We are pleased to welcome back Brian Hahn to the Bar Exam Toolbox. Brian is the founder of Make This Your Last Time, and is a second-time passer of the California bar exam and is here today to share five things he did differently the second time around taking the bar exam. Welcome, Brian!
The thing about reality is that your brain doesn’t notice it until it’s wrapped tightly around your brain like a sheet of aluminum foil, crinkling and making a polygonal mess.
0 minutes remaining. I slapped in my applicant ID, my entry ticket to three seconds of pristine agony. Then two, three more times. I made sure I was reading correctly. For once, I wasn’t delusional.
I could feel the heavy air of TRUTH closing in around me. Light fading quickly. But I wanted to believe. No, the silvery foil pushed its way around the noodles of my brain, turning into TV static. It was wrapped around the potato, and my brain realized it then.
In some other universe, I passed. But in this one, I failed. I failed. I failed.
2013 was the worst year of my life. My brain convinced me to break up with my friend of ten years and girlfriend of three. My dad screamed at our family on Christmas morning and night. I failed the July bar and haven’t since posted a status on Facebook out of supreme shame. 16 months and counting since becoming Facebook celibate. Facelibate.
I lied down on my bed. Then I got up.
The experiment was a failure. It was time to change the variables. This was how I would prove I was not insane. Then 2014 became the best year of my life.
Having experienced both outcomes of the California Bar Exam, I’ve distilled the following insights that were instrumental to passing the bar. These are things I did the second time but not the first time. Do you like clickbaits? You won’t believe #4! I still go on Facebook.
“Any fool can learn from experience. I prefer to learn from other people’s experiences.”
Make this the last time you have to walk the line between heaven and hell with these 5 things I did differently the second time to pass the bar exam.
- Don’t break the chain
- Practice real MBE questions
- Lectures are worthless
- “Issue checking” and issue statements
- Get a room
1) Don’t break the chain
A lot of people feel anxious studying for the bar, and maybe that’s better than taking it easy. Apparently, Barbri is really good at scaring people, but you really don’t need to do everything they tell you. If you approach the bar methodically, you’ll find yourself in a flow that helps you calm down and control your emotions.
To do that, my first advice to people asking me for help is, before anything else, try not to “break the chain.”
Get into a habit of doing something bar related every day, even if it’s two MBE questions. Don’t feel like it? Just open your book and let it sit on your desk for the day. The next day, you can do the first page. Then two pages, four pages, 12 hours a day will become doable. No wonder habit evidence is more powerful in court than character evidence!
It might seem overwhelming for first timers. You have to deal with all these lectures (see #3), homework, maybe even a concurrent clerkship. But get into those habits. Keep a consistent schedule. You’re developing a systematic process that doesn’t bog you down because you won’t have to make decisions all the time.
You don’t want to be like me last July where I was frazzled, didn’t know what I was doing, and stressed even though I didn’t study as hard as the second time.
2) Practice real MBE questions
Speaking of the MBE, you should devote most, if not all, of your MBE practice with real questions. Use fake questions only for drilling specific weak subjects.
Do you remember getting those $8 PrepTest booklets to study for the LSAT? Would you have used questions invented by commercial prep courses? Like downloading music, it would have felt wrong (because the metadata is never consistent). It’s like telling everyone you love law school~ but you know deep down you hate your school and yourself. It’s like telling yourself you can always look for a new girl, but you’re still thinking about the one you had to let go.
You don’t know whether the impostors are an accurate reflection of the format or the law that is actually and frequently tested.
So where can you get MBE questions? I personally used Emanuel’s Strategies & Tactics for the MBE Vols. 1 and 2 (about 800 questions total, highly recommended). The NCBE offers sample questions for Civil Procedure. I have heard good things about Adaptibar ($399 or $369) and to a lesser extent BarMax’s MBE app ($250), both of which give you access to 1,500+ real MBE questions.
