Understanding the bar exam curve

Use your percentile rank during bar prep to pass your U.S. bar exam

The key to passing the bar is knowing just enough about enough areas of law

Effective bar exam study centers on building a broad and shallow base of knowledge of many subjects. To pass the bar, you don’t have to be an expert on any of the subjects tested. You need to know just enough about enough areas of the law to land on the passing side of the bar exam curve. The key to understanding where you are on the bar exam curve before you actually take the bar exam is knowing your percentile rank.

An incoming law student researches the bar exam curve

A few extra points on the bar exam is significant

The bar exam curve is very real. Check out the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) National Scaled Score Distribution charts published by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) for 2019, 2020 and 2021. MBE score results consistently follow a bell curve pattern for every single bar exam administration.


Source: The Bar Examiner

A few students have a very high MBE scaled score and some have a very low scaled score. Most bar takers fall right in the middle, within a few points of each other. In most U.S. states, your MBE score makes up 50% of your overall bar exam score and the other exam components are weighted to the MBE.

All this really means is that the MBE portion of the exam is significant to your overall score in almost all U.S. states, and that many people who fail the bar exam do so by just a few points. In other words, just a few additional points can tip many bar takers into the “passing zone.”

BARBRI has studied the MBE since it debuted in 1972. The best bar exam passing strategy starts by understanding the bar exam curve and tracking your percentile rank during bar prep.

How percentile rank factors into bar prep

The bar exam can cover a ton of information. How can you measure if you’re doing well enough in enough areas before taking the actual bar exam?

First, select a bar prep provider that is preparing the majority of students sitting for your exam, so you can get valid percentile rank information. Then, monitor your percentile rank, by subject, throughout your course and make adjustments to your studies as you progress.

Monitoring your percentile rank by subject will help you identify areas in which you are strong relative to your peers and those that need more work. This strategy will keep you from spending too much time in areas you are already proficient enough to pass and will push you to build up your weaker spots.

The bar exam pass rate is typically between 60-80% depending on your bar exam state. That means that 20-40% of people who sit for that bar exam do not pass. As you watch your percentile rank, your goal is to be approximately in the 30th-40th percentile or higher in each subject as you progress in your studies. That’s how you know you’re doing well enough in enough areas.

How to increase your percentile rank

Once you identify subjects in which you are scoring in the 40th percentile or lower, you want to return to those subjects. Re-watch portions of the lecture, consult the Conviser Mini Review or dive into your outlines if necessary. Consider using a different study tool than what you chose initially. Mixing up your bar prep learning activities can help the information sink in differently and has been proven to raise scores.

Don’t miss the BARBRI Simulated MBE

A few weeks before your actual bar exam, you’ll have the opportunity to take the BARBRI Simulated MBE. This exam mentally and physically prepares you for the real thing. In fact, just experiencing the BARBRI Simulated MBE statistically increases your chances of passing your bar exam.

After completing the simulation, you will receive a Pass Predictor score report broken down by MBE topic and subtopic. This insightful report shows your overall percentile rank and where you sit on the bar exam curve compared to everyone else preparing for the same exam.

You can then take this valuable feedback--along with your remaining study time--to focus on the areas that need your attention most. And that strategy gives you the greatest chance of succeeding come exam day.

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