Advice for the Bar Examinee
by: PROF. MANUEL R. RIGUERA
As a law professor, bar reviewer, and bar exam coach, I’ve put together some advice and tips for those taking or about to take the bar examination. I hope that they will prove of some help to the examinee who aspires to hurdle one of the toughest bar examinations in the planet.
BEFORE THE BAR EXAM
READ MATERIALS ON HOW TO PREPARE FOR AND PASS THE BAR EXAM. The bar exam is not a matter to take lightly. So reading materials on how to prepare for and to pass the bar will greatly increase your chances of seeing your name inscribed in the bar exam hall of fame. You can bring these materials as light reading to your three-day vacation after law school graduation. When I prepared for the 1991 bar, I read a well-worn pamphlet by Prof. Jose Nolledo on how to study for and pass the bar. I also read a booklet by Commissioner Regalado Maambong on the bar examination. The two booklets served me well by giving practical advice on how to prepare for the bar and how to avoid costly mistakes during the preparation and the actual taking of the bar. Unfortunately it seems both booklets are out of print.
Bar Blues written by Ma. Tanya Karina Lat, Maria Gracia Gamez, Romel Bagares, and Marlon Anthony Tonson is one good book on bar exam preparation which I highly recommend. Slaying the Bar Exam Dragon by Dean Rufus Rodriguez is another book which I would advise you to read.
TELL YOUR FAMILY THAT YOU ARE IN THE BATTLE OF YOUR LIFE. The bar examination is the toughest professional-admission examination in the country and one of the toughest bar examinations in the world. Your family may not be aware of this and may make inordinate demands on your time and attention. Tell them that the pass rate for the bar is on average about 20%-30% and that you have a massive amount of reading material to wade through. In Jurists, we have a “caregivers” seminar wherein we advise the examinees’ families and friends of the difficulty of the bar examination and the need to give understanding and support to the examinee during the bar review and examination period.
PREPARE AND ORGANIZE YOUR REVIEW MATERIALS. Prepare your list of reviewers after your graduation and buy those that you do not have. Get the opinion of professors and last year’s bar examinees as they are the best judges of law reviewers and can give you the pros and cons of a particular reviewer.
As for the copious annotations or comments that you used as textbooks during your first 3 years in law school, consult them only when you want to clear up something which you cannot understand from your reviewer. In short, avoid reading them as much as possible. If you have to transfer residence in order to review, I suggest you don’t lug them with you anymore. They will just clutter up your study area and have a distracting effect.
PREPARE A BAR REVIEW SCHEDULE. A bar-review schedule is your road-map to navigating the six months of bar review. When you are enrolled in a bar review center, synchronize your schedule with the bar review center’s schedule otherwise you will not be reviewing effectively. In this regard, choose a bar review center wherein there is a topical continuity in the schedule, that is, where one particular bar exam subject is discussed at a time before proceeding to another bar exam subject. Avoid bar review centers with a “mish-mash” schedule where for example negotiable instruments is discussed on one day, the labor relations in the next day, and civil procedure in the day after next.
My advice is that you study one bar exam subject before going to another. Some advise reviewing one subject in the first half of the day (say remedial law) and then another (say commercial law) in the second half of the day. The avowed purpose is to minimize boredom. I think this sacrifices focus and effectiveness just to add variety. One must simply have the self-discipline and drive to study one bar subject at a time.
A rule of thumb in dividing your study time is to multiply the number of days available for review with the weight given to a particular bar examination subject. Assume that you have 130 days allocated for your review (April to August excluding Sundays). Political law has a weight of 15%. 130 days multiplied by 15% will give you 19 days. So you allocate 19 days more or less for political law.
In your review schedule, the last bar subjects that you should study should be labor law and then political law. This will enhance the effectiveness of your review since political law and labor law are the bar exam subjects you will tackle on the first Sunday.
In your daily study schedule, your wake-up time should be at 4:30 a.m. and lights out should be at 9pm. This is to make your body clock adjust to this schedule so that by October, you would be used to sleeping early and waking up early.
ENROLL IN A BAR REVIEW CENTER. There are advantages and disadvantages to enrolling in a bar review center. Among the perceived disadvantages are the increased costs, which include the enrollment fee, the transportation and food costs, and accommodation costs for those who reside in the provinces. Also quite some time is spent in preparing and dressing up and in going to and from the bar review center.
Despite these considerations, I strongly recommend that a bar examinee enroll in a bar review center. A law graduate does not have the degree of knowledge of the bar subject and the intuitive feel for what are the important topics and probable bar exam questions which an experienced bar review lecturer has. Also a bar review center provides case and statutory updates, which because of time limitations, is often not provided by law schools.
