How to Pass the California
Bar Exam on the First Try
By Carson King
Updated: December 21, 2022
For those looking to practice law in the state of California, the California bar exam can seem like a daunting task. This challenging exam requires months of preparation and the dropping pass rates can leave many discouraged. However, despite sometimes low odds, you always have a chance.
It won’t be easy, but with great effort and determination, the handful of tips gathered here will help you on your quest to pass the CA bar exam.
Know the enemy
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
Knowing the CA bar exam and using that information to prepare is the first key to conquering the exam.
So, how is the California bar exam formatted?
Like most state bar exams, the CA bar exam is a two-day exam made up of three components: five essay questions, the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), and one performance test (PT).
What legal topics does the CA Bar Exam cover?
Those taking the CA bar exam should be prepared to answer questions involving business associations, civil procedure, community property, constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, professional responsibility, real property, remedies, torts, trusts, and wills and succession.
Why is the CA Bar Exam more difficult than others?
Well, it’s triple threat. Tough subject matter, tough questions, and tough grading. You need at least 1390 out of 2000 points to pass! Here’s some more information on how the CA bar exam is graded.
“Self-discovery is the secret ingredient that fuels daring.”
What’s your learning style? If you don’t know, take a learner style quiz. Working with your strengths is the key to victory. The eight types of learners are:
Everyone has multiple learning styles, it’s simply a matter of scale and percentage. Create a study routine that revolves around your strengths, but at the same time, diversify how you learn. This will keep your mind fresh, utilize different parts of the brain, and keep things interesting. Prioritize methods with the highest ROI and keep an open mind to better systems.
Arm yourself with the best weaponry
“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”
Now that you know the enemy and yourself, you must select a weapon! How you end up conquering the CA bar exam–bar prep, books, or tutors–is entirely up to you. If you’re considering a bar prep course, check out the reviews and testimonials. Identify the pros and cons. Make a list and select the option that works best for you.
Warning: With so many resources available, it’s easy to get distracted and discouraged. People will use different resources from you and that’s okay. Don’t freak out and second-guess yourself. Switching resources halfway could be detrimental, so resist the urge of FOMO. Grind away at the resources you have. With the correct worth ethic and strategy, you can pass the CA bar exam with most any commercial bar exam prep course.
Some tools to help you get started include:
“I 100% recommend Crushendo for bar prep or during law school. The program gives you the most important information in a way that is easy to understand and memorize . . . I was able to study while I went on walks, sat by the pool, or worked out. I think that was a great benefit as well, as I was able to get outside and stay active and mentally healthy during a high stress time.”
“I highly recommend this to first time and repeat takers as a way to supplement your studying because you can literally take it anywhere, it’s downloadable straight to your phone so you can listen to it in car, at the gym, anywhere! I cannot recommend it enough!”
Build a bar exam study system
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
It’s easy to become a blind idealist and say, ‘I will pass the CA bar exam!’ But anybody can say that. Even the most convicted students can fall prey to their own pride and egos. However, you can’t afford to let yourself get blinded by petty words and temporary motivation. All the same, don’t allow negative thoughts to sabotage your efforts.
So, what to do?
You must become an architect of your time. You can’t afford to ‘wing’ anything here. You need to remove the snooze button and commit to the future you’ve chosen to fight for. After all, you knew this day would come. Your best chance is to create a powerful study routine. A system that will withstand doubt, exhaustion and demotivation. Here’s how:
Manage your time and resources. There are many ways to organize your calendar, ‘time-block’ study sessions, and track your time. Here are some of the best to tools to help get you started:
- Google Calendar. Very collaborative and connects with practically everything.
- Apple Calendar. Apple.
- Taskade. Amazing for setting goals, projects, and making calendar events.
- Toggl. Not a planning App, but a time-tracking app.
- Habitify. Build and track ‘golden habits’.
- Bublup. Best app I’ve come across for collecting and storing online data. It’s similar to Google Drive, but targeted at visual people. Sign up here to get free extra storage.
Once you’ve selected HOW you’re going to track time, it’s time to plan your week. Sitting down with your calendar, there’s a lot to consider:
- Clearly outline your goals–daily, weekly, and monthly–and make plans to reach them. Make sure you know when, how, and what you’re going to study each day.
- Create a ‘daily highlight’–something that will happen at all costs.
- Remember the ‘planning fallacy‘. Good rule of thumb: if you think an activity will take 30 minutes, multiply by 1.5, so the total is 45 minutes. (Humans generally underestimate how much time things will take.)
- Add events and relevant information to your calendar (other responsibilities, duties, etc).
- Schedule in high-density fun (take breaks, you’re not an AI).
