Today, I want to share with you a resource for those studying for the California bar exam, specifically. A few years back, I was introduced to BarEssays.com, which is an online essay question and performance exam/answer database for the California bar. We at the Bar Exam Toolbox even use BarEssays.com from time to time in conjunction with the sample answers released by the State Bar to see a broader picture of what kinds of answers passed and failed a given administration of the exam.
What is BarEssays.com?
BarEssays.com is a large compilation of essay questions, performance exams, and real graded answers (including more than 1500 graded essays). How did BarEssays.com get all of those answers? By buying real answers from bar examinees (who got their questions back because they didn’t pass the overall exam). There are answers at all levels on the website, which can be searched subject by subject, by score, question by question, or performance exam by performance exam to find examples to review. Both handwritten and typed essays/performance exams are included.
Let’s say you purchase this product; what would you use it for?
Well, for practice! You can learn a lot from looking at both high- and low-scoring answers.
So let’s talk a little about that:
- Low-scoring answers:First, please, please, please do not look at low- scoring answers to see what you can get away with. That really isn’t the point! When I show my students low-scoring answers, I encourage them to identify the reasons for such a low score. Did the test-taker miss issues? Have inadequate analysis? Lack headers? It is great to use these answers to see how one can lose points—so you don’t make the same mistake!
- Mid-scoring answers:I would say these are the 65s. Now if most people get a 65, you might be thinking, “Yes! On my way to passing the bar.” But remember, statistically speaking, to pass most people need to average about a 65 on all the written portions, including the performance test. Therefore, you don’t want to look at a 65 as a “model” answer. You just want to look at it for its strengths and weaknesses. For example, in terms of strengths, I think most 65s are presented professionally, have headers, and do a pretty good job of issue spotting, but they have weaknesses too. They often don’t have enough analysis, which can be a big problem when it comes to racking up points on the bar. Check out some 65s for yourself—what do you think?
- High-scoring answers: I would say these are the 70s and above. These are answers that you want to use for comparison. One of the messages I often get from my students is that they are very frustrated by the sample answers provided by the State Bar because they are “too perfect.” They feel there is no way they could re-create that answer in one hour. That’s where BarEssays.com comes in. You can compare your answers with real student answers that did get the scores you are looking for. So, the question is, can you try to re-create those answers (while still remaining critical of them and taking every opportunity to make them better)? Most students find the 70s and 75s on BarEssays more approachable than what the State Bar releases. Remember, those two officially-released samples are the top two highest-scoring essays in the state of California for that essay or PT. You definitely don’t need to score in the top two!
How is BarEssays.com different from the State Bar of California’s past exams page?
If you are studying for the California bar exam, you likely know that the State Bar publishes all the essays, performance tests, and two student answers for each question. These can be found on the bar website for free.
But anyone who has used this website knows that going through the exams to find a given question on a given subject can be, well, frustrating and time-consuming.
In the alternative, the search engine set up on BarEssays.com allows you to search by subject, year, and score range so you can easily pull up the exam question without hunting through tons of PDFs. This will definitely save you time. Also included are the released bar sample answers, so the website is pretty much a “one-stop shop” where you can access essays, performance tests, sample answers from the bar, and real student answers.
Another way in which it is different from the State Bar website is that it includes scanned copies of handwritten answers. I don’t recommend that my students write their answers by hand. But if you do, you need to be well prepared in order to gather as many points as possible. Using the tips I listed above when reviewing answers, you can determine what works and what doesn’t with handwritten exams.
There is also a premium version of membership that allows you to see student essay exams with commentaries by a past bar grader. For some students that may be a useful option and help identify what is working and not working on a given answer. That said, this isn’t the same thing as getting feedback on your own work, which we find helps students more.
What other new features does BarEssays.come have?
In addition to providing sample student answers, BarEssays.com now also gives you an “Outline Search” option. For each major subject area (like Contracts or Torts, etc.) you can get a BarEssays.com outline, a shorter “checklist” of topics and rule elements, as well as “templates” of commonly-tested areas. Sometimes narrowing down all the law you need to study can be tough. What I like about this feature is that you get a longer outline (7-8 pages) that gives you the basics of each subject, plus a short one-pager of just rule elements. This can be helpful in synthesizing your own rule statements. The templates can also be useful in that they show you some common headers and rules and how different topics can fit together in an essay. Imagine an essay of just headers and rules where you fill in the analysis and conclusions yourself—that’s sort of what the templates look like.
What should I keep in mind while using this product?
One thing to remember about all student essays (whether from the State Bar website or a service like BarEssays.com) is that they are not to be seen as “model” answers. Also, they likely have mistakes, as they were written under real testing conditions. Always double-check the law yourself and think critically as you review student answers. We’ve even found quite a few of the sample answers released by the State Bar that contain incorrect statements of law, issues that don’t apply at all, and of course, typos. Remember, these people scored in the top two in spite of these things, not because of them. Sometimes it can be hard to tell what’s right and what’s wrong, though, so never think of any sample answers as perfect.
If there’s one thing I would caution students against when it comes to sample answers it’s that reading bar essays is not the same as doing bar essays. Even reading through every single sample answer available won’t get you to pass. You have to do the hard work yourself. Reviewing past answers is a great study technique—one that I think can benefit many students preparing for the bar exam. But there is no substitute for practice. You should use study tools to help you write the best answer you can write! That’s the best way to find exam success.
Also, when it comes to using multiple commercial outlines, keep in mind that you may see rules phrased slightly differently across the board, and it’s up to you to reconcile the differences and come up with rules you can use on your exam. Also, you should take templates with a big grain of salt. There’s no template that will look exactly like what you will see on your exam, and sometimes practicing with templates can give students a rigid understanding of the legal issues. Your understanding of the law needs to be precise, but it should also be flexible. Going into the exam, you need to feel comfortable discussing whichever issues are triggered by the particular facts you get—not just the ones that you’re used to from the templates. Whenever we have students who want to use these or other similar template products, we always tell them to use common sense and see them for the crutches they are. As with sample essays, they’re never going to be a perfect fit, and you still need to do the hard practice work yourself.
Have you used BarEssays.com? If so, please share your experiences in the comments below.
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Want more bar exam essay tips?
- Bar Study Tips: The Bar Exam Is One Big Interview
- You Must Become an Expert at Reading the Facts
- You Should Spend Time Studying Sample Answers
Original Review Posted June 2012, Updated April 2016