When you review a lot of bar essays, you begin to see what sets the good ones apart. The answers that score the highest have some telltale traits that really start standing out the more of them you read. We here at the Bar Exam Toolbox have seen a lot of bar essays: top scores, failing scores, and everything in between. We’ve also come up with some common pitfalls that tend to make an essay score lower. What makes a bar essay bad, though? Or, more importantly, what can you do to make yours good? Here are some of the most common problem areas we see year to year, and how you can improve them.
Misconceptions About What the Graders Want
The kind of analysis the bar graders are looking for vary from one jurisdiction to another, and can differ vastly from what you might have been writing on final exams in law school (even if you did well in your classes). One thing is for sure, though, bar graders are looking for something very specific. A lot of first-time bar takers think that so long as their essays are coherent, relatively correct, and hit the correct issues they have it made. It takes more than that, though. It’s important to find out exactly what the graders in your jurisdiction value. How do you do this? Review the posted sample answers. Review as many of them as you can and look for commonalities.
Lack of structure
You may have some memories from your law school exams of writing whatever came to your head as fast as you could. You may have even done relatively well. This is probably because a lot of law school professors are more willing to hunt and peck through stream-of-consciousness babble to find the correct points of law buried within. These days are over. Bar exam graders simply will not do this. They will read your essay critically and very quickly (usually in just a couple of minutes!). What does this mean for you? It means you need to make it as easy as possible for them to give you points. How do you do this? By being organized.
Find a format that allows you to call out the issues you’re discussing in each paragraph. Make them salient. Employ easy-to-follow approaches, such as IRAC. Organize your answer based on the call of the question. Use attack plans. A more structured answer is easier to read quickly, and it’s easier to see at a glance whether the writer is hitting all of the necessary benchmarks. Your bar exam grader is not going to give you the benefit of the doubt and search for the gems in your answer. It’s your job to put those gems on display.
Not Using the Facts Precisely or Completely Enough
You may have heard that using the facts on the bar exam is important. This is actually a big understatement. If you’ve talked to any of us at the Bar Exam Toolbox, you’ve probably heard many, many times how crucial the facts are! What does it mean to use the facts, though? A lot of bar takers think that using the facts is the same as just throwing them into your answer in some way—just making them show up somewhere. It’s not.
As we’ve said before, the fact patterns on the bar are incredibly precise and well-crafted. The talented people who write these hypos are painstaking about what they put in and what they leave out. How do you use the facts you’re given then? In a nutshell, you need to pinpoint which specific rule element(s) each fact “matches up” with. Then, you need to use the facts to “check off” each element (or say why it is not satisfied based on the facts you have). Regurgitating facts just for the sake of throwing them into your answer is a waste of time. This likely won’t get you any extra points. Matching the facts with precise issues (better yet, with rule elements or requirements)—this is what to aim for.
Lack of Planning
Did you plan the essays you wrote on your final exams in law school? A lot of students did not. Writing bar essays is different, though (see above). Your audience is different, and you’re being tested on different skills. In order to get the precise, formulaic structure we discussed above, you need to have a plan (and you probably need attack plans and lots of practice too!). If you’re going to figure out how to use all of the facts you get, this definitely takes planning before you begin writing. Coming up with a plan for your essay before you start typing furiously is the best way to make sure you’re getting as many points as possible, and it’s also one of the only ways to avoid the dreaded stream-of-consciousness writing we talked about above.
Most bar takers know they need to spot as many issues as possible to do well on the exam. A lot of students, though, think that so long as they memorize a lot of law, these issues will just start popping out at them when they read through the fact patterns on exam day. Not quite true. There are a lot of intermediate steps in between. It’s true, you can’t do too well spotting issues if you don’t know the law. You have to know the law. You also need to practice issue spotting, and you must practice your ability to determine which kinds of facts trigger which types of issues. How do you do this? Come up with your essay writing plan and do as many closed-book practice essays as you can. Don’t just practice identifying issues, practice writing out full, timed exams so you are getting good at writing analysis and allocating your time too (see below).
Misallocating or Wasting Time
Timing is huge on the bar exam. I’ve seen quite a few failing essay answers that probably would have passed if they were actually completed. Running out of time is a very real concern, as is misallocating time between planning and writing, or giving more time to one question instead of apportioning time equally. So, how do you get good at managing your time? Not surprisingly, the answer here is practice. Use a clock. Cut yourself off when your predetermined planning time is over and it’s time to move on to writing. Cut yourself off when the allotted time for the essay ends. Practice some essays back-to-back so you can get a feel for what you can accomplish in an hour. Discipline yourself to move onto the next essay so none of them are lacking. Be strict with your time you’re allowed, the bar exam will be.
Failure to Critique and Review
Writing practice is only half the battle when it comes to getting good at bar essays. More often than not, I see students improve the most dramatically when they start critically reviewing their own work—and when they actually re-write essays that they miss the mark on. Why is this? Well, first of all, it’s almost impossible to learn from our own mistakes if we don’t know what those mistakes are (if you’re a repeat bar taker, this is especially true—go get those essays you had returned to you and critique them ruthlessly!). Second, it’s difficult to apply what you’re learning on one essay to a new, completely different essay since the new essay might test very different areas of law (even within the same subject). If you write the same essay a second time, you can instill knowledge about those legal issues and cement your attack plan and process so next time you see that issue, you feel more comfortable with it.
Getting critical reviews of your essays from a trusted source like a bar program, a professor, or a tutor is also a great way to ensure that you’re seeing your missteps and fixing them. Often, bar students are over confident in their abilities. Even when they make mistakes, even when they miss issues, they may somehow convince themselves they were closer to getting it right than they actually were. Sometimes getting a tough critique early on from someone who knows what the graders are looking for is the very best thing you can do for your writing.
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Do you need help with the essay portion of the bar exam? BarEssays.com is a great study tool for the essay portion of the California Bar Exam. And Bar Exam Toolbox readers get a special on membership! Email us to get the coupon code.
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Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- The Ins and Outs of Studying for the Bar Exam
- Bar Exam Essays – You Must Become an Expert at Reading the Facts
- 10 Tips for Working and Studying for the Bar Exam
- Warning Signs You May Need Extra Help as a First Time Bar Exam Taker
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