- Regularly review your calendar. Check, improve, and systematize things.
- Protect your time with ‘protected time’ and ‘time blocking’.
- Keep track of when you’re the MOST productive, and the LEAST. Work with this information.
Become a prioritization master. With so many things to do and study, how should you prioritize? Well, there’s a ton of methods. I’d recommend Jasmine’s simple method below. When rubber hits the road, start with urgent and hard tasks. This way, you’ll have more energy and time to finish the most important things. Afterwards, you can do urgent and easy tasks. It’s a simple system, but it works!
Maximize your time. How can you maximize the time you actually spend studying? Well, here are some ideas:
- Create a ritualistic ‘study space’–a space you can keep clean, quiet, and free of distractions. If you must use your phone, go somewhere else. Don’t pollute your study space.
- Engage in deep study (more on this below).
- Snack on ‘smart food‘.
- Try the SQ3R method.
- Use as many senses as possible, this will help you memorize most effectively.
- Chew gum to improve memory recall.
- Utilize your preferred study method: visual, audible, etc.
Understand your circadian rhythm. Everyone has had a 3 p.m. slump, and that’s okay. It’s normal. Our bodies naturally fluctuate in energy over the course of 24 hours. Energy levels vary. However, the game of bar exam prep isn’t played on ‘easy mode’. Pushing through the weeks does matter. It’s a delicate balance between stretching yourself, and resting when you genuinely need it. When you actually DO need a break, don’t ignore your body! Do something useful and regenerative:
- Take a walk outside, get some sun.
- Doodle (have a collection of ‘study sketches’).
- Stretch and move your body.
- Drink some water.
- Do. Not. Use. Your. Phone. Please! Except to study, of course.
- Avoid social media.
- Don’t complain about how miserable California bar exam prep is (tempting, I know!).
There will be moments when your brain will feel exhausted. In these moments, take a deep breath and remember: Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s worth it. Yes, I can do it. Be patient with yourself and stick to your schedule the best you can.
Deep vs. shallow California bar exam study
“Winners embrace hard work. They love the discipline of it, the trade-off they’re making to win. Losers, on the other hand, see it as punishment. And that’s the difference.”
Not all study is created equal. Even with a pristine ‘study system’, it’s easy to fall into common traps: re-reading, dull thinking, procrastination, etc. However, your goal as a student is to maximize what you learn, and minimize the time needed to learn it by engaging in deep study.
In contrast to shallow learning, deep learning is active and full of questions. It’s a quest for proficiency.
To accomplish this, you want your California bar exam study schedule to be like lean meat–no fat, no waste–with a focus so deep that your gaze is like a surgeon’s knife, tearing through anything you read. Encourage deep study by:
- Protecting your focus online with apps like this.
- Having clear, specific goals for each study session.
- Optimizing the 80/20 rule.
- Spacing out your study and avoiding long, monotonous, study sessions (not always avoidable).
- Constantly asking yourself: Do I understand what I’m studying? If so, why?
- Taking organized, precise notes.
- Reviewing the notes.
- ASKING. QUESTIONS.
- Testing yourself.
- Teaching others (not sure if anyone actually does this, but it’s extremely powerful).
- Trying focus music. YouTube has plenty of free playlists. If you have money to spend, you can also try brain.fm. Lofi vibes are great too.
- Clear your desk of distractions. NO FIDGET SPINNERS.
- Block distracting websites using tools, like Blocksite.
More than anything, deep study is a result of active effort. It’s not always easy to be ‘excited’ or ‘pumped’ about law (especially the CA bar exam), but if you can mix in a little magic, you’ll be better off. Seek TRUE understanding. Don’t study for two hours just because it’s on your calendar.
Be accountable, be powerful
“Accountability separates the wishers in life from the action-takers that care enough about their future to account for their daily actions.”
—John Di Lemme
Social networks and accountability can play a huge role in success. Having an accountability partner with whom you can set high-goals with and be accountable to can increase your odds dramatically! It can be a daily text, a weekly lunch, or over an app like Habitshare. The options are endless. If you have a bar prep coach (like through Crushendo’s tutoring program), that’s even better. Study groups also create a perfect space to stay accountable to each other.
Make health a priority
“Health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind, and spirit. When one is free from physical disabilities and mental distractions, the gates of the soul is open.”
Obviously, the CA bar exam is a huge priority. However, don’t forget about your greatest assets . . . your brain and body! This will be hard to do. Preparing for the bar has the great ability to drain your energy. But even with a full bar prep study schedule, you’ll generally still have some free time. If you could spend a fraction of that time investing in your wellbeing, all the better.
