The bar exam is probably one of the most hardcore things you will ever do in your life. It’s certainly the highest stakes exam that you will ever take in your law career … but you already knew that, didn’t you?
That’s why you’re here: you need to know how to study for the bar exam, so that you remember everything and can apply it on the big day.
If you’ve made it to this stage, you’ve proven your smarts and resilience, and you’re on the cusp of a challenging yet rewarding career in law. All that stands between you and sweet success is the bar exam.
Sadly, many smart and ambitious law grads have failed the bar because they expect that their intelligence and success in law school will adequately prepare them for this monster of an exam. But the bar isn’t law school, and the skills you need to succeed on this exam are different. After years of talking to law students and professors, we’ve found that successful bar takers tend to follow this formula:
Plan + Learn + Memorize + Practice + Self-Care = Success
The reason many smart students fail is because they focus on only one or two pieces of the formula—but not all of them. In particular, students who fail tend to focus more on listening to lectures and learning the law than on memorizing it.
This makes sense—law school teaches you how to think about and apply the law, but it doesn’t teach you how to memorize and regurgitate it. Unfortunately, the bar doesn’t really care how sophisticated your legal reasoning is. The bar cares how well you can recall the black letter law and apply it in a formulaic way. Traditional study methods that may have helped in law school—like watching lectures and making outlines—usually don’t help you retain information in the way you need to pass the bar. By the time you get midway through bar prep, you’ve already forgotten much of what you’ve learned.
For those of you who had closed book exams in law school, you’re slightly ahead of the curve. But for the rest of you, you probably haven’t memorized large amounts of content since high school or college.
That’s where Brainscape comes in. We've collected the best bar exam tips to get you through this last test and finally start your career in law.
If you’re ready to walk into that convention center exam room with a cocky swagger, you’ve come to the right place.
Our legal experts have spent years creating flashcards that help you memorize and retain content much faster than traditional methods. In this guide, we will provide five steps for passing the bar based on our magic formula, each of which is necessary to pass the bar:
These bar exam tips will help you get from zero to bar exam hero.
Before we start: Why use flashcards to memorize the black letter law?
The question you might be asking yourself at this juncture is: I wonder if Uncle Frank will still offer me that job in his body shop if I mess this up?
The second question you might be asking yourself at this juncture is: what gives Brainscape the chops to talk about how to study for the bar exam?
Brainscape has partnered with highly respected experts in the field of law who have not only faced and vanquished the bar exam dragon themselves but are actively engaged in practicing law and legal education. And while traditional bar exam courses are great for learning about the material and practicing it, they don’t help you memorize the material as effectively as solid, adaptive digital flashcards. Brainscape knows flashcards.
More specifically, our Brainscape-certified MPRE and MBE flashcards are scientifically tailored to engage students’ cognitive abilities which means you’ll memorize the material quicker, remember it longer, and actually enjoy yourself along the way.
You may not have ever heard of anyone who had fun preparing for the bar, but you have now, and you heard it here first!
Now, let’s get started on those five steps on how to prepare for the bar exam.
Step 1: Plan
To make sure you’re learning, memorizing, and practicing efficiently, you must have a study schedule and stick to it. This is not the time to freestyle.
If you signed up for a bar prep course, you probably have a study schedule already. These can be very useful and ensure nothing falls through the cracks. But, if the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for you, you can make your own schedule to better fit your study style.
Know what is on your state’s bar exam
It may sound obvious, but you’re going to need to know what is on your bar exam to pass. The content of the bar exam depends upon your state. Thirty-six states have adopted the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), which consists of the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), the Multistate Essay Exam (MEE), and the Multistate Performance Test (MPT).
All non-UBE states (except Louisiana and Puerto Rico) still administer the MBE. They also typically also include some form of essays, the MPT, or other state-specific material. The essays and performance test portions of the exam focus on state law, while the MBE tests federal law.
All states are different. For example, the California Bar Exam takes two days and is made up of:
- 5 x one-hour essay questions
- A 90-minute performance test
- The 200-question multiple-choice MBE
Since the MBE is a major component for almost everyone and is usually one of the most challenging parts, let’s discuss it more in-depth.
Know what is on the MBE
The MBE is a six-hour, 200-question multiple-choice exam that is broken into two sessions—the morning session with 100 questions and the afternoon session with 100 questions. Only 175 of those questions are actually scored—25 questions are unscored, experimental questions (though you won't know which ones).
The MBE is created by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) and given every year on the last Wednesday in February and the last Wednesday in July. The exam covers 7 areas of the law, with 25 questions each:
- Civil Procedure
- Constitutional Law
- Criminal Law & Procedure
- Real Property
You're almost certainly going to have to prepare for the MBE. You'll probably also have to prepare for essays or a performance task. The take-home message here is that you need to familiarize yourself with the particular format of your state’s bar exam.
Gather your study resources
Once you understand what’s on the bar exam, you can start gathering learning materials.
To help you do that, Brainscape has worked with our expert law partners to compile a list of important resources to help build your knowledge for the bar.
Here's what you need:
- Subject outlines. The NCBE’s MBE subject matter outlines tell you how frequently certain topics are tested. Loved negligence? You’re in luck—that’s 50% of all Torts questions. Don’t waste time on topics that may only cover 1 or 2 questions. If you happen to be using Brainscape’s MBE flashcards mentioned earlier, you'll notice that the decks are aligned with those outlines.
- Course materials. Most bar prep courses will supply course materials—either video lectures, course books, and/or outlines—but you should build your own library too with law school outlines, supplements, and/or law school textbooks. A word of warning: Most law school professors do not teach to the bar, and are probably teaching you way more information than you need to know for it. Be sure to keep referencing the MBE subject matter outlines to ensure you don’t waste time studying in too much depth.
- Memorization materials. Memorization materials are the resources that will help you actually remember the information you need to learn. Given that we’re a flashcard company, we’re a little biased towards our web and mobile MBE flashcard decks here at Brainscape. However, the most important thing is to use what works for you. Do you memorize by rewriting song lyrics to popular songs? Great, go do it. That said, we’ll tell you a little later on why we think flashcards are a scientifically superior method.
- A study schedule. Once you know what you need to learn, you need to plan how you’re going to learn. A study plan will create structure and keep you on track. Bar prep courses usually provide a study plan but you can also make your own. You can use a calendar, study app, poster board, spreadsheet, or whatever works for you. (See how to create your daily bar study schedule.)
- Practice exams. Practice questions and exams are an essential component of your preparation because it engages your brain in ways that encourage it to remember information better. And, practicing for a test helps you perform better on it. Check out our guide on how to take a practice bar exam for tips on the best way to do this.
- A progress tracker. Knowing your weaknesses gives you a chance to address them and refine your plan. Keep track of errors you make using a spreadsheet or whatever works best for you. Or just make flashcards for each concept that is giving you trouble!
A word on bar prep courses
We’ve mentioned bar prep courses a few times now, and students often ask us if they’re necessary to pass. The short answer is no—but they’ll almost certainly help you pass. Bar prep courses (for the most part) take a lot of the guesswork out of bar prep—they tell you exactly what to study, when to study, and provide practice problems. Given that many students start studying for the bar in May, having materials laid out for you can be a huge time-saver and keep you focused. That said, bar prep courses can be expensive and you can still pass if you’re extremely dedicated and self-motivated.
Just make sure that you obtain all the resources discussed above so you don’t miss anything. Here they are again:
- Comprehensive subject outlines
- A study plan
- Instructional materials, like lectures, textbooks, or audio practice
- Study materials, like attack sheets and flashcards
- Practice exams
- A progress tracker
Create a daily schedule
This is the most important of our bar exam tips and we cannot stress it enough: create a schedule for yourself. A huge reason why students fail is that they didn’t have a cohesive strategy—they studied whatever seemed right at the moment. Don’t let this be you. (We know that some of you already have color-coded calendars with every minute of the day scheduled out—you can skip this section).
For the rest of us, here’s what you need to do: create a daily calendar using our magic formula and the NCBE subject matter outlines. As a recap, here’s what successful students do:
Plan + Learn + Memorize + Practice + Self-Care
Since we’re already talking about planning here, let’s focus on the last 4:
Learn + Memorize + Practice + Self-Care
Thus, when creating your calendar, you must schedule time for each of these activities—time to learn (listen to lectures or read outlines), memorize (ideally through flashcards), and practice (MBE practice exams and essay questions).
