The Ontario Bar Exams, Part II: How can I best prepare for this exam?
The most difficult aspect of this exam is that no one knows what to expect when they go in the first time. There are very few practice questions/exams available, and many of those practice questions are not accurate representations of what you’ll face on the exam (which can be problematic, since you also don’t want to be lulled into a false sense of security). The questions may be either outdated, inaccurate, or just not phrased in a way that reflects how the real exam questions are worded. This makes preparation challenging: how do you prepare for something that you’ve never seen before?
First and foremost, before asking how to prepare for this exam, acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses. This is crucial in helping you determine what methods you should rely on to teach yourself the materials. For example, I discovered that I am a much stronger visual and auditory learner, and that I don’t like to learn something by reading about it in a book. Thus, I found that listening to lectures and hearing other people explain the materials to me helped me grasp the materials much more profoundly than by simply reading about it. I also found that I am easily stressed and flustered by high-stress situations like examinations, so I had to find methods to manage that anxiety so it doesn’t get in the way on exam day.
Being honest with your strengths and weaknesses will also help you assess what resources you need to prepare yourself. When I wrote the bar exams the first time, I was flooded with many summaries, indices and charts that were passed to me by my colleagues. Although I took them all with me to the exam, I was not successful that time because I had not assessed my strengths and weaknesses, and did not assess which resources were the ones I would need to rely on.
Once you have assessed your strengths and weaknesses, and have acquired the resources you need to prepare yourself, start putting yourself in a positive mindset. Remind yourself that this exam is the last obstacle standing in your way to becoming a full-fledged lawyer, able to give advice and to represent clients before court. That immense power and responsibility will only become available to you if you pass this exam, so take it seriously and embrace the challenge. You will be handsomely rewarded at the end.
What resources should I take with me to the exam?
Remember: you are the one who is best able to assess what resources you will need to navigate this exam. Without making that assessment, you may feel overwhelmed with the exam, and you will get bogged down in minute details while missing the bigger picture.
Having said that, I think there are a few key resources one should have on exam day:
a) Timer sheet
I put this resource as the top one for a reason. Even if you don’t know what the exam questions will look like, you now that there are a lot of questions – potentially 240 MCQ questions over the span of 7 hours. That works out to an average maximum of 1 minute and 45 seconds spent on each question, and that’s assuming you won’t need time to go back and review them. This makes the exam almost entirely dependent on how you manage your time. If you cannot manage your ability to move through the exam at an efficient pace and diligently, you will put yourself at a serious disadvantage.
A timer sheet is essentially a breakdown of which question you should be on based on the time left in the exam. For example, if you have 120 questions in the first 3.5 hour chunk of the exam, this sheet will tell you which question you should be on at various intervals (e.g. you should be on question 60 when there is 1 hour and 45 minutes left on the clock). This might seem unnecessary and straightforward, but it makes time management as simple as looking at the clock and the sheet, instead of wasting time figuring out how much time you have left for each question. It also gives you a sense of how well you’re doing on the exam: if you’re ahead of where you should be at a certain interval, it may mean you’re doing well on this exam, or at least have extra time to revisit some of the more difficult questions at the end.
b) Detailed table of contents
Personally, I am a fan of using the detailed table of contents as your navigational tool for this exam (for more on this, see Part I where I talk about studying the index). The nice thing about this tool is that it is already provided to you with the materials you receive from the LSUC. It is short, organized in a relatively straightforward manner, and gives you a sense of which section you should be turning to in order to find your answer.
But even if you don’t use this tool and would prefer to use indices instead, I would still recommend that you keep this tool with you. It might become a useful map to turn to should your indices fail to help you.
c) Summary sheets
This is simply a fancy term I use to describe graphs or diagram sheets. They become especially useful when you’re answering questions about an area of law you are not familiar with or interested in. For example, I used summary sheets to describe the general pattern of a criminal law case, beginning with pre-trial procedures and ending with sentencing. I found it helpful for me to refer to whenever I was faced with a question that required an understanding of the context.
For example, in criminal law and procedure, there may be certain aspects of the question that are unspoken, but should be understood based on the stage of the proceeding or the charge laid against the accused. The question may ask how many days can the police hold an accused charged with an indictable offence before they have to give him an automatic bail hearing. If you have a well-constructed summary chart, you will know that bail hearings are not granted automatically for some indictable offences, and that the accused has to bring the request for bail himself. Having a well-constructed summary sheet can help you situate the question in the procedural aspect of the law, and can help you eliminate obviously wrong answers before seeking the correct answer.
d) Mind maps
This is similar to the summary sheets I describe above, but with a key difference. Mind maps should cover the entire scope of the subject matter, and not just the procedural aspects. For example, a summary chart for criminal law may cover key components of bail deadlines, sentencing options and investigative powers, but will not cover things like considerations to take in youth criminal justice, Aboriginals, and Controlled Drugs and Substances Act violations. You can expect to face questions on these topics, but not to the same extent as procedural questions. Therefore, keeping them on a separate sheet will help you keep the summary sheet more focused on what you can expect to face more often, while the mind map will give you an overall picture.
Indices are certainly a recommended tool for these exams, regardless of whether you choose to make them your primary or secondary navigational tool. That’s because an index can help you locate a very specific key word or sentence in the materials that your other navigational tools may have missed, and you may find one or two questions like that on the exams. Furthermore, indices have a strong “safety net” role to play in the psychology of the exam: having your indices prepared and ready to go provide you with a peace of mind that helps you focus on the content of the exam. Although they may take up precious time and money to prepare, print and bind, having them ready may help you get those few questions that stump you, and keep your momentum on exam day going.
Tune in next week for Part III, where I discuss what the exam questions may look like, and how you can tackle some of the questions. Good luck with your studies!