Are you struggling to memorize all of the bar exam material? Here are some tips to help you out!

Memory for the Bar Exam

First things first, the very best way to retain information during bar study is to get enough sleep!

Scientists and researchers have studied the relationship between memory and sleep for more than 100 years. The general consensus today is that memory consolidation – the process of preserving key memories and discarding excessive information – takes place during both the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) stages of your sleep cycle.


Next, know that you are not alone! Most bar takers struggle with how to memorize all of the material, so don’t worry if you are feeling overwhelmed and unsure of how you should memorize.

Many students use ineffective study techniques which may feel more comfortable, but students consistently predict higher test performance following ineffective strategies (i.e. re-reading) compared to more effective strategies (enhancing cognitive retrieval routes).


Hard Learning is Better Learning:

Remember that learning will never be a passive activity. Just like sports or music, reading a book is not going to be enough for mastery. You have to use the skills you learn by practicing over and over.


Don't just "hang out" with your outlines

Re-reading is one of the worst ways to encode memory, yet tradition dictates that students study for exams and the bar by reading outlines endlessly. It feels like you are learning because you “know” the information, but in reality, you’re merely recognizing it. This is why so many students say that they “knew the material back and forward” even when their score said otherwise.


You can train your brain to remember using repetition.

The mere act of being tested on material increases student retention. Frequency of recall and attempts to recall are the basis of memorization. You cannot look at the rules and say, “Yeah, I know this”—you have to recall and attempt to recall.


Information that is repeated over spaced intervals is learned much better than info repeated w/out intervals. Review materials you are more familiar with less often, and prioritize less well-known material, to maximize efficiency.

Your bar review course likely has an algorithm that incorporates spaced intervals of more and less familiar subjects for you. This can sometimes be frustrating for students if they see their scores going down when they review less familiar materials more frequently. This means you are doing well, not the opposite.


Don't wait to test until you "know" the material to practice

Testing not only measures knowledge, but changes it. The testing effect is effective to learn subjects initially and not just to promote retention. Self-testing improved learning and retention because testing solidifies learning especially when accompanied by feedback.

Self-testing with unguided or minimally guided instruction will incorporate generative learning to the extent that you have to "think like a lawyer" and discover a solution yourself rather than recall a taught solution. When you review your answers, through corrective feedback, you can look for flaws in your reasoning and memory of rules. This method introduces desirable difficulty which is optimal for retention.

When you quiz yourself, check your answers to make sure that your judgments of what you know and don’t know are accurate. This practice causes brains to develop better systems for storing, organizing, and accessing info.


Don't wait to do practice essays!

Essay tests require you to generate answers with minimal cues and will therefore produce better learning that multiple choice test in which the learner only needs to be able to recognize correct answers.


Forgetting is the friend of remembering:

Committing something to memory happens when you initially cannot remember, and attempt to recall it repeatedly. Research suggests that the harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to later forget. The more mental sweat it takes to dig it out, the more securely it will be subsequently anchored.

The only way to take advantage of this in bar study is to do practice problems. In the beginning, you should feel happy that you are getting questions wrong—remember it is about the attempts to recall not mere familiarity.


Mix it up!

Interleave two or more topics while completing practice questions. Alternating between them requires that you continually refresh your mind on each topic as you return to it. Mixing in the practice of other subjects, other skills, will constantly challenging your ability to recognize the problem type and select the right solution.

Another sports analogy: A baseball player who practices batting by swinging at fifteen fastballs, then at fifteen curveballs, and then at fifteen change-ups will perform better in practice than the player who mixes it up. But the player who asks for random pitches during practice builds his ability to decipher and respond to each pitch as it comes his way, and he becomes the better hitter.


You don't have to know everything.

Finally, don't forget that you do not have to know everything! The bar exam is a minimum competency test so you aren't expected to get an "A." So, go easy on yourself if you struggle in a subject or two. The more you practice, the more you will begin to see patterns in the exam questions making it easier to issue spot, and eliminate wrong answers in the answer choices leading to correct answers even when you don't know the rules being tested.

Memorization Techniques

  • Cover up part of your outline and see if you can write it out again, then check to see if you got it right. Correct what you got wrong. Repeat until you get them all right. This is a great strategy for visual learners.

  • Repeat elements aloud until you know all of them.

  • Make a chart or diagram, or draw a picture to illustrate a law

  • Condense your outlines. You need to create mental pathways to each of the topics by sorting them into smaller topics. Each of those topics breaks into subtopics, each of which contains more subtopics, until everything fits within a structure that is easy to remember.

  • Use mnemonic devices, but use them sparingly. Having too many may not help because you’re just creating more stuff to memorize.

  • Quiz yourself.

  • Teach to someone else—you will have to understand it to teach it. You don’t have to know every single word in your outline as long as you can accurately state the rule in your own words.

  • Focus on the most highly tested areas—it is not possible to memorize everything.

  • One last tip—Memorization is only ½ the battle. The test is not about whether you can memorize the rules. The bar exam is about whether you can identify the issues and use the rules to get to the right conclusion.


The same memorization techniques do not work for everyone. Whatever you are using to memorize, be sure that they are actually working for you.


Many students use flashcards to assist in memorization.

The goal of bar-exam flash cards is to break apart the rules into rules and exceptions. The bar examiners love to test the exceptions, so it is necessary to KNOW the key elements of the rules and exceptions.

After creating flashcards, you want to begin reviewing actual bar-like questions to get a sense of how the bar tests the different rules. Use your flashcards when you first begin to review actual exam questions because you’ll learn the rules more as you apply them to specific questions.

The more example bar-exam questions you practice; the better sense you’ll get of how the exam tests specific topics. You’ll begin to see specific patterns in the way the exam tests a given rule.

Numerous studies reveal that students drop flashcards too fast due to poor metacognition and awareness of their own knowledge. Flashcards should not be a passive activity. You should always try to be aware of the "illusion of knowledge."