For each subject, use the NCBE outlines to figure out how much time to allocate for each subject. For example, negligence comprises 50% of Torts questions. This should tell you that you can’t skimp on learning negligence (it could mean the difference between passing or failing).
Last, you need to schedule in time for self-care. We know some of you think there isn’t enough time for sleep, but that is not a winning strategy. Sleep is one of the primary ways your brain consolidates memories. Without self-care, you won't be able to perform throughout the entire, exhausting exam. More on this later.
Here’s an example weekly schedule using the formula above.
You can see that the week includes all essential elements—learning, memorizing, practicing, and self-care.
Beyond your weekly schedule, it’s also crucial to set goals. Sure, your ultimate goal is to pass the bar exam. But dig a little deeper and break that down into smaller, bite-sized goals. Goals will help you stay on track and stay focused. Set monthly, weekly, and daily goals. Hit them and give yourself a little reward.
They might look like this:
- End of this week: Have practiced for 10 essay questions.
- June 5th: Have mastered the first set of 50 flashcards on Real Property.
- June 15th: Have completed a full practice MBE test.
- July 5th: Have learned and mastered all of Brainscape’s flashcards for Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Contracts, and Criminal Law.
Commit and stay consistent
Studying for the bar, like law school, is a marathon. You can’t cram for it, as cramming doesn't work. Consider yourself an athlete—if you put in the work and train every day. Yes, there will be many days when you don’t feel like it. But let us assure you, if you miss 5 days of studying because you didn’t feel like it, you’ll be kicking yourself later. So, get in the habit of studying even when you don't feel like it. It will pay off.
That said, your plan isn’t written in stone—adapt it based on what’s working for you. If you need more MBE and less MPT time, make that change. Your study schedule should only help you—don’t get so rigid that it ends up hurting you.
We know it’s tough but remember that it’s not forever. Just make peace with it: you will have to study every day, but you will get through it. And decades of research have shown that the most effective way to remember lots of information in the long-term is to practice it a little every day.
We here at Brainscape have a formula for this. Basically, each little review you do every day compounds to result in exponential learning gains.
Step 2: Learn
This is the phase of bar prep where you “learn” all of the subjects on the bar. We're putting “learn” in quotes because most students tell us that listening to bar prep lectures or reading outlines doesn’t help them learn the information in a meaningful way. It can actually feel a little scary—you’re spending hours and hours listening to lectures, but it feels like it’s going in one ear and out the other. Don’t worry. This feeling is normal. You should still do it.
That said, there are things you can do to make this phase more efficient. We know it’d be easier to sit there and tune out, but some bar prep courses have this taking up as much as 30-40% of your time. Don’t waste it. Here's how to make the most of it.
Some bar prep companies have fill-in-the-blank outlines that go along with video or audio lectures. If this helps you follow along, go for it. If not, try writing your own notes as you follow along.
Make flashcards while you listen
Making flashcards while listening to lectures is an excellent use of your time. Sure, if you're using Brainscape's MBE review, you'll already have 2,400 MBE flashcards that align with popular bar exam courses. But it's possible we don't cover every possible niche topic :)
If you’re listening to non-MBE subjects, just pause the lecture every time you hear a rule and create a flashcard. Write the rule in your own words, and include an example or two if you’d like. Review these post-lecture to help you retain the information.
Listen to simple questions in your downtime
Make use of your downtime by listening to the material while you’re commuting, at the gym, or making dinner. Most bar prep courses will have videos that you can watch hands-free, but those are largely "passive" listening. Brainscape instead offers a more "active" hands-free MBE video and audio series on YouTube and podcasts, where you are listening to questions and pausing to think about each answer in your head, which makes it more likely to "stick" than just lecture content.
Use resources like this to fill in the gaps when you can’t be sitting down to focus.
Step 3: Memorize
By now, hopefully, you’ve got a solid plan and you’re learning all of the bar exam subjects through lectures, reading, or both. But while bar prep companies provide vast amounts of information, they don’t actually teach you how to remember the vast amount of information.
