The Bar Exam is a Week Away – Now What?

The last few days before the bar examination are among the most personal and dramatic days in the life of any young lawyer. For some bar candidates, what happens during the last days and hours before the exam makes the difference between success and failure.


Successful bar applicants perform well on each bar exam section. This requires an enormous amount of physical and emotional energy. Unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, a sensible bar candidate will rest more during the last week before the bar exam, take more frequent breaks from study, and get more physical exercise. Keep in mind that those who pass the bar exam are able to perform at a high level for two days in a row (three days in California).

This is the wrong time to live on caffeine, tobacco, processed sugar and alcohol! (It’s also the wrong time to quit forever all of one’s bad habits.) Use common sense.

Everybody agrees that the mind-body connection can be crucial to success on the bar examination. The most knowledgeable and skillful applicant is likely to under-perform if he or she doesn’t get plenty of good rest the week before the bar examination. Night owls should adjust their schedules in order to get used to the early wake-up call required by the bar exam.


It is no secret that many successful lawyers and bar applicants suffer from various forms of diagnosable mental illness. Even the crazy people who pass the bar tend to achieve a degree of balance and stability that allows them to perform well throughout the days of the test. Concentrate on achieving a state of alert tranquility. Don’t be afraid to ask others for help — it’s likely they’ll be generous.

At the same time, don’t be shy about asking others to leave you the hell alone! Who are they, anyhow? They’re not taking the bar examination. You can apologize later. After all, the bar exam is a matter of life and death. It is tremendously expensive and humiliating to fail. Other people in your life are going to have to get used to putting their petty human needs behind the needs of your career. This is a good time for them to start.

Just kidding. Be nice to others, but don’t pretend you’re not under stress. Do what you need to do in order to be focused and poised during the exam.


An applicant who doesn’t have a good basic understanding of the law is unlikely to achieve it during the last few days before the examination. Understanding the material is one thing, but being able to recite the elements to the various theories of liability is quite another. Many successful applicants wait until the last five to ten days to concentrate on memorizing all the little details. This makes sense: all memory experts agree that short-term memory is measured in hours and days, not in weeks.


All bar exam experts agree that practice MBE and essay work is the most important factor in whether or not a candidate will pass the exam. If a candidate for the bar has not done any serious practice essay work, he or she is well advised to forget a lot of the previous advice in this column and get busy becoming familiar with how the material is tested on the written section of the bar exam!

The most common mistake made on the essays is to concentrate too much on reciting boilerplate law at the expense of doing a complete job analyzing the facts. Those who outline carefully outperform those who do not. In writing an essay, “find a home for the facts” in the answer. Explain what happened and what it means in light of the applicable legal principles. A bar candidate who has not practiced the essays should outline 15-20 a day through the weekend before the bar exam.

Those who fail the M.B.E. tend to make as many reading errors as substantive law mistakes. Again, those who have practiced and developed good skills tend to outperform those who do not. A bar candidate who has only done a few dozen practice Multistate questions all summer is well advised to do 150-300 questions a day through the weekend before the examination. Those who already have done 1500-3000 practice questions are likely to reach a point of diminishing returns sometime during the week before the examination. It’s okay to quit doing them and to concentrate on memory work.


The bar exam is like a multi-day sporting event. Many successful candidates have an hour-by-hour agenda for the entire bar examination experience. They’ve worked out the best route from home or the hotel to the examination site, with backup transportation ready if the need arises. It makes sense to visit the site of the exam in advance, so the surroundings are more familiar when it matters most. Students who stay in hotel rooms close to the ground floor are less likely to incur criminal or tort liability for unfortunate incidents during extended elevator rides with a swarm of uptight and neurotic bar applicants.


Get up early enough so you don’t have to hurry. Have a decent breakfast. Consider doing a few MBE questions to warm up your brain, but don’t look up the answers. Follow your plan. Take spare pens and pencils, and have a little chocolate or candy with you. Do not make small talk with people who are suffering from obvious psychological problems.


Taking the bar examination is traumatic. Passing it is tremendously satisfying. Relax. Remember that it is a privilege to be able to sit for the bar exam. Don’t worry about it, just go in there and get your license!