Setting a High Bar: Passing the Hardest Exam Ever

Explaining why she felt so tired, one law student remarked, “If you thought the LSAT was hard, wait till you take the bar. It’s like comparing a summer cold to Ebola.” Why is the bar exam so difficult? For one, it doesn’t take a few hours. It takes a few days. Even if you live in a state with a comparatively easy exam, the operative word there is “comparatively.” The bar exam covers a wealth of information, some of it less obviously related to subjects you studied in law school. (For instance, Nevada’s bar exam only recently removed an essay topic on commercial paper products. Where’s Dunder Mifflin when you need them?) Reflecting on his exam experience, one lawyer said simply, “I was a mess.”

Managing Time, Managing Stress

A key source of stress is the struggle to manage time. Preparation is a key element of passing the bar starting many months before, particularly since the MBE, or multistate bar exam, covers civil and constitutional law, contracts, criminal law, rules of evidence, real property, and torts — and that’s just the multiple-choice section. The essay section includes multiple questions covering anything from drilled-down specifics about a particular state’s legislation to wider legal ethics questions.

Manageable Chunks

Many students elect to take a bar review course — and almost everyone is glad they did. A bar review course can break down the exam into bite-size chunks and laser-focus your entire effort on passing the exam. The other massive benefit to taking a bar review course is that it provides students with practice exams.

Known as “retrieval practice,” practice exams neutralize much of the memory-erasing properties of stress, and let’s face it — success on the bar exam is heavily reliant upon your ability to recall information when you are sweating under pressure. Moreover, even the most stressful situation, if practiced enough, becomes familiar. Bottom line, as one lawyer put it, learning how to take the test is as important as learning the material.

Learning the Material

Learning the material, however, is crucial as well. Without remembering the information, passing the exam can be an impossible task. In order for learning to “stick,” studying methods should be as effective as possible. Unfortunately, highlighting or rereading doesn’t work. One method that does work is distributed practice — the technique of studying in small chunks over time. With spaced repetition techniques, programs like Brainscape’s MBE flash cards focus your limited study time on the material that needs the most review, whether it’s con law, federal civil procedure, or any other MBE topics covered in Brainscape’s extensive flash card decks.

The bar exam is more than a test; it is a crucible Studying for it may result in, as one former student put it, “my lost summer.” Your summer may be lost, but with sufficient preparation, spaced repetition, distributed practice, and definitely a few practice exams, you will always remember what you need to pass the bar.