7 things I wish I’d know when I took the bar exam

By Chris Nikitas, Esq., BARBRI Director of Legal Education

1) HOW TO GET TO THE LOCATION

I got turned around on exam morning. I didn’t know the city that well. Thankfully, I gave myself a large window to get there and made it on time. You’ll want to make a dry run. Drive to the city where you’ll take the bar exam. Start at the place you plan to spend the night before the exam at the approximate time you plan on leaving. See how long it takes. See where best to park, what traffic is like at that hour and how long it will take you to get to the exam room.

2) WHAT TO BRING

You can get away with bringing a lot of stuff into the exam room, provided it is in a plastic bag and off your desk. The person next to me had eye drops. The person in front of me had about 15 after dinner mints. But here are the essentials: black pen, ID, extension cord for your laptop (in case you’re far from an outlet), jacket, earplugs and analog watch.

3) WHAT THE BAR EXAM ROOM IS LIKE

It’s mostly bare aside from a timer, which may be situated pretty far from your spot in the room (hence the analog watch). Some rooms have water fountains or water coolers. Some have bathrooms inside the testing room. The room will be divided between the hand-writers and the laptop writers. It’s going to be cold (hence the jacket). Dress in layers. There’s also a good chance other conferences will be going on near the bar exam (hence the earplugs). When I took the exam, people outside our room started mowing the lawn.

4) HOW OFTEN TO CHECK THE CLOCK

Look up at the clock every 10-15 minutes. Process how much you have left in a section and get back to work. Be conscious of the time but not obsessed with it. There’s a timer in the corner of the room, counting down from three hours. An analog watch may be necessary, depending on your eyesight.

5) HOW TO AVOID “THE SNOWBALL EFFECT”

Emory University School of Law Associate Dean and long-time BARBRI lecturer Richard Freer once described to me what he called “the Snowball Effect.” Let’s say you have four essay questions, each with a suggested time of 45 minutes. You’re working on the first one. Not quite done at the 45-minute mark, you keep going an extra five minutes. On the second one, you go over again – closer to 10 minutes. Third one, another five minutes over. Now, you’re staring down at the last essay question with only 25 minutes remaining. Yikes.

Tell yourself that you’ll stop writing with five minutes to go to the suggested limit. Stop, look over your answer and make a few changes if you have to. At the suggested limit, move on.

6) HOW LUNCH WORKS

You’re let out after the first half of the exam and have usually around an hour until the next part. The proctors will tell you when you need to return. You’re not allowed to bring any food to the exam, but hopefully there’s some decent dining in the area. Things to consider though: What if you get bad/slow service? What if it’s busy? What if the only menu options will leave you feeling sluggish? My advice is to throw a PB&J, some chips, a banana and a Capri Sun in a bag and leave it in your car or hotel room. Yeah, it might get hot, but none of those things are going to spoil and will provide a rapid power lunch that won’t make you sleepy.

7) HOW TO AVOID PANIC

During the bar exam, I hit a wall. There was an essay question I had no idea how to answer. It was at that moment that every ounce of stress I’d endured for the past two months crushed me like an ant holding an elephant. I am going to fail. Who was I kidding? Ah, jeez, I have to find a whole new career. Are the Ghostbusters hiring?

In all likelihood, that moment will happen to you too. Just take a deep breath and look around that huge room. Everyone else is in there with you and they’re just as scared. Shake it off and do the very best you can.

As you may recall from law school, mulling over the exam after turning it in helps no one. You won’t remember the questions you nailed, just the questions where you know you were wrong. It’s easy to do after the bar exam, but there’s no sense in beating yourself up. Focus on what you still have in front of you and how to tackle it.

The fact of the matter is, most people pass the exam, and you’ll (probably) be just fine.

BONUS: WHERE TO FIND THE BEST BARS

Okay, that was a joke. Good luck!

Help! I’m only in the 30th percentile. Should I be worried?

By Mike Sims,
BARBRI President

Some of the most common inquiries I get this time of year are: “How many MBE questions should I be getting correct?” or “I only answered 54 percent of the torts questions correctly last night. Am I okay?” While these are both good questions, they are not the most important one to have.

The most important question in terms of your MBE prep is: “What is my percentile ranking?”

PERCENTAGE CORRECT IS NOT PERCENTILE RANK

The distinction between percentage correct and percentile ranking is one of the most important, as well as most confusing, aspects of bar preparation.

Percentage correct is the ratio of correct-to-incorrect answers in a particular set of questions. Percentile rank is a measure of how you are doing in comparison to everyone else – the same thing as class rank in law school.

LET’S DO SOME QUICK CALCULATIONS

To better understand this, imagine completing a set of 100 MBE practice questions and correctly answering 58 of them. Is that a good or bad score? You have to calculate percentile rank to figure that out.

Imagine there were 99 other students who worked that same set of MBE questions for a total group of 100 exam takers. Seventy answered more than 58 out of the 100 questions correctly. You answered 58 correctly. And 29 students got less than 58 correct. Translation: 70 percent of the higher-scoring test takers did better than you and you performed better than the other 29 percent. In other words, you were in the 30th percentile – better than the bottom 29 percent but lower than the top 70 percent.

THEN CONSIDER NATIONAL FIRST-TIME PASSING RATES

So is being in the 30th percentile good or bad? Pass rates do vary from state to state. According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, the average pass rate for first time bar takers from ABA accredited schools is 77 percent. This means the failure rate is 23 percent. Putting this in terms of percentile rankings, students who are in the bottom 23 percent – the 23rd percentile and below – do not pass the bar exam. Students in the top 77 percent – the 24th percentile and higher – pass the bar exam. With this national average measurement established, being in the 30th percentile is solidly in the passing zone.

WITH BARRBI, YOU KNOW WHERE YOU SIT ON THE CURVE

As a BARBRI student, you have a significant edge when it comes to calculating your percentile ranking. Your score on the BARBRI simulated MBE compares your performance by MBE topic and subtopic to tens of thousands of bar takers nationwide – the group you’ll be competing against on the bar exam. And our StudySmart MBE software gives you regularly updated percentile rankings each day. As a BARBRI student you really will know where you sit on the bar exam’s curve before you take it.

Over the next few weeks, you’ll work many more MBE practice questions and you’ll have a lot of chances to improve your MBE score. Between now and then, keep your eye on the right number – the percentile ranking.