VI. Bar Exam Fitness

Knowing the law tested on your bar exam is just half the battle, the other half is learning how to take the exam. The bar exam is unique because it not only tests you on whether you know and can apply relevant legal principles to questions presented but also the bar exam tests you on your ability to take the test itself. An often-referred to concept is “Exam Fitness,” which entails improving your test-taking skills (e.g., essay writing, multiple choice answering, etc…) and improving your mental/physical endurance. Those with Exam Fitness will possess the ability to provide well-trained answers over the two or three day exam period, depending on the length of your bar exam. Being tired or mentally-drained at the end of the day, or the end of the exam, is completely avoidable and within you control through practice and, well, more practice. For example, if you wait to take 100 consecutive MBE questions in a three-hour setting until the actual day the MBE is administered, you will have done yourself a great disservice. Someone training for a marathon does not run just 1 or 2 miles per training session. Likewise, someone answering 200 MBE questions in 6 hours should not practice only a few of questions at a time. Not only do you need to learn the relevant law on the bar exam but also you need to train yourself to physically endure the length of the bar exam, while simultaneously improving your test-taking skills. Knowing the law and its application will be of no use if you are mentally drained and physically exhausted. Unlike the reviewing/learning stage, discussed above, and the memorization stage, as discussed below, improving your Exam Fitness, is the one stage/process that should encompass the entirety of your bar review.

A. Improve Bar Exam-Taking Skills

A key to preparing effectively and efficiently for the bar exam is balancing reviewing/memorizing the material with improving test-taking skills—writing essays, answering MBE questions, and completing performance tests. If you spend too much time reviewing the substantive material, your essay writing and multiple-choice fitness will be limited and under-developed. Likewise, too much time practicing essays and questions without a sufficient knowledge base is counter-productive. There are a number of techniques and strategies you can employ when studying to achieve a balance between review of the material and improvement of test-taking skills. From the outset of your bar review, you should incorporate practice essays and MBE questions as part of your daily study routine. Please note, this guide does not purport to tell you how to answer a bar exam essay, MBE question, or performance test. Instead, it aims to provide suggestions as to how to incorporate practice essays, multiple choice questions, and performance tests into your daily bar review to improve your Exam Fitness. . If you find yourself needing outside assistance to improve the quality of your bar exam writing, whether essays or performance tests, and your exam falls within one of the following jurisdictions, then please consider our bar exam writing programs for California Bar Exam, New York Bar Exam, or the California Baby Bar Exam.

1. Bar Essays

Learning to write effective bar exam essays is a lot like learning how to ride a bike. A few individuals can pick it up quickly. Many, however, will fall off once or twice in the learning process. Unfortunately, even others, will take a bar exam with the training wheels still on and will require more than one bar exam attempt before their essays improve to a passing level. Improving your bar exam essays is just that— a process. Improvement comes with practice, critical evaluation of your written product, integration of lessons learned, and more practice.

If you assemble your exam practice aids, as discussed above, then you should have a number of essays available for your use. Especially useful are past exams with sample answers provided by your bar examiners. In most cases, the sample answers are not perfect, but this is what makes them so valuable. The answers from past exams provide an excellent reference as to what exam graders consider acceptable in terms of essay organization, tone, and subject matter to receive a passing score. In fact, the release of sample answers by bar examiners is an indirect endorsement of those answers as an example of how an essay or performance test can be answered to receive a passing score.

Your study schedule, as discussed above, should provide the frequency and nature of your essay practice for the duration of your bar review. Remember, you should increase consecutive essay sessions as your bar review progresses. For example, if you are taking the California bar exam (3 essays in 3 hours on Tuesday and Thursday AM), the difference between the mental and physical effort required for 1 essay in one hour and 3 essays in three hours is significant.

The value of practicing essays is also substantive. As with the reference system discussed above, actively engaging the material in a factual context, as an essay question does, enables you to remember concepts and their application much better than simply attempting rote memorization of your commercial bar review materials. One experiment that highlights the significance and importance practice essays can bring to your bar review is to review your first subject for your bar review then sit down and do a practice essay (using your notes, of course, as most material will have not been memorized as of yet). Review your answers with the model answers and see how your answer compares. Now, compare your knowledge and understanding of those particular topics tested in that essay with topics from the same subject not tested in the essay. The difference is often remarkable.

There are a few caveats and words of warning, however, when it comes to preparing for essays on any bar exam. Foremost, is the pernicious parlor game of trying to predict the essays on your bar exam. Trying to predict the essay subjects is a fool’s errand. The common practice is to utilize data about subjects previously tested over X number of exams to “predict” the next exam’s essay subjects. Of course, this is just that: a prediction. Even if a predictor is right 80% of the time, then you are still missing out on 20% of what is on the exam. This makes a razor thin margin of error if you rely on such “reliable predictions.” Also, you will only have yourself to blame if you rely on such predictions and your exam is an outlier for the predictor that is only 20% correct. Follow such predictions at your own peril.

2. MBE Questions

In terms of exam fitness, the best way to prepare for the MBE is practicing questions and reviewing answers to missed questions. Most people complete anywhere between 1,500 and 4,000 practice questions during their bar exam preparations.

