Tips for Passing the Bar:
(1) Build substantial breaks into your study schedule to prevent burn out
Many people who have taken and passed the California bar will tell you that building a study schedule and keeping to it is key to ensuring that you complete your course work, build the essential skills required to pass the bar, and learn the law. I completely agree. And, when I started for the bar, I created a schedule that, at the time seemed manageable: I went to lecture at 9AM, ate lunch at 12PM, studied from 1PM-5PM, exercised and ate dinner, and then studied from 7PM-10PM. While that sounds terrible, that doesn’t sound TOO terrible, does it?
However, about half way through the bar-prep period, about in the middle of June, I noticed that my mental health was suffering. I constantly felt exhausted, yet compelled to keep studying due to fear of failure. There was too much information to cram into my small brain. I felt guilty in those few hours that I wasn’t studying. Eventually, this culminated into a 90-minute complete mental break down and crying session, where one of my friends, who was going to have dinner with me and watch Game of Thrones, awkwardly stood outside of my apartment building as she waited for me to compose myself and let her in.
The next day, I reached out for help from a mentor whom I had met through the UC Hastings Academic Support Program as a 1L. After talking to her on the phone for an hour, it became clear that while I was doing everything I was supposed to, I was certainly burnt out. That was not good; I still had all of the CA subjects to learn and master! What became clear was that although I had a great schedule, I needed to take SUBSTANTIAL BREAKS throughout the day.
Working together, we created a study schedule where I worked solidly, without distraction, for 3-4 hour blocks, and at two, two-hour breaks (4 total break hours) per day (8:00am-11:30am study, 11:30am – 1:30pm break, 1:30pm-5:00pm study, 5:00pm-7:00pm break, 7:00pm-10:00pm study). These break times were no study periods—no flash cards, no outlines, no lectures, no Adaptibar, nothing. These breaks were to be used to go on walks, exercise, have lunch with friends, shamelessly watch an episode of Orange is the New Black during the middle of the day, et cetera. These break times were times for me. With this new schedule, I was still able to work about 9-10 hours a day, but still have 4 hours to myself each day.
These breaks saved my mental health. I noticed I was able to finish tasks more efficiently, perform better, retain information better, and1 most important, stay positive and motivated in the face of fear and anxiety. In short, I recommend that you take the initiative to schedule solid study breaks into your study schedule.
(2) Remember that you are not alone. Reach out to alumni and your friends when you need it.
Before the bar exam started, I shamelessly told my non-bar-study friends to get me out of my house and to check on me periodically throughout the bar exam. As a result, during the summer, my friends were there for me. I saw one of my childhood best friends for regular workout-and-dinner dates. One of my other friends home-cooked and brought me meals once a week to make sure I was eating. I saw another good friend every single week to watch Game of Thrones and to eat dinner at my house. When I was reluctant to hang out, they told me that we were going to see each other no matter what. They reminded me that there was life beyond the bar, that I was loved, and that I could get through this time.
During the bar exam, I freaked out several times. You will constantly question whether you are doing the right thing, and seek affirmation just so you can move on. Shamelessly seeking this affirmation, I reached out to alumni in the Class of 2015—friends I had met through Hastings Law Journal. I spoke to all of them on the phone at some point, and regularly texted another one of them. They patiently listened to me as I rambled about my study methods, how many questions I had gotten wrong, the essay I had screwed up, and the like. And, they told me that it sounded like what I was going through was normal, that they had felt the same way, and that they were able to get through it because the bar messes with your confidence in ways that few other things will. With that, I felt affirmed, and went about my business.
To conclude, reach out to your friends, family, and most important, people who have taken the California bar exam during this time for emotional support. Do not hesitate to ask for help. Do not hesitate to ask for someone’s ear. Processing your feelings of anxiety and negativity to audiences who are open and available will help you trudge through what may sometimes feel like a dark, thick, endless slog.
(3) Actively log your mistakes and learn from them
While practicing MBEs, there will undoubtedly be some exception to an exception that you are going to forget every single time. And, each time you flip to the back of your answer book and read your answer, you will kick yourself and call into question your competence. While practicing essays, there will be an issue that you will miss every single time. Whether it’s remembering to discuss defenses to intentional torts, negligence as theory of liability in the alternative to strict liability, or naming all those pesky different parts of the personal jurisdiction test, you will forget something, look at the sample answer, kick yourself, and, again, call into question your basic competence.
Making mistakes during bar-prep is key to the learning process. However, you can’t just end each MBE set, each essay, each PT with a feeling of uncertainty and lackluster confidence. For me, what was key to turning my mistakes into lessons was forcing myself to actively reflect upon them. I have always been someone who processes things by writing them down. A few weeks into the bar exam, I noticed that I struggled to remember all the little things I had learned from getting answers wrong. So, I started to keep what I (oddly) referred to as a Boo-Boo Diary.
In my diary, I would write down a few things that I did well during the MBE set or during the essay (Ex: Completed answers in a reasonable time, didn’t miss questions about that rule for criminal attempt, correctly stated and applied all of the elements for determining whether an easement existed, etc.). Then, I would reflect on each question that I got wrong (or issues I missed on essays, or shortcomings in PTs), and write down why I got it wrong (Ex: I missed question #7 because I read too fast; I missed question #10 because I forgot that attempt is a specific intent crime, regardless of the nature of the underlying crime that the person was attempting to commit; I missed this issue on the essay because I forgot to write down my issue-spotting checklist before I started reading the fact pattern; I didn’t do this part of the PT well because I was spending too much time flipping back and forth between pages and forgot what cases were associated with which rules). Lastly, I would write down a few next-steps I could do during my next practice attempt to improve (Ex: Don’t forget to write down who vs. who when reading an MBE evidence question to make sure you don’t miss the statement by a party opponent hearsay exception; write down your issue spotting checklist before you start doing the essay; the mnemonic for remembering the requirements for a federal class action suit is blahblahblah; write down the case names, page numbers, and general rule that comes out of the case name for the PT so you don’t waste time flipping pages).
This reflection process helped me get the absolute most out of every single practice exercise. And, I would complete each exercise feeling positive and motivated, rather than downtrodden and depressed. You don’t have to keep a diary, but you should definitely ensure that you are reflecting actively on your mistakes, celebrating your successes, and being deliberate about how you can do better each time.
If you have questions, please email Jennifer at JenniferLHom@gmail.com.