The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is the new set of assessments that all aspiring solicitors have to pass to qualify in England and Wales. It consists of the SQE1, testing functioning legal knowledge (SQE FLK1 and SQE FLK2), and SQE2, assessing practical legal skills. Both assessments are made up of two parts, the SQE1 requiring you to find the single best answer in multiple choice scenarios over a period of two days, and SQE2 stretches over 5 days and tests you orally and in writing.
While the SRA website contains quite a lot of information on what is expected of candidates, you are pretty much left alone when it comes to how to achieve the required level of knowledge.
There are many reasons to opt for one of the SQE course providers rather than rely on SQE self-study, ranging from book recommendations to the provision of lectures and study notes to mock sessions under exam conditions. Some tutors have taken the exam themselves and can give valuable advice on the procedure.
Whatever the chosen path, the actual studying will be left to you. To successfully complete the SQE route, it is therefore important to learn effectively and master the various subjects.
The Basics – understand your brain
To become an effective learner and make the most out of any SQE training programme or SQE self-study, it is vital to understand how the brain works. There are plenty of brilliant articles from a neuroscience perspective on the internet, that you may dive into for a more scientific explanation. Simplified, the brain’s working memory is very limited which is why you want to move important information into your long-term memory. This requires some effort to ensure it’s stored properly and can be retrieved at any time, especially in the Solicitors Qualifying Exam.
The brain works in two different modes, that is the focussed mode, which is accessed when you really concentrate on something, and the diffused mode, when the mind runs free, in a relaxed state.
Both of these modes are vital for your SQE training. Every period of concentration must be followed by a certain amount of unconscious processing. It’s essentially a back and forth of focussed studying and disengaging.
Do ask yourself when your mind is relaxing and actively seek these activities after a period of concentrated learning. Sports are a great way for many people to access the diffused mode. Or try dog walking, cooking, gardening or whatever else lets your mind wonder.
Likewise, a good night sleep is incredibly important for effective learning. It allows the brain to get rid of harmful toxins and process what was learned during the day. Dreaming of your SQE training can help you understand the subject and progress on your SQE route.
Procrastination – deal with it successfully
Everybody struggles with hard tasks and the Solicitors Qualifying Exam certainly is one. This is because hard tasks cause stress and anxiety, which leads the brain to switch to something comforting to give you short-term satisfaction. However, once the guilt sets in you feel worse.
To get you going with your SQE training, set a timer for a period of just 20-30 minutes. Turn off all devices and ban distractions to be able to focus uninterrupted. Multi-tasking is your enemy. Remember, your working memory is limited and you don’t want to occupy the space with information that doesn’t bring you any closer to your goal. Once the time is up, reward yourself.
It is important to focus on the process, those 20-30 minute sessions, rather than the required end result. Make a list with tasks that can be accomplished even on busy days and always plan down time. Your SQE course provider can only give you rough timelines. Ultimately, you are the master of your schedule. Trust that you will progress and once you get better in any subject, it gets more enjoyable too.
Persistence – build healthy habits
Persistence is key. It takes time to strengthen the connections in the brain and keep knowledge for longer. As your working memory can hold only a limited amount of information, it is important to revisit what you are trying to learn several times to move it into the long-term memory and be able to access it at any time. It is therefore important to stretch your learning over an appropriate period rather than trying to cram everything in the night before the exam. Just like with sports, you won’t get good at anything in a day or two. Every good SQE preparation course provider will incorporate this need for time in their SQE training programme.
Make appointments with yourself. Don’t just wait until you have time, that won’t happen. Instead, deliberately take time and make a plan. Ideally, you create large blocks of time. If you’ve worked on unrelated subjects at work, you might not have enough space in your working memory to progress in your studies on that day. Weekends are therefore ideal. Try to be consistent in times and place as this may help your memory to get back into it. Make sure your plan distributes time across subjects. While the learning process is slower, the retention rate is higher. SQE course providers will normally switch between subjects to aid your learning. And, of course, always plan sufficient breaks.
Stay open to restructure if your plan doesn’t work. Likewise, it’s important to be kind to yourself if there is no progress one day. It’s normal to go through phases and have some set backs on your SQE route, at times experience confusion about what you previously understood.
If you can’t answer a question, move on to the next and come back later. If you had a bad day, just leave it for a moment and look forward to the next day.
Do’s and Dont’s – understand what aids learning
Beware to fool yourself into believing that you learnt something by applying minimal effort. Highlighting or underlining text passages doesn’t mean you thought it through. Rereading doesn’t enhance your understanding.
Instead, try to understand the rationale behind concepts, the “why”, by applying the knowledge you already have. Look through the headings of a book before actually reading it. This can help to get the big picture. Recall right after reading a chapter by simply looking away and trying to explain the key ideas in your own words. Rewrite the information by hand into brief questions on flashcards to test yourself later. Retrieving knowledge is the most beneficial to boost long-term memory and simultaneously reveals your weaknesses so you know what to focus on. Every good SQE preparation course provider will incorporate retrieval practice in their SQE training. When testing yourself, put aside the flash cards that were answered correctly and retry the unsuccessful ones. It is important to practice what you find difficult rather than repeating what you already know. Then mix the cards up, repeat later in the day and again the next day, increasing the space between sessions.
Practice is vital and a big chunk of SQE training programs will be dedicated to practice sessions. To gain context, practice with related and unrelated problems to understand when a concept applies and when it doesn’t. Explain what you learned to others. If you can teach others, you have mastered the material. Practice under exam conditions in the exact time you will be given, without checking answers or any other help.
Make the mistake. Memories of errors foster faster learning. It will help you to get rid of any mistakes in your thinking before the exam.
Study groups may also be beneficial as everyone has blind spots that the others could reveal. However, it is important to ensure that everyone in the group is serious about learning and focussed.
SQE – cope with the exams
If you are an anxious test taker, it is important to practice calming procedures to be able to resort to them on exam days. Whenever you are anxious, practice breathing to calm yourself down. Perhaps download a meditation app and get in the habit of practice. Switch your mindset and tell yourself that you are excited to demonstrate your knowledge rather than getting hung up on being afraid. Develop a mantra for positive thoughts.
If you get stuck on a problem in the Solicitors Qualifying Exam, switch to something else and come back to the problem later. There is not much time in the exam and this allows you to answer the other parts while your brain works in a more relaxed mode. Likewise, don’t get hung up on a bad day in the SQE series of test days. Be kind to yourself and move on.