You know everything there is to know about quorums. You’re an expert at constitutional standards of review. You’ve got the Rule Against Perpetuities down cold (maybe…).* Now what? It’s not enough to simply parrot rules of law on the bar exam. You’ve got to show the examiners that you actually understand the rules and know how to apply them. For that, you’ll need to focus on presentation.
Answer the question
Sounds obvious, right? But much time is wasted and many points are lost by focusing on issues that the bar examiners aren’t actually asking about. Read every bar exam question carefully to ensure that you understand what, exactly, is being asked. Does the question say that two parties entered into “a valid contract”? If so, don’t waste time discussing offer, acceptance, and consideration. The examiners are clueing you in to the fact that there is some other issue more worthy of your time. Likewise, be sure to follow any instructions given in the question. If the question tells you to ignore something, ignore it! If it tells you to assume a fact is true, assume it! If you don’t follow directions and spend time on uncontested issues, you are robbing yourself of time you should be spending on issues presented by the call of the question. And those are the ones worth the points!
Organization is key
It’s important to make clear to the examiners that you can effectively communicate the law and its application to clients and judges; it’s not enough to just spew everything you know about a certain subject onto the page. One way to keep yourself organized is to use transitional words, which serve as signposts throughout your answer and tell your reader what you plan to do. Words such as “generally” let the examiners know that there is a widely applicable rule, but also tells them that an exception may apply. Words like “here” and “in this case” signal that you are beginning your analysis, applying the law to the facts at hand. Words like “however” or “on the other hand” indicate that you plan to introduce a counterargument, and can keep your answer from seeming to contradict itself. By showing the examiners where you plan to go, you make it easier for them to follow your analysis, maximizing your points! A bonus: organizing your writing doesn’t just benefit your reader, it also helps you organize your thoughts and stay on track!
Speaking of staying on TRAC...
...Topic. Rule. Analysis. Conclusion. Following the TRAC format ensures that you are including only what is relevant and necessary. Each time you review one of your answers to a practice essay, go through and label each sentence with a T, R, A, or C. If you can’t label a part of your answer, chances are it doesn’t belong! Hints: Counterarguments are part of your analysis (and get an “A”). Policy and historical explanations usually don’t belong! It sometimes makes sense to use a “mini-TRAC” format, further breaking down your analysis in to more specific rules and analysis. This can be useful when you have to discuss several elements that each have their own rules of law, such as in a specific performance analysis.
Every minute counts, so maximize your time
Take the time to carefully read the call of the question first. This allows you to read the rest of the question more effectively, looking for key facts that are going to shape your answer. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the fact pattern and the players involved. After you read the call of the question again, take a few minutes to outline your answer. This includes sketching your rule statement, listing the key facts that will support your analysis, and taking stock of the amount of time you will spend on each subpart. Many students think that they don’t have any time to waste on outlining. However, by setting forth your rule, organizing the relevant facts, and allocating your time among the subparts, you will actually save time in the long run. Become adept at outlining answers as you study.
Most importantly, don’t use more than the allotted time for each question—even if it is just five minutes. Avoid the snowball effect—if you spend an extra five minutes on each question, you will run out of time on your final question! Watch your timing carefully, and when your time is up, quickly wrap up and move on.
Understand what is at stake and who you are writing for
Remember that the bar exam is pass/fail. You have no job or grade riding on your specific score. You do not need to dazzle the examiners with your new theories or analysis, as you might a law professor. You are trying to pass the bar exam. I tell my students to imagine that the examiners are lawyers who are experts in every topic but the one in question: they should use legal terms and phrases as if speaking to attorneys, but should also be careful not to skip any steps in analysis. For example, if you think that a statement is admissible under the dying declaration to the hearsay rule, you must first explain what hearsay is, then explain that it is generally inadmissible, and then explain that there are certain exceptions. Show your work.
Keep these essay-writing tips in mind, and you should be well on your way to bar exam success!
