Bar Exam Essay Tips

The proper way to write an essay will depend greatly on the jurisdiction in which you take the bar examination. The first thing to look at is how much does the essay portion count toward your total grade. If it is less than 30%, then you can probably make it your lowest priority. If it is over 50%, then it should be your highest priority. If it is somewhere in between, then you should adjust accordingly.

The second factor is to determine what are your time and length constraints. For example, in Oregon, you are given 90-minute blocks to write three essays, which works out to 30 minutes per essay. This is not a lot of time to digest a 1/2- to 1-page long fact scenario and write a good essay. The Oregon bar examiners have thought of that and so have imposed page/character limits. If you handwrite the exam, you get three pages; if you type the exam, you get a maximum number of characters which works out to almost exactly one single-spaced typed page. In such a situation, issue-spotting and rule statements are most important, while analysis will be kept to a bare minimum.

In contrast, in a jurisdiction like California, you have 60 minutes per essay and no page limit. Thus, even if you take an excruciatingly long 10 minutes to read the fact scenario and outline your essay, you still have 50 minutes to write. This is why some of the sample answers posted on the bar website read like law review articles. With that much time, analysis becomes king. While it is important to spot all the issues and explain the legal rules applicable or potentially applicable to the situation, if the analysis is lacking, you will fail the essay portion.

Lastly, if possible, get your hands on copies of real essays that have been submitted and graded. Read a few (3-6) for varied subjects before you ever practice writing an essay so that you can get a sense for the format for your jurisdiction. For Oregon, BarBri had copies of actual graded essays in the BarBri essay preparation materials. These were invaluable for at least two reasons: (1) demystifying the process of what gets points from the bar graders and thus lowering stress and (2) seeing that some pretty bad essays earned passing grades and thus raising my confidence level. In California, you can see copies of very good essays on the California bar website. These can be intimidating because many of them are extraordinarily well written. If you go to baressays.com, you can see one sample essay that earned a passing grade of 70 points. You can see that it is good, but not great. Again, confidence building here. [If you are aware of resources for other jurisdictions, please post a comment below. Thanks.]

Applying the Information

Now that you have gathered all of the background information necessary to get the "lay of the land" for your jurisdiction's essay portion of the examination … how to study? As I indicated above, this will depend on the jurisdiction. So, I'll list two study formats: (1) jurisdictions where analysis is minimal (e.g., Oregon) and (2) jurisdictions where analysis is at a premium (e.g., California, Washington – which is an all-essay bar exam, etc.). But first, one thing that is the same no matter where you take the exam is that you need to write out lots of practice essays. I'd recommend at least 5 per subject, which amounts to between 70 and 85 practice essays at a minimum. This means you will need to do several per day on average. You should write these sample essays under varying situations, such as writing a Criminal Law essay immediately after studying Criminal Law for 3 hours and writing a Criminal Law essay a week later after not having studying it for several days. Write essays in blocks under timed conditions simulating your jurisdiction's examination (e.g., Oregon – 3 essays in 90 minutes; California -- 3 essay in 180 minutes). If you don't practice writing essays, you are almost guaranteed to fail the written portion.

Minimal Analysis Jurisdiction

As I mentioned, the premium in a Minimal Analysis Jurisdiction is on issue spotting and setting forth the applicable rule(s) of law. Therefore, ability to spot issues is the most important thing. When you are at the beginning of your bar preparation and are practicing essay writing, be sure to spend an overly long period of time ferreting out every possible and tangential issue from the fact pattern. Write out a basic outline containing all the issues you can find. You can use sample essay questions from other jurisdictions to do this as well since issue spotting is the same no matter who gives the test. Of course, you will not, during the first few weeks, be able to spot all the issues in any given fact pattern because you will not have memorized enough law to do so. This is o.k; give yourself permission not to be perfect because, after all, you are not and cannot be so. The key with the intense issue spotting practice is to learn how the bar examiners in your state “hide the ball.” In other words, you need to start learning which fact patterns are common for particular issues, which issues seem to always or almost always appear together, how the call of the question relates to the issues appearing in the facts, etc. (NB: this is part of the creation of issue pairs that I mention in another post.)

If your jurisdiction imposes a page limit for essays answers, make sure you practice paring down your writing to get all the necessary information in to that length. This can be difficult, especially when writing an essay where the various issues have numerous subparts (e.g., constitutional law, torts, criminal law). During the first few weeks, feel free to exceed the limit. The important part to begin with is to get all of the issues, rules, and analysis in written form. Once you feel comfortable doing that, being to edit yourself. If possible, review examples of actual passing essays to see what information is necessary and is rewarded with points as compared to what information is superfluous and not point-worthy.

Practice writing as many essays as you have time for in the final 2 or 3 weeks before the examination. If you feel you have mastered writing complete essays, then review as many essay questions as possible to practice issue spotting.

Premium Analysis Jurisdiction

What I wrote in the first paragraph under “Minimal Analysis Jurisdictions” applies here as well. The first couple weeks are to learn how to issue spot – in my opinion, you should resist, during the first week of your bar prep course, the temptation to start writing out full-length essay answers. Writing out essays during the first week just induces frustration and anger. You are so overwhelmed at that point that writing bad essays (and they will be bad during the first few weeks) may send you over the edge into self-doubting oblivion.

Unlike with the Minimal Analysis Jurisdictions, the trick with a jurisdiction that gives you a large time allowance and no page limit is to build up stamina. For example, if you spot 5 main issues (each with, of course, multiple sub-issues) in a fact pattern, then you are going to have to write a lot in one hour to provide a thorough analysis. In order to build up the stamina (mental and physical) to accomplish this, you will need to have practiced writing in full numerous essays under exam-like time pressure.

But building up stamina is something that must be done over time. After all, you don't learn how to complete the IronMan triathalon with 1 week of training. I recommend the following steps.

1. Beginning in the second week of your bar prep course, make time to write out several essays per week, either using a pre-made schedule (e.g., PACE) or a schedule of your own creation. These essay responses should be as developed as possible. You will inevitably miss issues, get the law wrong, and make silly mistakes. That is okay, you are building up stamina. Write as much as you can for as long as you need to. Compare your answer to the sample answer. Be proud for the points you got, but acknowledge that you need to do a lot more studying.

2. About the fourth week of bar prep, you should have at least a few subjects fairly well understood. Likely, one of the subjects that appears on the MBE will be at your command to some extent (e.g., Torts, Criminal Law). Whatever subject you feel most knowledgeable about at that time, select at least two essay questions from that subject and write answers to those essays under timed conditions. Write the answers back to back. Review by comparing your answers to the sample answers. Now is the time to start fine tuning your analysis and essay responses. If you missed any issues, make a note to review those topics. The key now is to start determining what analytical steps you are missing and why your interpretation of the facts differed from the sample answer provided. The goal is to get to the point where your essays approximate 85-90% of the sample answers.

3. Rinse and Repeat. In other words, as you gain mastery of the various topics on the essay portion of your jurisdiction's bar examination, write out several essays in a row and analyze what you did right and what you did wrong.

4. Finally, at least once during your bar prep (ideally twice), do a simulated essay day. If your bar has a full-day essay session, do a mock version of it. If it is only a half day essay session, do a mock version of it. The key is to practice under conditions similar to the actual bar examination.

Mental Health Note: if at any point you write 3 or 4 essays in a row that are terrible, take a break from writing essays for a few days. Concentrate on MBE and reviewing outlines. The worst thing you can do while studying for the bar exam is to get to a point where you are constantly telling yourself that you can’t do something or that something is too hard. The bar exam is not harder than law school. The bar exam is, however, a mindf*ck extraordinaire . . . if you let it become one.

In addition to building up stamina, writing essays in a Premium Analysis Jurisdiction requires a much greater depth of knowledge than in a Minimal Analysis Jurisdiction. The greater depth of knowledge is necessary so that your analysis will be complete. If you have enough knowledge, your essays will often be extraordinarily lengthy and even one hour may not seem like enough time to write a response.

The only way to get this depth of knowledge is to study your bar prep materials a lot and know them cold. Honestly, though, this will not be accomplished by reading over each outline 500 times. You need to apply the knowledge in a practical ways in order to truly learn it: (1) writing out essays; (2) developing issue pairings and checklists that make sense to you; and (3) explaining concepts to yourself orally (do this where no one will hear you and think you are a raving lunatic). In short, learn the information and then solidify it through application.



