7 things I wish I’d know when I took the bar exam

By Chris Nikitas, Esq., BARBRI Director of Legal Education

1) HOW TO GET TO THE LOCATION

I got turned around on exam morning. I didn’t know the city that well. Thankfully, I gave myself a large window to get there and made it on time. You’ll want to make a dry run. Drive to the city where you’ll take the bar exam. Start at the place you plan to spend the night before the exam at the approximate time you plan on leaving. See how long it takes. See where best to park, what traffic is like at that hour and how long it will take you to get to the exam room.

2) WHAT TO BRING

You can get away with bringing a lot of stuff into the exam room, provided it is in a plastic bag and off your desk. The person next to me had eye drops. The person in front of me had about 15 after dinner mints. But here are the essentials: black pen, ID, extension cord for your laptop (in case you’re far from an outlet), jacket, earplugs and analog watch.

3) WHAT THE BAR EXAM ROOM IS LIKE

It’s mostly bare aside from a timer, which may be situated pretty far from your spot in the room (hence the analog watch). Some rooms have water fountains or water coolers. Some have bathrooms inside the testing room. The room will be divided between the hand-writers and the laptop writers. It’s going to be cold (hence the jacket). Dress in layers. There’s also a good chance other conferences will be going on near the bar exam (hence the earplugs). When I took the exam, people outside our room started mowing the lawn.

4) HOW OFTEN TO CHECK THE CLOCK

Look up at the clock every 10-15 minutes. Process how much you have left in a section and get back to work. Be conscious of the time but not obsessed with it. There’s a timer in the corner of the room, counting down from three hours. An analog watch may be necessary, depending on your eyesight.

5) HOW TO AVOID “THE SNOWBALL EFFECT”

Emory University School of Law Associate Dean and long-time BARBRI lecturer Richard Freer once described to me what he called “the Snowball Effect.” Let’s say you have four essay questions, each with a suggested time of 45 minutes. You’re working on the first one. Not quite done at the 45-minute mark, you keep going an extra five minutes. On the second one, you go over again – closer to 10 minutes. Third one, another five minutes over. Now, you’re staring down at the last essay question with only 25 minutes remaining. Yikes.

Tell yourself that you’ll stop writing with five minutes to go to the suggested limit. Stop, look over your answer and make a few changes if you have to. At the suggested limit, move on.

6) HOW LUNCH WORKS

You’re let out after the first half of the exam and have usually around an hour until the next part. The proctors will tell you when you need to return. You’re not allowed to bring any food to the exam, but hopefully there’s some decent dining in the area. Things to consider though: What if you get bad/slow service? What if it’s busy? What if the only menu options will leave you feeling sluggish? My advice is to throw a PB&J, some chips, a banana and a Capri Sun in a bag and leave it in your car or hotel room. Yeah, it might get hot, but none of those things are going to spoil and will provide a rapid power lunch that won’t make you sleepy.

7) HOW TO AVOID PANIC

During the bar exam, I hit a wall. There was an essay question I had no idea how to answer. It was at that moment that every ounce of stress I’d endured for the past two months crushed me like an ant holding an elephant. I am going to fail. Who was I kidding? Ah, jeez, I have to find a whole new career. Are the Ghostbusters hiring?

In all likelihood, that moment will happen to you too. Just take a deep breath and look around that huge room. Everyone else is in there with you and they’re just as scared. Shake it off and do the very best you can.

As you may recall from law school, mulling over the exam after turning it in helps no one. You won’t remember the questions you nailed, just the questions where you know you were wrong. It’s easy to do after the bar exam, but there’s no sense in beating yourself up. Focus on what you still have in front of you and how to tackle it.

The fact of the matter is, most people pass the exam, and you’ll (probably) be just fine.

BONUS: WHERE TO FIND THE BEST BARS

Okay, that was a joke. Good luck!