Any bar studiers reading this are already in their third or fourth week of bar exam study. By this time you have gone through a mountain of material, probably all six MBE subjects and some state-specific topics as well. At this point in the bar preparation process, a few things are typically happening:
- You are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of material you have to study.
- Your office/study space may be covered in flash cards, outlines, bar review course materials (and likely plenty of empty coffee cups or Diet Coke cans).
- You spend some time each day looking at the materials you have compiled but realize you aren’t exactly sure how you are supposed to learn all of the law in these materials.
Today, I want to share some tips on dealing with bar exam information overload. We are going to talk about finding organization in the chaos and how to come up with a plan for learning all of the material piled up in front of you.
I. First, let’s talk about outlines.
Depending on what jurisdiction you are testing in, you may have more than 10 subjects you are trying to learn for the exam (in California, depending on how you count them, there are 13).
If you are taking a commercial bar review course, your course may have provided you with multiple outlines and/or books. You likely have detailed outlines for a given subject, a “mini” outline, and then an outline provided to you as part of the lecture. Why so many outlines? That is a good question (and one I will leave to the commercial bar review courses).
But the reality is that you want to have ONE master outline. If you are in a commercial bar review course, I recommend that the master outline be one that you have created from your lecture notes. Why the lecture notes? Well, most of us learn something when we listen to a lecture (especially if you are an auditory learner) and, unless you didn’t understand the lecture, I think it is a good idea to build on what you learned there and continue to organize the material in a similar way.
Now, should this outline be 30 to 40 pages for a given subject? I would argue, no. It is important to remember that in order to pass the bar exam, you are not being asked to be an expert in every area of law. Most bar exams declare that you must have only minimum competency of the law in order to pass. Minimum competency does not mean that you have a 30- to 40-page outline for each subject memorized perfectly. Plus, let’s just think about this from a practical perspective—If you have 13 subjects multiplied by 30 pages of outlines—that is 390 pages of material.
Are you going to be able to memorize 390 pages of material?
For most of us who don’t have a photographic memory, the answer is no. So what do we do with all of these materials? How do we make outlines and study materials that will work for us (and that we can actually memorize)?
You must simplify. Such as simple word, yet many of us have a very difficult time with this! It is tempting to think that your bar exam success is based on memorizing every single thing that your lecturer or book covers for a given subject. That is not the goal, though. Of course you must know a good amount of material so you can understand how the law is applied and identify the correct issues from the facts. But if you don’t understand the basic structure of the law, knowing a bunch of trivia about small legal distinctions isn’t going to get you a passing grade on the bar exam.
II. So how do you simplify?
First, you need to take out the materials you are currently using to study for the bar. If your current outline is longer than 10 pages, I challenge you to take out a legal pad and start to handwrite the must-know rules from that outline. These are the rules that you need to know in order to analyze a specific issue if it comes up on an essay question (hint, hint, practicing essays is a critical part of studying and learning the material).
As an example, if I asked you to write an answer about the commerce clause, what test would you apply? That test needs to be in this document. You will quickly find that the very long outlines you were using for reference or that you had developed from your lectures are really too long. When you write down the must-know material—the task becomes much more manageable.
Note, why do I recommend handwriting outlines? Well, for a few reasons. When we handwrite, we tend to slow ourselves down and really think about what we are writing. This can be used as a method for memorization (especially if you are a kinesthetic learner). In addition, when students type, they typically include more information than is necessary. And when you are working on simplifying, well, that just isn’t a good thing.
What if you are still having trouble simplifying? Here is another thing to try. Instead of starting with the must-know material (as described above) force yourself to do the following exercise. Get out two pages for each subject and write down the overall structure for the subject. Keep it to two pages. Now you can see that the overall universe of the subject isn’t that huge. As you review and identify must-know law, add it to this document. It is likely that this document will still remain a manageable size.
By focusing on simplifying the material, you are creating documents that you can actually learn and study from. This is because they are your materials, made for you, by you. They are going to make sense to you. And you are going to find the material is more manageable.
Now that you have those outlines, you need to commit them to memory. This can be done a number of different ways. Personally, I broke the outlines down into sections and wrote the section out on scratch paper until I could do it by memory. Then I went on to another section and kept building off what I had previously done. That worked for me; what works for you? (Please share in the comments below.)
What if outlines don’t work for you? What should you do?
You need to find or create the right tools for you. There is no magic formula for learning material for the bar exam (even though many would like you to think so). This is about how you learn material best. And you know this based on your academic history (remember, you have been taking legal tests for the last three years or more) and past exam experiences.
You must ask yourself, how do I learn best? Not sure? Then take five minutes to find out! You can take a questionnaire to help you identify what learning style tends to works best for you. But remember, you are the only one who can determine what tools are going to help you learn the material for the bar exam.
The moral here is that you should try to determine what is best for you and if you aren’t sure—then try a few different things. The bar exam is still over six weeks away and I would much rather you spend some time experimenting in order to have the most successful final month of bar preparation possible than stick to what you are doing now and realize just before the exam that it isn’t working.
III. Next, organize the material.
Once you have these simplified outlines, what do you do with the material to keep it from being completely overwhelming (and taking over every inch of your study area)? I recommend creating a bar binder. A bar binder is (let’s be honest) a pretty big binder with a tab for every subject. In this binder you should organize your study materials— outlines, mind maps, or flow charts. If you have flash cards for a given subject, you can get one of those plastic zipped inserts and put your flash cards in there too. But you want easy access to the materials for a given subject. Another great potential tool is a Circa notebook. These notebooks allow you to reorganize the pages easily (they were made for it). So it is less like a binder and more like a notebook. Remember, if your study materials embody chaos, you will likely feel more disorganized and chaotic yourself! Tidy them up, and you’ll feel better.
What do you do with all the other materials (books, outlines, etc.)?
Put them away. They are now there only for reference and not for day-to-day studying. If you try to study using too many materials, you will only confuse yourself and that isn’t good. Pick your study materials and stick to them!
A note on the MBE.
Some students may argue at this point that they need to keep those detailed outlines for the MBE subjects, because the MBE tests details and specific legal distinctions. I believe that simplifying the law is actually critical to MBE success because that part of the test still requires you to know the basic rules of law and analysis for each of the six subjects. Through MBE practice (which I hope everyone is doing a lot of) you will get exposure to distinctions and detailed rules that are commonly tested.
Some students find it helpful to track these fine details outside of their outlines (to review specifically in preparation for the MBE). But your ability to understand and recall these detailed rules will be strengthened if you have a strong overall understanding of the subject area, which I argue can be done with this “simplify” study technique. Good luck and happy studying!
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.