If you would like more help with writing bar exam essays, be sure to get my book, How to Write Bar Exam Essays: Strategies and Tactics to Help You Pass the Bar Exam, available on Amazon, BN, Audible and iTunes.


[Photo: Enokson]


Performance Test Tips

To start with, there are two kinds of Performance Tests: the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) and the California Performance Test (CPT). Both are essentially the same, except the MPT is only 90 minutes while the CPT is 3 hours. Although I am unsure of exact totals, at least 33 jurisdictions (66% of them) use the MPT. If you plan on taking the test in a non-PT jurisdiction, consider yourself lucky.

As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I have passed both the Oregon and the California bar exams. The Oregon bar exam uses the MPT. I found the 90 minute format to be rather easy. There is only so much you can do in 90 minutes. In contrast, the 3-hour format of the California bar PT is onerous and, as a lawyer might say, overbroad as to time and scope. The PT is, allegedly, designed to test how you can think and write as a real lawyer. I think this is BS since no "real" lawyer would digest 3-5 cases, review an entire litigation file, and draft and finalize a memo in 90 or 180 minutes. At least, I hope no real lawyer would do this.

OK, Bar Advisor, enough narcisistic intellectual masturbation: tell me how I pass this thing.

As with all portions of the bar exam, the key to success is practice. (Of course, stress reduction and visualization matter as well.) To be successful, practice must be done in an efficient and useful way. Let me lay out the steps to go through as you advance in your bar preparation.

General Preparation

Step 1: Read at least two examples of PT questions and answers. This will give you a sense for how the diverse information contained in the Library and File portions (see below) of the PT get converted into a passing answer. For those of you taking the California bar exam, you can get some examples on the Cal Bar website by CLICKING HERE. For those of you taking the PT in an MPT jurisdiction, you will probably have to rely on sample answers given by your bar prep course. I would also suggest reading one or two sample answers from the Cal Bar website as well.

Step 2: At the proper time in your study schedule, do your first practice PT. Do not write the answer out, but merely outline the answer. Then read the sample answer and see how much of the information you gathered and how closely you got the order. You probably missed a few things. That's okay, make a note of what you missed and try to figure out why. This is the key: self-knowledge and understanding of your errors. You can plow away and write 30 sample PTs, but if you never review and learn, you will have much less success.

Step 3: At the proper time in your study schedule, write out an entire PT. I would suggest doing a maximum of 5 sample PTs in their entirety. I think I probably did 5 when I took the Oregon bar and 3 when I took California. For me, writing out an entire PT is soul-killing. The PT has nothing to do with memorization or knowledge and everything to do with how you spot relevant pieces of information. So, once you can do that, there really is no need to practice writing them out. The real reason to practice writing them is to make sure you can get the job done within 90 minutes or 3 hours. In other words, you need to practice writing out entire PTs only until the point when you know the time pressure is no longer an issue for you. Then, you can just review PT tests periodically and do outlines to make sure you can spot all the relevant facts and legal authority.

Okay, so now I have given you the high-altitude overview. What about the neighborhood map? In other words, how do I write the thing. Here is my approach. Think about it, try it once. If it works for you, great; if not, try to figure out why not and then modify it to suit your style.

Structural Anthropology of the PT

The PT consists of a File and a Library. The File contains the assignment memorandum, format guidelines, and the facts you need to complete your task. The Library contains the various legal authority (statutes and cases, usually) you need to interpret those facts.

First, read the assignment memorandum in the File.

Second, skim (spend a max of 5 minutes) the entire Library, looking for anything that might be useful (e.g., multi-pronged tests, key words in statutes, etc.). Put a check mark in the margin next to these useful bits.

Third, skim (again, max 5 minutes) the entire File, noting facts that seem to relate to the assignment memorandum and the Library. Check marks in the margins again.

Fourth, read the assignment memorandum and the format guidelines memo (if there is one) carefully. Write down the major topics in basic outline format on a separate sheet of paper. [NB: some people who type the exam will type the outline into their computer and then fill in the written portion of the PT. Although I typed both of my bar exams, I could not do that. If I could, I probably would have as it seems to increase efficiency and permit more time to write.]