Take note that law and jurisprudence is in a constant state of flux and what you thought may have been good law last year or even last month may no longer be so. Recent developments affect the law as a whole and not just specific or isolated provisions. Hence these should not be taught or learned in a truncated or isolated manner but should be imparted to the reviewee in a holistic manner, that is, seamlessly woven into a bar review subject as an integral element thereof. Only a seasoned bar lecturer, with his experience and intuitive feel of the law, is capable of performing this challenging feat. A bar reviewee who relies on past review material and simply tries to incorporate “updates” into his study is playing with fire.
CHOOSE YOUR BAR REVIEW CENTER WISELY. There are three important things which you should take into account in choosing a bar review center: The line-up of lecturers, the schedule, and the existence of a coaching or mentoring program.
The line-up of lecturers is important. Get the line-up and study this carefully. In appraising the line-up, get the opinion of successful bar examinees and your law professors. Word usually gets around among the bar reviewees and the law academe about the outstanding and the mediocre lecturers. Pay special attention to the lecturers in the subjects in which you feel you are weak.
The schedule is also of capital importance. Some bar review centers draw their schedule based on the availability of the lecturers rather than on topical continuity. As previously stated, avoid bar review centers where the schedule involves unrelated subjects being discussed one after the other. This will greatly undercut the effectiveness of your study.
If you have taken the bar more than three times, ensure that your bar review center is run by a recognized law school or that it has an accreditation agreement with one. The Supreme Court will not admit you to the bar examination unless you get a certification from such a bar review center.
TAKE MOCK BAR EXAMS AND AVAIL OF THE SERVICES OF A BAR-EXAM COACH. Another thing to look out for is if the bar review center provides for a coaching program. The program should not be limited to the mere administration of mock bar exams, but should provide for one-on-one coaching wherein a coach reads and evaluates the examinee’s answers and then sits down and discusses the same with the examinee, seeking to identify the examinee’s strong and weak points, to remedy the latter, to coach the examinee on how to read and answer the bar exam questions, and in general to improve and maximize the examinee’s test-taking abilities.
Analyzing and answering bar exam questions is not a matter of gut feel or intuition. The examinee who thinks that it is enough to just read and attend lectures when preparing for the bar is taking a huge risk. A bar-exam coach or mentor would be most invaluable in helping the examinee develop the skill and confidence to answer whatever set of questions may be thrown at him by his inquisitors.
The new changes introduced in the 2011 and 2012 Bar exams underscore the importance of coaching and training. The new bar format employs three kinds of examinations: (1) MCQs, (2) essay or problem-type tests, and (3) performance test (trial memorandum). Look for a coaching program that trains the examinee to handle all three types of exams.
FOCUS ON THE FUNDAMENTALS IN YOUR BAR REVIEW. The key is not really studying more but studying smart. It is simply impossible to read during the five short months of review the entire code provisions of a law much less the texts or annotations thereon. Besides some code provisions and comments are unimportant for purposes of the bar and are seldom if ever asked in the bar.
During your review, you need to use only the following three materials: a bar reviewer, the code provisions, and the bar review materials provided by the bar review center. In reading the code provisions, do not read the entire code but only those which are important. You know a code provision is important if it was discussed by your professor or bar review lecturer or mentioned in your bar reviewer.
A useful supplement to your reviewer is the Lex Pareto Notes written by Zigfred Diaz, Maria Patricia Katrina de Guia, Alrey Ouano, Louella Matsumoto, Ma. Salud Barillo, Danell Fernandez, Nolito Dayanan, and Helenytte Yu. This is a breakthrough work wherein the authors, applying the Pareto Principle to the field of bar exam review and forecasting, have found that approximately 80% of the bar exam questions are derived from 20% of the law. The authors have pinpointed this 20% of the law on which the reviewee should spend 80% of his study time thus optimizing the effectiveness of his review.
Regarding the MCQs, there are also several works available which will supplement your review. I recommend the MCQ Bar Reviewer series by the Philippine Association of Law Schools and also the Rex MCQ Project.
Many reviewees ask me if they should also read the survey of bar exam questions and answers by the U.P.LawCenter. My answer is that they should not. The Q&As are good bar exam materials but not for the reviewees themselves but for bar review lecturers, law professors, and the bar-ops members. These people have the expertise and/or time to sift through the material, organize them, edit and update them, and use them in forecasting bar exam questions and perceiving trends in the bar exams. Leave this job to these people and do not do it yourself.
