Close up image of three stacks of law textbooks.

Photo by Mohammed A. Alam, Esq. '20

From Our Alumni: Studying for the Bar Exam During a Pandemic

Published February 8, 2021

If reaching the finish line after three years of law school wasn’t hard enough, let alone doing so during a global pandemic, now you have to take the bar exam. So, where do you even start? I know I had my doubts after graduating virtually and wondering what it meant for bar prep. Luckily for you, the initial growing pains that came with multiple cancelations, delays, using a new format and going fully electronic, may no longer be a concern as the next few exams will undoubtably be tweaked and run smoothly. I’ve laid out five steps to help you establish a successful bar prep routine.

Step 1: Select a bar prep course.

The first step of your game plan is the most important of all steps, which is deciding on a bar prep course. While there are many programs that feature interactive approaches, while others simply set a schedule and ask you to follow within a time frame, the overall point is that you should seek to sign up for one of the courses suggested by the School of Law. I was lucky enough to be a student representative for Themis and received the bar prep program for free. Bar prep is expensive, so feel free to take advantage of any and all discount opportunities to offset the cost. Nevertheless, having a prep course is an absolute must. Once you have your course chosen, they will provide you with all materials needed to pass the bar exam. Many students, myself included, purchase supplemental material (e.g. flash cards, online question banks), but this isn’t necessary especially since they are also very expensive. Your bar prep course will be more than enough to get ready for the real exam. But, if you find yourself wanting supplemental material, I suggest asking previous test takers who’ve passed what was most helpful to them rather than aimlessly searching online and paying hundreds of dollars for bad materials – sometimes recent grads may offer you their old materials.

Step 2: Clear your schedule and make time.

Bar prep under normal circumstances requires an intense time commitment. Expect to study around 9 – 10 hours a day for 6 – 7 days a week for at least two months. This time commitment can be even more challenging to maintain during a pandemic as you may experience other distractions. You should begin this step by talking to your loved ones, those you live with, and close friends in your circle, and letting them know you won’t have time to be as attentive and accessible while you study for the bar exam. This is important. Try to get all of your commitments out of the way before bar prep begins. Naturally the more distractions you have while reviewing material, the less you’ll remember, and the last thing you want is to be distracted half way into a timed practice exam. And, after hours of grueling study, trust me, you will want time and space just to relax.

Step 3: Set up your study space.

Normally I would go to the library because I can’t focus at home, or go to a café to read and drink coffee. But now that is clearly not an option for many. Take time to think through and work on a space that is clean, comfortable and quiet. Some students may prefer moving around or going to different locations, but I found I studied better when I had a designated space where I kept all my books, cards, and outlines along with a white board and my note pads. Studies show that the more comfortable you are in a space, the better your retention of material. This also makes it easy to walk away from that space after you’re done for the day and not be reminded of bar prep in other rooms in your home. I found this mental separation to be very helpful.

Step 4: Find an accountability buddy.

The fourth step in this game plan, while important, may not be for everyone. You should find someone who isn’t studying for the bar to nag you every couple of weeks to see if you are staying on course. I recommend someone who will understand your pain and frustration that comes with bar prep, and someone you know will help you relax and stay focused. The objective is to have a positive sounding board. The bar exam, even pre-pandemic, can break people down, so it’s important to pay attention to your mental health and be able to talk out your frustrations rather than bottle them in. This was a life line for me during bar prep because, due to the pandemic, I couldn’t go out and see my friends or have dinner at my favorite restaurant, or catch a movie on a weekend. Having someone to keep me focused was a big deal. I asked my favorite professor from law school and she was the voice I needed to get through that difficult time.

Step 5: Keep your blinders up.

Once you have your game plan set, there are a handful of other useful things to keep in mind. My favorite professor said to me that bar prep is incredibly personal. You should try to keep your blinders up and not fall into the trap of comparing yourself to your classmates. Your results are yours; your study habits and course progress are yours. You have never studied or performed the exact same way as others so you shouldn’t plan to do so now. While this may inevitably happen, as I couldn’t resist comparing myself with some of my friends, this is more harmful than useful. All it will do is give you anxiety. Your goal is to stay focused on your progress, not the perceived progress of others.

There will be days where you will feel drained and just want it to be over. There will also be successful days where you did well on a practice exam or essay, which will lift your spirits. Remember to build in study breaks and treat yourself from time to time to keep your energy up. About once a week I would get a fruit smoothie and take-out from my favorite Vietnamese restaurant.

Taking this exam during a pandemic may feel insensitive, it may not feel normal, but you have to take exam prep day by day until you reach the finish line, so be patient with yourself. This journey will be full of anxiety and stress, but you survived law school and you will survive bar prep too. Stay healthy, stay strong, stay focused, this will pass and so will you.

Photo of Mohammed A. Alam '20.

Guest blogger Mohammed A. Alam, Esq. is a member of the School of Law's J.D. Class of 2020.

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