How the Bar Exam is Like a Marathon

Preparing to take the bar exam is many things: exciting, stressful, exhilarating, daunting, but most importantly, it is necessary. It is a necessary part of the path to become an attorney. Many successful applicants take on the unique challenges of the bar, and the months and months of studying, by adopting a marathoner’s mentality. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” 

So, how is the bar exam like a marathon and how can you use a marathon runner’s mindset to succeed? 

Study Like they Train

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle. To put this advice into practice, the two keys are planning and being consistent with your habits.

When training for a marathon, runners follow a plan or schedule. A successful training plan blends multiple goals: balancing shorter runs to build strength with longer runs to build endurance. This strategy works for the bar as well. When preparing to study for the bar exam, select a workable study schedule that meets all your goals. The chosen study schedule should include focused, time-efficient studying and should consistently challenge you to improve throughout the months leading up to the exam. BarMax contains a flexible study calendar that achieves these goals. And this calendar can be altered to fit the unique needs of each student. 

Further, the best way to train your body to run is by actually running consistently every week. Bar exam study is no different. While training, consistently doing shorter runs builds strength and gradually lengthening these runs improves endurance. These consistent, shorter runs are equivalent to using the open-book bar study method recommended by BarMax. The open book bar study method focuses on active learning by answering actual bar exam questions consistently every week, training for long-lasting knowledge of the most frequently tested issues, and gradually, but effectively, building a bank of legal knowledge.

Practice for the Actual Race

As part of their preparation, many runners also run the actual race course, sometimes broken up into smaller segments, before their race day. This helps them get used to terrain they will face and plan their race strategy. Using the open book bar study method is like this: you practice applying black letter law to real past bar exam questions. By answering past exam questions and doing practice tests while simulating real testing conditions, you are “training on the course” and learning to get comfortable on it just like a marathoner running the route before race day. After these training runs, you may discover that you need more review in certain subjects or need to organize an essay answer in a different way. During a full practice exam, you may even look for, and find, brief times that allow you to take a mental break to refocus and plan how to approach each of the different topics. Prioritizing practicing actual bar exam questions in your study, as well as taking practice exams in simulated testing conditions, will allow you to “train on the course” to be ready for the actual exam. 

 Training programs also include consistent long runs to test endurance and prepare for race day. Long runs teach the body how to perform well under prolonged periods of stress. For bar exam study, long runs equate to practice exams. Practice exams test your knowledge of legal rules and ability to answer the questions at a good pace. 

Practice tests provide a snapshot of how you will perform during the exam. Additionally, doing your practice exams in the BarMax platform will provide you with analytics, or data, that show strengths and weaknesses. These are tools you can use to identify and improve areas where a disconnect exists between the black letter rule and your knowledge of that rule, or your ability to apply that rule to the facts of the questions. While a strong performance on an exam will come with a confidence boost, practice exams are just that: practice, they are not the actual exam. So regardless of your score, the actual goal of practice exams is always identifying and learning from your mistakes. 

Trust the Coaches

Many runners also rely on a support system, including family and a coach, to help them go the distance. Family support varies based on personal needs and circumstances, but it is imperative that the support network for both runners and bar applicants understands the arduous schedule each need to prepare, as well as the pressure they are under.

An experienced tutor can help you stay on track with your schedule, answer questions, develop exam strategies and support you throughout studying. Like a coach, a tutor is experienced in correcting common errors that can result in lower scores, and tutors can provide valuable perspective to help you reach your goals. Tutors are also your biggest cheerleaders! They have been right where you are and understand the specific challenges and pressures that accompany the bar.

The BarMax Content Team also offers regular Office Hours during bar prep season and is available to answer questions via the Support link if you get "stuck." Sometimes turning to an expert is all you need to make the adjustments that will ensure your further training is a success!

Taper your Mileage

In the last weeks before the race, runners taper their mileage. Tapering means to reduce the number of miles run to concentrate on recovery, which helps the runner perform at their best on race day. The taper is one of the most important parts of the training plan, but mentally, it can be one of the hardest to implement. Some runners believe that too much rest will undo all their training before the big race. However, the truth is reducing mileage is important for full recovery and to allow the body to reach peak performance. Although it may seem counterintuitive, skipping tapering, and consequently not allowing the body sufficient time to recover, can negatively affect your results on race day.

Similarly, in the week leading up to the bar exam, you should prepare by tapering your study time and focusing on physical and mental rest. Like their marathon-running counterparts, bar applicants, too, fear that tapering will hurt them by causing them to forget material. This fear may stop them from finding time to slow down. In fact, some applicants may even try to do more at the last minute in an attempt to “cram” in as much as they can right before the exam. This mentality fails to recognize that studying is like a marathon, and the months, weeks and hours of commitment will not be undone by self-care and recovery strategies. Nor will the inverse be true: an applicant will not be able to make up for long-term bad habits at the last-minute by cramming! Just like you couldn’t prepare for a marathon by running one marathon the night before the race, you shouldn't prepare for the bar by cramming all the information in at the last minute and expecting to do well.

In the end, rest and recovery (and self-care in general!) is key. Eating right, doing something fun with friends or family, keeping promises to yourself, getting good sleep and taking mental breaks away from the exam are essential to performing at your peak on test day. 

Test Day as Race Day

It’s time. The bar exam is administered over two days and will push you both physically and mentally. These two days will be exhausting, but you trained for this! 

Before the exam, you may feel nervous, or the sensations of tightness in the chest, sweaty palms, or butterflies in your stomach. These feelings are common and expected, and trying to avoid them only makes them come out stronger later. Instead, recognize them and move forward regardless. This is the same for marathon-runners. On race day, some runners combat their anxiety by addressing it, and reframing it as excitement. They also know that their training has prepared them to be successful, which helps reduce the negative effects of anxiety. On the morning of the exam, acknowledge all of your feelings, even the difficult ones: your feelings are your mind’s way of preparing you for an experience. Most importantly, trust that your study program has prepared you for success.

Taking the bar exam is a momentous step in your legal career. Stay positive and believe in your training. Use a frame of mind similar to a runner’s race mentality and try your best to enjoy the journey, knowing that there are great benefits at the end. As coach and entrepreneur Art Williams said, “I’m not telling you it's going to be easy…I’m telling you it's going to be worth it.”