Seven Hurdles To Bar Exam Success (and how to overcome them)

I am going to let you in on a little secret: The bar exam isn’t fair.

That’s right. Despite what you may have been led to believe, the bar exam is not a fair test of your ability to practice law. If it were, then you would expect that a higher percentage of graduates from accredited law schools would pass the bar exam each time. Instead the exam is designed to intentionally weed out a certain percentage of law school graduates and keep them out of the legal profession.

That does not mean that you cannot beat the system. However, in order to do so, you need to become aware of the specific reasons why the bar exam is not a fair test of your ability to practice law and the ways that you can avoid these traps:

Hurdle #1: There is never enough time to prepare.
The typical bar review course starts just after graduation and ends just a few weeks before the bar exam. For most students, this is all of the time that they have to prepare for the bar exam. Even if you did nothing else but study during these two months, you would still feel as though you did not have enough time to prepare. The truth is that no matter how long you study, you will always be left feeling like you could have done more. That’s because the amount of information you must master is more than anyone could possibly absorb in that short amount of time; which leads to our next hurdle . . .

Hurdle #2: There is too much material to master thoroughly.
While you are required to master a wide range of legal knowledge for the bar exam, the truth is that you cannot possibly know everything. Fortunately, the percentage of correct answers needed to pass allows for a reasonable number of wrong answers. Your goal is not to completely master any of the bar exam subjects but rather to demonstrate a working knowledge about a broad range of issues. Rather than spending too much time preparing for issues that are unlikely to appear on the exam, your best strategy is focus your efforts on the issues most likely to appear, such as the big picture issues and the issues tested most frequently.

Hurdle #3: Issues are randomly tested – it’s the luck of the draw.
There is a randomness to the whole bar exam process, as the issues tested change from exam to exam. Since you cannot possibly know everything, you are hoping that the issues tested on your particular exam coincide with the things you know. If you make sure that you know at least a little bit about every issue in your bar review materials, then it is less likely that you will find yourself with nothing to say in response to a fact pattern. Therefore, instead of worrying about what you don’t know, show the graders what you do know and you may still come away with enough points to pass, which is what it’s all about.

Hurdle #4: Bar exam grading is subjective, not objective.
When I review essay answers with students after the bar exam, I am always surprised by the wide range of scores received. If graders were adhering to a strict set of guidelines, you would expect to see more consistent scoring. However, what I find in reality is that some bar exam graders appear to be sticklers for organization, spelling, punctuation, grammar, handwriting, etc. and deduct points for such stylistic errors, whereas others will not. Since the scores do not always reflect the knowledge the applicant has demonstrated, it is clear that there is a subjective element to the grading process. The best way to avoid losing points on an essay where you knew the law is to practice writing essay answers that are easy to understand and pleasing to the grader. Make sure that your writing style is not getting in the way of what you are trying to say.

Hurdle #5: Bar exam tests things you never learned in law school.
Even if you took all of the subjects tested on your bar exam, there would still be specific issues on the bar exam that you never learned about in law school. In recent years, the bar examiners have tested on issues that tend not to be covered in detail in a typical law school course. Chances are that you will encounter some unfamiliar issues on the bar exam. The good news is that your bar review course is going to be familiar with these trends and will cover these issues.

Hurdle #6: MPT takes longer than 90 minutes to complete.
The Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPT) is an open universe test where you are given not only the facts but also the correct law to apply. If you had unlimited time to complete the tasks, it would be too easy. Instead the bar examiners give you a strict time limit of 90 minutes per question in order to determine whether you can read, analyze, and write under pressure. Too many students fail to prepare for the MPT thinking that the skills they have acquired while clerking for a law firm or from legal writing classes in law school are the skills that will carry them through the MPT. While the bar examiners claim that the MPT tests your ability to practice law, the truth is that the MPT only tests one skill: your ability to take the MPT. The only way to improve your MPT performance is to simply practice, practice, practice. The more you practice the MPT under timed conditions, the better you will be at taking the MPT under the 90 minutes. It’s not simply about whether or not you can answer the MPT questions. Rather it is about whether you can complete them within the 90 minutes allotted.

Hurdle #7: There are no correct answers on the MBE
Unlike other multiple choice exams you have taken in the past, the multiple choice test on the bar exam does not ask you to merely identify the “correct” answer. Instead you are asked to select the “best” answer choice from among the four flawed answer choices provided. This requires a careful process of elimination in which you weigh each answer choice against the others to find the least wrong answer from among the four imperfect options presented to you. With practice you can learn how to eliminate the obviously wrong answer choices and increase the odds that you will choose the best answer.

While many worthy bar applicants have had promising legal careers cut short by the bar exam, the good news is that the percentage of students who will pass on their first try is greater than the percentage who will not. So while the bar exam may not be a fair test of your ability to practice law, the ability to pass the bar exam is something you are certainly capable of mastering.

Time management is the key to bar exam success

You may think that the bar exam is a test of your legal knowledge and ability. In reality, bar exam success is often the result of a disciplined approach to time-management. In fact, if I had to bet on who would be more likely to pass the bar, a student with a high IQ or a student with a solid study plan and the discipline to follow it, my money is on the latter. The good news is that your approach to bar review time-management (unlike your IQ) is something that is within your ability to control.

When it comes to the bar exam, the sheer volume of material you must learn in a relatively short amount of time can leave even the most diligent student feeling anxious and overwhelmed. The best antidote to feeling this way is to develop a long-range study plan. Think of it as your own personal syllabus.

What if your bar review course already gives you a syllabus to follow? That is a great starting point, but don’t assume that this one-size-fits-all approach is going to fit your situation. Better to use their suggested study plan as a template for creating your own. No single organizational approach is going to work for everyone so the key is to find what works for you.

Regardless of how you organize your day, you will want to keep these time-management principles in mind:

Designate a study space. If you go to the library, find a quiet area. Some libraries let you reserve private study rooms. If you study at home, create a study space that is consistent, organized and inviting. Avoid a cluttered area with a lot of distractions. It does not have to be anything fancy. A dining room table works just fine for this purpose.

Schedule your time. Set aside consistent blocks of time each day for uninterrupted study. Turn off cell phones, e-mails, instant messaging, etc. Do not allow any distractions during these times.

Plan your time. Make use of a daily planner or study calendar. Before you begin studying, create a detailed overview of what you intend to accomplish in each hour. This makes it easier to track your progress and identify when you have fallen behind.

Get yourself into exam mode. If you are not a morning person, do your practice testing early in the day to train your mind to be alert during exam hours. Go to sleep early so that your body clock is on “bar exam time.” Remember if you are used to studying until 2:00 AM and waking up at noon every day, it will be difficult to function when the real bar exam kicks off at 9:00 AM.

Start on time. If your study plan calls for you to begin studying at 8:00 AM that means you must be at your study place and ready to study by 8:00 AM. Wake up far enough in advance to allow time for breakfast, reading the paper, exercise, and getting to your study location.

Organize in advance. If you spend a lot of time getting yourself organized in the morning before you begin studying, eliminate this time-wasting activity by organizing your study materials in advance. A good way to do this is to put together a bar review study bag (or box). Keep everything you might need to study in this bag and take it with you when you go to your study place. Examples of things to include in your bar review bag: bar review books, note cards, pens and pencils, pencil sharpener, ear plugs, etc.

Don’t procrastinate. You must be ruthless in eliminating distractions and time-wasting activities from your day. If you feel a sudden urge to clean out your sock drawer, it is probably because you are putting off studying.

Schedule breaks throughout your day. Knowing when to stop studying is as important as knowing when to start. Make sure you schedule breaks for meals and occasional downtime to avoid burnout. If you are too tired and hungry to focus, then your study time becomes counter-productive.

Get help as needed. If you are having difficulty getting your study plan in order, seek advice from experts. If you are taking a bar review course, ask for assistance in creating and implementing your study plan. Don’t be shy about asking for help. After all, you are paying these people a lot of money. You are entitled to their assistance.

