Monday, October 17

The Bar Exam

Well guys, I'm on the other side. I have taken the Colorado (UBE) Bar Exam, survived, and conquered it.

I've gotten a lot of questions from people about what the test was. Basically, all lawyers have to be vetted, usually by an exam. In New Hampshire, because of the program I was in, I was tested by a bar examiner for my last two years of law school to make sure I would be a competent attorney. Because I passed the program and law school, I was automatically licensed to practice law in New Hampshire, just like if I had taken the New Hampshire bar exam.

Most law students need to take the big, bad "bar exam" in order to practice. Different states require different scores in order to pass. Most states have their potential lawyers take the same test: the UBE, or Universal Bar Exam. The exam is made up of two days of work: one full day (6 hours) devoted to essays, and one full day (6 hours) devoted to multiple choice. States can basically pick and choose the parts of the UBE they want, adding a state law section, choosing to do different essays than other states, etc. Scores can be transferred from one state to another, assuming you can pass any state section and have a good enough score.

In Colorado, I had to take and pass the UBE, with no state section to worry about. But trust me, I worried plenty about my test in late July!


Most of my summer was spent studying, which means I was incredibly stressed and boring. I bought Barbri, which was the most expensive of the bar prep courses, but also has the best pass rates. Barbri gives you a daily schedule of bar prep so you don't (necessarily) have to worry about what you're doing each day. I didn't start the program on time; I had just graduated, packed up all of our belongings, driven from New Hampshire to Iowa with J and the cats, and spent a week in Iowa visiting family and taking a (small) break before we moved into our apartment in Denver. I spent a few hours studying when I could, but it wasn't anything significant.

Once we got to Denver, the real studying began. I began a routine as soon as I could, which included around 6-8 hours of studying a day, with Saturdays off. Once I made it to July, I studied on Saturdays as well and got off Facebook. Everyone said we had to reach 500 hours of studying by the bar exam to have a good chance at passing, but that wasn't my experience. I didn't track it the entire time, but I would guess that I had around 400 hours of studying, tops. Still a lot, mind you, but not 500.

If you take Barbri, you can choose to do in-person lectures on watch them online. They didn't start in-person until 9:30AM and went until 1:30PM, which wasn't my preference. I hated having to wait until 9:30 every day to do a lecture when I was up at 5AM every day, and once I figured out that I could watch the lectures from home - starting as early as I wanted - I stopped going to in-person lectures. I loved being able to watch the lecture at 7AM, finish it by 10AM, and either study a different way or work for the rest of the day.

One thing I found really useful was a time-keeping phone app! I kept track of my time with an app called Pomodoro that one of my professors suggested (I would also highly recommend it if you want/need something to keep you accountable). I also downloaded a ton of study materials (Pinterest is your friend!), made flash cards (not as useful for me), took a copious amount of notes, and wrote my own outlines. Writing the notes down by hand, re-writing them, typing them up, and highlighting them turned out to be really useful for me - the bar exam is all about memorization, and at least for my brain, writing out the information again (and again, and again) helped me to get those words and phrases into my brain!

What I Would Do Differently:

So, I passed the Colorado Bar Exam, but that doesn't mean I couldn't have studied better. For exampleI didn't do a great job of balancing the lectures with the practice multiple choice (MBE) and essay questions. I was watching two lectures a day for quite a while, trying to catch up from my week in Iowa, but that meant I wasn't doing the practice questions associated with those lectures. I basically had the choice: Did I want to study for ten-plus-hour days for the foreseeable future (two lectures AND multiple choice questions and/or essays), or hold off on those practice questions until I caught up with the lectures?

I chose the latter option, but I wish I hadn't. It's way easier watching lectures than it is to do practice questions, but it would have really helped my stress levels later on to keep up with the schedule. As the bar exam got closer, I began doing an insane amount of practice questions and essays. If I had kept up and done them when I was supposed to, I think I would have felt a little more prepared.

