How is Studying for the Bar Exam Different from Law School Exams?

Now that you know the basics of the Bar Exam format, it’s time to start thinking about how to study for this exam. Many of you may be thinking, “I am just going to do exactly what I did in law school because that seemed to work.”1I don’t blame you. That’s what I thought too. But that is not the best approach. The Bar Exam is a very different exam than the exams you took in law school, so it is going to require different preparation. Let’s first consider how the Bar Exam is different from your previous three years of law school exams. 

  • Purpose of the teaching and your test prep: In law school, the purpose of your classes is to teach you how to think like a lawyer over the course of a semester using case law to get you to develop a way of learning and applying that black letter law that you painfully synthesize from each case. The purpose of your law school classes is more about the journey, rather than the destination. With the Bar Exam, you are going to be taught solely the black letter law and how to apply it. You will not be discussing many, if any, cases. The purpose of Bar Exam prep is about the destination, rather than the journey. It’s about getting as much law packed into your head so you can then apply it on the Bar Exam.2And then forgetting about 67% of it the day after you finish the Bar Exam.  
  • Goal of the Student: In law school, you studied with the hopes of learning the law and getting the highest grade you could in the class (preferably an A). On the Bar Exam, you are just trying to PASS, not ACE the exam. It is near impossible to ace the bar exam. In fact, most states have a passing score that translates to about a D+/C-. Many students have a tough time changing their “I need to study to get an A” mentality to “I need to study enough to pass and get a C-“. 
  • Learning new law: In law school, you spend an entire semester in each class painfully learning that area of law. During Bar prep, you spend about 2 days learning that same area of law that you spent an entire semester trying to understand.3Being the nerd that I am, I always thought it was kind of fun and rewarding learning an area of law you thought you never understood in law school in a fraction of the time. Yes, that’s right, I found parts of Bar prep fun. On top of that, you continue to learn new law every day until about 1-2 weeks before the actual Bar Exam This can come as a shock to many students.
  • Closed book exam: The Bar Exam is a closed book exam (except for the MPT which you are given the materials you need). Many of you may have never taken a closed book exam in law school, so you will need to make some adjustments. 
  • Memorization of the Law: In law school, you probably memorized on a small scale. You outlined for each class, condensed those outlines to something that made sense for you, and then studied those outlines. On the Bar Exam, you must know the law on a much larger scale. You have to know more about each area of law and you have to know about far more areas of law than you would in any given semester of law school. Therefore, you need to find an optimal way to do this while still leaning new law each day of Bar prep. 
  • Simplifying your analysis: Most students on a law school exam are trying to give an in depth, beautifully reasoned, “Supreme Court” ready legal analysis of the issues. On the Bar Exam, you do not have that kind of time. You are simply trying to give a structured, formulaic, focused answer in the short time you have. 
  • The Daily Grind: Your daily tasks are going to feel different during the Bar Exam. You end up treating your preparation like a full-time job with a pretty consistent mix of learning new law and practice questions. You will not have various law school classes or fun law school sponsored events to break up your day anymore. It could get tiring and monotonous, so mix up your schedule a bit and always make time for breaks!
  • Time Management: You cannot hope to outline in a few days then memorize that outline the week before the exam like in law school.4You should not have been doing this in law school either, but it’s too late for that now. You REALLY can’t do this for the Bar Exam. During Bar prep you will learn new law every day and while also reinforcing the law you have already learned and doing practice questions to sharpen your skills. You will need to have a monthly, weekly, daily, and hourly game plan for your studying during Bar prep. 
  • Being comfortable with the uncomfortable: You probably felt this way during law school at times. It will be at an entirely new level while you study for the Bar Exam. You will be aiming for that C- we talked about earlier, your practice scores may be low, you will be moving through new law at lightning speed, and you may never really get a full picture of how you are doing in your preparation. Unfortunately, that is all part of the process so setting up systems to help you manage this feeling is going to be crucial. 

These are just some of the major differences you will see as you begin your Bar prep journey. We will continue to discuss ways to work through some of these differences in future posts. Aren’t you excited!? 

Meet the Author
Stephen Iannacone is Director of Academic Success at Cardozo School of Law and a Bar Exam Coach at Vinco. Prior to joining Cardozo School of Law, Stephen was a trial attorney at the law firm of Spiegel & Barbato, LLP. He specialized in civil litigation in all New York venues and argued several appeals in the First Department. He was also an adjunct professor at Pace Law School where he taught classes to third-year students preparing for the Bar Exam as well as classes to second-year students focusing on legal writing and analysis. Read more about Stephen >