From grade school through law school, any writing course you take advises you to first “know your audience.” It is good guidance. If you know who will be reading or evaluating your work, you can better compose your work to align with their tastes and perspectives. Given all the hard work you are putting into preparing for the bar exam, shouldn’t you take a few minutes to know your audience? Just who will be grading your bar exam? For specific answers, you will need to investigate your jurisdiction’s bar exam. While bar exams are trending toward uniformity, grading and scoring is still dominated by the jurisdiction administering the exam. That said, here are some general answers that may help get you started in knowing your bar exam audience —
Who Grades the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE)?
Unless you are taking the bar in Puerto Rico or Louisiana, you will be taking the MBE—the multiple-choice portion of the bar exam.
The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE), the nation-wide organization that produces the MBE, grades the MBE for all of the jurisdictions that administer this exam component.
Who Grades the Written Portions?
The written portions of your exam, potentially including the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), the Multistate Performance Test (MPT), and the jurisdiction-specific written portions, are graded by your jurisdiction. Even if your jurisdiction administers an NCBE writing component (i.e., the MEE and the MPT), your local bar examiners will grade those components.
Who are the Bar Examiners?
An organization of bar examiners in your jurisdiction will be responsible for the grading process. These organizations vary in their structure and affiliation. For example, some are committees of the jurisdiction’s bar like California’s Committee of Bar Examiners or Washington’s Board of Bar Examiners. Others are agencies of the jurisdiction’s Supreme Court, like Texas’s Board of Law Examiners or Virginia’s Board of Bar Examiners. To find out who your bar admission agency is, visit the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ Jurisdiction Information webpage, select your jurisdiction, and then scroll to the bottom of your jurisdiction’s profile. Whatever the organizational structure, these committees or boards will oversee the grading of each applicant’s written responses.
Grading processes vary by jurisdiction. For an example, here are some details on California’s approach to grading —
The [Committee] maintains a diverse pool of approximately 150 experienced attorneys from which graders are selected for each examination grading cycle. A majority of the graders have been grading bar examinations for at least five years and many of them have participated for well over 10 years or more.
Six groups, each consisting of 12 experienced graders and up to four apprentice graders, are selected to grade the essay and PT answers.
What are Some Ways Examiners ensure Fair and Consistent Grades?
Bar examiners are not trying to give bad grades, and they are certainly aiming for consistency. Jurisdictions have varying grading-process quality controls—some are more transparent than others. Check your jurisdiction, but here are a few interesting examples —
The California Committee of Bar Examiners oversees an intense process of three grader “calibration sessions” to ensure graders are grading essays consistently. For a detailed description for what these sessions entail, visit the Committee’s website.
In order to assure fairness and uniformity in grading, the Board of Bar Examiners shall follow NCBE-prescribed standards for grading to be used by all graders. The Board of Bar Examiners shall, as soon as practicable and within any guidelines prepared by the NCBE, certify the scores on the MEE and MPT portions for all applicants who have taken the UBE.
Immediately following the exam each examiner reads and assigns preliminary scores to a sample of the essay answers. The examiners then meet with professors from the approved Virginia law schools to discuss the essay questions and the answers proposed by the examiners. The law school representatives often suggest alternative approaches to answering some of the questions, which the examiners consider and adopt if appropriate. Following the meeting with the professors, the examiners reach a consensus on grading guidelines for each question. They then return to their respective offices where they and the graders working under their supervision assign raw scores to the exam answers in accordance with the grading guidelines.
What Factors do Essay Graders Consider?
Graders care more about substance than style, but how you communicate your answers matters. Two recent Bar Exam Toolbox posts provide great advice on how to best express your answers to the grader. For a post on what graders are looking for and how to give it to them, read Avenne McBride’s great post Advice From a Bar Grader: Tips to Maximize Your Essay Score. For some practical advice from an experienced bar exam tutor, read Ariel Salzer’s What Bar Graders See When They Read Your Essays.
For great ways to improve the substance of your bar exam essays, see Bar Exam Toolbox’s Bar Exam 101.
Does Spelling and Grammar Count?
Non-substantive issues in your essays will not greatly impact your score. For the California bar exam, documentation explicitly says that “the quality of handwriting or accuracy of spelling and grammar are not considered in assigning a grade.” But limiting the errors will give your answer a polish that will help the grader give you the best possible score. Remember that even if you don’t get style points, graders are human and may be influenced by non-substantive errors.
Knowing your audience is important. Find out who is grading your bar exam and get to know how they grade. Being informed will help clear up any grading misconceptions and leave you as prepared and confident as possible on exam day!