The UP Bar Q&As are organized not according to specific topics but to a much broader classification based on the bar exam subject and the year in which it was given. The reviewee who tries to read the Q&As from beginning to end may be a little confused for the questions in Remedial Law, for instance, would shift from civil procedure, to evidence, to criminal procedure, and then to special proceedings. For another, the answers to previous years’ bar questions may no longer be correct and need to be updated in the light of current law and jurisprudence. A bar reviewee might be confused and even misled by the answers given for past years’ exams.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR HEALTH AND FITNESS. Remember to exercise daily or at least three times a week. Exercising improves blood circulation to the brain and makes one study and think more sharply. It also builds up one’s resistance to sickness and infection and improves one’s stamina. Remember that the bar exam is a grueling 4-hour exam during the morning and 3-hour one during the afternoon.
Get enough sleep. Six to seven hours sleep daily is advised. Lack of sleep will result in drowsiness and sluggishness when studying, aside from making us susceptible to sickness or fatigue.
IMPROVE YOUR HANDWRITING. Handwriting is of capital importance in the essay exams and the trial memorandum exam. Your answers may all be correct but if your handwriting is illegible all your hard work will go down the drain. If your handwriting is difficult to read, the examiner will most probably not take the time to decipher your booklet, taking into consideration that he has five thousand other booklets to read.
You may think that your handwriting is legible, but actually it may not be. Take a mock bar examination and show your booklet to another person and have him read it. You may be surprised to find that your handwriting is actually difficult to read. If that is the case, work on improving your handwriting.
DURING OCTOBER AND THE BAR EXAM
AVOID UNNECESSARY STRESS AND DISTRACTIONS. Some stress and nerves is unavoidable during the review and exam week and in fact helps to drive you harder in your studies. However undue and excessive stress and nerves is an enemy of the bar examinee as it results in a lack of sleep and hinders proper thinking both while studying and taking the exam itself. If you feel that you are unduly stressed or worried, learn relaxation techniques like yoga and deep breathing. Prayer and meditation are powerful relaxation techniques.
Learning to face and accept the possibility of failure also serves to relax us and unburden us of pressure. When I was reviewing for the bar, my prayer to God was not for me to pass the bar but that God should enlighten my mind and strengthen my body so that I would be able to give my best during the bar exam. I told myself that there is no shame in not passing the bar just so long as I give my best and that should I be fated not to pass the bar, there are other worthwhile endeavors that I could pursue in life. When I learned to face and accept the possibility of failure, I found that I was relaxed and serene when I was reviewing and when I was taking the bar. I believe that this is a better attitude than one in which the examinee cannot accept the possibility of failure or views it with such dread as he would the end of the world. The result is that the examinee cannot study and think well and his sleep is interrupted by nightmares of not being able to answer most of the bar exam questions.
I am reminded of the Book of the Five Rings in which the samurai warrior is taught to consider himself dead when he is in a swordfight. The samurai warrior thus fights with serenity and equanimity since he has nothing more to lose.
Ignore or don’t mind useless distractions. Usually rumors of who the examiner is become widespread during this time and examinees worry themselves silly with the type of questions the rumored examiner usually asks and with obtaining notes and materials written by or about the rumored examiner. This is just a useless exercise which would distract you from doing what should be done: studying. All examiners are in the main bound by an unwritten law that their questions should be on the basics of the law and on significant jurisprudence. So just ignore the question of who the examiner might be and stick your nose to your review materials.
The bar exam month features the annual frenetic paper chase by bar examinees. Examinees go on a quest for the Holy Grail of the bar exams: the red or blue notes from San Beda or Ateneo or the UP notes. These notes are supposed to embody the answers or even “leaks” of bar exam questions. This is balderdash. I graduated from Ateneo and worked in the bar-ops. I know that the so-called blue notes are simply compilations of probable bar questions with answers prepared by law students with a little assistance from the faculty. While they are definitely helpful, you don’t need to wail and grind your teeth if you do not get them. What is contained in the blue notes is more often than not also in your bar reviewers and review materials.
One examinee spent a lot more time looking for notes, tips, and leaks rather than studying. He failed the bar five times and is now exploring career opportunities with the CIA and the KGB.
GET ENOUGH SLEEP ON THE NIGHT BEFORE THE EXAM. This advice cannot be overemphasized. Adequate sleep makes the mind sharper and allows us to recall what we have studied with facility. So do not make the mistake of studying until midnight. The extra hours of study is not worth it if you find yourself sleepy and thinking sluggishly during the bar exam.