You'll want to align your learning methodology with the way your brain is actually wired to learn.
Use adaptive flashcards
Several of our bar exam tips mention Brainscape’s adaptive learning platform several times so now I want to explain why. Why do we highly recommend making Brainscape’s MBE Review flashcards a central part of your study resources? Quite simply because Brainscape’s flashcards are a super-efficient and powerful way to memorize all the legal concepts on the bar exam.
- Brainscape's flashcards require you to use active recall. Active recall is the process of reaching back in your memory for an answer. Flashcards automatically prompt you to use active recall because you have to think about the answer “from scratch.” Research demonstrates that this is a much more effective way to remember concepts than simply recognizing the answer in a multiple choice test.
- Brainscape's flashcards use spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is a way to prioritize what you’re studying such that you repeat the information you’re comfortable with less often and the information you don’t know more often. Studies have found that people using spaced repetition learn significantly faster than those who don’t.
These two principles are the main ways that Brainscape optimizes your bar exam prep and makes your study more efficient.
And since Brainscape’s MBE Review flashcards have been vetted by previous students and law professors, you can be confident that they’re complete. They’re also designed to follow test preparation courses in terms of subject matter, so you can learn a concept in your course and then use the flashcards to ensure you remember over the long-term.
For a deeper dive into the cognitive science behind learning and remembering, check out why Brainscape works.
Memorize as you go
Rather than studying everything first and then going back to review it all, build memorization into your learning. Studies have shown that reviewing old subjects as you learn new ones is a more effective way to remember the content.
For example, once you’ve learned everything from Civil Procedure, review those flashcards even as you’re learning Criminal Procedure. If you're using Brainscape's MBE Prep flashcards, this is really efficient, as you can just click the big Study button and the system knows exactly which concepts to review.
Step 4: Practice
Another essential feature of studying efficiently is practicing bar exam questions. Part of doing well on the bar exam is, of course, knowing the law—but another part is flexing your sexy knowledge muscles. You can actually get better at the bar exam by practicing writing it.
When you’re testing yourself, practice under normal testing conditions. That means with a pencil, a paper test, and filling the answers in on your computer. Make time to do a full exam at least 2-3 times before the big day. Seeing how you perform in a real testing scenario will help you properly evaluate your progress.
Address your errors and weaknesses
Testing yourself doesn’t just help you practice, it also provides you feedback about what you know—and what you don’t. Track your errors and build that feedback into your study schedule.
On an MBE practice exam, for example, if you find out that you nailed Civil Procedure, but you’re bombing Evidence, change your schedule. Build in spaced repetition principles so you see more material about Evidence and less about Civil Procedure.
Furthermore, for every question that you missed, make a flashcard with the rule. Review this “mistake” deck every single day to avoid making the same errors over and over again.
This is an effective way to learn and memorize. Research shows that when you synthesize study materials addressing your weaknesses, you learn them much more effectively.
And remember that you can study your own flashcards with convenient study mixes along with the flashcards in the existing Brainscape MBE curriculum.
Step 5: Adopt healthy habits and self-care
If you aren't physically prepared for it, none of the other bar exam tips will do you much good. To study for the bar exam most efficiently, you need to make sure you are giving yourself the best shot you can by staying healthy. That means eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and using your support system.
You’ll have heard that “garbage in equals garbage out.” It’s true. There’s lots of research that suggests that what foods we choose to eat can affect how well we perform on tests. Adopt a healthy diet and you’ll do better on the bar.
A healthy diet for studying means:
- Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains and legumes
- Lean proteins and eggs
- Lots of water
While you’re studying, try to avoid:
- Highly processed foods
- Foods high in refined sugars (why sugars are a study killer)
- Foods high in saturated and trans fats
- Excessive alcohol
Our brains and our bodies are intimately linked. That means that you’ll get the best performance from your brain if you take care of your body. Some research shows that exercising moderately 3 times a week is enough to boost performance on high stakes exams.
You don’t have to turn into an athlete, but make sure you’re getting some moderate exercise at least a few times a week while you’re studying. It will help you study more efficiently and also boost your performance on the test.
