How To Study for California Bar Exam Essay Portion
The essay portion of the California bar exam is tricky whether you are a first-time taker or a repeat taker. Repeat takers may wonder if they studied enough. Likewise, students who are studying for the bar exam the first time may feel as though they are studying hard, but not engaging in “active learning.” Studying for the essay portion of the bar exam does not mean “studying” in the traditional sense. Spending hours reviewing your outline and memorizing content verbatim is not an effective strategy for how to study for the California Bar Exam essay portion. This blog will focus on active learning strategies for the essay portion only, which will help you shine on the big day!
How To Study for California Bar Exam Essay Portion
1. “No Pass” Review
For repeat takers in California, the only time you will see your actual work is when you do not pass the exam. Take time to go through the essay portion, as painful as it may be. Review whether you answered the call of the question. Did you use IRAC? Did you use Issue Headings? Sub- Issue Headings? Did you apply the facts to the rule? Was your rule statement longer than your analysis? These are just some of the questions you should address in your no-pass review.
Whether this is your second attempt or your first, the suggestions below will help strengthen our essay writing skills.
2. Review Past Essays
Actively reviewing successful essays can show you what the bar graders are looking for. The California Bar Exam has past “selected” essays, and you may be able to locate older essays with a web search. When reviewing these essays, you will need to do more than read them. Make note of how the facts were used, how effective the issue headings are, and the overall structure of the essay.
It may also be helpful to review unsuccessful essays in the same manner, if you have access to them. This will show you what mistakes led to a non-passing answer such as not using IRAC, using few facts, or using rules that are not relevant to the issue.
3. Create an Effective Strategy
To study effectively for the California essay exam, you will need to create an effective strategy to make the most of practice essays. There is no uniform strategy you must use. Instead, find a formula that works for your learning style and stick to it! For example, rotate essay topics every three to four days so that you will “touch” each topic at least twice. Day 1 and 2 could focus on Torts and Contracts, and Day 3 may incorporate a third topic such as Real Property. Day 4 and 5 could focus on Real Property and Remedies, while Day 6 may incorporate a new topic such as Professional Responsibility. Continue this process with the goal of reviewing each subject area tested on the California Bar Exam multiple times.
4. Active Learning
Once you have an effective study strategy down, lean into active learning methods. It is the most effective way to study for the essay portion of the bar exam! This means you will be engaged in writing actual essays, focusing on IRAC, and working on any issues to include timing.
There are many ways to engage in active learning!
a. Practice Essays
The goal in writing practice essays is not to write a “model answer”. The time you spend writing a practice essay should focus on improving. This may mean something different for each Applicant. Many Applicants focus on improving their rules statements and analysis. Rule statements will vary among Applicants. If you have the “essence” or “gist” of the rule, the bar graders will see that you know and understand the rule and award points.
The area that will get the most attention from the bar grader is your Analysis. This is where many Applicants struggle. Therefore, it is important to review your essay after practice to see if your analysis is on the right track or if you may have misapplied a rule which would affect your analysis. Your essay should not mimic a “model” answer. These are professionally written answers which may have taken days to draft, but you may use them for your review. While you may also use “selected” answers, you should not rely on these answers as gospel as there may be deficiencies, even though the answer is “selected”. Using these resources, as well as any other class content, will help you to spot problem areas early and improve.
If you note any incorrect rule statements or misguided analysis in your practice essay, take the time to correct your subject matter outline, or add content to your subject matter outline. Generally, once you make a mistake in an essay and correct it, chances of repeating it are slim. That is just one of the great benefits of practicing essays!
Some Applicants may not feel ready to begin writing full length essays. There are other ways to overcome this hesitation. For example, writing “Issue/Rule” only for an essay can help to boost your confidence and is still considered active learning. It will also help you to improve on your rule statements and issue spotting, if those are problem areas. For more tips on issue spotting read our blog on How to Spot Issues in a Bar Exam Essay .
c. Do not wait until you have memorized rules to begin writing
As stated above, bar exam rules do not call for perfection, or need to mimic “model answers”. Bar graders will be looking for key “buzz” or legal words that show that you understand the rule. For example, the full rule for Conversion may look like this: “Under California law, the elements required to prove a claim of conversion are: (1) the plaintiff’s ownership or right to possession of the property; (2) the defendant’s conversion by a wrongful act or in a manner that is inconsistent with the plaintiff’s property rights; and (3) resulting damages.” A rule that shows that you know the gist of the rule which includes the bolded buzz words could look like this: “For a claim of conversion, the Plaintiff will have to prove that he/she 1) owned or had rights to the property 2) his/her property was wrongfully taken 3) which resulted in damages.” This version of the rule will still gain points from the bar grader because it includes all the essential “buzzwords” and captures the essence of the rule.
Using what you have learned from outlining and class content, should be sufficient to begin “studying” for the essay portion for the California Bar Exam. The review process will reveal any deficiencies that you can work on early in your bar prep. The more you engage in active learning by writing practice essays the easier it will be to attack any essay you encounter on the actual exam.
d. Choose Issue Heavy Essays
While writing practice essays, look for essays that are heavy on issues. If you have access to them, look for older California Bar Exam Essays. These essays tended to be much longer and had many issues. Using these essays are a good way to practice issue spotting, which is crucial to passing an essay on the California Bar Exam.
e. MBE Effect
While this blog does not address the MBE, practicing and reviewing MBE questions can help your performance on essays. In reviewing MBE questions that you got right and those you got wrong, to include updating your outline, will help you to learn the rules. In turn, learning the rules will help you in writing practice essays.
f. Get Constructive Feedback
As part of practicing essays, you should make getting feedback a priority. Feedback should come from someone familiar with the California Bar Exam and was successful in passing the exam. Take the time to review all essay feedback and incorporate it on your subsequent essays. While it may not be possible to get feedback on every essay that you write, getting feedback on at least three essays can help you gauge your progress at different stages of your bar prep.
Evaluating your work will not only help you to correct any issues with your essay writing, but it will help you think like a California bar grader. Evaluating your performance will help understand how your essay is graded. Bar graders will expect to see your essay in IRAC. They will also expect to see you apply the relevant facts to the rules and make reasonable inferences based on the facts. As discussed above, they will look for the proper “buzzwords” in your rules, and they will take note of excessive grammatical errors. Self-evaluation can come in several forms. If you have access to an essay rubric, take quality time to complete it and give yourself a grade. Think about what you did right and what you did wrong and include any additional content in your subject outline. Finally, give yourself a realistic grade and set goals for your next essay.
Active learning really is the key to studying for the essay portion of the California Bar Exam. The work is uncomfortable and demanding, but it is crucial to writing a passing essay and ultimately passing the bar exam. For more tips on getting a head start, check out our blog on Improving Your Bar Exam Essay Score.
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