Don’t Be a Perfectionist While Studying for the Bar Exam

PerfectionismAre you a perfectionist? A lot of lawyers struggle with some form of perfectionism. It is often an aspect of our personalities that can make us effective lawyers (great attention to detail) and able to get things done without making mistakes. Although perfectionism may be good for practice, it may be bad for bar exam study. You might be asking yourself why. . .

You cannot learn absolutely everything on the bar exam. 

Remember studying for law school exams, where your goal was to memorize absolutely everything that could be on the exam and understand every case and nuance? You felt so good and prepared going into exam day, right? We all have those memories, but these feelings are completely unrealistic when it comes to studying for the bar exam. There are a few reasons for this. The amount of law you would need to memorize for the bar exam is unreal. Most of us (unless you have some sort of photographic memory) cannot learn everything that may be tested on the exam. Lucky for us, though, that is okay. You are not required to know everything on exam day. Most jurisdictions require a minimum competency knowledge of the law to pass the bar exam. Does minimum competency mean you know everything? No! It means you know a little about a lot, not a lot about a little.

But for those of us who have perfectionist tendencies, it can be hard to let go of the idea of being absolutely fully prepared. I have talked to many students who claim they can’t move on from a subject until they have spent days studying for it, so that they feel they know everything. That would be fine if you had unlimited time to study for the exam. But that is not the case. If you spend five days studying constitutional law, it is likely you won’t have adequate time to study another subject. That is just not going to work. Besides, you likely don’t need to know the details and nuances you are focusing on during those five days of constitutional law study. So you are actually wasting valuable study time by getting buried in the details.

You writing will not be perfect on the bar exam. 

Another place where perfectionists struggle is the actual writing out of the exam sections. For many of us who take pride in our writing, we love to edit. We love to streamline. We like to re-read paragraphs after we write them. We like to proofread.

Well, news flash! You don’t have time to do these things on the bar exam, nor are you expected to. Your writing needs to be clean, but not perfect. It shouldn’t be riddled with typos, but some typos are acceptable. Time spent proofreading your answers is time you are not spending gathering points for issue spotting and analysis (and this is a bad thing). So keep the writing in perspective. Graders read your answers incredibly quickly (in a matter of minutes). They are not going to appreciate perfection. They are going to appreciate a complete answer. So practice letting go of the need for your writing to be perfect. You will thank me on exam days.

Your MBE scores will not be perfect on the bar exam. 

The MBE is another place when folks struggle with perfectionism. For most of us, a passing MBE score will actually feel like failing or at least getting a very mediocre grade. If you are a high-achieving perfectionist, this will feel terrible. It might make you question your ability to even pass the exam or make you want to spend all your time on MBE questions. But since the bar exam is pass/fail, you need to adjust your expectations and realize that passing is the new form of perfection.

Being a perfectionist might prevent you from passing the bar exam. 

I know it sounds strange that I am championing mediocrity here in this blog post, but you must realize that your studying and your performance will not be perfect. And they are not required to be. If you demand perfection from yourself, you may find you are burned out, wasting time and not adequately prepared for the bar exam challenge ahead. So release yourself from any notions of perfection when it comes to the bar exam and realize it is a unique exam experience, unlike exams you have taken in the past. This approach will actually help you better prepare and increase your likelihood of success. And after the exam, you can go back to being your perfectionist self.

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One comment on “Don’t Be a Perfectionist While Studying for the Bar Exam

  • In her entertaining, yet grounded book “Burnt Toast,” actress Teri Hatcher shared a wise philosophy: “Go for the bronze once in a while.” She elaborates: “Find the balance. Don’t be complacent, but don’t let your ego dominate. Success doesn’t guarantee happiness. Happiness is work. You have to work at managing your ambition to make room for happiness.”

    Some law students may take life or themselves too seriously to take advice from a “Desperate Housewives” actress. It might take a few decades to look back and recognize her wisdom. As Lee points out in this post, it’s a pass/fail exam. The bar exam is a good place to “go for the bronze.”

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