Three things you're doing wrong in bar prep when you’re doing everything "right"

By Deborah Sanders

If you are an unsuccessful bar student, you may wonder how you could have failed if you were faithfully compliant with a commercial plan. And if you are taking the bar for the first time, take heed. There is a seductive comfort in the ubiquitous commercial bar prep vendors and the schedule of daily tasks offered by a commercial bar course.

Indeed, for many students the bar prep vendor’s tables are set up on orientation day; many of the companies are willing to “lock your rate in” for the test three years away—long before you know what the test is. 

Their many logos are all-present, all throughout law school. Their power is subliminal and their presence extensive.

It makes sense, in the absence of another alternative, that students would ascribe a certain stature to these vendors, and I agree they have their place. But, I would like to suggest that you have given those commercial companies, just like the bar exam itself, a stature it does not deserve. 

It is not greater than you.

YOU got yourself into law school. YOU have already achieved countless great things based on an independent and determined spirit. YOU possess enough wisdom to make appropriate preparation choices.

So if you are mid-way into your first commercial course, or your second (or your third), and you know you are not going to be prepared if you continue on your chosen path, yet you just cannot conceive of an alternative approach, or more likely, you are possessed of an indefinable superstition that you cannot safely veer off the common path, remember that everything about your independent spirit got you into law school in the first place. Why is this test redefining your faith in yourself?  

The first step to lawyering is exercising independence and judgment. I am into my second decade of this work. I have seen countless bar students. Without exception, these are my top three recurrent observations of what goes wrong in bar prep.


1 | You’re timing yourself from the start.

OK, this is going to be really short: Don’t time inferior work!  

I can never understand why commercial vendors train bar students to begin timing bad essays, or MBE’s for that matter, from the start. Please, I beg you, gain proficiency in both areas first.

Doing the work in an untimed progression allows for students to master the work. A slow and untimed progression also produces quality responses that promote confidence and encourage practice.

The number one essay error I see is avoidance. Students avoid practice when they are set up to fail. Please do not time yourself until you know something!


2 | You’re memorizing.

Law students are acquisition-oriented by nature. Law school only reinforces this tendency. 

From day one, we write copious notes in class. We fly through hundreds of pages of cases every night We make outlines that rival the size of treatises.

Mostly we do not understand much of what we have accumulated. Somehow, we manage to prosper despite our very thin understanding of what we are saying on exams because law school exams allow for the “information dump”—you know, that technique where you throw everything out on exam day and hope that something sticks. Usually something does, and we earn a B or C, feel relief that we got through that one, and repeat the cycle. 

Without any other information on how to prepare for the bar exam, most students recreate that approach in bar prep, no matter what commercial course they use. This means full days of lecture watching, note-taking and memorizing. 

I understand the tendency. I was one of you. I include myself in the “we” because you are my people. Somewhere near the middle of my own commercial course, I realized that the bar exam was a much bigger task than first-year exams, and I feared I would not be ready to take my exam based simply on “looking at a lot of law.” By the end of my commercial course, I KNEW I was not ready. 

I created the method I now teach in the last furious three weeks before my test. Despite hours of watching lectures and complying strictly with a list of daily assignments, I did not feel at all ready to duplicate the tasks demanded by the test.

The devices endorsed for remembering legal concepts, such as mnemonics, only add another task to the work but do not increase understanding. And if those devices fail to perform the intended task, they also miss an important truth: memorization is a short-term unsophisticated brain skill.  Jeffrey D. Karpicke, PhD, from the American Psychological Association put it this way:

“[r]ote learning — simple memorization based on repetition — is short-lived, poorly organized and does not support the ability to transfer knowledge, make inferences or solve new problems . . . Meaningful learning is essentially the opposite of rote learning: It is long-lasting and durable, coherent and well organized, and supports transfer, inferencing and problem solving.”

Using a short-term unsophisticated skill for a long-term sophisticated task is a set-up for failure.

When I teach law students, along with explaining how to brief a case, the first thing I emphasize is that they must focus on how the cases function. This requires an inquiry into what the case does versus what it says. Law students need to see that a case is doing the work of the rule it advances.

In a closed memo assignment, for example, the cases the professor includes are intended to create a very specific rule progression or to perform a purposeful function in analysis. 

In bar prep, that concept must be expanded to the idea that each legal test, for each concept of law being tested, serves a legal topic and that topic serves a subject. For example, a person has a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) if they are part of a certain class of immediately related people; in the zone of danger; contemporaneously witness an injury, or come upon the scene without material change in the condition of the victim. But none of that has any meaning when it comes to applying the elements to a hypothetical without some foundational understanding of why there is a cause of action permitted for witnessing the harm of another.

If a student reads the progression of cases leading to the current version of the test, she or he will see that initially courts did not provide redress for harm caused by psychological injury absent physical injury, in other words, purely emotional claims. But the case law establishes the progress and shows its trajectory, essentially that society evolved to recognize psychological injuries when a closely related family member was present at the scene and witnessed a grave injury caused by someone else’s negligence. The test for NIED advanced later to allow for a plaintiff to recover even if he or she witnessed the event after impact but before an injured family member received significant care. 

Knowing this progression provides an anchor for the cause of action and creates substantive knowledge as opposed to rote memory. A student who understands the basis of the cause of action, along with its progression in time, is much better suited to apply that knowledge to the nuances of a test hypo because they will know why the law functions the way it does. And a student organizing concepts with context will have an internal cabinet in their heads from which to pull information and apply it on the test. Personal jurisdiction, for example, has an easily memorized test, but at the heart of a personal jurisdiction inquiry is fairness and due process. 