Whatever you do, review all the answers (i.e., explanations for choices A, B, C and D for questions you got right and wrong). Each question is an opportunity to validate your understanding of a concept (why your answer was right and why the others were wrong) or to learn the concept (why your answer was wrong and why the credited one was right).
Ran out and want more to do? Do them again. You wouldn’t expect to remember something in full after reading it once.
If you feel like you can do them only because you memorized the answers, that’s also good because the real thing will look similar and you’ll see a pattern (especially those mortgage questions). It’s almost like you’re memorizing the law! If you really got the material down, you should get 100%, right?
As you practice, see if you can keep track of what you got right and wrong in each subject. Here are my analytics from February.
For me, property, torts, and contracts tended to be worse. Crim in general was good, but Crim Pro was horrible. This is useful data to surgically treat your weaknesses. Fake questions from commercial prep material could be helpful in drilling weak areas since they are conveniently separated by subject and are generally harder.
3) Lectures are worthless
Yes, I know you are tempted and your default mode is to watch the lectures. We are not going to follow the one-size-fits-all approach for the average student because you are not an average student.
Lectures add perceived value to your overpriced course but provide miniscule actual value. Everything you need to know should be in your written outlines. What’s important is actually seeing the concepts in action in practice essays and MBE questions.
This is especially true for repeaters!
If this is your first time or if you learn better aurally you can listen to the lectures to get a broad idea of what’s going on. But use them for what they are for—listening. Don’t pause the lectures. Don’t go back and try to fill in your notes.
“I actually only remember little from the lectures.”—Erica L. (see comment below)
Even if you spent 6 hours a day trying to get all the notes down (like I did the first time), you still won’t know what the hell is going on, and you’d be too tired to do anything else as you suffer from a vague feeling of malaise.
Actually, let’s go one step further. Who says you have to waste your precious mental energy listening to lectures in the morning? Here’s an idea that flips the idea around: What if you listen to them at night as review? It might even help you fall asleep faster.
Don’t actually try that random idea if you don’t want to, especially since I’ve never tried it. In fact, you don’t have to listen to me or anyone else in general. I’m merely writing an autobiography.
That said, if lectures aren’t too helpful, how do you start improving now?
Not just “going through the motion” kind of practice. Improvement comes from constant feedback and learning every time you solve a problem. If there is one truth to realize in this endeavor, it is that preparing for the bar exam is a learnable skill.
Or do you feel that practicing with old exams is somehow unfair to others, uncool, or unnecessary? If everyone else is doing it, this is just part of what you have to do to compete and keep up. So don’t feel guilty about using all resources available to you.
How you can practice:
- Get immediate feedback: In chapter 7 of the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, the author says to approach your craft with a dedication to deliberate practice. This basically means forget the fluff, and focus on improving specific parts that need it. In serious study, feedback is immediate. “[I]f you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better.” You can get immediate feedback from model answers from the state bar, BarEssays.com [CA only], your MBE practice book’s answer explanations (understand for all questions), tutors, and graders from your prep course.
- The will to act: Batman’s mentor, Ra’s al Ghul, credits the will to act for arriving at a solution. Even with training, inaction means death in Crime Alley. Planning without execution is nothing. Learning the law without practice is nothing. In fact, I would bet every time on the person who only did real practice, over the person who only memorized the law.
- In undergrad, I gave my cheat sheet full of equations to someone who didn’t do any practice problems, and she got the lowest score on the midterm. Don’t gamble on or wing the bar exam just because practice is painful. Waiting in anxiety for months and wasting 6 months of your life is more painful. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable now. Train as if it were the real thing, and do the real thing as if it were practice (exception applies to essays, as discussed below).
- The rule of two-thirds: Balancing memorization and application (i.e., practice) is definitely a sliding scale with respect to how far you are in your prep. Feel free to learn and read outlines in the beginning, but by the end of your studies, you should reach a steady state where you mostly test yourself on your knowledge—2/3 practicing, 1/3 learning. It slowly moves from exploring the bar world to practicing so that you can exploit that knowledge.