If you’re looking for a potent exam performance enhancer, look no further than your bed. Numerous studies have linked the quality of sleep to performance on cognitive tasks and academic achievement. Sleep is well-established as one of the most important factors in exam performance.
There are few things you can do for yourself that are as beneficial as prioritizing good, routine sleep. It won't just help you on exam day, either; getting a good night’s rest will help you the entire time you’re studying.
To develop good sleep hygiene, try the following:
- Aim for 8 hours of sleep a night or more
- Go to bed at the same time every night
- Get up at the same time most mornings
- Remove distractions from your environment, like your phone
- Avoid reading or watching TV in bed
- Avoid caffeinated beverages within 8 hours of going to sleep
- Create a comfortable pre-bedtime routine
If you want to know about sleeping well and fixing sleep issues, see our guide on how to cure insomnia without drugs.
More than anything, the bar is a mental game. It’s the ultimate test of being able to calm yourself down, focus, and apply what you’ve been learning over the past 3 years. One success trick our students swear by is practicing mindfulness during bar prep. In one study, students who practiced mindfulness performed better on memory recall tests than students who did not.
You don’t need to meditate for long to see results—even practicing mindfulness for just 3-5 minutes a day has shown benefits. Come exam day, you’ll be able to tap into that inner stillness and focus to get you through the exam.
Use your support system
Studying for the bar exam is stressful. It is a huge milestone in your career and in your life, and the fear of failing assaults each and every law grad who signs up for it. So it’s really important you surround yourself with an emotional support system. While you’ll probably spend much of the time leading up to the bar buried under 10 feet of books and notes, it’s important to get in a little quality time with your family, partner, friends, community, and the other people in your life.
Ask them for help, whatever that looks like. Ask your mom to help you out with laundry, or your spouse to take care of dinners so you don’t have to worry about cooking. Speak to a close friend or therapist about how stressed you feel or go to a mentor about your workload for advice on how to cope better. Take some time to think about what you need and how you can best recruit the people who are close to you for some help.
Don’t think of it as using them; think of it as leaning on them in your time of need.
You can also ask for patience. You might be less available to hang out or to socialize than you normally would be. Or, maybe studying for the bar will reduce your ability to engage in family commitments or be present with your partner. Have a conversation with your people to let them know that you’re going to be very focused on your exam and that might mean you temporarily have less time for them.
Your social support matters. Studies show people with high-quality relationships perform better at academic tasks, possibly by helping to alleviate test anxiety. The more you get the important people in your life behind you for your bar preparation and studying, the better.
They are your team.
Studying for the bar will be like a full-time job. It’s going to be work—a lot of work.
But in the same way that you can’t work 24 hours a day and do good work, you can’t study 24 hours a day and learn effectively. Taking breaks helps your body recover. It also helps your brain consolidate information and improve performance.
Build breaks into your study days. And try to build a day off of studying, if you can.
Summing up: How to study for the bar exam more efficiently
Ultimately, passing the bar is about marching into that exam hall equipped to the eyeballs with the information you need to know and the ability to use that weaponry dexterously against your foe.
To do this, you need to remember a ton of information. Most people will not have enough time to review everything. Some people may be learning subjects that they never actually took in law school. Others may be trying to relearn a subject they took three years ago.
The bad news is: if you don’t study efficiently, you could be learning twice as slowly—and forgetting almost everything.
Brainscape's bar exam tips help you optimize your learning and study efficiently. That doesn’t just mean reducing wasted time; it also means studying in a way that helps you actually remember what you’ve learned.
What’s the good news?
The Brainscape team has compiled decades of cognitive science research—combined with past bar exams, surveys, and discussions with hundreds of law professors, tutors, and bar students—and designed a spaced repetition flashcard MBE study program that ensures you remember what you learn up to twice as fast as you would have using any other study method.
If you use these flashcards, together with a solid study plan, practice bar exams, and a healthy self-care routine, you’ll learn what you need to learn, you’ll have gotten good at applying your knowledge to MBE questions, and you’ll have the stamina you need to vanquish the bar.
Study hard, but most importantly, study smart. You’ve got this.
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