(Remember my disclaimer: there will be no discussion here of specific questions/topics that appear on the exam.)
1. Start early. Most bar examinees don’t start studying until two months before the exam, typically when the Barbri course begins. I think it’s best to start earlier, at least on a modified schedule. I was due to take the summer exam, so in January and February, I enrolled in the Kaplan/PMBR online course, which focuses on the MBE. I spent about 3-4 hours per day studying during those months. During March, April and early May, I studied about two hours per day and took one MBE simulated practice test per month, culminating in the Barbri July “mid-term.” I wanted to get used to test conditions and practice questions and track my scores over time. In mid-May, I plunged into full time study and until two days before the exam, I studied 7-8 hours per day, 5 or 6 days per week.
2. Don’t try to work at a job and study at the same time. Don’t screw around with this exam. Remember, it’s your future and it’s not an easy test. Take at least two months off from your job and instead, treat bar exam study like you would a full time job. I’m not saying it’s absolutely impossible to pass if you work during bar preparation, but with a few exceptions, the most common thread between those who fail and those who pass appears to be whether or not the examinee took enough time off from her or his job (and other responsibilities) to study.
3. Vary your study materials, sources, and formats. I recognized early on that I learned best when I exposed myself to the same subject matter from a variety of materials and sources. For example, I had a full set of Emmanuel MBE Outline Books on hand at all times. I used the PMBR Kaplan materials and the Barbri materials. In addition, I had numerous other audio tapes, flashcards, outlines and hornbooks. If there was a concept that I just didn’t grasp well enough, I’d turn to another program or author’s way of explaining it. In short, I felt I needed several alternative means for understanding any given rule or concept. Similarly, I found that I absorbed information more efficiently using a variety of methods, including reading it, writing it, hearing it, and speaking it out loud. I designed a study program for the last two and a half weeks before the exam that systematically incorporated writing, listening, reading and speaking the same material repeatedly.
4. Get exercise. In all the anecdotal reading about bar exam prep I did, I heard so much about the importance of getting exercise that I thought it was some dumb cliché. Of course it’s important to get exercise, I thought, all the time, not just when you’re getting ready for the bar exam. But I came to realize just how critical it was—when you have to sit at a desk in front of a computer or with your nose in a book 8 hours a day, it’s not at all good for your body. So build regular exercise into your daily schedule.
5. Find ways to manage anxiety, especially in the final weeks before the exam. Things can get pretty bad in those last few weeks. Frankly, I don’t think there’s any way to eliminate anxiety, unless you’re some sort of zen master. But there are ways to manage stress so that it doesn’t get the better of you. Yoga often did the trick for me. The other strategy that helped was realizing it was okay to give into the meltdowns when they came. Don’t fight your meltdown; see it as temporary catharsis, and come out the other side. There were two occasions in the final three weeks where I just completely lost it, utterly convinced I was going to fail. After about two hours of meltdown each time, I was at my lowest point, completely spent, and the only remaining thing to do was get back to study. Post-meltdown, I always felt better.
6. Don’t study or cram down to the last hours or minutes before the exam. I planned for this carefully. Things were difficult enough; I was determined to avoid hyper-crisis mode. I figured the hay was in the barn by then, or it wasn’t. The exam was on a Tuesday; I stopped studying at 3pm on Sunday. After that, I slept, relaxed, went for several long walks, on Monday drove the two hours to the test site in Montpelier, checked into the hotel, had a nice dinner, and tried to get a good sleep. I saw many examinees in the hotel during those two days who appeared to be frantically studying up until moments before the exam and even on lunch breaks. I don’t advise it.
7. Keep your cool during the exam. I saw all kinds of dreadful, anxiety-ridden behavior at the hotel exam site and in the testing rooms. The collective stress level was off the charts. Many examinees looked as white as sheets, with glazed expressions on their faces and in their eyes. Others were trembling or outright shaking. Still others paced and ran frequently to the bathroom, obviously to vomit. Yikes. It’s hard to stay calm when so many people around you are freaking out. I practiced slow deep breathing and counting slowly to some fixed number. It also helps enormously to have someone there for you. I was fortunate to have Edward my partner. I’d walk out of each test session into the hotel lobby and find him waiting for me calmly, bearing big hugs, food and drink.
8. Move deliberately and methodically through the questions. On both essay and MBE days, there might be questions or parts of questions to which you draw a blank or simply have no idea what the damn answer is. When you encounter those moments, don’t panic, keep your wits about you. If you feel that way, many other people likely do, too. On essays, if you blank on a rule, make one up based on common sense and your law education so far, back it up with something halfway intelligent and coherent, and move on. Barbri had advised in advance that if you got your afternoon essay questions all in a bundle to look through each of them first and start with the ones you found easiest. I knew this wouldn’t work for me; I’d just end up anxiously thinking about the difficult questions to come and getting distracted. Instead, I took the questions cold, in the order they were handed to me, moving through them on automatic pilot. On the MBE, narrow the choices down the best you can, then make an educated guess and move on without letting it rattle you. If you have extra time at the end, go back and check your answers. (I planned for this by making a special mark next to any questions if I had doubts and wanted to revisit.)
9. The bar exam is difficult; don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. I honestly don’t know how hard or easy Vermont’s bar exam is compared to other jurisdictions. But I do know that in spite of all my preparation, I still found the exam very challenging and tricky. Don’t be complacent. On exam days, be prepared for the questions to seem harder than your practice questions were.
10. Waiting for results. I don’t really have a good answer for how to navigate the two or three months of torture that examinees must undergo as they wait for results. My strategy turned out to be astonishingly primitive and perhaps somewhat immature: I went into denial. For about two or three weeks after the exam, I was in a bad way, with debilitating anxiety. One day, I finally realized there was simply no way I could continue like this, so I decided to pretend the exam had never happened. Sounds weird, but for the most part, it worked. Of course, thoughts and fears sometimes inevitably crept in, but I played the denial game as best I could and that got me through until September 23, the day my letter arrived. A big lesson in how repression and denial can sometimes be downright useful and healthy.