Using The "Four T’s" To Achieve Bar Exam Success

By Steven Friedland

Preparing for the bar exam is not like preparing for a law school exam, even the toughest of law school finals.   There are many distinctions.  There is no “teacher,” so the basic mantra, “You take the teacher, not the course,” does not dominate preparation.  The idea of using “it depends” as the one-size-fits-all-answers does not always work—especially in responding to multiple choice questions, which have a best answer to each one. 

Also, the exam is substantially longer than law school exams, requiring stamina, perseverance, and the ability to finish.  Making wrong turns is easier, because bar takers must first identify the course, and not just the subject area. Further, the quantity of knowledge that must be learned is sometimes – okay, often – overwhelming. 

So how should one prepare when taking the bar exam is generally a “first” akin to the first set of law school finals, de ja vu all over again?  After teaching bar review for several decades, starting and working in several school’s bar preparation programs, and taking three different bar exams,   there is no one ‘correct’ way to pass the bar exam.  But, if you are wondering, here is one of them. The method involves using four T’s—Testing; Training; Techniques; and inTangibles—on the bar examination highway. 


1 | Testing

It is very useful to begin preparing for any test with the end in mind.   Some of the ends suggested here are very basic, but should be part of everyone’s approach.

1. Finish, Finish, Finish.   It should go without saying that everyone should complete the exam.  Coming up short, and not answering questions, is just giving away points.  It is very helpful to practice being intentional about time – how long it takes to read multiple choice and essay questions, and then how long it takes to respond to them.

2. Answer the questions asked.  A common and easily avoided mistake occurs when people change or transform the question asked.  The examiners want their questions answered – not questions made up by the test-takers. If they ask two questions during an essay (e.g., 1. What crimes were committed? 2. What defenses are available?), then answer both questions separately and in order.  Unless the jurisdiction prefers otherwise, start with the question you are asked to answer.

The question asked can be found by looking directly at the “call of the question,” which is usually indeed framed as a complete sentence question.  Generally, it is not found from reading the body of facts.  Imagine a bar question that starts with something like, “A agreed to sell widgets to B, but when B did not accept them, A brought suit.”  It seems like a contracts question.  At least until the question adds, “At trial, expert testifies, and on cross examination is asked if she lied on her driver’s license examination.”  This addition moves the cheese – it is now a question about Evidence, with the real issue one of impeachment of a witness on cross-examination.

3. Be Intentional.  It is easy to sink into unconscious habits.  It is preferable to be methodical and mentally organized in planned approaches to courses and all aspects of the exam.   Plan, plan, plan – from how you will approach questions in each course tested, to food consumed, to sleep the night before, and more.  This even means anticipating whether one will need a bathroom break during the exam, and how that will impact the test-taker’s responses.  

4. No post-mortems. Another obvious idea that might escape implementation due to the heat of a moment is to avoid post-mortem reviews of questions.  Once a question or session is completed, there is no value in reviewing it – especially in the middle of a bar examination.  All eyes should be forward-looking, on the sessions yet to come, not backward-looking, where the likely product will be recrimination and worry.

5.  Under-react.  While an error on the exam can seem catastrophic, it often is not.  In fact, ‘perfect is the enemy of the good’ – remember, you are aiming to pass, not win any awards with your performance.  (On the other hand, do not aim for the absolute minimum passing score; that just puts passing in jeopardy.)  Under-reaction is helpful with anything bar exam related, unless of course you decided to take a monster sleeping pill the night before and woke up at 2 p.m. on the day of the bar exam.  There, you want to react fairly quickly.


2 | Training

Train for what you will do on the bar exam, don’t just “study” subjects.   Training is not amorphous studying or just learning in the abstract.  Everything one does in training for the bar exam should relate to preparing to take the test.  So note-taking, outlining, writing, everything – should relate to how one will perform on the exam.