Fifth, read the Library carefully and fill in the various legal tests and statutory language that is relevant to the topics you generated by reading the assignment memorandum. If necessary, re-write your outline on another sheet of paper.

Sixth, read the File carefully for facts applicable to the legal authority you have culled from the Library. Write the basic fact and a citation (i.e., the page number so you can find it again) to that fact.

Seventh, review the outline and make sure it makes sense. If anything seems confusing, find the needed information to de-confuse. [By now, a maximum of half your test time should have expired.]

Eighth, write . . . quickly.



MBE Tips and Study Strategy

The proper study strategy for the MBE can be summed up in three words: repetition, repetition, repetition. Chessy, but true. The MBE is really a test to see how well you take a test. It is not a test that truly tests knowledge.

[Click here for my free MBE outlines!]

If bar examiners only wanted to test knowledge, then the essay portion would be sufficient. After all, if you cannot explain something in writing, then (absent some sort of disability that leaves you unable to express your thoughts in writing) you likely do not understand it.

A test to test your test-taking ability

What do I mean by this? In my opinion, the MBE is designed to trick you. The answers to many of the multiple choice questions turn on minor distinctions that the question narrative makes as opaque as possible. Both times I took the MBE (in Oregon and California), I left the testing center with an uncertain feeling. I did not necessarily feel like I failed, but I had no idea if I passed. I thought I had answered many of the questions correctly, but I also thought that I had gotten many of them wrong.

The important thing, therefore, is to practice on as many questions as possible. Thousands of questions is ideal. When I studied for the Oregon bar and used PMBR, I did about 1500 of the questions. When I studied for the California bar, I completed every single one of the Adaptibar questions (1250, I believe) and then did a few hundred of the BarBri questions as well. [Note:  see my post on selecting a bar prep course.]  By the time the examination rolled around, I had a pass rate on the practice questions in excess of 80%, so I figured that I would be able to pass the real thing. Both times I passed the bar exam, so I assume I at least did average on the MBE, though I suspect my actual score was above-average.

[By the way, I think Adaptibar is great.  You can check out my adaptibar review video for more.  I even arranged a special deal where you can get $50 off the Adaptibar course if you buy it via my affiliate link.]


So, you plan to do in excess of one thousand MBE questions. Good. Now, how do you organize this? If you are doing BarBri and following the PACE program, just do what it says. If you are modifying the PACE or are doing some other study course, then here is my suggestion. I would do 25-40 questions (more is ideal) for each subject whenever you have set aside time to do MBE questions. So, for example, if you have set aside 2 hours to study Constitutional Law MBE questions, then do as many questions as you can in 90 minutes, and then take the last 30 minutes for review. Since the MBE is geared to finishing about 33 questions per hour, you should initially get through at least 40 questions in 90 minutes and should be at about 50 questions per 90 minutes when you approach exam time.

The important part of the practice is the REVIEW. When you get a question correct, skim the answer explanation to make sure that you got it right because you understood the question, not because you got lucky. If you got lucky, then follow the same protocol as for the questions you missed.

For the questions you missed, do the following: 1) read the explanation carefully; 2) review the text of the question to see -- bearing the explanation in mind -- if you understand where you went wrong; 3) determine if you were tricked by the question or if you simply did not know the rule, test, or theory being tested [if you were tricked, spend a minute understanding what exactly tricked you; be on the lookout for such tricks in the future]; and 4) if you did not know the rule, then write a flashcard so that you can review that rule repeatedly in the coming days/weeks before the bar exam [don't overdo the flashcards; probably should try to limit the new ones to 5 per review session].


You need to follow the same system everytime you practice the MBE questions. Consistancy creates familiarity which leads to proficiency and therefore bar passage.

As you review your outlines and checklists, be cognisant of the areas with which you have had problems while studying for the MBE. Slow down when you review these portions of your outlines and checklists so that when you come across this area of law in your practice, you will engrave the concepts into your mind and have full command by the time the exam rolls around.

In the end, repetition creates confidence. Confident people pass the bar exam.

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