Across the United States, recent law school graduates have begun studying for the bar exam, a two-day (sometimes three-day) test offered during the last week of July and also in February). Each state gives its own version of the exam, which usually includes a day of tricky multiple choice questions and a day consisting of some combination of essay questions, short answer questions, and a closed-universe performance test. Intensive test-prep courses usually begin in late May, and many test-takers study full-time and then some.
The experience is undoubtedly stressful, and it is unlike anything most bar applicants have ever done up to this point. I’ve taken three of these exams now, and while practice helped to put things into perspective, the third did not seem any easier than the first. I’m sure those in the medical field who have had to take board exams and other professionals who have been subjected to similar long, difficult gateway exams can relate. When you’ve spent years in school and huge sums of money on your education intending to enter into a particular profession, knowing that your performance on one massive exam can make or break your dreams creates an enormous amount of pressure.
I’m not here to give you study tips or suggest memory devices; I’ll leave that to your test-prep class. Instead, I hope to talk you down from the ledge a bit and offer some advice for self-care during this stressful time.
- Remember that most people who take the bar exam pass it. (If you plan to practice in California, disregard this point. But kudos to you for being brave!)
- You can always take it again. I know nobody wants to do this, but it is possible. If you fail, you are not out of options. In fact, you may have many more chances.
- If you’ve come this far, you have what it takes to succeed. You graduated from college and law school. You made it through the SAT or ACT and the LSAT. Yes, this test is much longer and requires far more memorization than those tests, but you have the basic tools required to pass. Plus, you already know more than you think you know from your three years of law school and your internships and summer jobs. Use that knowledge to fill in the gaps when you forget something you were supposed to have memorized.
- Do not sacrifice sleep. Being well-rested is crucial for focus, learning, and memory recall. This is not the kind of exam for which you can cram anyway. So if you’re exhausted and frustrated, go take a nap.
- Don’t panic if you can’t keep up with your test-prep company’s scheduled assignments. Nobody can do all the things they tell you to do each day. Work diligently and cover a good cross-section of the materials and activities you are assigned, and forget about the rest. Really — sleep and self-care are more important to your success and well-being.
- Call or spend time with friends and family who are not studying for the exam (and ideally, who are not lawyers). They probably won’t understand what you’re going through, so don’t expect sympathy from them. Instead, allow your interactions with them to remind you that you have a whole life outside of the legal profession, that you were a whole person before you ever went to law school, and that there are people who will love you regardless of the outcome of this exam. Enjoy a few moments talking about something other than the rule against perpetuities and the dormant commerce clause.
- Limit the amount of time you spend with other bar-preppers. Many people find it helpful to go to the in-person bar prep classes every day rather than watching the videos on their own because the classes add structure to their days and allow some social interaction. That’s fine, but it’s probably best not to spend the rest of your day hanging out with your friends from law school. You really need to study for this exam on your own. Study groups are more likely to slow you down than to help you learn the material, and be honest with yourself: what are the chances that you’ll just end up distracting each other and procrastinating together? In addition, the stress engendered by the bar exam becomes more palpable and festers in groups. Don’t let other people stress you out. You don’t need to hear about how they’re studying; it will only make you doubt your own methods and progress. If you want to hang out with your law school friends, institute a ban on bar study talk.
- Continue to engage in spiritual practices. If you are a religious person, make time to go to church, temple, or mosque. Read spiritual texts. Pray, if that is something you usually do. If you have a meditation practice, continue to meditate. If you don’t do any of these things, you don’t need to start now, but find a way to stay grounded and remind yourself of what’s important in life. Go for a hike, stare up at the stars in the night sky, or do something else to help you appreciate the relative significance of the bar exam.
- Remember that at the end of July, pass or fail, this will all be over. You’ll be able to put down your books, relax, and hopefully take a vacation before starting your job. Like everything else in life, the bar exam is impermanent.
I’m sending you all lots of positive energy. Good luck!