Bar Exam Study Tips for Smart Cheapskates

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on June 07, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Have you looked at the litany of bar exam prep courses out there and suffered sticker shock at the some of the prices? You're not alone. For example, for some of the "harder" jurisdictions, the entry-level price for many of the country's more popular bar exam prep programs can set you back a little more than $4,000.

And that's if you go the route without personal tutoring. I personally know someone who shelled out $10,000 plus Bar/Bri to pass the California bar. But what alternatives are there for those who don't want to compromise their health or wallets just to prepare for the exam? Fortunately, there is an alternative for those of us whose surname isn't Rothschild: self-study.

Are You Serious?

Yes, you heard me right, you can study yourself. It isn't free, but it's about as good as you're going to get. You'll need some materials, but fortunately, all the materials you'll need can be had for a fraction of the cost of the programs. And plenty of people have passed the bar exam without depending on the one of the bar prep courses.

Keep in mind that it's in the companies' interests to foment that fear of not passing the bar exam on the first or even second attempt. And this fear-mongering works. Most people would look at you as if you were crazy to consider self-study. But you're not. You just need guidance.


First of all, the most important factor is dedication. No bar prep course is going to help you if you are not willing to get up at the @#&crack of dawn to sit down and get to it. If you're the type of person to get distracted by Facebook and Twitter during study, you may as well just give up. Not even the bar prep program will help you. You need to really invest the time and work. Few people are so lucky that they hit the magic formula of exam taking the first time.

Materials You'll Need

Now that you've decided to make the plunge, let's talk materials. It's about two and half months from graduation to your next exam so get cracking now.

  • Old Bar Exam Performance Tests
  • Examples of Essay Questions
  • MBEs
  • Old Outlines

You'll notice that the list above is a basic skeleton of most bar exams in the United States.

Performance Tests

Performance Tests are, at least in California, three hour exercises that test your ability to organize a client file, write a memo, draw a conclusion, etc. In order to practice these, you'll need to dedicate an entire day to each one -- and they suck. You can just go to your jurisdiction's state bar website and download past PTs (and essays too).

The key to PTs is that you use every single piece of documentation provided in the list of materials. Fail to include even one and you risk failing that test. In California, this means scoring below a 65 -- 60, technically, but you want some breathing room. Additionally, follow the instructions exactly. Your answers should be short and sweet and as to-the-point as possible. You'll be struggling to keep things short with all the details and law you'll be needing. But your purpose is to pass, not to flex your law-review muscles.

Old Essay Questions

Old essay questions can be downloaded off your state bar's website or purchased from various companies that have been licensed to do so. Increasingly, people can find copies of model answers at their local law library. In this day and age, resources on Amazon abound.

Essay Exam Writing for the California Bar Exam by attorneys Mary Basick and Tina Schindler is an excellent book on the essay section of the bar exam, although I think it leaves out a trick that I think should be emphasized. Specifically, you should overuse the word 'because' in your essays because it will force you to justify your arguments rather than simply making "conclusory statements of law." I picked up that trick from Jeff Adachi's Bar Breaker book, which I highly suggest. I would suggest doing at least a 100 of these if you can manage it.


What many companies don't tell you is that they don't have a license with the NCBE -- so they are not allowed to publish actual MBE questions. This is key. For this, you will have to spend money because NCBE recently added Civil Procedure to the multiple choice section of the exam, meaning that you will have to spend the money to buy all the examples of Civil Procedure currently in existence just to get a fair feeling for the styles and the law.

The most popular solution for this is to purchase Adaptibar as they have the most current license. And given that you don't have a lot of time to get prepared, it's best not to fight this one and just accept the changing landscape. In addition to Adaptibar, there is a wide range of bar review serves out there that may be worth looking into.

Old Outlines

Arm yourself with old outlines. Believe me, Craigslist is festooned with bar prep outlines of thankful passers who just want to get rid of the things as fast as possible. Outlines within two years of the current date are acceptable. And you'll find that you depend on these outlines less than you'd predict.

Total Cost?

What's the total cost of taking the bar? If you decide to go cheap, we're talking about $500 -- with most of the money going to Adaptibar simply because it would be foolish not to try and get the latest on the Civ Pro questions. In years past, you probably could have gotten away with "free," but alas, those times are gone.

Stop Studying: Just Do It

A final point about outlines. It's very tempting to just open these things up, study them, and feel that you've done your job for the day. Don't. This gets back to that whole dedication talk mentioned above.

Your goal is not so much to learn the material as it is to learn how to take the test. And the only way you're going to learn how to do that is to practice, practice, practice. Take the exams and screw up the law -- you're learning. Remember, your goal is to just get a 65 and above on your written sections. You're looking for 135 scaled on the MBEs. Do this, and soon we'll be calling you "esquire."

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