Six Bar Exam Mistakes to Avoid

Published: Feb 10, 2020

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The February bar exam is just a few weeks away, and if you are like most to-be lawyers, you are trying not to freak out in between your hours-long study sessions. You can’t control the questions on the upcoming exam or any test-day snafus, but you can set yourself up for success by staying focused and taking care of your physical and mental well-being. By avoiding the below mistakes, you will be ready to rock the bar exam with a clear mind.

1. Fizzling Out

There may be 24 hours in a day, but you shouldn’t be using every one of them to study. It’s true that the bar exam is one of the biggest tests of your life—if not the biggest—and you should dedicate a substantial amount of time to preparing for it. But you also need to reserve time to exercise, sleep, eat well, and decompress. I am a firm believer in pushing yourself to work your hardest in the weeks before the bar exam, but you also don’t want to burn out. Setting boundaries so that you can take care of yourself is just as important for a successful test day.

2. Taking Too Many Breaks

Of course, setting boundaries doesn’t mean that you should study for a few hours and then veg out on the couch the rest of the day. Just as athletes train for major sporting events or lawyers prepare for trial, you should keep a steady, rigorous study schedule through which you follow your bar prep class’ daily recommendations, incorporate learning tools that work best for you (like outlining or working with flash cards), answer practice questions, and build upon your knowledge each day. Breaks are essential, and you absolutely should take them, but you also should stay focused on the goal, and make studying your full-time job.

3. Not Answering Practice Questions

One of the best ways to prepare for the bar exam is to simulate the test through practice questions. No, you won’t be able to answer actual questions from the upcoming exam in advance, but the more questions you attempt, the better you will understand the kinds of questions that will be asked and the more comfortable you will get thinking on the spot. Also, answering practice questions offers the opportunity to apply what you have been learning through your bar prep class and address any areas for which you need additional prep.

4. Ignoring the Small Details

Obviously, studying is the most important aspect of bar prep, but a lot more goes into test day than the exam itself, and it is important to ready yourself in advance. My best piece of advice is to designate a test-day sidekick. This person should not be taking the exam and should be there to help you with the smaller details like arriving at the test site, getting you food, and keeping you level-headed. Not everyone is lucky enough to have someone who can support them during the exam days, so if that isn’t available to you, you will need to prepare for everything in advance. And even if you have a friend or family member to help, you should still iron out details before the exam: Know where the test site is located, understand how to get there, figure out which materials you need on test day and pack them days in advance, determine where you can get lunch that day, etc. If you need to take the test far from home, be sure your hotel details are set so that you have zero issues on test day, and check in the night before, so that you can be settled. Also important is to understand exactly what is allowed in the test room, and make sure you prepare those materials in advance so you aren’t stressing out an hour before the exam—this includes simple things like a sweatshirt in case you get cold, extra pencils, and a drink.

5. Failing to Prepare for Tech Failures

We basically live on screens nowadays, so the prospect of having to write out your bar essays probably seems preposterous, but anything can happen. In fact, during my exam, a woman close to me couldn’t get her computer to work in the exam room. The last thing you need is to receive a curve ball for which you aren’t prepared. As you go through your last weeks of exam prep, prepare for worst-case scenarios too. Try writing out some essay answers to get used to handwriting under timed conditions. Also, take a bathroom break in the middle of a simulated exam to see how you will handle having less time to complete your answers—just in case there is an emergency on test day. Throwing some obstacles in during your prep period will help you build up resilience should issues arise the day of. 

6. Bottling Up Your Stress

I don't need to tell you that studying for the bar exam and actually taking the test is stressful. The vast amount of information to learn is overwhelming. And the anxiety over failing can feel paralyzing at times. Sitting in your study carrel sobbing and stress-eating isn’t advisable, but holding your feelings in can also backfire and result in an emotional eruption on or around test day. Instead, allow yourself to acknowledge the difficult feelings, and don’t be afraid to talk to someone about them. Find tools to help you cope with the stress and worries—whether that means having a regular exercise routine, speaking to a therapist, meditating, putting the entire process into perspective for yourself, or some other way.

Good luck on the February bar exam! Your Esquire title awaits.