May 14, 2012
Two Most Common Bar Exam “Confidence Traps” by Ronald Dees
The Two Most Common Bar Exam “Confidence Traps” and How You Can Avoid Them
By Ronald D. Dees
Building and maintaining a healthy confidence level is an important component to overall bar exam preparation. There are typically two “Confidence Traps” that cause examinees to be at risk of performing poorly on the bar exam. Students can either be so paranoid about failing that they lose confidence and literally allow their fears to overwhelm them, or on the other end of the spectrum a student can be too confident and thereby underestimate the level of preparation necessary to be successful. By knowing the traits of students who typically fall victim to these “Confidence Traps,” you can evaluate your bar exam confidence level in order to avoid falling into the traps.
The most common confidence trap is the “paranoia trap.” This student is the one who allows his lack of confidence to overwhelm him. The causes of the lack of confidence can be many things. Perhaps the student performed somewhat poorly in law school, or for some reason just does not feel like he can handle the stress and difficulty of preparing for the bar exam.
The key to success for students who lack confidence for any reason is to develop a study plan designed to build confidence through self-assessment and feedback.
If you find yourself in this category, know that you are not alone and the best way to overcome these feelings is to construct a study plan that will help you build a healthy confidence level over time. Doing so will cause you to reach a point where you will know in your heart and mind that you are ready to perform well on exam day.
Many bar takers lack confidence and almost everyone feels overwhelmed by the volume of material they are presented with during bar preparation. Don’t allow such feelings to defeat you. First of all, you must remind yourself that no one gets every question correct or writes perfectly edited script on the bar exam. Secondly, everyone who has ever taken the bar exam felt like they could have used a few more days or weeks to prepare. No student can possibly know “all” of the law. However, if you prepare diligently, on exam day you should feel that you are as well prepared as anyone else in the room and are probably prepared better than most. That feeling itself is a great confidence booster.
Self-assessment and feedback are the keys to building a healthy level of confidence. Throughout your bar preparation, track your progress as you improve on your MBE test questions and take note as you succeed in memorizing more and more law. Write essays and turn them in to someone in your school’s Bar Services or Academic Support Program for review and feedback. If your school does not have such a program, find a professor who is willing to look at your essays and give you feedback.
Another facet of avoiding the paranoia trap is to make a study plan that you feel confident about. It should be one that you know will work for you based on your past success. Stick to your plan, work hard, and work smart. Identify the things you have done in the past that were not helpful or were detrimental to your studying or study habits, and eliminate those things. Constantly assess your plan and be willing to get rid of things that are not working and do more of the things that are working well for you. Keep in mind that you don’t have to have the best score on the bar exam, you just have to pass. However, you want to prepare like you are trying to earn an A, so that even if you have a bad day, you can still be confident that you are capable of scoring a C and passing the exam.
Not as common, but still worth discussing are those bar takers who fall into the “overconfidence trap.”
The student who may fall into this trap underestimates the difficulty, complexity, and demands of proper bar exam preparation. This student typically self identifies as very intelligent and falls into one of two personality types. She may have been either a top-of-the-class “Law Journal Type,” or she was what I refer to as the “Voluntary Under-Achiever.”
The key to success for both of the above types of students is to develop a healthy respect for the difficulty of the bar exam.
The Law Journal Type thinks to herself, “I am one of the top law students in my class, so passing the bar exam is not going to be a problem for me. I will study for it a little, but I am smart enough to pass the bar exam without much real effort. I mean, after all, it is just a test of minimal competency. No problem for a smart girl like me.”
The Voluntary Under-Achiever has trouble staying devoted to studying and typically does just enough to get by. She is smart and knows it. After all she was smart enough to make it through law school with average or above average grades while putting forth only moderate effort. She thinks to herself, “I am a smart girl and I pretty much skated through law school with no problem, so I can do the same on the bar exam. I’ll put in a few hours of study time here and there and maybe cram a little just before the exam, but I don’t need to study for hours and hours, day after day, week after week. I never had to study that way in college or law school and I still passed, so the bar exam should be no different.”
Both of the above types of students need to develop a healthy respect for the difficulty of the bar exam. If you fit into either of these personality types, you need to realize early on that the bar exam is a lot like law school finals, except that it is about five to ten times as difficult. You see, final exams in law school are usually tested over a two week period and you may even have some time to prepare between tests. Furthermore, you typically take four or five classes per semester, so you only have to prepare for four or five legal subjects. Also, many times one or two classes might be a “paper class” where turning in a paper is the final, and one or two classes might also have an open book exam. So, you actually only have to memorize the law for one to three subjects to prepare for finals.
On the bar exam, you will need to memorize the rules of law for 15 to 20 subject areas depending on what is tested in your state. Thus, it will take five to ten times as much work to prepare for the exam as it did to prepare for finals. If you spent three to four weeks preparing for finals, you would need thirty to forty weeks to prepare for the bar if preparing at the same pace that you used in law school. Now, obviously you don’t have that many weeks between graduation and the bar exam, so you are going to have to devote more time per day and per week to studying for the bar than you did in law school, even though you are really smart. Otherwise, you risk being poorly prepared and having an unsuccessful result on the exam.
Developing a healthy respect for the difficulty of the bar exam will help you avoid falling into the overconfidence trap and will motivate you to develop and stick to a study schedule that reflects the time commitment necessary to properly prepare.
In conclusion, the key to this success for all students is to balance a healthy respect for the difficulty of the bar exam with the confidence that comes from being well prepared on exam day. You can allow that healthy respect to motivate you to prepare properly, and in turn, knowing that you are well prepared will help you maintain your level of confidence, reduce stress, and improve your performance on exam day.
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