Bar Prep Chronicles: How I Learned to Work Smarter NOT Harder

Bar Prep Chronicles: How I Learned to Work Smarter NOT Harder

By: Zaisha Heardmon

I started studying for the bar exam as soon as I graduated from law school in May 2018. Even though bar prep hadn’t officially started yet, I jumped right in. Many days, I was the first to arrive at the library. I started studying around 7 am on weekdays, and I studied at least 10 hours a day. Everyone told me that I needed to work hard, and that’s exactly what I believed I was doing. I treated studying like a full-time job, I followed my bar prep program closely, I checked off my assignments at the end of each day, and I thought that my hard work would be rewarded.  However, I didn’t realize at the time that you can work really hard doing all of the wrong things.

Better yet, working hard does not mean working smart. About a week before the July 2018 bar exam, I knew I wasn’t where I needed to be. Despite all of my hard work, and long hours of studying, I still didn’t feel prepared. Now, I realize that many people feel this way before the exam, and it’s totally normal to be nervous. However, I knew in my heart that I wasn’t ready for the following reasons.

  1.  I had major timing issues that had not improved. Let’s be clear, my struggle with timing began long before the bar exam. This was a huge obstacle for me when taking standardized tests, and the bar exam was no different. Throughout bar prep, I found myself consistently running out of time on the MBE and MPT. No matter what I tried, I hardly saw any improvement. I knew that if I couldn’t overcome my timing issues during bar prep, I couldn’t expect them to magically disappear on test day.
  2. I didn’t make my bar prep program my own. About a week into bar prep, I remember wanting to completely ditch the lecture videos. I felt like the videos, and everything else I was assigned to do, just took up way too much time. Time I could have used doing things more beneficial to me like actively memorizing information early on. Unfortunately, I stuck to the program. I figured since I had spent so much money on it, I might as well follow it to a T. After not doing well on my bar prep midterm, I realized this was a mistake.
  3. I struggled with self-doubt. Bar prep taught me that I didn’t believe in myself as much as I thought I did. Studying and preparing for the bar exam can definitely take a toll on your mental health. I think the mental preparation and stamina is just as important as making sure you have the material down. My struggle with timing made me question if I was capable of passing. Instead of looking at my issues as opportunities, I would beat myself up, and this only intensified the problem.

Even though I knew I wasn’t ready for the July 2018 exam, I still took the test. Of course, I wasn’t surprised to learn that I had failed the exam. However, I was still very disappointed and frustrated because I had “worked hard.” I had put in so much time and effort over the course of the summer, and I had nothing to show for it. Additionally, I was concerned that people would think I hadn’t studied, or that I didn’t take the exam seriously. I gave myself about a month to process, and registered to take the February 2019 exam. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that I wasn’t ready to take on studying again so soon after failing. So, I decided to wait and sit for the July 2019 exam instead. This gave me time to really process my feelings, rest, live a little, and get mentally prepared.

Fast forward to April 2019, I was working full-time and ready to get back into study mode. However, this time I knew exactly what I needed to focus on. Most importantly, I knew I couldn’t simply just “work hard,” I had to work smart! I had to be strategic, and I couldn’t afford to waste any time since I was on a tight schedule. Below are a few of the things I did differently the second time around.

  1. I did bar prep on my own terms. Since I didn’t take the February exam, I could not use my bar prep program again to prepare. This meant I had to do bar prep my own way. I started off by creating a detailed schedule. The schedule included what subjects I would study each week, which flash cards I would review each day, as well as how many MBE questions and essays I needed to complete.As for study materials, I primarily used my Critical Pass MBE Flashcards to review and memorize the material. I also used my Barbri Conviser Mini Outline book if I needed more clarity, and I would only read sections that I needed to review. Since I had already studied for the exam before, the information came back to me rather quickly. I think this is why I was able to rely so heavily on my flashcards the second time around. As the exam grew closer, I used JD Advising MBE one sheets. The one sheets provided a more condensed outline than my flashcards, and this was very helpful at the end of bar prep when I needed to review a lot of information quickly. Unlike the first time I took the exam, I truly did what I felt I needed the second time around. I would encourage anyone using a bar prep program to tailor it to your own needs, and don’t be afraid to adjust when necessary. We all learn in different ways, and it’s important to understand how you learn best. Again, the goal should be working smarter, not harder.
  2. I addressed my issues head on. I knew my biggest obstacle was timing on the MBE and the MPT. In Arkansas, the MBE is worth 50% of the exam, so I focused on this portion a lot. After getting several referrals, I decided to purchase Adaptibar, and this was a game changer! Adaptibar uses real MBE questions from past exams, every question I answered was timed, and I was able to answer questions on the go. Before I knew it, I started answering questions faster and within the time limit. This was a huge confidence booster! Additionally, I used the program to take timed practice exams. Test anxiety was one of the reasons I struggled with timing on the MBE. Addressing my issues meant doing timed tests until the anxiety went away, and that’s exactly what I did. Because I created a schedule tailored to my own needs, I could really focus on problem areas in a way that I hadn’t before. On exam day, the MBE felt like another set of practice questions, and this is exactly how you want it to feel. With the help of Adaptibar, and a few other study techniques, I was able to raise my MBE score almost 30 points on the July exam! I encourage anyone studying for the bar exam to incorporate real MBE questions into your bar prep program. While this isn’t completely necessary, and people pass the exam every year without using real MBE questions, this is what made a difference for me.
  3. I started reciting affirmations. At the beginning of 2019, I made a list of goals, and I posted them on a wall in my room where I could see them every day. Of course, one of the goals was to become an attorney. In accordance with this goal, I started to recite “I will pass the July 2019 bar exam.” Almost every morning during bar prep, I was reminded of my goal, and I recited this affirmation. While this may seem unimportant to some, it really encouraged me to believe in myself. The more I affirmed my ability to tackle the exam, the more confident I became.

Ultimately, making the changes above helped me pass the July 2019 Arkansas Bar Examination. Instead of just working hard, I learned how to work smart. For me, working smart meant trusting my instincts and tailoring bar prep to my own needs. It meant facing my weaknesses every week, and not getting discouraged when I encountered obstacles. The second time I prepared and took the exam wasn’t perfect by any means, I ran out of time on one of my essays, I still didn’t do as well on the MPT as I wanted, but I still passed. Tackling my MBE timing issues helped me gain the points I needed to be successful. So, I encourage anyone reading this, no matter what obstacles you face, if you believe in yourself, address your shortcomings, and remain consistent, you WILL achieve your goals. Work hard, but also, work smart!

I would like to thank Zaisha for sharing her story!!

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