Strong organizational and time-management skills provide a solid foundation for passing the bar exam. Use your study time effectively and I would be willing to bet on your bar exam success.

Advice for bar exam repeaters

If you were previously unsuccessful on the bar exam, do not give up hope. We have compiled a list of tips for students who are repeating the bar exam.

You must approach your studies differently the second time around. Many of the things you did the first time, such has watching lectures, reading outlines, and preparing flashcards for key concepts, were essential steps in the process. However, if you did these steps carefully the first time, it may not be necessary to repeat these steps in their entirety on your second attempt.

Instead, follow these tips for bar exam repeaters:

  1. Focus on your worst subjects first. Review your scores from the prior exam and begin by studying the subjects on which you scored the lowest. While most students are tempted to start with their favorite subjects, this will not get you the results you seek. Remember: no pain, no gain. Your worst subjects offer the most room for improvement and therefore represent your biggest opportunity to make up lost points. By reviewing these subjects early, you will ensure that you have plenty of time to master them, as your study time may run short as the exam approaches.
  2. Begin with practice testing. Practice testing is the key to success on the bar exam. Yet, bar review students often spend too much time reviewing lectures and outlining their course materials, saving too little time at the end for practice testing. You can avoid this trap. Assuming that you already listened to the lectures and outlined the material the first time you took the bar review course, you can begin instead by doing practice testing up-front. Refer to your bar review outlines to explain those concepts that you failed to apply correctly on your practice tests. This method allows you to fill-in any gaps in your knowledge, without wasting too much precious time on concepts you already know. You will learn more black-letter law through this active method of study than you would by passively reviewing your lecture notes and outlines.
  3. Critique your past performance. If your state’s bar examiners permit you to request your essay answers from your previous attempt you must do so and have a qualified person critique them for you. Seek honest feedback and make sure that you understand why you received the scores that you did. Check that the person who reviews your essays has taken the bar exam in your state and has experience critiquing bar exam essays. Amateur feedback may not be insightful enough. Also be sure to compare your own answers with any model answers or sample answers provided by your state’s bar examiners.
  4. Do NOT try to work a full-time job while studying for the bar exam. Before re-taking the bar exam, talk with your employer early in the process and arrange for as much time off as possible. Studying for the bar exam should be your full-time job for at least the two-months prior to the exam. At minimum, you should take off the entire month of the bar exam. If you cannot do this, you may want to consider postponing the bar exam until you can devote adequate time to preparing for it.

Can I work while studying for the bar exam?

I train students for the bar exam. In my many years of teaching, the question of working while studying has come up often. Now given the recent economic downturn, this question comes up with even greater frequency. While I always advise students not to work while studying for the bar exam, I realize that some students simply do not have that luxury in today’s economy. Therefore, I have devised a more nuanced answer to that question.

As a general matter, studying for the bar exam should always be treated as a full-time job. That means that during the roughly two-month period from the start of your bar review course through the start of the exam you would be putting in a minimum of eight hour days, just like a real job. In fact, most students end up putting in more hours than that each day not to mention studying through the weekends.

Therefore, if you are working, you should absolutely take time off to study for the bar exam in order to give yourself the highest probability of success.

Your goal is to free up as much time as possible for studying. Talk to your employer as early as you can so that they can re-assign your workload to others in your absence. If you cannot take a solid two-month leave of absence, then perhaps you can negotiate a way to trim back your office hours and still retain your job.

I have heard of employers who will allow bar applicants to have flexible hours to permit them to attend bar review lectures. I have also heard of situations where employers will let bar applicants study at their desks when the office is quiet so long as they are available to assist when needed. Every employer is different but the key to find a way to free up time for you to study while making sure that your workload is somehow being handled. So be considerate of your employer’s needs and you may find that a workable compromise is possible.

