June 30, 2011
Gearing students up for bar prep
I haven't worked on bar prep for a couple of years, but I speak to many colleagues at other law schools who spend most of their summer working with alumni on preparing for the bar exam.This is a short list of recommendations based on what I have heard from colleagues and my own experience preparing students for the bar exam:
1) Never take the bar exam "for practice"
Look at the bar exam for what it is--THE bar exam. Students who worry about anxiety getting in the way of performance sometimes tell themselves they will take it once "for practice" to become acquainted with the exam. However, this can lead them to sloppy study techniques. I hope this attitude becomes more rare with the changes in the economy. Students do themselves a disservice when they try to alleviate anxiety by telling themselves they can take it again, because it removes ALL the pressure. Some pressure to perform is good, because it focuses study. There is a middle ground between paralyzing anxiety and dismissing the exam as practice. Students should focus on that middle ground.
2) Don't let practice tests scare you--let them guide your study
Early practice exams frequently come back marked up with significant suggestions. Students need to realize that they have time to fix the errors. Making mistakes in May and June does NOT mean they are not ready to take the bar exam. It usually means they need more focused practice on the areas that are difficult for them. Don't let students give up if they are struggling.
3) Practice your writing under timed conditions
Some students will take practice exams without the time constraints to test how much they know. This is a mistake because it gives them a false sense of confidence. It does not help a student if they know all the law, but it takes them too long to recall it. Knowledge of the law is critical, but being able to recall the law accurately while under pressure is essential to bar exam success.
4) Stay away from gimmicks
Oh, the gimmicks. There are too many to list. Students hear all about how to "game" the test, strategies to do well on one part and ignore another, or spend disproportionate amounts of time on some area of the law. I am not talking about smart studying based on examination of long-term trends on the exam, which is valid and helpful. I am referring to the word-of-mouth, unsubstantiated gimmicks that students hear about from people who took the bar decades ago, or from friends-of-friends-of-friends. These gimmicks almost always lead to problems. Studying for the bar exam is, for the most part, straightforward. Students need to know the law. Students need to be able to perform under timed conditions.
5) Don't over-study and burn out before the exam
Another tactic of students with exam anxiety is to study 12-14 hours a day, every day, and plan to keep up that schedule for over two months. It is not realistic that your mind or body can maintain that type of schedule. Focused, meaningful study, with breaks and time to enjoy life, is the path the success. It's all about balance. Overstudying means that by the time the exam comes, students won't have the stamina necessary for a 2-3 day test.
6) Don't beat yourself up over minor slip-ups in bar prep
Just like in life, stuff happens. You get sick. You just have a bad couple of days when you can't focus. Your car breaks down and you spend all day waiting for the mechanic to tell you what is wrong. While a bar prep schedule is critical, be sure that the study plan is flexible enough to accommodate life. If something throws the bar prep schedule off course, just get back to the schedule and plan to make up what was missed a little bit at a time, until it's all covered.
7) Don't talk to anyone about the exam during breaks or after it is finished
It is tempting for students on exam day to rehash what was difficult. DON'T LET THEM DO IT! It will freak them out and make them think they failed the exam. What is done is done. There is no point in rehashing the exam, because it leads to unnecessary anxiety.
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