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How to Succeed on the Bar Exam: 21 Expert Tips
Professor Robert Coulthard, aka “Coach”

When it comes to preparing for the bar exam, you want someone in your corner. Someone who’s going to make sure you’re ready for any punches the exam throws at you. Someone like Coach.

A nationally recognized test-prep expert, Professor Robert Coulthard, aka “Coach,” shepherds New England Law | Boston students through their bar exam prep. He’s one of the most in-demand—and beloved—people on campus because of his seemingly endless supply of bar exam advice and encouragement. And he shares some of that wisdom below. 

This bar exam advice is broken into three categories: the things you should be doing throughout law school, specific tips surrounding the last leg of intense studying, and taking the exam itself.

Keep reading to set yourself up for bar exam success.

Bar Prep Throughout Law School

It starts your first year

Without a doubt, your first year of law school is the foundation of your bar prep success. That’s largely because most of the bar exam’s questions are based on your first-year course work: torts, civil procedure, constitutional law, etc. So it’s critical that you hit the ground running, Coach says.

In particular, you should take strong notes your first year—notes you can rely on when you’re studying full time for the bar exam two or three years down the road. Take time at the end of the week to review your notes and create an outline of what you learned. Your future self with thank you.

This is also when you’ll develop the study and time-management habits that will stick with you throughout law school. Make sure they’re good ones.

Learn how you learn

You want to figure out your personal “learning style” early on in law school too. This will not only help you in your course work but in picking a bar exam review service down the road.

To figure out how you learn best, use the free academic resources available through your law school, including working with your academic advisor (see below). You can also take learning-style self-assessments, personality tests, or just engage in some old fashioned self-reflection.

“Consistent and constant review”

So, we’ve already established that first year of law school is the most tested on the bar exam. Your second-year course work is also critical to bar exam success. But your bar exam studying won’t kick into high gear for another year or two! (No fair, right?)

Certainly, you don’t want to cram two years’ worth of material into the weeks leading up to the bar exam. Instead, it’s important to revisit your notes from your first- and second-year classes on a regular basis. This might vary from person to person, but reviewing your class notes at the end of every week and revisiting past notes every month should serve you well.

“Many students don't realize that what they're learning in their first year in contracts, if they don't know it then, they're going to have to re-learn it in the summer before the bar exam,” Coach says. “You can only learn so much new material in the summer.”

Coach also warns students of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, which is our propensity to forget what we’ve learned exponentially over time. But you can turn that tide by revisiting the material on a regular basis (also a study hack known as spaced repetition).

“Consistent and constant review of the material that's being taught is key to making sure that you pass the bar exam,” he says. This will keep the info fresh and strengthen your grasp of the material, because spacing out your studying helps with retention. Speaking of which…

Don’t cram two years’ worth of material into the weeks leading up to the bar exam. Instead, revisit your notes from your first- and second-year law school classes on a regular basis.

Use memory hacks

Ever feel hopelessly dependent on your phone? Research says smart phones may be eroding our memory. Yikes. Luckily, you can shore up your abilities and improve your retention and recall using a few hacks. Some of our favorites include:

  • Chunking: Break complicated ideas into smaller chunks of related issues.
  • Spaced repetition: We retain information better when we revisit it regular over time (see above!).
  • Pegging: Having trouble remembering a concept? Associate it with an odd or funny visual, word, phrase, and/or rhyme to make it stick.
  • Memory palaces: Associate the things you need to remember with a space you know well, like your house or apartment. Then “walk” through the space when you need to remember it.
  • Chaining/linking: Relate concepts by stringing them together in a “chain” using related visuals or cues.
  • Mnemonic devices/acronyms: Use a familiar phrase, word, or even melody to remember lists or groups of information.
  • Teach someone else: It’s been proven time and again that teaching others strengthens our own grasp of a given concept.
  • Sleep! It may not be a memory “hack,” per se, but sleep is crucial to processing and retaining what we’ve learned. So prioritize getting some shut-eye.
  • Smell: Okay, this is a weird one, but because smell is the sense most strongly associated with memory, you might benefit from using the same cologne or perfume when you study and on the day of the bar exam. At the very least you’ll smell nice. (Just don’t overdo it!)

You’ll find more memory hacks here. The academic resources at your law school might be able to provide further advice too.

