If you’re taking the bar exam, you already know that you’ll need to work very hard in order to learn all the material that’s needed to pass. But with so much law to learn, it’s easy to forget what skills will be tested on the different parts of the bar exam. Keeping these core skills in mind while you study can help guide your efforts as you prepare for one of the most important tests of your life.
Although the precise format of the bar exam varies by state, this post assumes that you’ll face some combination of essay questions, multiple-choice questions, and a performance test (or tests). We’ll cover the various skills that are tested on each of these so that you know how to focus your energy as you prepare for the exam.
Bar Exam Essays
The typical format of a bar exam essay is a short fact pattern with one or more interrogatories (or questions) that you will be expected to address in an essay format. To excel on bar exam essays, you’ll need to apply the following skills.
- Critical Reading: When you read through the fact pattern, you must read critically and pay careful attention to the facts, interrogatories, and instructions. You should aim to read quickly but without glossing over any important details.
- Issue Spotting: Your most important task is spotting the legal issues raised by the fact pattern. Typically, the examiners will not tell you what issues are being tested (although you may get some hints from the interrogatories). You must parse through the facts and determine relevant claims, defenses, and other legal issues.
- Organizing: Once you have spotted all of the legal issues, you must plan out your essay in an organized format. This will involve writing out an outline that flags the key issues, applicable rules, legally significant facts, and the conclusions you plan to reach.
- Rule Memorization: On the essay portion of the bar exam, you won’t have access to your outlines or any notes. This means that you must memorize the rules that might be tested on the essays and be able to recite them with accuracy and clarity. Several states require that you learn both federal law and state-specific rules across several different subject areas.
- Analysis: Essays test your ability to analyze a set of facts according to applicable law. To achieve a passing score, you will need to demonstrate to the grader why a particular outcome should be reached on each and every issue. Your analysis is where most of the points are on exam day, so you should focus on sharpening this as you practice essays in the months leading up to the exam.
- Clear Writing: Of course, essays test your ability to write professionally. You must write in a clear and concise manner. Avoid spelling and grammatical errors and use a professional tone. Your essays should have a neutral and objective tone.
- Time Management: You will be responsible for managing your time on exam day. You must stay within the time limits for your essays in order to write passing answers for each question.
One of the most important things you can do to prepare for the bar exam is practice essays under timed conditions. As you practice and review your work, make sure to keep these key skills in mind and work on improving any of your weaker areas.
Multiple-Choice Questions (MBE)
The Multistate Bar Examination (or “MBE”) is a multiple-choice test that covers seven different subject areas. Since this is administered across the country, you will be tested on federal law and generally applicable legal principles. To maximize points on the MBE, you will need the following skills.
- Issue Spotting: As with the essays, you will be required to spot legal issues on the MBE. For each question, you will be presented with a mini fact pattern that poses one or more legal issues. You must select the correct answer from four answer choices. You must quickly spot issues so that you can parse through the answer choices and select the correct one.
- Knowledge of the Law: Generally, the MBE tests more nuanced rules than the essays. You must have a thorough understanding of each of the seven subjects tested in order to pass. Because there are so many different legal issues that might show up on the MBE, you must do a substantial amount of practice in order to pass.
- Time Management: For many applicants, managing time on the MBE is one of their biggest challenges. You will have just a little under two minutes to answer each MBE question, and keeping up this pace is critical to being able to answer every question. Since there is no penalty for guessing a wrong answer, it’s to your advantage to answer every MBE question to the best of your ability. A lot of timed practice will help you get a feel for how to move through these questions in the right amount of time.
Don’t forget these key skills as you practice MBE questions. And remember that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to MBE practice!
You will also need to complete a performance test, which is a skills-based exercise based on a “closed universe” of law and facts that is provided to you.
- Following Instructions: Although it might sound silly, this is one of the most important skills tested on the performance test component of the bar exam. In order to achieve a passing score, you must follow the instructions for the performance test precisely. Any deviation from the instructions can cost you points, so practice a lot of performance tests to see how your state issues these instructions.
- Issue Spotting: As with the other components of the bar exam, you will need to spot legal issues that are raised on the performance test. These issues come up in both the cases included in the “library” component of the performance test, as well as the “file,” which contains the factual materials relevant to the task you are assigned.
- Time Management: The performance test presents a significant timing challenge. You will be faced with numerous cases, statutes, and factual materials that you must parse through in order to complete the assignment. You must carefully manage your time between reviewing the library and file, preparing an outline, and writing your answer. This requires significant practice beforehand.
- Legal Analysis: The majority of your points on the performance test will be based on the quality of the legal analysis you perform. You must be able to pull out the relevant law from the materials in the library, as well as the legally significant facts and other materials from the file. You must weave together the law and the facts in order to come to sound legal conclusions about the issues raised.
- Writing: The performance test is primarily a writing assignment, and your writing must be professional and cogent. If you are tasked with drafting a persuasive memo, brief, or letter, you must thoroughly convince the reader of why a particular outcome should be reached. If you are tasked with an objective memo, brief,or letter, your tone must be neutral throughout.
As with the essays, practice is the best way to master the performance test. Sharpen these skills through lots of timed performance tests leading up to the bar exam. And since you do not need to memorize any law for the performance test, you can start practicing these right away.
Sharpen Your Skills as You Practice
With so much material to absorb and memorize, it can be easy to lose sight of what you’re actually being tested on during the bar exam. Use this blog post to help you stay on track and hone your key skills in the months leading up to the bar exam. Good luck with your studies!