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.


Anonymous said...

Excellent blog! I'll be using some of your tips in prep for July. Thank you for posting this.

I do have a question regarding CA PT's. I have failed twice because of my PT scores (2 65's/both times would of passed me). I have read every PT ever published, taken 3 PT prep courses, written out 50 3hr PT's. My scores are 55 or 60 everytime on the bar. My essays are fine (I know the law well and have written 100's) and mbe's 130ish raw on the bar (I've done about 3000). I'm mentioning my essay/mbe prep because I feel like I've tapped my potential on these (i.e. more work on these is not producing the needed bump in score to off set lousy PT's).

Any thoughts on how I might move my PT scores up to 65(+)? I don't regard a 65 as a good score, but it would be more than enough to pass me. Also, it would be helpful to read your thoughts on what you feel the PT graders are looking for. How did you approach reading, outlining, and writing your PT's on the bar in 08? Thanks!

Admin said...

Hey Anonymous, thanks for the compliments. I am planning on posting an extended PT discussion in the next week or two, but given your comment, I'll post something brief now.

First, it is clear that you don't panic on the bar exam since you are getting passign scores on the essay and MBE parts, so mental preparation is probably not an issue for you. Second, the fact that you have gotten 100s on essays shows that you can write well, so written expression does not appear to be a problem for you.

Have you read the PTs that the California Bar posts on its website? You probably have, but if not, you should look at them. These are actual PTs that people wrote during the bar exam. I'd practice writing answers to those PTs if you haven't been already.

You might try visualization. I mentioned this in an earlier post. I would visualize being at the test site, getting the PT, writing the entire thing out, and then passing the bar. Maybe visualize writing one of the PTs that has been printed on the Cal Bar website as a model answer.

As for what the PT graders are looking for . . . it seems like they want to see that you have been able to find the relevant facts or law or whatever the assignment memo was seeking from the PT-writer. The graders probably want to see appropriate headings (in memos and trial brief-type PTS). Headings seem very important since a good heading will reveal your argument and conclusion to the reader.

These are just initial thoughts. As I mentioned, check back in a week or two for my extended discussion of PT taking. Since everyone is about to kick their studying into high gear, I'll be posting my essay preparation guide as well.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I look forward to your future posts. Note: (quick correction) I've received a few 75's on bar essays (highest scores), but wrote 100's of practice essays (I wish I scored 100's on essays!).

Great idea to visualize a published bar answer! I've read them, but I havn't done this.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the MBE tips. Have you worked with people who have received low MBE scores? The MBEs are my total downfall....I have taken the bar LOTS (more than 5) times and the highest MBE score I have gotten is 121 (on the Feb 09 Bar). Miserable. I know. Anyway, out of all the exams I have taken, there have only been 2 exams that I have not received a second read on. My score on July 08 was 1430ish and Feb 09 was I am not far. I hope your advice/tips will help improve my MBE score. Do you think I should focus most of my study time on MBEs only? I would appreciate any imput you may have.

Admin said...

Hey Anon May 19th. First, let me correct any impression that I am a bar tutor. I am just putting this blog out there in the hope that it can be useful to some people. So, all my advice is based on my own bar exam experiences with the Oregon and California bar exams and the experiences of close friends.

That said, it seems like it is important for you to weight your prep time slightly in favor of MBE prep, but don't let that lower your written scores. Even if you score 150 raw, you can still fail if your written scores drop. Be sure to read what this California bar exam grader says about how much more important the written portion of the California bar is as compared to the MBE: Bar Grader Interview PDF.

If you haven't tried Adaptibar, you might want to. The questions are from real MBEs of the past and the web-based interface makes it possible to easily practice and keep track of the areas where you are weakest. This may make your study time more efficient and thereby allow you to still devote sufficient time to essay and PT practice.

Good luck.

Change of Venue said...

Thank you for your great advice on MBEs and other aspects of the bar exam.

If you don't object, I am taking a series of surveys about the bar exam experience to share with other bar exam takers. Market research was my profession (before it became the profession of attempting to pass the bar exam!), and I'm attempting to glean collective experiences and post survey results on my blog.

My surveys can be found at:

Thank you.

Admin said...

Change of Venue,

Your surveys are a pretty cool idea. I took your MBE survey and the general survey you have in your right-side column. It would be interesting, after you have a significant sample size, to see the results. I'll put a link to your blog in my blog roll so people who don't read comments can find it.

Should You Be A Lawyer? said...

These are good tips for the MBE, and for the multiple choice portions of many state bar exams too. Preparation is more difficult for test-takers since the National Conference of Bar Examiners does not release old questions. I personally thought that the BarBri questions were more detailed and trickier than the real ones.

Several years ago, Kaplan/PMBR got sued by the NCBE who claimed the Kaplan questinos were too much like the real test, so much that it constituted copyright infringement. The case settled. I can't think of a better advertisement for a test prep company than that - I'm guessing they had to change their questions after that.

I passed with using Bar Bri books by myself. I did not expend anywhere near as much effort as you described. My score wasn't impressive, but it was good enough.

Anonymous said...

Check out MBE 101 for iPhone and iPad. It's got MBE practice questions you can do anywhere. Very convenient. Search it on the app store, or go to

Bar Advisor said...

@Anonymous June 4th -- Well, it looks like a spam comment, but the app referred to looks like it might be decent, so I'll leave it as an FYI for everyone.

Anonymous said...

I'm doing to practice questions but am having difficulty with selecting the correct answer. I get it down to the 2 from which to choose and then have often chosen the wrong one. I will do all of the questions in the blue PMBR book. 100 per subject and their mock exam (200). But may not have much time for more given that I have to work on FL essays. How do I learn from reading the facts to focus in on what's important and what to dismiss. The red herring usually throws me off even though I try to stick to the main issue in the fact pattern. Any detailed pointers re: reading the question and narrowing down to the correct answer?

Bar Advisor said...

@Anonymous June 16 -- I had a really hard time choosing between the final two answers when I first started practicing for the MBE. This happened again the second time I took the bar exam!

I think that it is important to remember that as you practice MBE essays, you will continue to solidify the various rules of law which will help you pick the "best" answer.

I would also advise practicing with small numbers of MBE questions at a time, at least for a week or two. For instance, do 10 questions in a given topic area, then spend an extended time reviewing the answers to those questions. When you pick the incorrect answer after narrowing it down to two, carefully review what the distinction turned on. Does the question fact pattern have some small word that you glanced over that would have led you to pick the correct answer? Did the question trick you in some way?

So, for the next week or two, you might want to do limited practice questions, but spend a long time reviewing them.

Also, did you keep track of the questions where you can narrow down to two answers but got it wrong? If so, spend a day re-doing those questions. Take your time and try to remember what it was that you missed. I think it is very helpful to re-try questions you missed earlier.

Hope this helps a bit.

Anonymous said...

I am not certain, so thought to ask here. Is it true the greatest chance at success in California Bar is by passing the MBE threshold?. Before February 2012, it was believed, graders gave all areas of the exam an equal examination. Such examination allowed a buffer for a test-taker, where if he/she was weak in one area (MBE) he/she could make it up in other area (Essay/PT's). However, as of 2012, it appears a threshold now exists. That is, if one cannot get the necessary eligible MBE score (133 - 140) the other areas will not be fully examined. This means, if an examiner is dealing with a low MBE score, the other areas will only be given a cursory view (assigning 55 - 60' essayPT grades). It seems plausible from an efficiency view. Easier to pluck out an insufficient exam from a promising exam. Plus one cannot argue with a scan tron score. This principle is how other states grade their exams. The result is a more difficult road to trek for California exam takers. Is any of this true?,

Bar Advisor said...

@Anonymous 11/21/2012

Since I have never graded CA bar exams, I don't know if what you suggest is true.

A few years ago, I read an interview with a former CA bar grader who said that you could pass the CA bar with a low MBE score, but it was next to impossible to pass with low essay and PT scores.

That makes sense to me because the MBE portion of the CA bar is only 35% of the total grade, while the written portion accounts for 65%. If the CA bar graders used a low MBE score as an excuse not to grade the written portion, it just would not make any sense to me.

The only scenario I could maybe see something like that occurring would be if the MBE score was so low (approaching zero) that even perfect written scores would still result in a failing grade. Then, and only then, there would be no point in grading the written portion.

But, that is all speculation on my part.

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