Take advantage of academic resources on campus

All law schools offer academic support services, and you should use them, even if you don’t think you’re struggling in your classes.

Among other things, these services can teach you to be more efficient in your studying and note-taking, test you on the legal reasoning and analysis skills required for the bar exam, and help you practice your legal writing. They can teach you invaluable strategies if you learn differently or experience acute test-taking anxiety as well.

For example, the Academic Excellence Program at New England Law provides students with mock exams, individualized academic counseling, and study tools that all contribute to their success on the bar exam. And bar-focused academic courses such as Applied Legal Reasoning and Advanced Legal Analysis are taught in the second and third year, respectively.

Get all the legal experience you can

Any chance you get to strengthen your legal reasoning and analysis skills, take it, Coach says. This might include participating in moot court/mock trial teams, academic research with faculty, or law reviews and legal publications. In other words, get involved! Besides, these activities will serve you well in your law school classes and your post-grad job search too.  

Make it a game

Gamification makes learning fun and arguably more effective, so try turning your bar exam prep into a game: you might earn “points” for right answers, move up “levels” as you progress through subjects, or have a “leaderboard” amongst your study group.

You can also use apps with literal games that will strengthen your memory, retention, and attention. Just a few examples:

  • Lumosity
  • Eidetic
  • CogniFit
  • Fit Brains
  • ELEVATE
  • Aaptiv
  • Peak
  • Brain Fitness Pro
  • Happify

And if you think winning a game on your phone feels good, just wait until you “win” at the bar exam.

Six to Ten Weeks Before the Bar Exam

It’s not a study routine—it’s a lifestyle change

Imagine: You’re in the weeks leading up to the bar exam, and every day looks exactly like this:

  • 8:00 a.m.: Wake up, stretch, eat a bowl of granola, drink a cup of coffee
  • 9:00 a.m.: Start studying
  • 11:00 a.m.: Take a break and go for a short walk
  • 11:15 a.m.: Back to studying
  • 1:00 p.m. Break for lunch: a chopped salad with a side of chips and an apple
  • 2:00 p.m.: Oh yes, we’re studying again
  • 3:45 p.m.: Another break, this time spent meditating
  • 4:00 p.m.: One more round of studying
  • 5:00 p.m.: Time’s up! You’re done for the day.

You don’t necessarily need to follow that particular schedule—but you should be close. Coach recommends keeping a rigid routine during this period, starting around May before the July bar exam, even to the point of eating the same foods every day, to help you develop a comfortable rhythm around taking the test.

“Train your mind and your body to simulate the test on every day that you get a chance to study,” he says. “You have to feel like the day you walk into the bar exam is like every other day that you’ve spent all summer long.”

Train your mind and your body to simulate the test every day you study. You have to feel like the day you walk into the bar exam is like every other day.

Take true-to-life practice bar exams

In addition to studying, you should take practice bar exams, complete with essays, multiple choice portions, the whole nine yards. And you should mimic the exact conditions of the bar exam when you do: start at 9:00 a.m., time yourself, take breaks on schedule, etc.

This will increase your comfort level and help you build your endurance for the exam—because it will be the longest two to three days of your life.

Take time off

In addition to taking regularly schedule study breaks, be sure to take one day off each week to really relax and recharge. Coach recommends doing something completely unrelated to the law and the bar exam.

You only have so much focus and brain power, and you will burn out if you push yourself too hard. Seven hours of focused study a day, six days a week: that’s the best you can hope for, he says.

Don’t look for a magic bullet; just do the work

There's no magical number of multiple choice questions you should answer or perfect bar prep course you can take. You just need to study until you know the material tested on the bar exam down cold.

“The key to success is memorizing,” Coach says. “In order to memorize, you have to organize information, strengthen memorization skills, and test those separately.”

Study. Period.

This may seem obvious, but if you’re crushing your law school course work—or you’re just cavalier about taking standardized tests—you might think you can skip studying for the bar exam.

Spoiler alert: you can’t.

“The biggest myth is ‘I didn't study for the bar and I passed,’” Coach says. While there might be the very rare instance where this happens, it’s the exception, not the rule. Far more students have wasted their time and money taking the bar exam thinking they could slide by without studying. Don’t let that happen to you.