You should hit the sack by 9pm. Do not panic if you find that you are unable to sleep. Just relax and continue lying in bed, at least your body will be rested. But do not make the mistake of standing up and studying. In that case you will lack both sleep and rest, and the chances of a disaster are multiplied threefold. Ron de Vera slept for only an hour the night before the first Sunday exam and for only 30 minutes the night before the second Sunday exam of 2004. He placed second. (Lat et al., Bar Blues, p. 85). Of course I’m not saying that you get only an hour’s sleep if you want to place in the top ten, what I’m saying is that there is no need for you to call 911 if you find yourself unable to fall into the arms of Morpheus.
I advise against taking sleeping pills. They often have the side effect of muddling up your thinking. There was an examinee who, finding himself unable to sleep the night before the Civil Law exam, popped a sleeping pill. He was able to sleep all right, but the next day he found himself unable to distinguish between loco parentis and crazy momma.
REMEMBER TO FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS. Before you start reading and answering the questions, take the time to first read and understand the instructions. Quite a few examinees in their eagerness go straight to reading and answering the questions without bothering to read the instructions. This could be disastrous. Keep in mind that there will be different instructions for the three types of exams.
NEVER LEAVE ANY QUESTION UNANSWERED. Even if you are totally clueless as to the answer to a question, give it your best try. Never leave any question unanswered. The examiner may feel slighted if you do not answer a question. He may think that you felt that the question was not properly phrased that is why did not answer it. Moreover a blank response will get you zero while giving it your best shot could net you 2 or 3 points which could spell the difference between flunking and passing.
In the MCQ exam, remember that a wrong answer will not result in a deduction. The MCQ exam does not follow the “right-minus-wrong” rule. Hence do not leave any MCQ unanswered, since you have at least a 25% chance of picking the correct answer.
MANAGE YOUR TIME WISELY. Many examinees spend too much time on the first part of the exam and thus find themselves rushing through the second part or worse running out of time and leaving some questions unanswered. Learn to pace yourself properly. Taking mock bar exams will help you learn how to pace yourself in a 18 to 20 question examination.
DO NOT BE FLUSTERED BY “SCREWBALL” QUESTIONS. Those who do took the 1991 Bar Examination (like me) will never forget the infamous first question in Political Law: “What is the writ of amparo? Discuss its constitutional basis.” Considering that almost all of us examinees could not tell the difference between this writ and Ms. Amparo Munoz, the question had the effect of a sneak punch to the solar plexus. I can still picture in my mind the bar exam room at MLQU, everyone was too shocked to say anything but you could see the shock in everyone’s faces.
I was shell-shocked and absolutely flabbergasted. For about seven minutes, I just sat there, unable to think or write anything down. Eventually I was able to steady my nerves by thinking that if I found the question befuddling, quite a few others also probably did. I wrote down something about the writ having to do with the enforcement of civil rights and being of Latin American origin, which I vaguely remembered from some obscure news item in the Manila Bulletin about a speech of Chief Justice Marcelo Fernan.
Other “screwball” questions include one which asked who the current president of the International Court of Justice was, one which asked for the meaning of the acronym ACID (from a speech of Chief Justice Artemio V. Panganiban), and another which asked the examinee to define the Denicola test in intellectual property law.
Such kinds of questions are not really expected to be answered correctly by the majority of the examinees (and even law professors) but are meant more to test the resolve and fortitude of one who aspires to be a lawyer. Do not panic or lose hope if you do not know the answer to the question. Just give it your best try and proceed to the other questions.
AFTER THE EXAM
DO NOT DISCUSS THE ANSWERS TO THE QUESTIONS. After you have taken a bar exam in a particular subject, forget about it and concentrate on preparing and studying for the next bar exam subject. After all you cannot undo what you have already written. Avoid discussing the probable answers and avoid people who delight in discussing them. The time spent on arguing and discussing the probable answers is best spent for relaxing and studying for the next exam. Even if you feel from the discussion that you’ve answered correctly, what good would it do you other than giving you a little confidence or morale boost? And if you discover that you’ve answered incorrectly, it would just be bad for your morale and could cause depression or panic, which is the last thing you need. Besides you might be surprised to know that in not a few cases, law professors and bar examiners differ as to the right answer to a question, so don’t worry your head off that you’ve blown the exam. I know of many cases where an examinee felt that he did poorly in a particular exam and what happened was that he got a high grade in it. Conversely many examinees had felt they did well in an exam but their grades turned out to be mediocre. So don’t pay undue attention to how you feel about an exam.