5 Good and 5 Bad Bar Exam Study Strategies

Guest post by Mary Campbell Gallagher.

The people who pass the bar exam are not necessarily smarter than the people who fail. But they do use different study strategies. Good study strategies are active, not passive. They help you get the rules into your mental inventory. Then you can whip them out when you need them for a fast analysis of a fact pattern on the bar exam.

Here are ten study strategies: five bad ones and five good ones.

Bad study strategies

Bad study strategies make you feel like you are working hard–and you are working hard–but they do not cause the law to stick to your brain or increase your ability to do legal analysis. They exhaust you, but they do not challenge you.

1. Just reading and reading. If the aim is to learn the law, just reading will not work. Period. We all tried it in law school. If it didn’t work then, it will not work for the bar exam. You need to study actively, not just passively.

2. Making long outlines, or re-outlining your long outlines. Recopying notes. Or recopying anything. Writing things out feels like real work, and as you write and the law passes by your eyes, you have the feeling that you are learning something. But you are not. Just wait three or four hours and ask yourself what you have learned. Chances are, Nothing.

3. Trying to review the law by listening to tapes or other recordings covering material you have not yet learned. You can only review what you already know.

4. Listening twice to new lecture material on a DVD. Or even listening once at normal speed. Do NOT push the cursor back and listen to any part of a lecture again. If there’s something you didn’t catch, study the topic in your books. And there are ways to speed up a DVD without altering the sound. Don’t let watching DVDs eat up your time.

5. Doing 35 or 50 . . . or 100 MBE practice questions a day before you have mastered the law. If you don’t know the law, doing questions will not magically raise your grade. Students come to me who have worn themselves out doing thousands of practice questions, year after year, on one bar exam after the next. Their children never see them. And they never raise their grades. First learn the law, then do practice questions.

Good study strategies

Good study strategies are active, not passive. They get you out of your comfort zone. In some cases, in fact, they are excruciatingly painful. But with good study strategies, the law sticks to your brain. You master it, and you can apply it.

Good strategies include the following:

1. Ask questions about the material before you read it. Quiz yourself afterwards. Whatever you study, make sure you can explain it to another person. Try explaining the law to a six-year-old. If you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it. Keep working until your explanations are clear.

2. Do the quizzes your bar review course gives you. Review the questions and answers until you can explain the answers to a six-year-old. See above.

3. Make your own flashcards and use them, and work from the short outlines your bar-prep courses or the bar examiners give you. These strategies are two sides of the bar review legal structure, the individual rules and how the rules for each area of law fit together. You must know both.

4. Make a plan for reviewing everything three or four times, quizzing yourself as you go along. Keep track of the date on which you review each set of notes. One review is not enough. Make a chart to be sure you are reviewing over and over again, quickly.

5. Especially painful, and very valuable. Analyze the fact patterns of MBE questions to make sure you know exactly how the rule of law applies to the facts. The MBE questions rarely contain traps or tricks. It just seems that way, if you can’t systematically apply the rules to the facts.

Use good study strategies. Learn the law. Pass the bar exam.

Mary Campbell Gallagher is founder and president of BarWrite® and BarWrite Press, which have been offering supplemental courses for the bar exam for more than 20 years. She is the author of Scoring High on Bar Exam Essays and Perform Your Best on the Bar Exam Performance Test (MPT).

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/carlc/3846080374/)

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  • Jason Grimes

    This is all conventional wisdom stuff. Number 3 under “good strategies” is a total waste of time, and contradicts number 2 under “bad strategies.” I spent $75 total on my bar review (Emanuel’s Strategies & Tactics for the MBE). I borrowed friends’ old BarBri stuff and other free online materials. I studied on my own, other than writing about 10 state essays for mutual critiquing with a friend.
    The keys are: (1) reading and re-reading outlines till you’re blue in the face;
    (2) Writing and re-writing the 2 dozen rules that you just KNOW you’re going to have to regurgitate on the written exam;
    (3) Writing enough practice essay answers to get a feel for time allocation;
    (4) studying outlines again and again;
    (5) doing some (not a ton) MBE questions and reading the explanations; and
    (6) being of above-average intelligence.
    You don’t have to put in more than 200 hours. You don’t need to waste your money & time going to some room to listen to more lectures (or watch a DVD) with other schmucks. I can’t tell you how many LS acquantances who bemoaned the hundreds of wasted hours from over-studying. You only need to be in the 16th or 22st percentile!

  • Jason Grimes

    *21st* – sorry