If you assemble the exam practice aids, as discussed above, then you should have a plethora of practice MBE questions available for your use. Remember, you need MBE questions with explanations to the answers in order to correct your incorrect answers and learn from your mistakes. Unless you are taking a diagnostic or full practice MBE, answering practice MBE questions without answer explanations is counter-productive, as you will not know why a question was answered incorrectly.

The frequency, nature, and volume of MBE practice sessions should be an elementary component of your study schedule, as discussed above. There are several variables you should consider when undertaking practice MBE questions. First, you should spend just under 2 minutes (1:48 to be exact) on each question to mimic exam conditions. Avoid the temptation to spend 3 or even 4 minutes per question during your initial practice sessions. You will get more out of the practice if you spend 2 minutes on a question, answer it incorrectly, and then review the explanation as to why your answer was incorrect, then if you spend 4 minutes on a question and answer it incorrectly anyway. Additionally, by adhering to a per question time limit, you are constantly training yourself under exam time constraints. Besides a per question time limit, you should also consider the volume of practice questions as your bar review progresses. Again, this should be spelled out in your study schedule with each MBE practice session becoming longer while simultaneously increasing the time interval between practice sessions. For example, in the first couple of weeks of your bar review it is not uncommon to do 25-50 practice MBE questions a day in several sittings per day. However, by the last couple of weeks of your bar review, MBE practice sessions should reach at least 100 in one sitting. Of course, due to the sheer time commitment to complete 100 questions and review incorrect answers, the sessions will be less frequent than your initial practice sessions of just a handful MBE questions at a time. Remember, the difference in mental and physical effort between completing 10 MBE questions in 20 minutes and 100 questions in 3 hours is significant.

3. Performance Tests

Although performance tests, multistate or otherwise, are the closest thing to the practice of law on the bar exam, they are often the most neglected component of a bar review. Most people avoid practicing performance tests because they can be long and mentally tiring. Ironically, this is the very reason why performance tests should be integrated into your bar review on a regular, consistent basis. So, by the bar exam, performance tests are neither long nor tiring.

If you assemble the exam practice aids as suggested above, then you should possess a sufficient number of practice performance tests. As with essays and MBE questions, you should undertake a practice performance test only if you also possess an accompanying model answer or point sheet for evaluative purposes.

The most common mistake people make with performance tests during their bar review is not doing them at all or waiting until the last few weeks to start practicing them when time should be spent memorizing legal subjects. Keep in mind, a practice performance test can be completed at any stage of your bar review, as they do not require any outside legal knowledge. This is all the more reason that you should not put off their practice until the latter stages of your bar review.

The frequency of your performance test practice should be dictated by your study schedule. We have seen success with individuals that practice performance tests religiously on a weekly basis for the entire duration of their bar review. Another key to successful performance test practice is the evaluation and review of your practice answer. Simply completing a practice performance test is insufficient. You also need to identify and correct any mistakes in organization, content, thoroughness, and compliance with instructions and then apply those lessons learned to subsequent attempts.

B. How to Improve Mental/Physical Endurance for the Bar Exam

In attempting to improve your exam fitness, there are several key principles you should apply across the entirety of your practice of exam components (i.e., essays, multiple choice, and performance tests). First, over the course of your bar review, you should ramp up the duration and intensity of your exam skills sessions. Second, as your exam skill sessions become longer and more intense, their frequency should be reduced.

In terms of mental endurance, follow your study schedule religiously. As your review progresses, build up the amount of practice questions and essays you complete in one sitting. As the exam nears, make the conditions for these practice sessions more and more like real-exam conditions. Literally, sequester yourself from any outside distractions and sit at a table just as you will at the bar exam. Mentally, tell yourself that this practice session is just as important as the exam itself. During the practice session, follow all of the same rules and regulations of the exam. For these practice sessions, use the same watch or timer that you will use during the bar exam. This method is also effective at reducing any perceived or actual anxiety during the exam itself, as the exam setting and your mentality will be no different than your practice sessions.

In terms of physical endurance, there are a few items you should consider. No, taking the bar exam is not running a marathon, although it may feel like it for some. But if you have not written or typed for three or four straight hours until the day of the bar exam, then the writer’s cramp you may develop could become a distraction to the point of affecting the quality of your answers. In most cases, adrenaline will see you through your first day of the exam. However, if your exam is over 3 days, like the California Bar Exam, then physical endurance can become an issue. A well-planned study schedule should include enough practice exam component sessions to increase the requisite physical endurance by simply following the schedule (e.g., you will become accustomed to 90 minute (MPT) or 3 hour performance tests (CA) if you complete a sufficient number of practice performance tests during your review, as dictated by your pre-planned schedule). Also, if you follow an exercise program, then continue it during your bar review. If you don’t exercise, then, of course, now is not the time to begin a new exercise program in earnest. However, integrating daily breaks (e.g., a short walks) where you are not thinking about the bar exam is important to maintain a mental and physical balance.

Of course, improving exam fitness does not have to be a Spartan undertaking. Reward yourself on a daily basis for adhering to your schedule (e.g., watch a favorite television program, leisure reading, or go out for a meal).

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