So what are some specific ways to practice with greater efficiency?
Essays: Use the essay cooking method to double or triple your practice efficiency. The byproducts of this method can also be used as review material including during bar week.
MBE: Rather than keeping track of your overall win rate, analyze trends in your answers (to real MBE questions!) by subject and subtopic to determine where to prioritize your efforts. This idea was touched upon earlier, but see here for a more in-depth discussion.
Performance tests: It seems that if you practice even a few fully timed PTs, you’re ahead of most people. You can further pin down areas of concern by practicing just those areas. For example, if you have trouble pulling out the law in time, solely practice identifying the rules in the library without ever opening the file. For a free, comprehensive guide to killing the PTs, get access to it on my blog.
4) “Issue checking” and issue statements
This is the biggest game-changing insight I had for Feb: Within IRAC, the MOST important is finding all the issues and sub-issues. Do you really know how to “spot” issues?
Because essays are not real life, you do not need to be inventive or creative with issues. What you want is a finite list of testable issues. The best thing I did for myself was to parse out the available issues and weave them into a study tool.
Rather than thinking of it as spotting issues, you are now checking for issues. “Spotting” to me implies that you’re coming up with issues rather than matching the facts to all known and preexisting issues.
So now you know that you can know and expect the essay will ask for something from those lists, like you’re in Minority Report. Once you get an idea which major area is being tested, you can then mentally check your list of sub-issues against the facts.
How do you know which facts trigger which issues? This comes with practice (see thing #3 above). Once you do several essays within a subject, you will notice a pattern. Facts drive the rules, and rules drive the issues, and a pattern can fall into one of two categories:
- “This issue comes up frequently and is likely one to discuss. Be on the lookout.” Examples: confidentiality (PR), state action (Con Law). You will learn by practice the statistically likely issues.
- “It’s as if these particular facts were intentionally placed here with this issue in mind.” Example: A building was “blackened” → discuss whether Δ committed arson (an element of the relevant rule is that a building must be “charred”). A simple example but one that hopefully shows how a fact, indeed a word, can trigger a known issue. FACTS → RULES → ISSUES.
According to legends, bar graders will skim your essays at the red light, in the bathroom, etc. It is to your advantage to blend in with hundreds of other essays and make your essay easy and relatively pleasing to read. This is not the time to get creative! The only way you should try to distinguish yourself is by the number of relevant issues you identify + quality of your fact application.
Also, if you don’t use IRAC with a simple issue statement, switch to it now. For example, check out my issue headings from one of my essays from July:
Please contain your laughter. This is not IRAC. Whatever this is, it either has too many Cs or the C came too early (that’s what she said). I thought this would help the graders by telling them the bottom line up front. But like many things in life, especially anything related to law school, bad things happen if you try too hard.
Notice the rule statements are pretty good, but telegraphing the result of your analysis ahead of time detracts from a good experience for the graders:
- Graders may already have their own conclusion about the issue. Moreover, your conclusion may be wrong in some situations. Even if you happen to be in concurrence with the graders, it wouldn’t really add much anyway. So you have nothing to gain and everything to lose.
- If the issue is broad (e.g., validity of will), you are jumping the gun by skipping the many sub-issues and analyses involved in arriving at a conclusion, instead of showing the graders how you got there. The conclusion is a result of your analysis, not a hard assertion. Show your work!
- The conclusion is worth the least amount of credit. The conclusion usually proves an element for a broader rule. Graders just want to get through your teary-boring essay to confirm that you can IRAC and collect their $3.25 and go, “Ahhh, that was too easy to check off. This person gets the issues. I am in a relatively not bad mood” *drinks coffee that cost $3.25*
In Feb, the above heading would have simply been “Validity of Will”, typical for a model answer. You want to blend in so the graders can check off issues and move on with their lives. No creativity allowed—this is supposed to test your aptitude for real practice of law. Corral the facts to the appropriate rule elements; hold their hands like they’re lost children because they don’t know where the hell they are.