1. Hit Specific Targets.If one trains, high-level athletes and musicians track their performances.  Come to think about it, we all track ourselves these days – from the FitBit to other health and exercise trackers.  Why not apply the same concepts to bar exam preparation?  When preparing for the bar exam, there are targets to be met.  What are your targets?  (E.g., what will you know, understand about rules?  What will be the process you will use to unravel certain issues?  How will you present your thoughts on the exam?).  Do lots of problems – multiple choice and essay forms – but give yourself lots of feedback about your performance in completing those questions.   

2. Adopt an Active Processor Role, Not One as a Passive Observer.  If you wanted to learn to drive a car, would being a passenger provide a sufficient basis to attain competency?  Certainly not.  What is the role of the student?  A recorder or court-reporter?  A studier?  These questions relate to the objectives of note-taking, flashcard making, problem solving, and video watching.  What are the purposes of it?   You must process as much as you can, not passively disengage.


3 | Techniques

We now know a lot more about learning thanks to learning science experts and those who study the brain. While it might look like everyone in a class can and will learn similarly, the scientific studies show that is not true.  Our learning is built on prior learning, so we are not all at the same starting line.  That is painfully apparent with the overload of information that washes over studiers for the bar exam. 

What is recommended by the learning gurus?  Techniques such as distributed practice (spaced repetition), quizzing with regular feedback, and interleaving, meaning studying multiple topics, have been shown to work best for long-term retention and retrieval, which, after all, is what one wants to do for the bar exam after consuming mountains of information for retrieval at a much later time. 

1.  CARE.  A useful process or protocol is to organize thinking about questions in the shape of a funnel – from large to small.  A helpful first step in any question is to ask, “What course?” and then to proceed to, “What area?,” before getting to, “What rule?” and then, “What exception applies, if any?” This progression, Course-Area-Rule-Exception, (C-A-R-E), is a methodical checklist that avoids what I like to call, “the left turn at Albuquerque,” meaning, wrong turns for which no points are allocated.

2.  Processing.  Much of bar preparation, from watching video to reading large outlines, is passive.  The more students process each day, engaging in active learning, the better that learning will be.  This might mean, for example, processing during video lectures by writing down the major themes of a lecture every 30-minutes; by regularly writing down what parts of a course are still fuzzy and not well-understood; by trying to recall what was learned in the prior lecture or entire day; by drawing graphs, charts and pictures; and by writing rules statements and essay answers (even to multiple choice questions by covering up the answer choices).

3. Global and Sequential.  Bar students need to understand the big picture, or big map of a course, to determine where questions are located, and the details of rules, their elements, and exceptions.  This “forest and trees” notion is called global and sequential.


4 | inTangibles

It is not just technique or time that matters, but often the intangibles—those things that are not measured in quizzes or sample exams, but really emerge large in exams and life overall.  In the film, Invincible, about a person who walks on to the Philadelphia Eagles football team after working as a part-time bartender, the spouse of the head coach is recalling what the coach said about character when he was a high school coach: “Character is what emerges when you are up against it.”

 On the bar exam, and in life, these intangibles loom large -- work ethic, passion, energy, body language, attitude, doing extra, being coachable.  While not directly assessed by bar graders, they matter a great deal to who passes and who does not. Committing to passing requires a lot of effort – more than people might imagine or what they believe they are capable of before they start.

Once you start the exam, keep going, keep being optimistic, and keep focusing on what you can control – the now, not what you can’t – the then.



Use the 4Ts for success, and start your career off right.  Hopefully, they will allow you to embark upon a long and satisfying career using the rule of law, one in which you find that “happy job.”

Professor Steven Friedland is the Associate Dean for Innovations in Engaged Learning in Law, Professor of Law and Senior Scholar at Elon University School of Law.  He has authored numerous books including  Learn the Keys to Passing the Bar Exam the First Time with The Essential Rules for Bar Exam Success and Friedland's Exam Pro Bar Prep Workbook Revised.  Both titles are available at