What if your employer will not let you take time off? If you find yourself in a situation where you need to keep your job but your employer will not allow you any time to study during the workday, then you must start the process much earlier. Remember, that you need to be able to put in the same number of hours as everyone else. So if you cannot do that in the two months leading up to the bar exam, then you need to start much earlier so that you can put in the same number of hours over a longer time horizon.

See if your bar review course will allow you to order their books and other materials well in advance of the start of their course to give you extra time to review. If you can get your bar review materials at least four to six months before the bar exam that will give you more time to review the bar subjects, put together your flash cards, and do the necessary practice testing. Choose a bar review course that provides a home study option which allows you to get all of the lectures in audio or video format to review at your own pace.

The bar exam is hard enough without setting yourself up for failure. Therefore, if it is already less than four months before your bar exam and you realize that you cannot set aside the hours necessary to adequately prepare, you may want to postpone taking the bar exam for six months so that you can give yourself time for effective preparation.

I learned all I know about bar exam preparation from my father, who taught his own bar review course for over 40 years. I am reminded of something my father used to say to his students: “If you unable or unwilling to put in the necessary time and effort to be successful on this bar exam, then tell your friends and family that the bar exam is given in two parts. The first part is in July. The second part is in February.” Hopefully, that advice will not apply to you. Good luck.

Bar Exam Study Tips

As you begin your preparation for the Bar Exam, here are some general tips to keep in mind:

  1. Have a plan – Before you even begin your substantive review of the materials in your bar review course, you should pull out your calendar and create a detailed timeline that will serve as your study plan for the months and weeks leading up to your bar exam. Efficient and effective use of study time is a major factor in bar exam success. Now is the time for complete honesty. If you have too many outside commitments, including work, family, social, and community obligations, you need to find a way to defer as many of these activities as you can until after the bar exam. If you want to be successful on this exam, you need to focus the majority of your time and energy on bar preparation. If you are working, ask your boss for time off. Explain to your family and friends that you will be unavailable for the next few months. Your loved ones want you to succeed in your career and they will understand the sacrifices that you need to make. Once you have cleared the decks, make a detailed day-by-day action plan for how you will spend your time. If you are taking a bar review course, don’t forget to include time for lectures and workshops, as well as time spent outside of class.
  2. Practice testing is key – While memorization is certainly a necessary step in the process, the real key to success on any bar exam is practice testing. Unfortunately, most students spend too much of their bar preparation time creating detailed outlines and not enough time doing practice testing. They lose sight of the big picture. The bar exam is not simply a test of what you know or do not know. Rather it is a test of how you can use the knowledge in your head to analyze various fact patterns and reason your way to the correct answer. In the case of the MBE, it involves using logic and reasoning to eliminate wrong answer choices so that the choice you are left with is most likely to be correct. Practice testing will hone your reasoning abilities while at the same time teaching you the black-letter law. Therefore, the bulk of your study time needs to be spent doing practice testing.
  3. Simulate actual exam conditions – Your practice testing will be much more effective if you strive to simulate exam conditions. This means timing yourself, preferably with a timer or stopwatch. When doing practice essays, be sure to adhere to space requirements by using the same amount of paper as permitted on the real exam. Do not allow any interruptions during practice testing sessions. If necessary, go to a library or other quiet place where you will not be disturbed.
  4. Spend as much time reviewing the practice questions as you spend doing them – Most students fail to spend enough time reviewing their practice tests. It is not enough to simply do practice questions each day. You need time to go over these questions and make sure that you understand why your answer is right or wrong. After all, if you merely guessed at the correct answer on a multiple choice question how can you expect to learn anything from it unless you take the time to really understand why the answer choice is considered correct? Also, many MBE questions require a process of elimination to reach the correct answer choice. Therefore, it is not enough to know why answer choice (A) is correct. You need to figure out why (B), (C), and (D) are considered incorrect before you can honestly say that you have mastered that question. So don’t skimp on the time you spend reviewing your practice questions. As a general rule, plan to spend as much time reviewing the practice questions as you spent doing them.

I hope these tips help you to put your study time to best use. Good luck.