The 4 Phases of the Bar Exam Study Period

by Dustin on

As with all journeys, bar exam prep time contains its high and low points.  As much as we would like to be able to smash through our homework, with consistent focus, each and every day, the reality is we are human, and our energy levels fluctuate.  Here is a breakdown of the four different phases that you might encounter during your bar exam preparation and how to deal with each phase.  Each phase may last between two and three weeks, depending on the person.  For you track and field runners, let’s analogize bar exam prep to running the 400-meter race.

Phase 1: Kickoff

Bam!  The gun goes off, and you’re coming out of the gates.  You are new, fresh, and excited (or not so) about going for it and passing this bar exam!  Yes, most of you probably just finished finals, but your mindset about bar prep is still fresh.  This is a very good and important phase and like track and field, getting a good, strong start is key. 

You want to be able to get a good look at the important materials while you are fresh.  In barbri, we went over the six MBE-covered topics during this phase, doing practice multiple choice questions and essays during the first two and half weeks.  I recommend starting like this to everyone because you are essentially killing two birds with one stone.  While you are fresh, you are not only covering six of the 13 essay topics, you are covering the entire MBE section!  Booya! 

During the course of your bar prep, you will likely be going over each topic multiple times, like layering on a cake, until you finally reach the cherry at the top.  This is the perfect phase to really build a solid foundation of about half your exam subject material.  Try best you can to keep up with the practice essays and practice MBE’s during this time.  The foundation, knowledge, skills, and mindset you build here will help you in the later weeks.

Also, this is a great phase to put in a lot of hours.

Phase 2: The Grind

This is the second one hundred meters of the track.  You go into a striding gallop, slowing down your speed, but continue moving to get you situated for the final push. 

This period of two to three weeks, I’ll call The Grind.  This is when your level of steam in the muscles has decreased a bit, you are beginning performance tests, your practice essays may not have been getting the scores you like, and you may begin questioning yourself with the ‘can I do this?’ language.  After all, finals period during law school typically didn’t last more than three weeks, so continuing to engage in an intense study period beyond that time may be fairly new to you.

That is ok.  It’s perfectly normal and natural.  It’s expected to slow down your studying during this time.  This is the time period where the emotions and inspiration may be gone, and where the pure determination and persistence kicks in.  This is the phase where I began to really fall behind schedule, and be more focused on specific areas I felt I needed to work and improve on, rather than what barbri told me to focus on.

I also began taking more frequent breaks during the end of this time period, taking days off at a time!  By the end of this phase, I actually took a whole four days off in a row!  Yes, four straight days I spent playing video games and reading brain books at Barnes and Nobles. 

This phase is important for two reasons:  You want to keep doing enough work to reasonably stay on schedule, but you also need to make sure you conserve your energy for the final phases.  Remember, the bar exam is won in late February (or July) and everything else is preparing you to be ready then.  Don’t burn yourself out now.  Keep calm.  Keep cool.  Don’t worry about other people’s claims, “I spent 14 hours straight studying today.”  That is them (or so they say).  You be you.  I was me, and it worked.  It has worked for others.

There were days during this phase where I woke up, planned to do some studying, and literally could not study at all!  My brain felt like it hit a brick wall.  I couldn’t be paid to study.  I thought, “Oh, but I’m going to fall even more behind if I don’t study.”  I couldn’t convince myself.  It wouldn’t work.  So, I didn’t push it unnecessarily, and instead I took most of the day off, perhaps doing a couple hours of study near the end of the day.  I knew I was going to have to take some time off to keep myself charged, and I felt it would be better to do it now, with the bar still weeks away, than to take time off down the road, where I might need a final surge.  

Just grind it out as best you can; however, respect your energy.  You may wake up in the morning and need to go on a jog, do something fun, call your family, go to the spa, or do other things to take your mind away.  Taking time to disconnect from your study is VERY important.

Remember, programs like barbri give an ‘ideal’ study schedule.  If you can actually stick to that schedule and keep your mind fresh, you might actually ace the bar exam, which is not your goal.  You just want to pass (get a 65), and killing yourself along the way won’t help you do that.

Phase 3: Calm & Cool

This is the phase where you pick things back up.  On the track, runners will pick their speed back up as they near the final bend.  Although they try and duplicate their starting speed, their legs aren’t quite as fresh, but as long as they keep moving and pumping, and don’t out-do themselves, they’ll be fine.

The same applies here.  This is the phase where you finish those last sections of studying, and do your second, third, and fourth layers of material review.  If you have handled yourself well in Phase I by doing lots of studying and Phase II by maintaining your energy levels, these final two and half weeks can be a calm and steady push to the finish.  Don’t go too slow or you’ll fall behind.  And, you don’t need to go too fast.  Indeed this is an important phase to keep your composure.  You put in too much effort to get here.  Yes, it can be unnerving to think of the bar exam only a couple weeks away, but just stay on top of what you need to do.

Focus is key here.  You don’t need to be doing crazy amounts of studying or sticking with the barbri schedule.  This phase should be about focusing really on what you need to improve on in a disciplined manner.  It’s about keeping a cool, calm level of consistency.  Although, breaks are definitely still encouraged, there were no more taking off four days straight for me during this time.

You want to make sure you hone your ability to issue spot, write essays on the topics well, and have passing MBE tests.  During this phase, it is also really important you do simulated practice if you haven’t been doing so before.  Doing one hour timed practice essays, 17 MBE questions in a 35 minute time period, and 3 hour performance tests are VERY important, especially in this phase.

This is where you really get into the mindset and focus of the bar exam.  Keep cranking answers out under timed conditions.  You have seen most of the material by now.  Now, more than ever, is the time to practice.

Phase 4: The Finish

This is the final 20 meters of the track.  Although, on the track you are literally giving it your all at this point; for this phase, let’s break away from our track and field example.  Rather than making a mighty heroic push, this phase it’s all about knowing your energy levels and keeping stoic.

This period actually begins several days before the bar.  These are the last few upcoming days.  It’s very important you keep yourself in a fresh and positive mindset.  You have put a lot of work in the last two months.  Be very self-aware in how you feel and study during this time.

I pretty much stopped pushing myself the Friday before my Tuesday exam, and stopped studying the Sunday before my bar exam.   By pushing myself, I mean I didn’t force myself to do any more questions if I didn’t feel like doing it.  Managing your energy this week is critical.

For us in California, the bar exam is three days, and historically many people have passed the first two days, but crashed when it came to the third day.  Do NOT let this happen to you.  You have put in too much time to get here.  You know what you know by now.  Make sure you manage yourself so you are peaking during the bar exam days, not before.

This is great time to do some light essay and performance test outlining and attack sheet reviewing.  Keep in the zone, but don’t force anything.  Let go, relax, eat well, and drink lots of water.

Most importantly during these phases is to keep moving, take breaks as needed, and eat healthy.

Many have come before you and succeeded.  You can too!

We wish you success in passing your bar exam! 

“This name appears on the pass list.”

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous July 4, 2012 at 10:55 am

Thank you for this article. I’m about to take the bar exam this month. My first three phases are identical to the ones you listed. It was comforting.


2 Dustin July 5, 2012 at 1:43 am

Great to hear and glad it could help :)


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