felt wholly unprepared. I even toyed with the idea of postponing until July. My readers, without exception, commented that they all felt the same way before the bar. Feelings of inadequacy of failure, of concern are completely normal.
I didn’t complete an essay and left 10% of an MPT unfinished. I also missed 9 out of 10 contracts questions. I still passed. Unless you’re in California or some equally cruel state, your odds of passage are better than your odds of failure. And if you fail, you can take it again and pass. There’s no shame in retaking the bar. SCOTUS Justice Cardozo failed multiple times, so do lots of other great lawyers.
Don’t Quit. Twenty minutes into the bar exam, a guy got up, collected his things, and left. Five minutes later, it happened again. In fact, it happened four more times before the first hour was up. Odds are most of those people didn’t complete the essays, and just gave up. Everyone has a moment when they think they should quit. It’s better to fail than quit.
Test Tips. The Bar is a test of “minimum competency.” You don’t have to know everything about a subject, you just have to know enough to analyze the problem in a “lawyer-like manner.” Here was the strategy that worked for me.
First, I skimmed all six essays very quickly to figure out which subjects I was dealing with. This took <10 mins. I then numbered the essays 1 to 6, six being the essay I felt the least confident about. My strategy was that if I ran out of time (which I did), it was better not to complete an essay I wouldn’t get as many points on than one I knew well.
Second, I made one critical error. I am a family law savant. My Father is a divorce lawyer, so I’ve been typing dissolution agreements since 7th grade. The February bar had a common law marriage question. Instead of remembering this was a test of minimum competency, I wrote a bible. Mis-take. This is why I ran out of time.
Last, this left me with only 11-minutes to write essay number six, a securities question. I barely know securities law. So I pulled a trick that a friend suggested, make up a logical rule based on what you know, then follow it through your analysis. Might it be the wrong rule, yes. But it’s better than writing nothing. I am absurdly glad that this was the essay I ran out of time on because I didn’t feel like I’d left many points on the board.
One last tip that relates mostly to the MPT: pay attention to the example. If one of your questions says that your essay should follow a sample they give you, for god sake follow it. Our MPT cruelly required numbered paragraphs, and they disabled the numbering function in Examsoft. Lots of people just skipped the numbers. Do not do this. If there’s a sample, look it over first so that as you’re forming your thoughts, you’re comporting them to the sample.
Any other bar exam tips? I know this is a lot, probably too much, but once you’ve lived through and passed the bar, you become something of an evangelist about survival. And never forget, failing just means you can come back and do it again in February.