In reviewing and critiquing hundreds of bar exam essay and performance test answers over the years, it has become pretty apparent what the graders are really looking for. But, who are these anonymous “grader” people we are always telling students about when we say, “the graders like this” or “don’t do that, it will distract the graders”?
If you’re wondering what the California bar exam graders in particular want to see in your essays and PTs, here are some attributes to keep in mind about the hypothetical grader archetype who you should imagine scoring your bar practice work.
If you think the bar exam graders are going to cull through your answer like a law school professor might to give you the benefit of the doubt, you’re wrong. If you bury some important issue in a huge block of text on your law school exam, your professor will be looking for it and you might still get some credit.
The bar exam graders don’t have time for this. They are grading many, many essays and PTs and will only be able to spend a few short minutes on each one. If your issues aren’t easy to spot, the grader won’t see them and you won’t get credit for what’s buried. Students often say “well, I had that issue, so I would at least get partial credit.” Wrong. If the graders can’t see it easily, it might as well not be there.
They Want Precision
There’s a common misconception that as long as a bar essay or PT “looks” organized and coherent, that it will pass. This isn’t true at all. It’s not that simple. You need to spot the majority of the right issues, and you have to analyze each one using the facts that triggered it. The more you can use each fact precisely, the better. Yes, the graders will be skimming your answers, but they know the facts and rules they’re looking for. It’s pretty easy to tell in just a few short minutes whether your answer has what it takes or not.
They Don’t Care How Much Extra Law You Know
I pretty frequently see students throwing extra law into essays. For example, they may state a rule as an example of something that is not triggered in an essay. E.g. “Here are all the elements of adverse possession, but this won’t actually apply here….” If a rule doesn’t apply, don’t mention it. You won’t get points for throwing things out there to see what sticks. You also really don’t have time to be doing this.
Your grader won’t be sitting there thinking, “Well, this applicant really missed all the Crim. Pro. issues they needed to talk about under the 4th Amendment, but man oh man, their statements of the homicide laws fantastic, so I will give them a pass!” This won’t happen. Scoring well on these essays is a perfect storm of spotting all the right issues and analyzing them properly using the facts you get. Bringing up irrelevant stuff won’t help you. I know you might see quite a bit of irrelevant law or discussion in the sample answers, but they got high scores in spite of these things, not because of them. You should aim for precisely disposing of each issue that is actually triggered using only the rule that applies and nothing more.
They Won’t Piece Together Your Answer for You
Another common problem I see in student essays and PTs is either circular reasoning or reasoning that doesn’t really do any reasoning at all. Here are some examples: “Darryl’s statement is logically relevant because he was trying to prove that Pamela caused the accident which makes this logically relevant.” Something can’t be relevant because it’s relevant. You can’t use the word itself in the definition. Also, this sentence doesn’t tell the grader that you know what logical relevance means. It just shows that you matched one of the facts from the fact pattern into this section. If they can’t tell why you put that fact here, that won’t help your score. You always need to explain why you’re saying what you’re saying. Why does this fact matter? How does it match up with the element of the rule you’re applying?
Here’s another one: “This was hearsay because it is an out of court statement and it is being offered for the truth of the matter asserted because Pamela said in the note that she caused the accident.” Same thing here. At least this gets the rule for hearsay right, but there’s a lot more to getting a passing score than that. You need to show that you understand what makes a note an out of court statement. Also, what is being asserted in the note? Whether what’s in the note is being offered for its truth or not will depend on what the note said. Spell these things out!
Both of these examples need to be broken down further. Take the elements of your rule for logical relevance or hearsay and ask yourself how the facts help you show that each of these elements is being met. The grader isn’t going to read sentences like this and say to themselves, “Yes, hmm… I can see where the applicant is going with this idea… let’s give them a pass.” Nope. You need to connect all the dots for them. Even if you think something is obvious, spell it out anyway. Now, I’m not saying this needs to take a long time. It doesn’t (and it shouldn’t). With more practice, you can learn to explain what you need to in a very concise way.
They Rely on Benchmarks and Red Flags
This goes hand in hand with the idea of being pressed for time—the graders just don’t have time to read every single word of your answer and ponder it. This is why they have to rely on clues to tell them that you understand everything and are following the instructions you were giving and answering the questions being asked.
If you miss most of the big issues on an essay, it doesn’t matter how thoroughly you managed to dispose of the ones you did discuss. If your prose are amazingly polished and professional-sounding, but you only use half the facts, you’re still toast. If you miss obvious clues in the task memo. on a PT and instead go rogue and do your own thing in terms of structure, it almost doesn’t even matter what else you say. The graders will see right off the bat that you’re missing the big puzzle pieces and the key components they’re looking for and this will count against you.
What are some other red flags? Failing to use a clear IRAC type of structure, not planning your answers before you write them, skipping important buzzwords either from your rule statement or the facts, and including long blocks of dense text. You also need to finish each essay and PT in the allotted time. An unfinished answer is a big red flag. Avoid doing all these things.
They Can Tell When You’re Planning As You Go
I like to read student essays and PTs first and then look back at their own assessments of their planning process and their notes that they used to write the essay or PT. Believe it or not, it’s pretty easy to tell from the answer itself whether the student planned effectively before they started writing. This is the case for essays, but definitely with PTs. And believe me, if I can tell, the bar exam graders can definitely tell.
What is different about well-planned-out answers? First, they’re more concise and direct. They get to the point faster. The writer doesn’t have to warm up or waste time hemming and hawing before homing in on what they’re actually trying to say. They don’t waste time on long, generalized introductions or conclusions. Planned answers also use the facts way more effectively, which is one of the things you’re being tested on. They also tend to be much more precise. It’s clear the writer knew what they were going to say about each fact or issue or rule before they said it.
Practice makes perfect. The more you can practice your essays and PTs and focus on these things, the better it will be for your scores!
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Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- Steps to Making Your Own Bar Exam Schedule
- Are You Wasting Time Studying for the Bar Exam
- What You Can Do Now to Prepare for the Bar Exam
- What are You Waiting For? It’s Time to Study for the Bar Exam
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