Would you like to experience prison?
No, obviously not! What a daft question!
Well, then why are you doing your best to recreate prison-like conditions during your bar exam preparations? Confining yourself to the four walls of your bedroom; not going out to do anything or see anybody; combatting crushing feelings of guilt if you do anything other than study; and surviving off a diet of boiled ramen and bad coffee. I mean, when last did you see a tree?
Enough! If you want to survive bar prep with your mental health intact, it’s time for a few adjustments and this is just the guide to help you do it! So, take my hand as I walk you through the five essential tenets for getting through bar exam preparation, without losing a single marble. (Also, check out these top (free) mental health resources for law students if you feel that you aren't coping.)
Ready? Let’s go!
Tip # 1: Keep it fresh! Mix up your bar prep modes and media
Nothing makes people crazier than boredom, so while you can’t avoid the fact that you need to put in full days of bar exam preparation, what you can do is shake things up with different study modes and media. This will compel your brain to constantly switch gears, keeping it alert, engaged, focussed, and, well, UNbored.
What do I mean by “shaking things up with different study modes and media”?
- Running through MBE flashcards (Brainscape has a full MBE collection!)
- Practicing bar exam questions and exams,
- Watching lecture / bar prep videos,
- Going for a walk and practicing the Feynman Technique
- Binging a full season of ‘Law & Order’,
- Just kidding,
- Listening to lectures / bar prep podcasts, and
- Organizing study group sessions (but be sure to first read ‘When to study in groups, and how to do it’).
(This is in addition to the standard reading textbooks and lecture notes and making study notes.)
If you schedule “blocks” of time for these different study methods, you can easily survive full days of bar prep without feeling overwhelmed and mentally exhausted.
Pro Tip: When you feel the most motivated, do the hardest work first. For example, if you find reading through your notes/textbooks and making study notes to be the most difficult, concentration-heavy task, then do that first until you start feeling the burn.
Then, change gears and test your understanding of the content by working through some flashcards… or by answering bar exam questions. And once you’re tired of that, switch to something easier, like watching lectures or bar prep videos, writing down the important points as you go.
This way, you match the task to the amount of energy and focus you have, rather than constantly fighting against your own brain, which, after two months of bar exam preparation, will drive you bonkers.
Pssst! Check out these 12 top apps for law students and bar prep.
Tip # 2: Use flashcards to get your memorization done quicker
Probably the worst, most mentally taxing aspect of bar exam preparation is having to dump wheelbarrows’ worth of law textbooks into your noggin. There simply is no shortcut around it. You have to memorize the necessary law, or you will fail.
The great news is, Brainscape has been craftily engineered to help you study for the bar exam TWICE as efficiently as any other study technique under the sun (or moon, if you’re a night owl). Here’s how ...
Developed by a team of attorneys from UCLA School of Law and learning scientists from Yale and Columbia Universities, Brainscape’s certified MBE collection has distilled the all content you need to know down into its constituent facts and laws.
These are then framed as question-and-answer flashcards, which are neatly organized into different decks that cover all the major subject areas on the MBE, from Civil Procedure and Constitutional Law to Contracts, Criminal Law, and Torts. (We’ve also included a “rapid fire deck” that quickly tests the black letter law for each subject.)
Yay for convenience!
But, really, the “secret sauce” to the incredible success of Brainscape as a bar exam prep tool is that it leverages proven cognitive learning principles, like spaced repetition, to help you learn so much more efficiently.
Yes please! Get Brainscape’s certified MBE collection
Now I won’t bore you with the nitty gritty of it all (you probably need to get back to your studies) but if you are intrigued by how Brainscape uses spaced repetition, active recall, and metacognition to supercharge your learning speed, check out: The complete cognitive science behind Brainscape.
Pro Tip: Whenever you have a spare five minutes or more, STOP trying to be TikTok’s next superstar and, instead, use your phone to do a quick round of flashcards in Brainscape. If you make use of those little snatches of free time you have throughout the day, you can easily get in an extra hour of quality studying!
For Brainscape’s full-length bible on how to optimize your studying, read: How to study for the bar exam more efficiently.