That being said, I don't think I've talked to anyone who honestly felt "prepared" for the bar exam. I had friends who hit about 250 hours of studying and friends who I'm sure went over 500, none of whom felt "prepared." I heard about a girl who studied from May until the exam in July, every single day, from 6AM until 2AM (no joke), who did every practice problem on Barbri, who managed to do every single practice essay in our books and then went online, looking for more practice essays. I guess she probably felt prepared, but I didn't actually meet her, so who knows. 

After I took the bar exam, my mom told me that it's really a balance of studying just enough to pass; that you don't want to waste any of your time studying unnecessarily - but obviously your goal is to pass, so (as our good and gracious Queen RuPaul says), don't fuck it up. Given that, I had a lot of indications that I didn't need to do as many essay questions and that my practice multiple choice scores were improving a lot as the summer went on. I did a few practice essay questions a week (all written in outline format, because nobody has time to write that stuff out) that I consistently got good scores on. My multiple choice scores dramatically improved with my studying. I got a good enough score on my practice MBE I took mid-summer that it gave me hope that I might not fail after all.

Barbri also offers a service where you can send in a practice essay or MPT for grading by someone at Barbri. There were probably 4-5 different graded essays, and honestly? I did none of them. Eeek! I never felt prepared (sensing a theme here?) since I was still catching up on lectures, MBE questions, and essays. This caused me stress too, because there was always some part of me when I was grading my own practice essays that wondered if I was being easier on myself than I should be. If I had used the service when it was offered, I think it would have given me some piece of mind - even if just a little bit.

My Daily Life

I was honestly the most boring person this summer. I'm surprised I have any friends left; Please forgive me.

With a few exceptions, I had the same schedule every day: Every morning except Saturdays, I woke up at 5AM to get to my 6AM barre or yoga class. Yo girl had to wake up, caffeinate or pre-workout, eat something, get dressed, and head out early enough that I could stretch before class. After my hour-long workout, I drove back home, showered, and relaxed on the couch with a cup of coffee (usually in my UNH Law mug, for motivation). Soon after, I'd start my Barbri lecture online and take notes. For the rest of the day, I would take occasional snack or meal breaks and continue studying until my brain either felt fried or I had done at least 8 hours.

I switched up where I studied throughout the day, moving from the couch to the desk, or sometimes to Starbucks or another coffee shop. I liked the change of an entirely new space, especially as the bar exam got closer, but usually I stuck to studying at home - the coffee is cheaper and the food is more abundant, although I actually concentrate really well in noisy, crowded spaces.

One thing I did that a lot of people don't do is work during the summer. My professors at school warned against it and suggested I get a small loan to cover summer costs. I didn't want to do that, and as someone moving to a new area who didn't have relationships with local attorneys yet, I felt it was important to start getting to know people. So I worked - but I also tried to work in a way that made sense for my situation. I worked on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, but only for half-days. On the days I worked, I watched my daily lecture in the morning, left for work around lunch time, came home around 6PM, and then studied some more before going to bed. Having my time separated into "work" and "study" allowed me to concentrate on bar study when I was home. I didn't waste it, because I knew I wasn't able to study 24/7. I also cut down to one half-day a week for July, and then no work the week before the bar exam.

Every once in a while, I'd get out of the house, but it wasn't easy. I constantly felt guilty about any time when I wasn't studying. When J was dropping off his job application to a local store, I went into a book store next door. I was there maybe 10 minutes when I started having terrible anxiety about how much time I was wasting when I could have been studying. J and I started taking walks around Washington Park in the evenings, just to get me out of the house more. I felt guilty every time, but it gave my mind and body a much-needed break.

Feelings, Humor, and "Me Time"

Speaking of feeling guilty... This summer was a complete hodgepodge of feelings every time I spent time not studying. One of my best friends got married in late August, but her bachelorette party was in early June - something I was thrilled about, because even though I had to miss a weekend of studying, it was early enough in the summer that the guilt was at it's lowest and I could actually enjoy myself and focus on her!

