Advice for Passing the Bar Exam

Ed. Note: This summer, back by popular demand, Ms. JD is pleased to feature a series of posts on bar exam prep.  The series will include some of our most highly-read articles from past years, as well as new content for all those taking on the bar exam challenge.  Good luck! 

I know the [July] bar is fast approaching, so I thought I’d share the preparation advice I jotted down for my younger law school friends after taking the New York bar [...]. I wrote this when it was still fresh in my head (and before I knew that I passed), and I added some notes on thoughts I have now that I know I passed.

1. Things to keep in mind while studying with Barbri.

Don’t rely on Barbri’s assessment of what will and won’t be on the exam. Barbri told us not to spend time on one subject because it was rarely tested and, if tested, usually only came up in multiple choice questions. To the horror and surprise of me and everyone else in the room who had taken Barbri, half of an entire essay question tested this subject. Barbri did cover the information, but no one I know studied it very intently since it was described as such a low priority. Basically, Barbri doesn’t have a crystal ball, so you shouldn’t take their word for it when they predict things that are unlikely to appear.

The real MBE questions are harder than the Barbri practice exams. I found the MBE much harder than the questions in the Barbri review books and on the Barbri practice test. First, the real MBE questions bring in terminology from legal subjects outside the six tested (like wills, for example). There were also answer choices listing obscure legal doctrines that possibly existed but which I’d never seen before. I have no idea if these answer choices were right or just red herrings, but it was unnerving to see doctrines of which I’d never heard or seen applied to the context of the question. [Note: After finding out that I did quite well on the MBE, I can now advise NOT to fall for these red herrings. I NEVER chose an answer choice with a legal doctrine of which I’d never heard—I assumed they were red herrings. It’s possible I was wrong since I don’t know which questions I missed since that breakdown isn’t included with my score, but given my overall MBE score, I have to assume that the obscure legal doctrine answers really were red herrings.]

2. Advice for test day

Don't freak out. Seriously. Even if you read the questions and would have a better idea of how to answer them if they were written in Greek, just take a deep breath, stay calm, and do your best. Everyone thinks they failed the bar after it's over. No one knows all the answers. Still, most of us pass, and you will too. Don't make the situation worse by letting your intimidation get the better of you.

Earplugs are essential. They were actually available for free in my test room, but it’s worth bringing a pair to be prepared in case they aren’t available in yours.

Don’t forget a watch. On the MBE, I checked my watch at questions 33 and 66 to make sure that I was roughly an hour and two hours into the test. If you want more exact measurements, you should be doing an average of about 8.4 questions every fifteen minutes. The real MBE questions took me longer to do than the practice Barbri questions, so don’t assume that time won’t be an issue even if you generally have plenty of time left over after the Barbri practice tests.

Bring protein bars and fruit. Apparently protein and fruit are the best snacks to keep your blood sugar at a good level throughout the test. We were allowed to bring food into my test center, but if you aren’t, definitely bring something high in protein for lunch.

Make sure you have caffeine available if you’ll need it. I stupidly assumed there would be a soda machine at my test center and didn’t bring anything with me. The first day, there was, but the second day, it was inexplicably broken, and I nearly fell asleep the second half of the test.

Use mechanical pencils. If you have regular pencils, they will be dull in no time, and it takes more time to fill in the circles using dull pencils. Mechanical pencils also tend to have better erasers.

On the essay day, answer the questions out of order. I don’t know if this strategy would work well for everyone, but I read through all the questions and then started with the questions I knew best. The idea was that I would need more time to slog through the questions I had no idea about (and they also say your mental subconscious will be working on the questions you’ve read even while you are doing the easier questions, so in theory you will be more prepared to tackle the harder questions when you get to them). I definitely stuck to the time allotment for each question, but I wanted to make sure to get as many points as possible, and it follows that you can earn the most points from the issues you know the most about. If time is a real issue for you, then this idea probably isn’t a good one because I essentially read each question prompt twice.

If you don’t know the answer, make up a legal test, and try to sound like a lawyer. The best thing you can do for yourself is to write confidently. If you have no idea what the issue is or what the law says about the issue you do see, then make up something that sounds plausible (start out thinking, “How do I think this should come out?” and then make up a legal test that gets you there). You get points not only for having the law right but also for how you apply the law to the facts, and you can get points from applying the wrong law in a convincing way (I have a friend who got all passing scores from Barbri graders even though every time he had the law entirely wrong—his issue spotting was good, and he was able to very convincingly apply the wrong law to the facts).

Bring highlighters for the MPT. As you read through the materials, highlight quotes from the cases that you will likely want to incorporate into your answer. Basically, highlight everything you might use because it wastes time to have to skim back through things to find the material you wanted to use. I know of some friends who had a whole highlighting system worked out with different colors and such, but for me, it was effective just to pull out the facts and law I wanted to use.

Study your outline during lunch. I know this sounds compulsive, but after the morning session of the essay day, you have a pretty good sense of which topics have already been tested and which two might appear in the afternoon. I skimmed my outline during lunch and picked up information that ended up being on an afternoon essay that I wouldn’t have remembered if I hadn’t looked over my outline. I know some people say that you either know it or you don’t on test day, but for me, a lot of the information I put into my bar exam came straight out of short-term memory. I think it helped me to review both the night before and during lunch.

3. Final Thoughts

If you are flying into a different time zone to take the test, prepare yourself. My biggest regret about how I prepared for the bar is my travel schedule. I flew from California to New York the night before the bar and had an impossible time sleeping because of the time change. If you are able to fly to the bar location a few days early to acclimate, that would be helpful. Or, push yourself to start living as though you’re in the time zone in which you’ll be taking the bar starting the week before so that you will be able to sleep well both nights. They say that the bar exam is an endurance test, and they’re right. The second day, I was so sleep deprived that I started falling asleep in the afternoon session, and it was really hard to focus. I think I would have had an easier time if I had prepared my body for EST prior to the bar exam.

If you have trouble motivating yourself to study for long periods of time, try “billing” your hours. I was constantly procrastinating, so the week before the exam I made myself “bill” a certain number of hours per day (I could never get past 9 hours on even my best day despite Barbri’s recommended 12). I would make myself study straight for half hour increments with no interruptions (no phone, no email, no breaks of any kind). After exactly a half hour, I would get up, get a drink, stretch, check the mail, whatever. The breaks restored my concentration. I was also able to keep track of exactly how many hours I was actually studying every day (which basically depressed me which in turn motivated me to step it up).

Good luck!



More advice on passing the bar exam from Ms. JD readers can be found here.  If you've taken the bar, consider sharing your own advice!


Don’t forget to take care of yourself while studying. Go to the gym. Eat healthy. Get some sun. Go to dinner with your friends… It WILL pay off. Also, make sure that you are studying for the forest and not the trees. Don’t get bogged down in details. The bar exam tests your general knowledge with a few details… If PMBR tells you that something comes up on one out of every 15 bar exams, I say, don’t bother. It kept me from going crazy. And, I passed. Last, so long as you are studying between six and nine hours a day, you will be fine. I even took Sundays off in order to run errands and watch TV. GOOD LUCK!

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