It’s about the time of year when students studying for the bar exam are gearing up for one of the big BAR/BRI practice tests: the midterm. Many, many people report that they only really step up their study efforts after the 4th of July — and the reason for that is usually a disappointing score on the midterm.
Most people who score poorly on the midterm will either slip into despair or go into crazy, hyper-studying overload. And both of those paths can lead to bar exam failure. For the vast majority of people, passage or failure on the bar exam is not about innate intellectual ability. It’s about managing your nerves and successfully gaming the test. Most people who can graduate from law school can pass a bar exam. But many will not, and their failure is not about being dumb.
To give hope to those who might be feeling hopeless this week, I’d like to tell you how I passed the bar on my first try — after absolutely bombing the midterm just a month before the real thing…
The bar exam — I’m focusing on the MBE — is a standardized test. Thus, like all standardized tests, it can be “gamed.” There’s a system and direction to the thing, and you can “beat” the test by figuring out what it wants you to do, just as surely as you can score highly on a Rock Band song even if you don’t know how to play a single instrument.
The majority of the MBE questions contain the following answers:
A) The moral answer.
B) The “Hey I know that one” answer.
C) The right answer.
D) The wrong answer you talk yourself into.
Once you understand that matrix, it’s fairly easy to game the exam and avoid wrong answers A, B, and D.
Answer A you can see coming whenever the question starts off telling you some sob story. The “moral answer” gloriously vindicates the aggrieved. If most people would end up happy in the world you construct on your bar exam, you failed.
Answer B should feel a little too easy. Isn’t there an exception to that really obvious and easy rule? If you leave your bar exam feeling like you got most every question right, you failed.
Always be on the lookout for wrong answer D when the question itself is overly long. They’ll spend paragraphs giving you every reason in the world to talk yourself into wrong answer D — but the question was probably settled in the very first sentence. I remember one where the question itself said that a person was “murdered.” But all the answers (possible charges) were different kinds of homicide. I didn’t have to finish reading the question. Free points.
In any event, I understood these types of distracting answers intuitively. Not just from the bar, but from an entire lifetime of standardized testing really well. Armed with that knowledge, and a little bit of June studying, I rolled into the BAR/BRI midterm feeling confident, even cocky.
The score that came back rocked my world. I failed based on every measure. My score was so low that the top end of BAR/BRI’s “expected improvement” would have still resulted in my failure of the actual bar.
A couple of days later, while doing some practice questions, I had what can probably be called a “dissociative break.” I have to tell the rest of this story from my wife’s memory — all I know is that I was looking over my answers to practice questions. But my wife says that first she heard banging, then she heard yelling, then I “erupted.” Apparently I was holding up an answer key that I had ripped out of the book and was “screaming” at it, like it was a person. When I “came to” — I honestly have no other memory of that day, but I’m told I didn’t sleep — I was convinced that I was going to fail the bar.
And I probably would have, if not for my wife. Fellas — this is the advantage of marrying women who are smarter than you. It was her observation that revealed the answer. I was trying to game the test using all of my previous successful methods except one: information selection.
Really, for a good test taker, it was an embarrassing, rookie mistake. I found that I was way over-prepared in some areas (mainly the subjects I found challenging in law school), and criminally under-prepared in the subjects I excelled at. I wasn’t applying any kind of information filter. I had this elaborate study schedule and plan, but no real study direction.
Under-preparedness is really easy to understand. My favorite example is the hearsay rule. I knew the rule. And I knew that there were exceptions to it. But did I memorize those exceptions? Not all of them, not by rote. I figured my natural test-taking ability would point me in the right direction. FALSE. Welcome to wrong answer choice B — again and again and again, until I just put in the work to memorize the stupid exceptions.
But over-preparedness is just as big a problem, yet less obvious. I knew way too much about contracts and thus wasn’t able to filter the important, sometimes dispositive, information from everything else. Welcome to wrong answer choice D. The test would try to give contracts questions to me, and I’d screw it up by talking myself into some kind of obscurity that should have been put to rest by the time I got to the first punctuation mark.
And once I figured that out, everything fell into place. I stopped “studying” contracts, and I started organizing and prioritizing what I already knew. I stopped trying short-cut evidence, and I started memorizing the key priorities I saw again and again.
Information selection, information filtering, information memorization. These things are not all that hard, especially for a person with a post-graduate degree, so long as you keep your head about you. Once you have that base, then you add in all the test-taking gaming that you’ve learned (throughout your studies and throughout your life), and voilà — the test becomes beatable.
And so I passed — easily. I actually bet the smartest guy I know that my raw MBE score would be higher than his when he took it the following year (a bet that I lost badly — I think he ended up missing 2 or 3 MBE questions). But in less than a month I went from having a critically bad bar score (and almost a total nervous breakdown) to passing the New York State Bar Exam (with room to spare).
So take heart. Regardless of what happens with the upcoming midterm, you have more than enough time to turn it around. As Scrooge McDuck said: “Work smarter, not harder.” You can do this.