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What You Need to Succeed on the CA Bar Exam

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How to Handle a Racehorse

Posted by mcgeorgebarprep on June 12, 2016

Several graduates have expressed concern about how to handle “racehorse” essay questions (questions with more issues than it seems there is time to answer).  If you also struggle with racehorse questions, read on:

It may not be exactly what you want to hear, but the best way to improve at writing racehorse questions is to keep practicing.  Plan to simulate as many racehorse questions as practicable (often Evidence and Remedies, although other subjects qualify, depending on the fact patterns).  You’ll likely continue to struggle at first, but each time you simulate an exam in realistic conditions (timed, no outside resources, etc.), you improve your time management skills.  As you do, you also sharpen your understanding of the law — so you’re actually memorizing while you write.  Writing practice is great like that!

Here is a proven way to work with racehorses:

  • Keep the watch that you’ll use during the bar next to you, and set it at 12:00:00.  (Don’t have a reliable, analog, easy-to-read watch yet?  Borrow or buy one ASAP.  Usually there are no clocks in the exam room.)  Start it when you imagine the proctor telling you to begin.
  • Read the fact pattern at least three times:  (1) once as a quick overview, (2) once to make notes on the fact pattern, and (3) again to outline.  Outline your response by hand, stopping by 12:20. See this Outlining Chart if you’d like a template.  No matter what, remember that every outline should contain three (abbreviated) things:  issues, rules, and most importantly, lots of FACTS.  Almost every fact from the question should appear in your answer somewhere.
  • At no later than 12:20, pause to review your outline and consider weighting:  Generally, how much of the remaining 40 minutes will you use for each issue?  If you use the chart linked above, you will have a nice visual cue to help you (more facts will be associated with “heavier” issues that require more time).  Write those time allocations in the margins of your outline next to each issue.  Weighting only takes a minute or so, and it’s the most helpful strategy for applicants who run out of time — yet, sadly, it’s the step that most applicants omit.
  • Write your answer, sticking to your schedule.  You may adjust it slightly as you go, but keep your watch on the table next to you (not on your wrist) and remain constantly mindful of the time and weight of each issue.

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It still won’t feel like enough time, and it probably never will; that’s the nature of a racehorse question.  But following this plan will guarantee that you make it through everything and finish, even if it’s not perfect — which it does not have to be in order to pass.  As Voltaire wisely said, “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  Furthermore, the more you simulate using this method, the more information you’ll be able to fit into those weighted time blocks.

If you struggle with time management on PTs, the same advice applies.  Set your watch, take 90 minutes to outline effectively, weight your answer before beginning to write, and stick to your time allocations.  Here is a similar PT Outlining Chart, which includes reminders as to your tone (objective or persuasive), goal (what are you trying to achieve for your client?), and audience (opposing counsel/judge/supervising attorney/etc.) — vital points that stressed bar writers tend to forget.  Be sure to abbreviate in all of your outlines to save time, and remember that the “Facts” column is the most important and contains the most content.

Just keep practicing, and don’t be discouraged.  Everyone else taking the exam has the same amount of time that you have, and you’re not the only one who struggles with these types of questions.  It can be done, and you have the tools to do it!

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