* It may seem impossible that you will ever master all of the law you’ll need for the bar exam. But you will eventually get there!
Bar Exam FAQs - Subject Matter and Format
In non-UBE jurisdictions, what is the format of the bar exam?
The format of the bar examination varies by state. Most states' exams are two days long (generally eight hours of testing per day), however, some states (CA, SC, TX, for example) offer three day exams. In those states that offer the MBE, the bar exam consists of a state portion and a multistate portion. The state portion of the bar exam generally consists of essays, but it may also include a performance test or in some cases (GA, CA, for example) performance tests. The multistate portion of the test is the MBE.
The number of essays varies by state, and applicants are advised to familiarize themselves with the format, scoring and content of the exam in the jurisdiction in which they plan to take the bar exam well in advance of the start of their bar review course.
For additional information about the format of popular bar exams, please see the W&L Law Library's libguide:
How can I find out what is tested on the bar exam?
Information about the subject matter tested on the bar exam can be found on Board of Bar Examiners' webpages. The W&L Law Library's libguide also details the content of popular bar exams:
Direct links to many of these jurisdictions content summaries can also be found via the links below:
Maryland (See Board Rule 4)
Tennessee (See Section 4.04)
Virginia (See Section I)
Uniform Bar Examination
What courses are recommended for the bar exam?
There are a number of law school courses of relevance to the bar exam. Students are encouraged to take a blend of common law and code-based courses during their time in law school and balance bar exam coverage with their professional interests when planning their schedules. Taking core bar exam subjects during law school can alleviate some stress while studying for the bar exam and minimize the amount of "new" material students will need to learn during bar review.
The Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) is a 200-question multiple choice exam developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBEX). For more information about the MBE, please see the NCBEX's webpage.
Beginning February 2015, there will be seven subjects on the MBE:
- Constitutional Law
- Criminal Law/Criminal Procedure
- Property (includes Art. 9 Secured Transactions)
- Contracts (includes Art. 2 Sales)
- Civil Procedure
Click here for a subject matter outline for the 2014 Multistate Bar Exam
What other courses can be helpful for the bar exam? Generally speaking, the following courses represent subjects that frequently appear on the state portion of bar exams:
- Close Business Arrangements
- Federal Income Taxation of Individuals
- Decedents' Estates and Trusts
- Criminal Procedure - Investigation
- Criminal Procedure - Adjudication
- Secured Transactions
- Family Law
- Conflict of Laws
- Federal Jurisdiction and Procedure
- Virginia Practice and Procedure (for those 3Ls planning to take the Virginia Bar Exam)
However, to truly answer to this question largely depends upon the state where a student plans to take the bar exam.
For additional guidance, please see our scheduling webpage detailing bar exam courses:
Bar Exam Course Scheduling Webpage
Where can I find past bar exam questions?
Some (but not all) Boards of Bar Examiners include past essay questions as well as answers on their webpages. Students are encouraged to consult these wepbages for examples of past questions.
Past Virginia Bar Exam questions can be found on W&L Law Libguide page. However, the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners recently posted past essay questions for the past twenty-five bar exam administrations as well as sample answers for the past three bar exam administrations:
Virginia Past Essays
Virginia Past Essay Answers
Past Virginia Bar Exam Answers - William and Mary (highly recommended)
What is taking the bar exam like?
This varies by state - Most states offer two-day exams, while a few others (TX, CA, SC, OH, for example) offer three-day exams. In some states there are thousands of examinees and multiple testing locations (NY, for example). In other states, there are only a few hundred examinees and one testing location.
However, in every jurisdiction, the bar exam presents a significant mental, intellectual and physical challenge. Testing typically lasts eight hours per day, with two three-hour sessions separated by a lunch break. Students should be prepared to encounter examinees in varying degrees of stress during the test period as well as classmates and friends who may want to discuss questions. In addition, the bar exam is often administered in arenas, convention centers and other large spaces. Students should dress in layers, as examinees often report temperature extremes during the test.
