It’s June, the sun is mostly shining, festivals are in full swing, and you’re stuck in a library, coffee shop, or at your desk at home, studying. Whether it is the Bar Exam, LSAT, GMAT, or GRE, much of the information contained in this post will hopefully resonate with you. The goal is that you will finish this post feeling more confident in your testing ability, whether it is because something you already knew was affirmed, or because you learned something new. Tips are divided into two categories: (1) Study Tips and (2) Lifestyle Tips. Below are study tips. Lifestyle tips will be posted next week. Subscribe so you don’t miss them.
Because I’m a lawyer, some parts of this post will emphasize studying for the Bar Exam. I took and passed two bar exams: Indiana in July 2009 and Illinois in February 2010. I will continue this Study Tips series in the Fall with my experience studying for and taking the GRE, and then again in January 2015 with a post on taking or re-taking the Bar in February.
Study Partner(s) It is important to learn from others. But, pick the right study partner. You don’t want to study with:
- The Braggart – because, why? You don’t need that type of annoyance; studying for a single test for 2.5 months is annoying by itself.
- The Homophobe (real experience), or any other person that exhibits bigotry or prejudice – again, because, why? You will beat yourself up enough out of frustration and fatigue and you don’t need another person to do it, whether they do it implicitly or explicitly.
- The Talker – catching up and maintaining your social connections are important, but when it is time to study, then that’s it. Talk during breaks and when breaks are over, get back to focusing on studying.
- The Slacker – this can be good and bad. Helping the slacker by explaining concepts will test your knowledge and reinforce your understanding. But the bad: you spend all your “study” time bringing the slacker up to speed. There’s too much to learn for you to waste your time bringing another person up to speed, all of the time.
- The Debbie Downer – Do you really want this to be your life during your summer of study?
- Seek a study partner or group aligns with and is responsive to your needs. For example, if you are an introvert, you might prefer to study alone and make sure you understand before you join others. You need time alone to process. You may also be the type of person who needs and wants accountability and motivation from another person, so your study partner set-up can consist of you all meeting up after your prep class and studying together. You all are not really talking or going over concepts. You are simply two people in a room together doing your own thing.
- Another characteristic to shoot for is a study partner that allows you to learn from each other. For instance, if BarBri taught Wills and Trusts, or the dreaded Fed Tax, in class, and you left scratching your head, go over the subject matter with your study partner.
- You may also find that studying with other people simply is not your thing. I tried the study group thing during the summer, mostly just to meet people because I was new to the city. Within a week, I realized that I am better off alone. I preferred to keep my own schedule, to work at my own pace, and to not deal with a homophobic woman who became super awkward after we had a discussion about her views and the fact that I identify as a lesbian. So off to the library and the coffee shop I went…alone. And it was glorious. I checked in with another person two weeks before the exam. We met two days in a row going over just about everything, noting our trouble spots and working through them. After that, I returned to going it alone.
Write, Don’t Type I was swimming in note cards by the end of July, and I loved it. I quizzed myself and had friends quiz me as well. Moreover, the painstaking process of writing note cards required me to process the information so as not to simply copy in rote-form the concepts I needed to learn Writing note cards also helped me memorize the material.
I also made flow charts to help me understand and memorize, and then those charts were taped to a wall in my apartment and occasionally I would stand there and study the information on my wall.
*Side note: note cards and flow charts can be fun to make if you’re into colors and markers and things, which I am. I’m sure you probably already realized that I’m a nerd, and if you didn’t, the markers comment surely showed my nerd card.
Hand-write law statements for the essays. If it can fit on a note card, great. It either means you are concise, or you are missing important information. A legal pad or regular old notebook works just the same. The point is that you should spend significant time practicing writing essays and memorizing information by handwriting as much as possible. If you are typing your exam on your laptop (as is an option for the Illinois Bar), practice typing the exam on your computer. I cannot, however, emphasize enough the importance of also studying with pen and paper.
And definitely, prepare an outline for each essay before writing it, whether you are using a computer or a pen and pad. For your reading pleasure, click here for a Buzzfeed article discussing how writing helps you better understand concepts.
Make and keep a schedule. If you have just graduated or are on your summer break, then you should treat your summer of study as a full-time job, if you can financially afford it. If not, and you have to work, mentally, you should still consider studying to be your job.
One way of making sure you are giving studying adequate attention is to make and keep a schedule. Some categories to include in your schedule are:
- Waking up and eating breakfast
- Reviewing notes and making flashcards for class
- Doing practice questions, writing essays, and going over difficult concepts
- Dinner (Pro-tip: prepare your meals once per week, usually on the weekend so you don’t have to worry about cooking mid-week)
- Socializing, including social media (because you know you won’t give it up cold turkey)
I did not keep a strict schedule during the summer that I studied for the LSAT. I also did not make the exam my priority; I was extremely involved as community leader, worked, and was distracted by family issues. I did alright on the LSAT, but not my best. Making the exam a priority and spending adequate time studying undoubtedly would have resulted in a higher score.
Force yourself to deal with the hard subjects. In the beginning, middle, and the end. Transform your weaknesses into strengths and maintain your strengths.
For example, while I was in law school, I did not take a Federal Taxation course, but you best believe I busted my ass learning Fed Tax for the Indiana Bar. The same goes for learning Wills & Trusts for the Illinois Bar.
I am currently studying for the GRE. Math does not come easily for me, so I am spending my time focusing on getting caught up on math – arithmetic, algebra, and geometry, and then I will continue to improve my strengths – vocabulary, reading comprehension, and essay writing. For the next 2 weeks, math is my main boo, and I am okay with that.
Do not be intimidated by others or their purported study schedule. I knew a woman who bragged that she got up at 4am and studied until 11pm everyday. See, the way my sleep cycle is set up …
That type of schedule simply would not work for me. Lack of sleep, coupled with the stress of studying for the Bar, is bound to lead to illness and/or burnout. You need stamina, not to be strung out on coffee and energy drinks. Also, don’t be intimidated by others’ display of their knowledge.
There are people that want you to think they have it all together, that they know it all, and they have all the answers. THEY DON’T. I don’t. You don’t. We have areas in which we are more confident and in which we know more, but don’t be fooled into thinking you are somehow deficient because there’s that one guy from law school who seems like he is just THAT DUDE. Remember: he’s taking the Bar Exam just like you are, and he’s got to study, just like you do. Unless he’s a speed reader or has photographic memory, in which case, yes, you should be a little jealous, but not completely because passing the Bar and being a lawyer is about analysis, and not about memory.
If you need help preventing yourself from being intimidated by others, just channel your inner Kanye.
Ask Questions! Email BarBri (or which ever program you are using). They will get back to you. If they don’t, pretend you’re already a lawyer and that you’ve got the law on your side. At the very least, you have your payment receipt, which, theoretically, should be good enough.
PRACTICE!!! Take practice tests under test-like conditions. Do practice questions everyday. BarBri recommended that those of us studying for the Bar Exam should do at least 18 practice questions per night and more on the weekends. Do practice essays! Essay writing is one of the best ways to learn a concept because you not only have to identify the issues, which means you have to be familiar with the subject matter, but then you have to write a statement of the law, requiring you to actually know the law. And then, applying the facts to the law will reveal whether you have simply memorized the law and whether you actually comprehend its application.
BarBri and the Huge Outline Book When I studied for the Bar, BarBri advised that we read the long outlines before class. It is nearly impossible to read entire subject matter outlines, on top of reviewing your class notes, writing an outline or flash cards, doing practice questions and thoroughly reviewing the answers, and having time to eat, sleep, exercise and talk to your significant other or child(ren). I figured this out at the start of week 2. I realized that if I read the long outlines, then I would fall behind in doing practice questions or in making my flashcards. Those tasks, in my view and in my experience, were more pertinent to my study success than passively reading the outline before class.
Moreover, the instructors already paired down the long outlines to the information that you will need to know to pass. Therefore, I focused on being attentive in class, reviewing the lecture, studying the lecture notes, and practicing the concepts. If in the midst of this process, I figured out that I still did not understand, I would then consult the long outline. If you’ve reviewed the long outline and still don’t understand, ask someone! A practicing attorney is a great resource, and so is BarBri.
Supplemental Study Course(s) I am using Magoosh, an online GRE prep course and study guide. In the study guide, Magoosh recommends that I use buy various supplemental materials. I bought one or two, but I will not purchase all of them. When I look over all of my study materials and resources, I know that I have of my bases covered. I will not intimidate myself into overkill. Unless and until my experience shows me that I need additional help, I will not be spending any more money.
While studying for the Bar, I used BarBri and the Kaplan end of the summer course. Hindsight is 20/20, and I realize now that I did not need to take the Kaplan course. The course was 3 days, the first was taking a full-length Bar Exam under test conditions and the last two were reviewing the answers to the exam. I could have purchased the book, taken the exam and reviewed the answers on my own, saving money and time. If, however, you know that you need the accountability of having to go to the class to take the exam and review the answers, then by all means, do so.
IRAC Issue Rule Application Conclusion. Exam graders are looking for well-written essays. Spot the issues and then deal with them. You don’t have time for flowery language or for giving a dissertation on the origins of search and seizure law. Get in and get out, making sure you answer the question being asked.
Remember: your summer of study is completely within your control. Do what works best for you. What’s been the most frustrating aspect of Exam study for you?