The best way to promote knowledge that will allow for mastery on the bar exam is to have students organize the legal issues into a progressive linear structure. You may wonder why I don't simply say “an outline.” The reason is that if students outline in preparation for the bar without context, they simply copy words from another outline. Copying words without context is no better than watching someone speak words. A student must manipulate the material and must use the actual exam to extract recurrent topics. This allows them to both learn the ways issues are tested along with what the law is for those issues. 

I start from the proposition that the primary emphasis on the test must be the test itself. Watching, reading and copying words based on a universe of law outside the test is backward. The test contents should be worked into a structure and not the other way around. 

That leads me to the next point.


3 | You’re watching lectures and doing “homework,” not studying the test. 

The first question bar students ask me is whether they will have time to study sufficiently while working. The answer is a resounding yes! This is not only possible, but optimal (and quite doable).

A student should limit “study” to largely active work on the test components until the very end when some passive review “in the short-term” is beneficial. Much of what makes up a bar student’s day, in an initial attempt anyway, is passive work that advances no skill. If you are watching eight hours of lectures and reading for several hours after that, you could conceivably spend twelve or more hours every day “studying.”

Refer back to the point above for why this method of learning does not work. I would forcefully argue that you are not learning anything that you are simply watching. You might start off with good intentions and you may in fact be dialed in for an hour, but after that, a video is all white noise.

What, you might ask, is the alternative? You must study the test!  

Elementary and high school teachers will object to this approach, and I understand why. The minimal proficiency required by standardized tests represents such a small quantity of what elementary and high school is trying to teach. Focusing on a single test puts pressure on a skilled teacher to produce results and takes the focus off of the experience of school; however, this is the very reason studying the test works best for bar students. 

All of your “experience” as a lawyer is ahead of you: AFTER YOU PASS THE TEST! It’s backward, I know. I remember acing my classes in law school and not “learning” any of that law until my clerkships when I saw it in action. Civil Procedure has no bearing in reality until you are manipulating motions. So, we have a backward profession. The closest you can come in your exam to mastering the tested concepts is to learn what they do in context of the test itself.  

The test is a limited universe of the law. It is also an artificial construct. Hypos are usually extreme, aiming to exploit an element of law that you must learn to see through the “eyes” of the test itself. 

Not only are the essay hypos unrealistic, the structure for a good response is very mechanical. This is another “user error” I often find. Students struggle to transition from the law school information-dump because law school promotes demonstrating interesting theories of law and parroting back the professor’s own world view 

This is NOT the goal on the bar exam. The essays on the bar exam, within a certain range of possibilities, want a limited response, delivered in a specific way. The examiner provides insight in an analysis and even a check- list on performance tests for the contemplated responses. The examiner wants you to demonstrate something fairly specific. 

This means you must answer the question it asks. To do that you must know the law, but also you must know how the hypo is intended to exploit the law. One skill is not inferior to the other. If you answer an essay question by “saying a lot of stuff” and your answer is not compliant or does not recognize what the hypo was trying to do in testing the elements, you will not answer proficiently.

Whereas the essays test real legal knowledge, MBE’s are an alternate reality, and mastering those will never come from memorizing law. You must see copious MBE questions, from several credible vendors, AND THE EXAMINER’S QUESTIONS, before you can gain recognition of how MBE question behave.

Using several vendors is key because the vendors do not work for the examiner, so it is unwise to rely entirely on one company’s interpretation of actual questions. Indeed, the examiner’s released questions offer the best view of the actual test, and though few in number, they have potent value. I am always shocked at the large majority of my students who do not even know these questions—or the examiner’s website—even exist!

Recognizing the behavior of MBE questions will advance your score far better than memorizing law. I am not suggesting you do not need to know the law to do MBE questions, just simply that the law is usually insufficient and usually the “trick” imbedded in the fact pattern carries the day. What can a lecture do to help in that regard? Most students focus far too much on “studying” from a traditional perspective and far too little time doing and analyzing actual questions.



If you graduated from an accredited law school, you possess the capacity to pass the bar exam. The rest is up to good preparation. 

Bar prep is not the time to abandon your own powers of perception and good judgment, or to blindly follow the masses. None of that got you into law school. Remember, you had plans of greatness. You probably did not follow expected paths on your way in. Even if you did, you had the power to achieve what is rare in the population at large: you graduated from law school. 

You must credit the power of your internal guide—you know, the one that got you into law school—and do a gut check if something does not feel right. The test is inferior to you. It is plain and knowable. You are complex and greater than this test. I assure you. Take your complex capabilities and life experiences and apply them to this limited universe of information in a thoughtful way. And then go kill it.


More Bar Exam Advice:

Maximize Your Bar Exam Essay Score In One Step

Using The "Four T’s" To Achieve Bar Exam Success

How To Memorize Bar Exam Outlines

3 Steps To Improve Your MBE Score

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Deborah Sanders is owner of Bar-None Prep and is based in New Jersey. She has been teaching thousands of bar students throughout the country based on her unique method aimed at providing a methodical and predictable approach to passing the bar for more than a decade. She is writing a book on "The Spiritual Path to Passing the Bar" and her writings can be read on, where she has a regular column, and Deborah also independently tutors law students both through her company, Bar-None Prep and on the platform.