My name is Yue Liu. I graduated in May 2015. English is not my native language. I took the California Bar Exam in July 2015, February 2016, and finally July 2016, a few days before my US visa expired.
I took the bar exam three times and passed on the third attempt. The process of studying for and taking the bar exam three times taught me a number of valuable lessons that I would like to share with you.
I used a bar prep course. I found the lecture analyzing 200 MBE milestone questions at the end of the entire MBE course particularly helpful. The lecturer would not only analyze specific questions you just did, but also sum up patterns for that subject, such as choices that should never be considered, questions that will always be tested, common mistakes and how to avoid them, etc. So if you feel terrible about the MBE, hang in there, then watch those lectures and take notes, then you might feel better. Regardless of your course, do lots of practice and always review to find patterns.
The course I took did not help me improve my writing (essay or PT). As a non-native speaker and slow reader/typer, I was terrible at structuring my answers and choosing which issue was worth spending more time on and which was not. I was inefficient. What benefited me the most was the book Essay Exam Writing for the California Bar Exam, by Mary Basick and Tina Schindler. If you think the commercial courses are not helping you, and you cannot afford a personal tutor, you should definitely try it. I basically relied on this one book alone when I studied for the third time. I used some of its outlines, its rule language, its formatting style, its particular structure designed for particular fact/question patterns, etc. I built up muscle memory just by typing its sample answers repeatedly. For every tested subject, the book provides a variety of fact patterns or questions that can almost cover all that you will see in an exam. I just studied the book, and my writing for the exam improved a lot. The duo also wrote California Performance Test Workbook, which others praise, but I did not have time to try. I also want to let you know that every applicant, whether he or she is a native English speaker or not, should focus on improving the way he or she organizes and structures essay answers, develop his or her own style of simple, succinct, and to-the-point headings, and practice issue spotting and his or her fact to rule application skills. These skills are key to succeeding on the bar exam!
Finding friends or a study group to support and encourage each other can be very important. Although I preferred studying alone, I always had people in the same position to talk to. I never had a peace of mind that lasted over two days during my studies. Whenever I felt I had a handle on things, a practice or a new subject would frustrate me again. I was seriously depressed the first time, much better the second (although self-doubt remained), and I was very distracted and heartbroken when the Pulse Shooting happened in Orlando when I prepared for the third.
What I learned from the second time is the most important lesson I learned. I had several 70+ essays and my MBE score was 1519. I failed because I doubted myself, panicked during the last day, and skipped an essay which got me a ”0”. I told myself not to repeat the same mistakes the third time.
I know I’m exceeding my word limit here, but this might be important: my laptop died on me during the third exam. On the first day, the first question was Cal Civ Pro. I did not study much for it, and I decided to write what I could for 45 minutes, and then moved on. As I was typing the last sentence, around the 45 minute mark, my laptop just quit working. The screen went dark, the fan stopped spinning, all that jazz. I tried to reboot, but ExamSoft did not reload my answer and instructed me to switch to handwriting. By the time I switched, 15 more minutes had gone by. At that point, I actually thought, “Switching to handwriting? This is a heck of an excuse for not passing again.” Then I heard myself counter, “No, f— that. I am going to pass it this time, and then I got a story to tell. So f— you, California Bar Exam!” Really, it was a whole episode of a soap opera in my head. So I handwrote the last sentence of the first essay and then the next two that morning. I was probably writing 3 times slower than typing. I remember I had only 30 seconds left to just write a conclusion with not much analysis to finish a Contracts essay. The laptop did not fail me again for the rest of the exam. I did not tell anyone what happened during the exam. “It’s nothing,” I told myself, “Don’t make it a thing by telling people. You can tell after you pass, that’ll bode very well for your ego.”
Can I tell you why I passed even though something that would’ve crushed me happened on the first day? I really can’t. I felt lethargic and unfocused during the MBE exam. I typed slow and never really felt I fully answered one essay question. Both of my PT exam answers felt the same as my practice answers, which were never completely finished, and would usually only get 50 or 60 points. What I did the third time that was different from the second, was to not estimate how much I probably already scored, how much more I needed to score, or obsess with getting a perfect score on one essay which might lead to sacrificing time for other essays. I just did the best I could and never looked back. After the laptop incident, I never believed I would pass until I saw the result months later, but I rarely thought about not passing during the exam.
If you realize you have spent 75 minutes on one essay, finish that sentence you’re typing and immediately move on to the next essay. If you forget everything about one subject, don’t skip it and spend too much time on the other two. If you get a “0” on one essay, you shall not pass. Spend 30 to 45 minutes on it, try to address the question even if you are not sure, you can still get about 45 or more points and have enough time to work on the other two. And if your laptop stops working during the exam, wave at the proctor. They will tell you to restart your computer and to log back in and continue typing from where you were. If you cannot do that, switch to handwriting. Let me do the thinking for you so that you don’t have to waste exam time panicking or overthinking this stuff and can come right to the conclusion: Yes, it is no longer fair from that point on, but of course you should not give up. Just do your best. If you don’t pass, you got a solid excuse. Feel a little better? Now put that excuse away, and think about all the bragging you can do when you pass. So write. Do your best.
Please send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.