Tip # 3: Motivate yourself with scheduled breaks
Without things to look forward to—without punctuation—life can become frightfully boring. To understand this, one need only think back at life during the pandemic shut-down. If you weren’t working, you were drifting about the house like a disenfranchised ghost with nobody to scare. Studying can also become really tiring, really quickly, and this is where punctuation can help you survive the bar exam. You need things to look forward to.
Sprinkle your study schedule with a few events and activities with friends and family: perhaps a weekend away, a live sports game, a house party … whatever floats your boat. And if you’re organized, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to take a half day, a day, and definitely a weekend off here and there.
Also, have those breaks scheduled well ahead of time so that when you look at your calendar, it isn’t just one long monotonous sea of bar exam preparation. Rather, it’s one long monotonous sea of bar exam preparation peppered with exciting things you can look forward to! Life is always so much more interesting when there’s punctuation.
Tip # 4: Keep your love tank topped up
Love is what gets us through the toughest spots in life, whether it’s a break-up or the bar exam. Where would we be but for the love and support we receive from our people, partners, pets, and potted plants?
And, yes, while you certainly need to spend a fair amount of time studying on your own, not getting in those social visits is sure to leave you a sandwich short of a picnic. So, make sure that you take time to connect with the people you really care about: who make you feel good.
This is important. You’re facing the most nerve-wracking challenge of your life thus far (second only to the time you asked out your crush in junior high). What you need is positivity and good vibes, and those energy-draining drama llamas you used to hang out with won’t cut it. Edit them out of your life. For now.
Pro Tip: When you do hang out with other law students, make sure that they’re generally positive people who don’t obsessively chew over things. Anxiety is contagious and we’ve had enough of communicable diseases for one lifetime.
Tip # 5: Maintain balance and perspective
The best way to survive the bar exam is to maintain balance and perspective. The first is about having a lifestyle that does not pivot exclusively on bar exam preparation. You still need to make time and space for:
- Sleeping 8 hours per night
- Eating a balanced, healthy diet (no, instant ramen noodles are not suitable for breakfast, lunch, and dinner),
- Drinking plenty of water,
- Limiting sugar and caffeine intake,
- Keeping your space clean and orderly,
- Meditating and other stress-management techniques, and
- Getting outside for exercise.
At the end of the day, it’s your brain that’s going to help you pass the bar exam. And if your brain is sleep-deprived, dehydrated, malnourished, and tripping b*lls on caffeine and sugar, it’s going to turn around and tell you to shove your law degree in the first available vestibule you find. And since your body is full of “available vestibules” I suggest you pay attention.
Now, as for perspective, I’d like to quote another guide in the Brainscape law academy, which you can read here:
“What happens if you fail the bar exam? Absolutely nothing. Zip, zilch, nada, nil, niente. Sure, you’ll have to retake it in six months’ time and, yes, failing the bar exam feels like the end of the world; like your hopes and dreams have been hit by an 8.0 earthquake. But I assure you that this is only a transient feeling. It isn’t the end of the world and your life has not just turned into a disaster movie featuring a cast of abysmal actors.”
There… see? It’s okay! Failing the bar exam happens! And most students who do fail, retake it and pass. It’s not a matter of “if”, just when. And the fact that you’re reading this tells me that, for you, it’s definitely a matter of “when”. So, keep that in perspective as you prepare and you’ll keep anxiety from derailing your progress.
A final word on surviving bar exam preparations
So, there are five rock-solid tips for staying sane during your bar exam preparations:
- Keep it fresh by mixing up your study methods and media
- Use flashcards to get the memorization component done as efficiently as possible
- Motivate yourself with pre-planned study breaks and time off
- Keep your love tank full by staying socially connected, and
- Maintain balance and a healthy sense of perspective.
And remember: you can do this! You made it through three, maybe four years of law school so you absolutely have what it takes to study hard, stay motivated, and rise to the challenge of the bar exam, sanity intact!
P.S. You might also want to check out ‘Dealing with bar exam stress’ or watch the following video, if you’re struggling with anxiety: