By Natalie White
Updated: November 21, 2020
As you have gone through college and law school, you probably have found a few favorite places to study. However, studying for the bar is a different animal. You will need to study for hours on end without class breaks or activities. Where you study matters.
I am just starting law school and am far from taking the bar exam. However, knowing good places to study will help in law school and for future study.
Ever since my first days of college, I have studied at home. Many people spend hours at the library, but I love the comforts of my house. I like to have my favorite study snacks on hand (goldfish crackers, oreos, or minty gum). I like having space to leave my materials out, and knowing I can leave them there as long as I need. I am an auditory learner and like to talk to myself when I am memorizing information, which is easy in the comforts of my apartment.
However, there can be real disadvantages to studying at home. There are many distractions at home like the TV or the pile of laundry waiting to be folded. You may have to deal with bad wifi or other issues. The summer I was studying for the LSAT, I was staying in an apartment without any AC. Each afternoon, the heat became suffocating, and I could barely go ten minutes without thinking about sticking my head in the freezer.
Depending on your situation, the biggest distraction at home may be other people. If you are married or have kids, being at home could mean that your attention is divided. For those who are married, make sure to set some ground rules with your spouse about your bar exam study. Help them understand how vital the test is and how many hours of work are required. You likely will need to set a schedule with time set aside to spend with your spouse. Many people, especially introverts, can easily lose focus if their study session is interrupted, even for a quick question. Let your spouse know when you are taking breaks and tell them you will answer their questions or call them at that time.
With kids, being at home is an even bigger challenge. If you still want to study at home, recruit other people to entertain your kids, whether it be your spouse, grandparents, or neighbors. You do not want to be the primary caretaker for young kids when you are also trying to study. Make sure you set a schedule and create boundaries with your kids so that you have time set aside to be with them.
Through all of this, stay patient. In college, I would feel jealous of my husband when he would kick back in front of the TV while I had to write a five-page paper. Unless your spouse is also studying for the bar (if so, I am so sorry) you will likely suffer alone. Remember that this is just a few months of your life, and as impatient, jealous, tired, stressed, and anxious you feel now, bar exam study is temporary and your relationship with your loved ones is more important and long-term.
If you have a home office with a big table and a comfy office chair, you are set. Working in a home office combines all of the benefits of working at home with the focus on having a separate, dedicated space for studying.
Having a separate room, or at least a special desk, that is set aside for studying will help you maintain a studying mindset. When you go to that space, you can focus solely on the bar exam. Do not put a TV next to your office space, and you may want to turn off notifications on your phone while you are there.
You will spend a lot of time in this office, so make sure you think about upgrades to your space. Having a large table or desk area will make it easy to lay out study materials. Also, make sure your office chair has plenty of back support for your long days of study.
I write about studying in bed because, well, I study in bed all the time. I do homework in bed. I read in bed. I do not have easy access to a desk and I hate studying on a hard kitchen chair. I am one of those people who is always cold, and I love pulling some blankets over my legs while I study. I am, in fact, writing this blog post from my bed right now.
Now to give you some hypocritical advice: do not study in your bed.
The internet lists a whole plethora of reasons why studying in bed increases distractions, destroys sleep schedules, creates back problems, and causes damage to the eyes if you read while laying on your stomach. There are other issues, like spilling your snacks on your sheets or falling asleep and drooling on your textbooks. While you may not yet have noticed these negative effects from studying in bed, you may find more problems when you study all day, every day in preparation for the bar.
Why do I continue to study in my bed, despite all of these problems? For me, it boils down to comfort. I just hate studying on hard kitchen chairs. If you are like me, try to find another place with cushions, comfort, and a footrest. In the end, you will likely have to sit on a hard chair during the long hours of the bar exam. California allows pillows, back support, and cushions during their exam, but not during the MBE. Colorado allows a cushion and pillow, but do not bring a pillowcase.
If studying at home is out of the question (screaming neighbors above you, jackhammers ripping up your street, AC is broken, etc.) then the next obvious choice would be going to a library. Libraries are quiet and usually have good wifi and places to sit.
Being in the library does have some drawbacks because, well, you are in public. You probably won’t be able to eat your extra crispy potato chips, or sometimes any snacks at all. Depending on your trust level (read: street smarts) you will need to pack up all your study materials every time you need to go to the bathroom or step out to make a call. You cannot control the temperature or the hours of operation of the library.
Law school libraries
If you recently graduated or are about to graduate law school, you may want to study in the library of your law school. You are already familiar with the space. You know the quiet, remote corners, the open areas where other law students loiter, and what floor has the best AC. Law libraries will likely have longer hours than other libraries. This could be especially valuable if you do your best work early in the morning or late at night. If your library is small and has good security, you could probably leave your textbooks on the table if you need to run to the bathroom.
Studying in the law school library, you will likely see other law grads preparing for the bar. It may be easy to join study groups with others or at least have resources available to answer any questions you have. Seeing other focused law grads preparing for the bar could make you feel a sense of camaraderie and encourage you to keep going. However, it could also give you some anxiety. Spending all of your time surrounded by stressed-out people could increase your stress or cause you to constantly compare your study habits to others.
Other college libraries
Maybe being in your law library gives you anxious flashbacks to hours of contracts readings when you were a 1L. Maybe you just need a change of pace. You should consider visiting other libraries or study areas on your college campus. The main libraries on campus provide a similar atmosphere to a law school library except there is usually more space and options for seating. Many buildings on your college campus will have little study rooms that could provide a good area for you to study without being surrounded by other stressed-out test-takers.
If it has been several years since you were a student, you may still be able to access the library at your alma mater, or at a local college near you. However, some college campuses restrict their wifi to students or may not offer open parking to the general public. Make sure to learn this information before you try to go to campus.
If you have moved away from your college campus or just want to try something different, try going to the public library. Public libraries are more hit or miss than college libraries. Some public libraries are large and well funded, with plenty of seating areas and open windows. Some public libraries have taken the hit on budget cuts, and are crowded with cramped bookshelves and little seating. You may want to explore the libraries in your area and visit the building before you plan to spend a long study session there. Also, libraries may be more crowded at different times and have events, such as storytime for kids.
When I was studying for the LSAT, I studied at a public library just three minutes from my apartment in a small city. It was very convenient, had good air conditioning, and provided a break from home. However, the library also attracted a large population of people experiencing homelessness trying to escape the heat of the summer. That didn’t bother me much, but apparently the librarians had previously had issues with people smoking in the bathrooms, and they were very strict about anyone entering the bathrooms or bringing in any kind of food or drink. I’m not trying to scare you away from public libraries, they can be really useful, but just remember that each library is different and you need to find what works for you.
For some people, pin-drop quiet is more distracting than constant noise. If you are less sensitive to noise (or have really great headphones), then you might consider going to a cafe. You usually can get great internet at cafes, perhaps better than at your house. There is usually a variety of seating options, all with tables, which can allow you to change positions. Plus, you can usually get some great snacks as you study like a delicious hot chocolate or a croissant.
Cafes might be nice, but you need to know yourself. Will you get distracted when hordes of people come in for a morning coffee run? Will you keep sneaking glances at the cute boy at the other table? Will you be able to stop yourself from overhearing the juicy gossip from your neighbors? Will you get overwhelmed by the delicious smells and order twelve muffins a day? You have to be able to tune out the world and stay focused.
Another good place for study could be on the bus or train. Many commuter trains have places to sit and even plugs for your computer. It can be easy to tune out the quiet noise of the vehicle, especially if you play some quiet music (playing classical music can actually help you study better). Studying on public transportation is especially useful if you need to travel anyway.
The drawbacks of public transportation? You might not be able to find a place to sit down, which could make it difficult to pull out your laptop or book. Also, if you have to get up to use the bathroom on the train, you will have to pack up all your materials and your seat may get stolen. Plus, some people are just too friendly and will try to talk to you when you are trying to focus.
While there are some challenges with studying outside (think rain), being outside is great for your health. If you plan to spend the three months before the bar exam locked in a windowless room, staring at paper and a screen, you should also plan on getting therapy afterward. You still need balance in your life. Studying outside is a great way to soak in the sun, get vitamin D, feel the wind in your hair, and remember that there is a world beyond the bar exam.
Make sure you find a place where you can take notes or that is dark enough for you to use a computer. Avoid loud places, like busy roads, because that could just make you more distracted. You might consider going to a park and finding a convenient bench away from others.
If being outside does not work for you, try studying next to an open window to get sunlight and fresh air. Also, you could take breaks throughout the day and go on a ten-minute walk outside.
Mix it up
The best strategy I recommend is mixing it up. There are pros and cons to every location you study in. Changing your location several times throughout the day will help your brain reset and stay focused instead of sinking into a thoughtless stupor. You may have realized this if you were locked inside during the coronavirus pandemic.
When I studied for the LSAT, I would study a lot at home, but then would go to a public library to take practice tests. Going to a quiet, focused environment helped me get in the right mindset for the practice test. I could not have snacks and had to sit in a hard chair in the library, but that was good practice for the test conditions of the real LSAT.
As you change your locations, also change how you sit in those locations. Studies show that standing can increase oxygen to your head and can improve brain function. Consider getting a standing desk, or propping your computer or notes on a dresser or table. Standing for even a few minutes could make a difference, and help you stretch out your back. If you are feeling really creative, sit on a yoga ball for ten minutes or so at a time. Doing this will engage your core muscles and increase your posture over time.
Another way to change your locations is to use audio outlines and study as you go about your daily life. You will need to spend a lot of time sitting with your workbook or your computer working on practice problems, but you can also spend time studying while doing other activities and having balance in your life. Several companies provide audio outlines for the bar exam including AudioLearn, AudioOutlines, and the company I work for, Crushendo. Here is a comparison between these audio companies. You can use audio outlines while you are driving, while you are getting exercise, while you are shopping, or pretty much anywhere you can have an earbud in. I love listening to audio outlines, and I love feeling like I can still be productive in my studying even when I am not sitting at my desk (or sitting on my bed).