So, whether it’s getting enough rest, eating well, drinking water, doing 20 minutes of yoga, or meditating . . . I promise it will be worth it. Turn your body into a California bar exam crushing machine by:
- Eating natural foods and avoiding sugar.
- Investing in ‘Brain Foods’, such as blueberries, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, eggs and oranges.
- Drinking PLENTY of water (your brain is 75% water).
- Trying meditation. Every study says the same thing: Meditation increases energy, lowers stress, improves focus, and sharpens memory (try it just once, please!)
- Getting outside. Natural air and sunlight reduce stress and help you think better. Study outside if you can!
Invest in your sleep. A productive day starts the night before, and a nighttime routine can radically improve your success–I’m not joking. Do the math: If you sleep six to eight hours a day, that’s roughly 33% of all your time. Why not get the most of it? You can make your bedtime routine as complicated, or as simple, as you like, but rituals such as laying out your clothes for the next day, prepping food, or practicing any of the tips below will likely increase your quality of sleep.
Invest in your sleep by:
- Creating a sleep schedule! You already have a study schedule, so create a sleep one too. You’ll sleep better, I promise. Consistency is power.
- Avoiding eating one to two hours before bed.
- Taking power naps. According to NASA, the ideal power nap is 26 minutes . . . and it increases performance by 30%!
- Sleeping in pitch black (use a sleep mask if necessary).
- Using aromatherapy: Lavender and cedarwood can promote restful sleep.
- Creating a pre-bedtime routine.
- Journaling for success.
- Practicing gratitude!
- Understanding and leveraging your chronotype.
Relaxation is your ally, not enemy
“Rest is not idle, is not wasteful. Sometimes rest is the most productive thing you can do for body and soul.”
It’s easy to get caught on the Nike mindset: Just do it! Go, go, go, go! But . . . however “cool” and “epic” as that final charge seems, it’s also destructive. As mortals, we lack the luster of Superman and can only do so much before burning out. Failing to factor in breaks will only make your rest more ineffective when it does happen. If you have to rest anyway, why not beat the curve? Let’s be real: at some point you’re going to watch a movie or play a game.
That’s fine. Just plan it out beforehand.
These “fun things” can also double as rewards . . . and why not? Rewarding yourself is certainly helpful. That being said, not all rewards are the same. Productivity expert, Thomas Frank, explains the difference between “high-density fun” and “low-density fun”; low-density fun is mind-numbing, unrewarding, and mostly a distraction. High-density fun is much more rewarding, fun, and relaxing. Some examples include:
- Video games
- Social activities
- Scrolling through social media (Tiktok, Insta, Snap, Facebook)
- Reading news
- Most of YouTube
- Spacing out
- Stress eating
Be smart, think ahead, and plan high-density fun ahead of time. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to cosplay as an Alexa Unit who can work 24/7. Reward good behavior and take some much needed rest.
Walk into the bar exam each morning
“Victory is not the absence of problems, it is the presence of power.”
Reconstruct the bar exam to the best of your ability each morning. Seriously, this will do wonders for your mental state. If the CA bar exam starts at 9:30am, so should you! When it ends at 12:30, so should you. Mimicking these breaks and riding these waves will train your brain to conquer the CA Bar Exam. After all, if you’ve conquered MBE prep each morning at 9:30, then you’ll do it again on test day.
Obviously, you can’t simulate everything. For example, bar prep courses vary considerably in schedules and routines. Factors such as jobs, kids, and other responsibilities may also intervene. Regardless, having this victorious mindset is important. Even if your study schedule begins at 2 a.m., treat it with the same seriousness you would the bar exam. Sit down with confidence each day. Become comfortable and familiar with the challenge.
Plan for failure
“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near one.”
Hear me out: I said plan for failure, not expect failure. Here’s the red pill: many, if not most people, reading this article will fail the CA bar exam. Until something changes, that’s simply the reality. So, instead of worrying about “what’ll happen if I fail,” just swallow the brick and plan for the worst.
Why be plagued with uncertainty? Make a Plan B. It might just be: “study, work for the summer, and retake the CA bar exam in February.” See, easy? At the end of the day, failing the California bar exam isn’t the worst thing either. Thousands of students retake the test each year, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Face the reality. Clear your mind. Even if you DO fail, it’s not the end of the world.
The CA bar exam is a mental marathon, and while I wish I could offer you some “cheap tricks” to pass in “3 Easy Steps,” I can’t. You’ve chosen a path too difficult to sugarcoat.
However, don’t get discouraged. Remember: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So, take that first step, select the tips that work for you, and begin your quest to pass the California bar exam.
Looking for more tips?
Here are some more tips on how to create the Ultimate Study Schedule.
And here are dozens of tips to crush the MBE portion of the California bar exam.