Use a commercial bar review service

There are several bar review companies out there, and Coach advises using one. Of course, they cost upwards of $4,000, so you want to make an informed decision before you commit!

Once again, you want to think about how you learn best, Coach says. All bar review companies offer something different, so explore your options so you know which programs are organized and presented in a way that works well for you.

Also, most commercial bar prep programs can be completed entirely online these days, but Coach recommends doing an in-person one if you can. “Go to a classroom with a live professor [who’s] going to lecture and help you learn,” he says. “It forces you to stay on a time schedule. It forces you to commit.”

Practice self-care

“The bar exam is a total mind-body experience,” Coach says. And if you want your mind to perform, you’ve got to take care of the rest of yourself.

Sleep. Meditate. Exercise. Eat some veggies. Do things that make you happy. You’ve heard this all before, but it bears repeating, because it really does make a difference in your bar exam performance.

Have a financial plan

Ideally, you will be studying full time for the six to eight weeks between when you graduate from law school and take the bar exam in July. But if you’re working to support yourself—or others—financially, that can be a tall order. If you can take this time off, Coach recommends doing so. Many students do, with full blessings from their employers.

Of course, it then becomes important to come up with a financial plan for this period, and Coach says many law students miss this part of the bar prep process. So be sure to talk to your employer, significant other, family, and/or roommates in advance.

Keep your loved ones in the loop

Speaking of talking to your friends and loved ones, be sure to let them know you will be unavailable much of the time when studying for the bar exam. (You’re not just ghosting them!) Their support, both emotional and practical, will be helpful during this time too. 

Don’t study the day before the bar exam!

Cramming won’t help you at this point. Getting some rest, relaxing, and otherwise just taking care of yourself will. 

Which brings us up to the main event…

During the Bar Exam

Take the bar exam breaks seriously

Coach insists both breakfast and lunch are “worth” ten points—each—on the bar exam. So don’t skip them, and fuel up on a healthy balance of protein, carbs, and fat. He also recommends leaving the building during the lunch break and spending thirty minutes walking, meditating, or otherwise relaxing after you eat. “Try to get some peace so that you can prepare your mind for what’s coming up next,” he says.

The bar exam, much like law school itself, takes grit. Physical, mental, and emotional toughness. You will need to tap into that on test day.

Be strong

The bar exam, much like law school itself, takes grit. Physical, mental, and emotional toughness. You will need to tap into that on test day.

You may not know every single rule, but if you use good, sound legal reasoning and analysis skills to tackle the problems on the bar exam, you’re going to be okay. “It’s not about knowing every little rule. It’s about knowing the core rules really, really well,” Coach says. So don’t obsess over memorizing every detail—or worry that you’ll fail if you didn’t.

Be calm

“No one ever scored a perfect score on the bar exam. No one,” Coach says. “No one is capable of knowing everything, and you're going to have to be okay with that.”

Many students go into the bar exam thinking it’s the end of the world if they don't pass, especially if they have a job offer. But that’s not the case, and you can always retake the test. More importantly, Coach says the students who are the most stressed about failing are least likely to pass.

“You're going to do everything you can to put yourself in the position to pass, knowing that in the end, it may not work out your favor,” Coach says. “That can't be your undoing, because if you're afraid of the test, and if you're afraid of failure, you will agonize and have so much anxiety... You have to walk in there not caring about the exam. The more you care about it, basically the higher the risk that you will fail.”

If you have acute test-taking anxiety, it’s important to meet with academic professionals early in law school so you put yourself in a position to pass the bar exam.

Be confident

“The worst thing you can do is go into the bar exam thinking, ‘Well, I don't think I could pass so I'm just really not going to try’ [or] ‘I'm a really bad standardized test taker, so I can't pass the bar exam,’” Coach says. That kind of defeatist attitude can really limit your potential. You need to be positive—and believe in your ability to pass.

“If you know the law, anyone has a shot,” Coach says. "Anyone can pass the bar exam.”

It’s cliché but true: bar exam prep is a marathon, not a sprint. At the end of the day, there are no silver bullets to bar exam success—but there’s a lot you can do throughout law school to make sure you’re as prepared as possible. We hope the bar exam tips above help.

Learn more about bar exam prep at New England Law.