My first time, most of my essays got a 55. I hit all or most of the issues in July’s con law essay, but I still only got a 65 on it. After fixing my issue statements, I bet they had fewer things to complain about.
5) Get a room
A hotel room.
Well, that didn’t really resolve the double entendre, but in any case I reserved a hotel room because my test center was in another city. It turned out to be a big help for the psychological differences that made.
“B-but I don’t need a hotel! I got my parents’ basement for free! It’s only 20 minutes away (not counting the time my mom spends fixing my shirt)!” you might be thinking.
It’s an investment: I was able to eat whatever I wanted. I could be alone without being conscious of people I knew asking me about the test. I could traverse locations in 5 minutes instead of dealing with traffic and parking with other cars piled around you. All things I didn’t get my first time.
A late checkout for the last day is highly recommended. I was able to negotiate a 5:30PM checkout for half price. By the third day, lying down on a bed during lunchtime felt like a luxury. Make sure the janitors chattering outside know you’re trying to nap.
The exam isn’t just however long you spend in your seat. It is continuous from Monday until it ends. You want to be focusing on it with minimal distractions. For this reason, arrange your itinerary ahead of time.
What are you going to do for lunch? Snacks? Restaurants? If you can, I would also suggest trying to go to a test center where you won’t know anyone who is less than your clique groupies (even then, I’d avoid until the last day). Solitude will help you focus instead of being conscious of classmates or relatives. Also, bring earplugs because you never know if you will be subject to noises from a garbage truck in the adjacent building banging on metal from 3 to 5 AM hoping the noise will end soon. Oddly specific? It literally happened.
If all else fails, rely on adrenaline and the fear of becoming a social pariah unable to join your classmates in getting your golden handcuffs.
So what are the 5 things I did differently to pass the bar exam the second time in February? [Click to Tweet]
- I got into a habit of consistent study.
- I practiced real MBE questions and targeted my weaknesses.
- I eschewed lectures in favor of practice.
- I realized there is a finite set of issues to know within the bar universe. Instead of creating and spotting issues, I checked for issues.
- I stayed at a hotel during the bar.
Now I want to ask you: Which of these resonated with you the most, and why? Let me know.
Brian Hahn is a second-time passer of the California bar exam who thinks prospective candidates and repeaters should listen to him over people who happened to pass the first time. Visit Make This Your Last Time for more actionable and real discussion of bar prep and other free goodies.
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This, of course, has many limitations, which I'll start listing here. First, these are the mean scores; they correlate highly with pass rates, but not perfectly. Note that Stanford's mean score blows all other schools out of the water, but its first-time pass rate is only a few percentage points better than others. That means movement up or down in the mean scores would likely improve or worsen the pass rate, but in measures not immediately ascertainable. Second, just because the bar was scored this way in July 2016 does not mean we would expect graduates of these schools to perform similarly in 2017. Indeed, evidence like this would probably drive a change in bar study habits! Graduates would be inclined to focus more attention on the MBE and less attention on the essays, which would change the scores in unknown ways.
The chart at the right shows in red circles what schools' mean scores were this July under the 1/3-2/3 scoring model. The blue circles are what the scores would have been under the 1/2-1/2 model. (Recall that a passing score in California is a 1440.) As you can see, there is almost no difference for most schools. I flagged four schools that might see the biggest changes--San Diego's for the better; and Irvine, San Francisco, and Thomas Jefferson for the worse.
And recall the caveats above--this does not mean it will translate into demonstrable differences in the pass rate, and pass performance is not an indicator of future success. This is particularly school for the three schools I identified that might expect lower means--Irvine is well above the passing score, and San Francisco and Thomas Jefferson are well below it, meaning marginal differences in the mean score would probably affect very few. (For schools closer to the 1440 score, we might expect slightly larger differences, again with the significant caveats listed above about the limited value of using the means.) But it should certainly shift attention in graduate preparation next summer--and whether that changes scores remains to be seen.