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Top Ten Tips for Writing a Bar Exam

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Written by Michael O’Rourke, immigration lawyer & director of Pace Immigration’s Latin America division in Toronto, Canada. He has passed the bar and practiced in Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Arizona, and Ontario. He has also been called to the bar in British Columbia.

If your law firm is anything like mine, then you have at least a few students who are studying to pass the bar exam. Perhaps you are one yourself. If so, then you’ve spent thousands of hours studying the law and tens of thousands of dollars earning a law degree. At the end of all of that work – and probably debt – sits the bar exam, waiting for you.

Studying for a bar exam can be mentally and physically challenging. Writing it can fill you with a sense of dread. Why not? You’ve got a lot riding on it.

I’ve written bar exams in Ontario and four US states. None of them were what I would call easy, but over the years I noticed a few things that helped make writing them less stressful. Here are my top ten tips for studying for and writing a bar exam.

  1. Don’t feel you need to answer the questions in order (as long as they’re not part of a multiple-question fact pattern). You’re looking to maximize your time in the exam, so answer the easiest questions first.
  1. Go with your gut – don’t revisit and overthink your answers. You’ve put in the work. Trust yourself and don’t get bogged down.
  1. Make sure you read fact patterns thoroughly and understand exactly what the correct answer should contain.
  1. For essay questions, which are more common on US bar exams, use the time-tested IRAAC model (issue, rule, application, analysis, conclusion) and state each of the points distinctly when writing your answer. You’ll lose points otherwise.
  1. Don’t study up until the last minute. Give yourself a few days before the exam to relax and enjoy yourself.
  1. Bar exams have breaks, but you should view them partly as traps. Don’t study or look up answers to earlier questions during a break. Obsessing over a question or realizing that you might have answered it incorrectly will damage your confidence before going into the next session.
  1. Don’t talk to others during the breaks.They’ll inevitably want to talk about some of the exam questions. If your answers differ from theirs, you’ll worry about it. Use the breaks to take a walk and stretch or call a friend and talk about anything but the bar exam.
  1. Do what you can to be comfortable when writing the exam. Arrive early to find parking. Take a walk to clear your head before the first session. Wear clothes you can relax in. Don’t bring a bunch of books and electronics that you’ll have to stow somewhere or worry about.
  1. Don’t let other people distract you during the exam. Bring earplugs if necessary.
  1. Remain confident. You’ve made it through law school and bar study. Again: trust yourself. You’ve got this!

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