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Bar Admissions & Exam

Taking the Bar as an International Student

Ammar Saed Aldien

Taking the Bar as an International Student

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I was excited to get a place in the international legal studies program at NYU, where I aimed to complete my LL.M. As an international student, of course, I faced a series of unique challenges. Then, the pandemic rolled in, making things even more complicated.

Because of the pandemic, I did not stay in the country. Though I had lived in Qatar for several years before my time at NYU—and even received my JD at Hamad Bin Khalifa University through a program partnership with Northwestern Pritzker School of Law—I am a Canadian resident. As borders shut down and international students were going back to their home countries, Canada was the only place I could go where I had access to health care. Then there were the other pandemic-related challenges. The bar was rescheduled repeatedly—imagine studying, thinking you were finally ready to go, and then finding out that the date had been pushed out again! Also, the bar was administered online for the first time, with online proctoring that no one had used before.

Then, like most international students, I wasn’t entirely familiar with the US standardized testing system, which presented its own layer of difficulties.

Here’s the good thing: there are a lot of strategies you can use to help improve your odds of success when you take the bar, whether you take it during a pandemic or as the world goes back to normal—whatever that looks like.

Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

The bar is designed to stretch you to your limits. It’s a mental game—one that you need to learn how to be comfortable with as a lawyer. Get used to putting yourself in uncomfortable situations and get comfortable with acclimating to new mental environments. After all, plenty of uncomfortable situations will come up when you find your way to the courtroom.

As an international student, you already have a leg up on those uncomfortable situations. You learned how to adapt to a new country, a new language, and even new social norms. You need to take all those adaptive skills and apply them to the test ahead of you. Easier said than done, right?

Stay Cool and Collected

About 60 percent of the bar exam is knowledge-based. The other 40 percent is mental. If you panic, you’re not going to do well on the exam. Figure out cool-down strategies that work for you and handle the exam methodically and calmly. You will have to keep your cool, think on your feet, and stay logical in the courtroom. The bar is designed to replicate a percentage of that in a structured testing environment. You’ve already won half of the battle if you can keep your cool.

Allow Yourself Enough Time to Study

It’s easy to get in a hurry to take the bar. After all, it’s your ticket to the future! However, rushing into the test can leave you unprepared. My cohort had the highest pass rate of any previous cohort, probably because of all the time we had to study and prepare. Schedule your bar exam for when you’re ready to take it, rather than trying to rush in and get it done early. My cohort and I were scheduled to take the bar in July 2020, but we took it in October of that year. Many of my classmates took it months later, in February 2021, when they felt most ready. We all did well and achieved the scores we wanted. It may surprise you just how much easier it is to take the exam when you’ve had the time you needed to prepare for it.

Recreate the Actual Bar Exam Experience as Closely as You Can When You Practice

One of the best things I did in studying for the bar was to use the UWorld MBE Qbank. The platform puts together questions from previous bar exams, which meant that I got a look at questions that were asked in the past and could consider my answers in a lower-stress environment. In addition, the platform had similar tools available during the actual exam; I was able to cross out certain choices in a question, highlight keywords in a question stem, and flag questions I didn’t know. Finally, the Qbank provided detailed explanations and images that made it easier to grasp certain concepts.

Many students find that their grades go up the second time they take any standardized test, including the bar, because they better understand what to expect the second time. Instead of feeling stressed about what the exam will look like, students can focus on the individual questions, helping to raise scores. If you’re replicating that exam experience in your practice, you won’t be stressed when you take it for the first time—and your score will likely be higher as a result.

Find People in Similar Situations and Study with Them

I used social media to connect with my classmates, which meant that we could study together virtually. I also found a group on Reddit that was dedicated to preparing for the bar as an international student and was able to study with those people regularly.

Working with other people in the same situation offers many advantages. First, you have someone else to collaborate with and dig into complex concepts, which can help you better understand them. Second, working with other people provides built-in accountability. When you’re on your own, it’s easy to justify not studying or not putting in your best effort—especially in the middle of a pandemic, when you’re not even sure when you will finally be able to take the test. When you’re working with other people, on the other hand, you’ve got that internal pressure to push yourself and to succeed. No one wants to admit to their peers that they haven’t done their part!

Taking the bar as an international student, especially during the middle of a pandemic, was an incredibly stressful experience—but it’s also one that will help shape the lawyer that I am in the future. My goal, from here, is to continue my work in human rights—and I hope that you’re able to reach your goals, too, whatever type of law you want to practice.