The newsletter of the ISBA’s Young Lawyers Division
Ten tips for preparing for the bar exam
Although I sat for the Illinois Bar Exam over one year ago, any mention of the bar exam still sends shivers down my spine. Weeks after sitting for the bar, I was still experiencing frequent anxiety nightmares. In these vivid dreams, I would show up to the exam without a pencil, without a laptop, without having studied, without having finished law school!
Despite the deep-seated anxiety that it conjures up, the bar exam is a rite of passage for every attorney. I am here to share with you ten tips and suggestions for preparing for the bar exam, in hopes that I can quell your anxiety and remind you that everything is going to be ok.
As you read the advice to follow, please keep one thing in mind: when gearing up for the bar exam, the most important thing is to do what works best for you as an individual. What worked best for me, may not work best for you, and what works best for you may not work best for your study buddy (more on that later). Bearing that in mind, here are the suggestions I have for those of you who will soon begin preparing for the bar exam.
1. Find a routine that works for you
I am the type of person who, in the absence of a routine, wakes up late, watches Netflix in my PJs, goes to a yoga class, and then start studying at 5:00 pm. Although relaxing, this type of schedule has never been conducive to successful studying for me. So when it came my time to start preparing for the bar exam, I made sure to set a strict routine in order to achieve the best possible results. I woke up at the same time every day, ate a healthy breakfast, and made sure to get out of the house to study, so as to stave off any Netflix craving I might feel throughout the day. However, so as not to get bored of my routine, I often switched up my study locale. Sometimes I studied at the library, sometimes at a friend’s conference room, and yes, sometimes even on my couch while watching Netflix. I recommend setting a routine for yourself so that you are motivated to study and can limit your distractions.
2. Make sure to warn your family, friends, and significant other about what to expect while you are preparing for the bar exam
My family, friends, and significant other were extremely supportive of my studying schedule, and I am sure yours will be too. However, it is important to remind those closest to you how much time you will actually need to devote to preparing for the bar exam. Sometimes they will need extra reminding, and it is ok to tell them that you are busy studying so no, you can’t hang out tonight. If you are prone to mood swings when your stress level is heightened, you may want to also warn your friends and family before you begin preparing for the most important test of your life. (I would like to take this time to thank everybody who put up with me during the Summer of 2015. You know who you are).
3. Designate a block of time to studying (7-10 hours per day) and stick to it
I cannot stress how important this is, both in terms of actual time spent studying, but also in terms of time spent NOT studying. Trust me, if you work as hard as possible for 7-10 hours a day preparing for the exam, you brain will want (and need!) a break. I suggest preparing for the exam from about 8:00 am until 4:00 pm (or whenever you are the most productive!). After 4:00 pm, do your best to set aside your study materials and decompress. Your brain needs time to rest in order to absorb the material you are learning.
4. Study buddies work for some, not for others
I was fortunate enough to find two law school friends whose study habits were similar to my own, and the three of us spent the entire summer studying together. (S/O to my bar exam study buddies!) These friends not only helped to keep me on track and motivated, but were also there to answer substantive questions about the material and explain concepts that were difficult for me to fully grasp. Having study buddies can also be an amazing support system. The three of us were all going through the same grueling process, and it was nice having people with whom to share my anxieties and concerns about the exam.
That being said, some people do not study well in groups. Whether it distracts them, gives them anxiety, or does not work for some other reason, studying with a group is not for everyone. My best advice? If you are unsure of what is best for you, give it a go if you find people that you think you will study well with. If for any reason the arrangement stops working for you, don’t be afraid to respectfully excuse yourself from the study group and do your own thing. They will understand. I promise.
5. Flash cards!
Flash cards are an excellent tool for the bar exam! Some people make their own, but they are also available for purchase if you find that you don’t have the time to make your own. Flash cards are an excellent tool to use while traveling, especially if you are not able to bring all of your study materials along.
6. Try to designate one day a week to do something fun (and unrelated to the bar exam)
I will admit, while studying for the bar exam, I did not (totally) give up on my social life. I went to weddings, I saw friends on the nights and weekends, and I went on a few weekend getaways. Keeping in touch with the outside world was, for me, a crucial part of my eventual success on the bar exam. Although I know not everyone shares my thoughts on keeping some semblance of a social life while preparing for the bar exam, try to designate one day per week to take the day off from studying and do something fun. Leave your books and flashcards at home and go on a hike, meet up with friends for cocktails, take a day trip to your favorite lake, etc. I found that shutting off my brain for a day or two really helped refresh my mind and body and I studied harder and smarter afterward as a result.
7. Bring healthy snacks to study sessions
When I started studying for the bar exam, my study buddies and I brought an endless amount of chips, chocolate, and candy to our study sessions. While it was fun for the first few days, we felt sluggish and tired by the end of the week. After that, my study group alternated brining healthy snacks to share. We found that healthier alternatives such as veggies, hummus, and banana bread satisfied our cravings but also fueled our energy and study habits. Healthy snacks can make a huge difference in your energy and motivation levels.
8. Attorneys who have recently taken a bar exam are a wonderful resource. Take advantage of their willingness to help!
You are not the first person to take the bar exam, and you are certainly not the last. Ask your mentors, friends, and former classmates who have taken the bar exam for help, guidance, advice with regards to the exam. Trust me, they will be happy to help, as they once stood in their shoes. And after you have taken the bar exam, make sure to pay it forward and share your knowledge with those who come after you.
9. Don’t forget to exercise!
Walk! Run! Bike! Yoga! However you choose to get that blood pumping, make sure to stay active while preparing for the bar exam. It is an excellent way to ease your stress and anxiety, not to mention a productive way to give your brain a break!
In the days leading up to the bar exam I did some substantive preparation, but I mostly prepared mentally. Deep breathing exercises helped me deal with the stress, as did talking with my peers and mentors (See Nos. 4 and 8, supra). The night before the bar exam, I did not even open my study materials. I trusted that the preparation I had endured all summer would get me through the exam, and I also thought that any last minute studying would only lead to confusion and anxiety.
Well there you have it. My ten tips, suggestions, tricks, etc. for your bar exam preparedness. Regardless of what happens, just remember that everything will be ok.