I started reading books again, which was something I needed terribly in order to keep myself sane and focused. I had a skype session with one of my law school professors to plan how I was going to juggle working and studying. J and I found a pho restaurant nearby that we went to whenever he convinced me to leave the house. We went to breakfast once or twice to my favorite spot. I swear, I did do things beyond studying... Just not a lot, especially as the exam came closer.

By the end of the summer, I was drinking 3-4 cups of coffee a day and all I could talk about was the law. J insists that I wasn't annoying at all, but I definitely began commenting on the legality of everything (actions on the "X-Files," "The Night Of," every video game character he played, etc.), so you be the judge. 

I was truly having a Spongebob Squarepants moment, where he destroys everything in his mind not related to fine dining and breathing, except my mind only contained the law and breathing. As July 26 neared, I finally accepted that I did not and would not understand the Rule Against Perpetuities. Law memes on Pinterest became the funniest things in the world, and I sympathized with my fellow bar-studiers about the havoc stress was wreaking on my face.

As stressed as I was, I managed to maintain a degree of calm about me that I think no one quite believed or understood. I would talk to my friends on the phone about studying, and I kept saying things like, "There's nothing more we can do than what we are doing," while they stressed about whether they were studying enough. Very zen, wasn't it? I'd talk to my mom on the phone and she expressed (more than once) that I seemed exceptionally calm. And that's the way I felt - I was following Barbri as closely as I could, I was getting decent scores, and I was making good progress; what more could I do? The night before the bar exam, I checked my Fitbit to see my heart rate. It had risen 10 beats per minute in the past month - so clearly I wasn't quite as calm as I led everyone to believe.

The Bar Exam

What to say about the bar exam that I am legally allowed to say?

These pictures are in order, which I think says enough. Basically, the morning of the first day, I was terribly nervous but pumped up. I got to the site an hour beforehand, and I was not the first person in the parking lot. I listened to "Hamilton" on the way there and while I waited in my car, because I couldn't just sit there. My theme song for the bar exam was:

Seriously, the song made too much sense for me at the time and gave me the boost of confidence to believe that I might just pass. The first day was the essay section, and that, at least, I felt I could rock. Writing is my favorite. I can write for 6 hours like I'm running out of time because I literally am! I am non-stop!

Okay, sorry, I'm done. Point being, I felt great after the first day of the exam. I said from the beginning that if I failed the bar exam, it would be because of the multiple choice section, and that was my second (and last) day. Where I had left the essay exam with a sense of elation (as Anne Shirley said, "Just one awful moment, - Diana, I felt exactly as I did  four year ago when I asked Marilla if I might stay at Green Gables - and then everything cleared up in my mind  and my heart began beating again - I forgot to say that it had stopped altogether! - for I knew I could do something with that paper anyhow."), I left the exam on the second day feeling... nothing.

I sat down in my car, decided I wanted to buy a ton of wine, and called one of my friends to see how she was feeling post-exam. I was still numb, but I wasn't sure how I should be feeling. I didn't feel that sense that I had the day before that I had done well, and I didn't feel terrible... but it was also multiple choice - does anyone actually feel confident taking multiple choice test? Tell me your secrets.

About three days later, J hadn't taken the garbage out, and I burst out crying. Like, sobbing. And it took me a solid hour to figure out that I wasn't crying about the garbage - it was the sense of having no control over the test anymore. There was no more preparation, no more studying, nothing else I could do to change the results - all I could do was wait until October 6. All those nerves that I had repressed during the summer came out to play, and I spent almost every day feeling terribly nervous and sick to my stomach, sure that I failed. When my two best law school friends passed their exams, I felt hope for the first time, and then dread that I would be the one to not pass.

A week and a half ago, I found out that I passed the Colorado bar exam by a damn good margin. To say I'm proud of myself would be an understatement.