I sat the California bar exam in Los Angeles in July 2019. I did not use Barbri or Kaplan, or any other commercial study programmes: instead, I used podcasts from BarMax, and created my own schedule and organised study plan. For more on my experiences and strategies, see my other posts under the Law School and Careers category.
In the hopes that it is helpful for future examinees, I am sharing screenshots from my study plan and schedule spreadsheet. It’s an integrated calendar, essay tracker, and MBE question tracker. You can purchase this template from me as either a GoogleDoc, or an Excel sheet for $25 USD or £20 GBP via paypal. I also include instructions and comments on how to use the formulas.
The spreadsheet’s separate sheets are set out as follows (click on each picture, to see a full sized screenshot):
- Big Picture Calendar
- Program – Progress
- Program – Schedule
- Essay list
- MBE – Hitting the numbers
- MBE – Accuracy overview
- MBE – Answer details
- The Details
Sheet 1: Overview Calendar
The first step of creating any plan is understanding how your life will fit in around your studies. As I was working full time, I knew I’d need to start revising about a year in advance. I made a calendar from August 2018 through July 2019, setting out key events and holidays, so that I knew how best to budget my time. The dates of each month appear on the left, with weekends appearing in light grey. I also included little milestone reminders, such as when I was four months from the exam.
Sheet 2: Program Progress
The California Bar Exam (CBX) tests 13 separate subjects, explained in more detail here. Subjects are further narrowed down, with BarMax (and many others) dividing each into seven or eight topics. As you’ll see from Civil Procedure above, the spearate topics included Subject Matter Jurisdicction, Personal Jurisdiction, Venue, Joinder, and so on. These are listed out vertically.
The horizontal feature of this sheet covers the various study method. For me, This included podcasts, multiple choice questions (MCQs), memorisation attack sheets, rule outlines from a particular book, a different outline from another book, flashcards and/or mindmaps. When I studied a particular item, I would colour it green and include the date. I also left a separate place for comments, to indicate if I found the material easy, confusing, or similar to English law (given that I went to law school in England, and became a Solicitor here in the UK).
So for example, I know that on the 22nd of March, I studied the 1st Amendment by listening to the podcast and doing some flashcards. I indicated that it was “straightforward,” but that there was “lots of information” to cover.
Sheet 3: Program Schedule
This sheet, the Program Schedule, combines the calendar function with the program progress. This is where I indicated what topics I would be studying on which day, and for how many hours. My week started on Monday, and for each day I noted how many hours I spent studying. At the end of each week, it would tally with the totals. The weekly totals were then added together, so that at any given moment, I could see how close I was to my goal of 450 hours.
One of the most important features of this sheet was my “Date last studied” section. I first listed out each of the subjects in column “L”. Today’s date was automatically populated in cell N1. I then put in the date I studied a subject, also in column N. Using a subtraction formula, row M then computes the days which have elapsed since. This was really helpful, because I found that I was subconsciously avoiding certain topics at times. Seeing that a month had elapsed since last reviewing my real property notes, for example, was a good way to keep me on track.
Sheet 4: Essay list
I listed out over 100 essays dating back to 2001, together with when they were asked and what question number they were. The idea here was so that if I wanted to look at an essay on contracts, for example, I would know exactly which one to go for. When I read through or attempted a particular essay, I coloured it green. And because I’m a bit… extra… I even did a word + character count of the example answers, for some of the essays. This was so that I had a rough idea of how long the essays should ideally be (of course, this varies widely, so I almost would suggest ignoring it).
Because English law school exams are almost identical to the style of bar exam, I did actually feel pretty confident going into the essays. As such, I didn’t really end up using this sheet very often, but perhaps other candidates would find this approach useful.
Sheet 5: MBE – Hitting the numbers
In retrospect, I probably should have devoted more time to actually doing MCQs for the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE). In early 2019, I purchased Jessica Klein’s The Multistate Goat: The Essential Book of MBE Practice Questions, which I highly recommend. The book contained some simple yet essential advice: you need to do actual, recent questions which are formally released by the NCBE. You will not get better at the MBE by doing fake questions, or by doing flashcards, or by reading textbooks. You need to just…. do practice questions!
Klein suggests doing at least 1200 practice MCQs: this sheet simply tracks the number. Between May and June, I did a little over 700. (I did MCQs before and after that date period, but didn’t record them in my tracker – oh well).
Sheet 6: MBE – Accuracy overview
Okay, so simply taking the practice MCQs is not enough: you have to get a feel for the areas you’re struggling with! In retrospect, this sheet didn’t really work for me in practice, because sometimes the sample size would be too small to actually gain insight. I think you probably need to look at sets of at least 10 questions in order for the % score to be useful.
Sheet 7: MBE – Answer details
What was more useful, rather than the % score approach in Sheet 6, was a detailed analysis of the topics I was getting wrong. Rather than simply noting that I was getting evidence questions wrong, I looked at the specifics. For example, I repeatedly messed up present sense impression and recorded recollection exceptions for hearsay. That brings me to another important point: if you do enough real MBE questions, you will definitely start to notice patterns!
It’s also very, very important to remember that the number of questions per each subject are prescribed, and the NCBE sets this out in a detailed outline (see the 2020 outline here). For example, “Approximately half of the Constitutional Law questions on the MBE will be based on category IV (Individual Rights)”, and “approximately one-fourth of the Contracts questions on the MBE will be based on Articles 1 and 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code”. Useful, right?
Sheet 8: The Details
Finally – the week before the exam arrived, and thankfully I was able to have the entire week off from work to do some last-minute studying. I quickly realised that it would be impossible to fit in all of the studying that I wanted to accomplish: I had to make do with the time remaining. Time management was therefore absolutely critical. I had to discipline myself, and only allow myself to study subjects for a constrained amount of time. Otherwise, I would have easily spent three days focusing on contract law, to the detriment of civil procedure.
And yes, I even had a spreadsheet to cover the few days before the exam as well. If I’m being perfectly honest, this wasn’t really a practical point, but rather a way for me to manage my anxiety. As such, this sheet is not included in my template, but you might find it useful to make your own.
Although it’s been said before, it’s worth repeating: the bar exam can be intellectually demanding in places. But the greatest challenge comes down to time management, dedication, and effort.
I am often teased by friends and family for being somewhat obsessed with spreadsheets. Maybe it’s true! For what it’s worth though, I really feel like having a detailed plan and scheduled helped me tackle the bar exam.
Featured photo for this post from ThoughtCatalog.