U.S. bar exam study tips
How should you study for the bar exam? Some bar exam learning strategies from BARBRI, the bar prep experts
As you approach studying for the bar exam, you’ll likely come across all kinds of “quick fix” advice, which often sounds something like this: “to pass the bar exam, all you really need to do is (fill-in-the-blank here).” Now that you are a trained critical thinker, hopefully any bar exam study advice that begins with, “all you have to do is …” immediately triggers suspicion. As the saying goes, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
At BARBRI, we’ve heard everything when it comes to bar exam study and learning strategies –“you only need this book” … “you only need to work 2,000 multiple-choice questions” … “work X flashcards non-stop” … the list goes on and on.
For any significant achievement like passing the bar exam, there is no simple, one-size-fits-all shortcut. Passing the bar exam is hard and it requires considerable effort, but there are some general study tips and learning strategies that will increase your likelihood of passing the bar exam, the first time.
Study broad for the bar exam, not deep
In law school, students who know the most about a subject are typically those who achieve the highest grades on final exams. A detailed, thorough understanding of the course material is the goal of every top law student. This is not so when it comes to studying for the bar exam. In fact, using this same approach to study for your bar exam can actually be hurtful.
Effective bar exam study and learning strategies are built on a base of knowledge that is wide and shallow rather than narrow and deep. To pass the bar, you don’t have to reach a level of authority on any of the subjects tested. You simply need to know just enough, about enough areas of the law, to land on the passing side of the bar exam curve.
Also, just because something CAN be tested on the bar exam doesn’t mean it’s likely to be tested. To ensure you’re spending your bar exam study time where it matters most, you’ll want to select a bar prep partner that knows what is most likely to be tested, and primarily focuses your time and energy in those areas.
Measure what matters as you study for the bar
Everyone who takes the bar exam knows it’s “pass/fail” based on the cut score established by each U.S. state and jurisdiction. Yet, few bar takers truly consider the implications that “pass/fail” will have on their bar exam preparation.
Most people are pre-conditioned to define success in terms of grades and percentage correct – “I got a 9 out of 10 right, or 90 percent.” However, striving to achieve an “A” in any one area will not help you land on the right side of the bar exam curve and pass. Studying to get an “A” in specific subjects can actually distract you and undermine an effective bar prep strategy.
So how do you know if you’re doing well enough, in enough areas, during your bar study to ultimately pass your exam? The key is to track the number of practice questions you’re getting correct, in each subject, in comparison to everyone else also preparing to take the bar exam. This is your percentile rank.
Your goal is to be at the 40th percentile or above in each subject. That’s the best way to ensure that you are doing well enough, in enough areas, to ultimately pass your bar exam. Remember, the key is broad, not deep.
Approach the MBE systematically
Achieving a strong score on the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) is not about avoiding tricks and traps. BARBRI has helped students pass the MBE since it was first administered in 1972 and, once upon a time, this exam did have a well-deserved reputation as being tricky. There were bar exam questions that required leaps of logic through double-conditional hoops. Today, the MBE is much fairer and more straightforward.
During the MBE, you’ll answer 200 multiple-choice questions administered in two separate 3-hour sessions – 100 questions in the morning, 100 questions in the afternoon. That’s an average of 1.8 minutes spent per MBE question, which requires a repeatable, systematic methodology.
At BARBRI, we have found it best to treat MBE bar exam questions like essay questions – albeit short ones with the answers already provided – with this approach:
- Cover the answer choices to avoid distraction and first read the call of the question, so you can determine the subject being tested and the issue you are answering.
- If the call of the question isn’t specific enough, read the sentence just above for more guidance.
- Now, read the entire question in light of the issue being tested. Use the facts – and the law associated with them – to mentally formulate your own answer to the question. (Note: You’re still not looking at the answer choices.)
- Then predict the correct answer and look for the answer choice that best matches your predicted answer.
This systematic problem-solving method ensures that you focus on the actual problem to solve and reduces the risk of being distracted by details that may ultimately be irrelevant to the call of the question. Additionally, coming to your own conclusion first and then matching the best answer provided will increase your confidence in what you’ve selected, allowing you to move more quickly through each question.
Don’t wait to develop your bar exam writing skills
We often hear that students hold back on bar exam practice essays during bar review because they feel they need to know all the rules of the law before they submit a practice essay. We strongly recommend not doing this.
The written portion of the bar exam is important to your overall score in every state. In some, greater scoring weight is placed on the essays as compared to the MBE. Download the BARBRI Bar Exam Digest for bar exam scoring information for your state/jurisdiction.
Essay writing for the bar exam is different than the final exams you experienced in law school. It’s an acquired skill you must strengthen. For example, on most bar exam essays, there’s actually a “right” answer. Also, to maximize your point potential on bar exam essays, you’ll need to provide an answer to the call of the question in the format the bar examiners want and expect to see. Therefore, you must acquire and strengthen your bar exam essay skills during bar prep, while you’re still learning and reinforcing your black letter law knowledge.
On the other hand, in our experience, we’ve seen that submitting practice essay after essay before receiving and digesting feedback actually reinforces bad habits and wastes time. For this reason, an unguided and purely “unlimited” essay grading system can stunt your progress.
Submitting practice essays and incorporating previous feedback into the next assigned essay over time will move you along an upward trajectory of continuous improvement.
Use the MPT to pick up valuable points
If you are like most bar exam takers, you’ll likely spend a majority of time working practice MBE questions and writing practice essays, but you don’t want to lose sight of the Multistate Performance Test (MPT).
Many who unfortunately don’t pass the bar exam typically end up just barely below the cut score, just a few points short. This is where the MPT can help. It’s an important opportunity to pick up valuable points or, conversely, lose out on points if you’re not prepared.
The MPT is part of most bar exams. Download the BARBRI Bar Exam Digest for information about the MPT and bar exam scaled scoring formula for your state/jurisdiction.
What is the MPT exactly? It’s a real-world readiness measurement that allows bar examiners to assess your fundamental lawyering skills. Rather than test substantive legal knowledge, the MPT challenges you to think critically and resourcefully. With the information presented and available to you for this test, you’ll be required to complete a realistic task that a beginning lawyer might encounter.
For example, you may be asked to create a persuasive brief, legal memo, client letter, discovery plan, settlement offer, will or closing argument. Whatever the given assignment, you’ll need to demonstrate your ability to evaluate the facts of the case file, analyze the problem and perform the task within the 90 minutes allotted for each item. The best way to familiarize yourself with possible MPT tasks is to work practice MPTs during your bar preparation.
Tackle hard MBE questions head on
During your bar exam, it might seem like a good idea to skip difficult MBE questions and come back to them later. Our advice: tackle them head-on. The bar exam is mentally draining. At the end of each 3-hour MBE session, you’re going to be tired and your critical thinking skills won’t be as sharp. Use our systematic problem solving methodology, make your best educated guess and then mark the question in your test booklet – if you have some time left after answering all the questions, you can give these harder ones another quick look.
When you come across MBE questions that are taking too much time to figure out (remember, you have on average 1.8 minutes per question), use those to actually make up time on the bar exam. Spend one minute to go through the question, make your best guess and move on. Don’t overthink it. Typically, the correct answer will be an option that is familiar to you. More often than not, completely unfamiliar or obscure answer choices are incorrect.
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