Bar Exam Study Guide Tips

The people who pass the bar exam are not necessarily smarter than the people who fail. But they do use different study strategies when studying for the bar exam. A good study guide is active, not passive. It helps you get the rules into your mental inventory. Then you can whip them out when needed for a fast analysis of some absurd fact pattern you’re bound to encounter on the exam.

Here are 10 bar exam study tips—five bad ones and five good ones.

Bad Bar Exam Study Tips

Bad strategies when studying for the bar exam make you feel like you are working hard—and you are working hard—but they don’t help concepts stick in your brain or increase your analytical output. They exhaust you, but they do not challenge you.

  1. Reading, reading, and reading some more. If your aim is to learn the law, simply reading it doesn’t work. Period. We all tried it in law school. If it didn’t work then, it will not work when you’re studying for the bar exam. You need to study actively, not 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 Bar Exam Study Tips

Good study strategies are active, not passive. They get you out of your comfort zone. In some cases, they are excruciatingly painful. But with good study strategies, your studying for the bar exam will actually result in the law sticking in your brain. You master it, and then you can apply it when you need it.

A good bar exam study guide includes the following:

  1. Ask questions about the material before you read it. Quiz yourself afterward. 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 need to 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. Changing the way you’re studying for the bar exam can change your likelihood of success in meaningful ways.

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

Originally published 2012-06-09. Last updated 2018-09-06.


  1. Avatar Jason Grimes says:

    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!

  2. Avatar Jason Grimes says:

    *21st* – sorry

  3. Avatar Ontario Bar Exam says:

    I am a anxious test taker and interested in pass bar exams without stress. Is there any advice for me.

    • Avatar Matthew Goodman says:

      I passed the July 2016 California bar exam and it was very stress free.

      Here are a couple things I did:

      Stuck to a rigorous routine. I would wake up, go for a walk and listen to podcasts, meditate, eat breakfast, lecture, then practice essays, mbe, practice essay et cetera.
      On my free time (walks in between lectures and studying and during study breaks) I did stuff i enjoyed, this primarily consisted of listening to podcast totally non-law related. These were health podcasts for me.
      I took the same time off every weekend. I would go out to dinner with my girlfriend every friday. Make it a point to take consistent time off every week. While I didn’t take entire days off, I also called it quits early on Friday. This left me recharged and ready to go until the next Friday.
      I ate incredibly healthy. I didn’t eat processed food, junk food, or stuff that would potentially cause stress or make me feel crappy.
      I exercised but not to the point where I used it to avoid studying. This was really only 3 times a week. I also used a sauna at least once a week, this was amazing for reducing stress.
      I did not overdue it on the caffeine. This kept me from becoming anxious, jittery, or stressed.

      While I wouldn’t wish failing the bar exam, and having to therefore study for it again, on my worst enemy, I truly enjoyed the process and the eventual accomplishment of passing it.

  4. Avatar Matty says:

    This post has been life changing! I am so sick of the lectures on my Bar Review because they are such a time suck – not even certain they are helpful! I have had to change strategy midway through and so moving forward I am focusing on the supplementing the short outlines which I have enhanced with my own comments and on doing some MBE practice questions and essays. Thanks for posting.


  5. Avatar Chad says:

    My successful strategy was to
    1) start with a perfect outline (just the issues)

    2) rewrite each outline every day until I could do it correctly in less than 5 minutes. Then I did it once a week just to make sure I didn’t forget.

    3) essays – i did as many essays I could handle, writing out my outline for the subject before I really read the problem but after skimming it to see subject. Then I mostly just wrote out the issues and rules. If I missed an issue, I made sure it was on my outline and I reviewed the law for rules that I missed. I was comfortable with my analytical skills so I didn’t spend much time there but every once in a while would write out a full essay to work on my timing.


    1) I’m pretty sure my complete outlines ensured that I didn’t miss any issue points on the essays. I was able to get analytical points even if I missed a rule I’m pretty sure I had about 75-80% of each rule down cold by this point.

    2) The MBEs more or less took care of themselves as I memorized all the issues and reviewed rules that gave me difficulty in the essays.

    I did this while working full time. During the exam, I finished each section with plenty of time and it felt easy.

    I was a middle of the class student at a Tier 3 school.

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