Many states have very specific rules regarding what may (and may not) be brought into the exam. Students are strongly encouraged to review the testing guidelines and restrictions well in advance of the test. If students are studying near where they will take the bar exam, they are encouraged to drive to the testing location prior to the test administration to make sure they have a feel for the area around the testing location. In addition, in many testing locations, there are a handful hotels that are preferred. Students should make their logistical plans and arrangements for the bar exam as soon as possible to ensure they will be comfortable during the administration period.
To be successful on the bar exam, students must be resilient and able to compartmentalize experiences. During the exam, students will occasionally come across an essay that is especially challenging or find that the questions on the MBE are more difficult than anticipated. Students should have a plan for when these feelings arise, and work to ensure they do not interfere with the students' performance on the other parts of the test.
Are bar exam essay questions similar to law school exam questions?
The questions on the bar exam are often quite different than the questions that appear on law school exams. In most states, essay questions are often much more direct and specific than the traditional, open-ended, "discussion" questions found on law school exams.
In addition, bar exam essay questions often have multiple parts and can require students to draw upon several different areas of law when formulating their responses. The amount of time allotted for a given question is also often different on the bar exam than law school exams, with examiners allocating 30 to 45 minutes per question. In many states, in addition to having to manage time while answering a single question, students have to manage their time within a three hour block allocated for six or more essay questions (however, it should be noted, this practice varies from state-to-state and students should understand the format of the exam, as well as the testing practices of the jurisdiction in which they plan to take the bar exam in advance of the bar review period).
As these statements make clear, one of the greatest challenges presented by essay questions on the bar exam is their time constraints. However, regular essay practice during bar review (actually writing full essay responses) and having a dedicated, plan of attack when answering essay questions can help overcome this challenge. It is recommended that students write out responses to as many practice essay questions over the course of the summer as possible - This will mean doing more essay practice than is required by your course. However, in states where the state portion of the exam is more heavily weighted than the MBE portion for grading purposes (VA, MD, NC, CA, PA, NY, TX, for example) this additional practice can really pay off.
When answering a bar exam essay question, students should read the call of the question first before reading the fact pattern, returning to the call of the question once more after they have read the entirety of the question.
Students are encouraged to outline their answers before they begin typing/writing their response. An outline should be just that - an outline - not a full, detailed answer. Students should note important topics, phrases, rules, as well as key, operative facts when outlining their answer, checking off each topic as they write their response. Students should devote approximately one-third of the time allotted to an essay question to outlining.
Organization is key when answering essay questions on the bar exam. Students should use headings, numbers/letters, bulletpoints and other organizational tools to make their answer as readable as possible. If a question has sub-parts or sections, students' responses should mirror the structure of the question. Essay responses should follow an IRAC (Issue-Rule-Analysis/Application-Conclusion), CRAC (Conclusion-Rule-Analysis/Application-Conclusion) or TRAC (Topic-Rule-Analysis/Application-Conclusion) format.
It is imperative that students make their responses as clear and easy to follow as possible. Most bar graders are reading hundreds of essays and have only two to three minutes to grade each essay. It should also be noted that bar exam essay grading is a volunteer activity and not a full-time job. Furthermore, most graders are reading essays in an area that is not their primary area of practice - This means, they are often dependent upon the checklist and other grading materials provided by the bar examiners.
In non-UBE jurisdictions, how is the bar exam graded?
The state portion of the bar exam (essays, performance tests (including MPT)) is graded by lawyers from the testing jurisdiction trained by the jurisdiction's Board of Bar Examiners. The MBE is graded by the National Conference of Examiners (NCBEX).
With the exception of UBE jurisdictions, the weight assigned to each portion of the bar exam varies by jurisdiction. For a detailed summary of grading breakdowns for popular bar exam jurisdictions, please consult:
For the grading breakdown in all jurisdictions, please see pp. 29-30 of the NCBEX's Comprehensive Guide to Bar Requirements: