12 Tips for a Successful Bar Exam

Thousands of law students launch their careers after successfully navigating the bar exam just once. Use these 12 tips, and you, too, can make it to the admission ceremony on time.

Applying to take the bar exam

  1. Make a timely application for both the bar exam and, if you want to type, for using Examsoft. The timely-filing deadline has the lowest fee. If you are reading this in mid-May 2011, you have missed most timely and late deadlines for the July bar.

To get it right next time, check in with your Career Services Office and read the ABA Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar’s Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements, known affectionately as “The Comp Guide.” It is updated annually, contains dates and deadlines, character and fitness information, fees, and more. Also check in with the Bar Examiners in your state for the most current rules and procedures and whether the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE) is required.

  1. Amend your bar exam application when necessary. When bar examiners check records before signing off on your admission and find a mid-June DWI, you are in trouble. Most bar examiners require notification within ten days of the occurrence of any triggering (aka “really bad”) event, and “I forgot” is not an excuse. Bar admission can be delayed or denied.
  2. Consider where to sleep the night before the bar exam. If you are coming from out of town, get a hotel room as close to the exam site as possible. “I missed the off-ramp” is not an excuse for being late and you will get no extra time. If you are taking two states’ exams, have both Plan A and Plan B that will get to you to the exam sites on time.

Studying for the bar exam

  1. Stick to study habits that worked for you while you were in school. If your pattern was studying five hours a day, trying to work for 12-hour stretches may be counter-productive. Whether you take a bar review class or study on your own, take as many real-time practice essay tests as possible. Thousands of sample Multistate Bar exam questions are available. Whether your state drafts its own or uses the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) questions, find them all and practice, practice, practice.
  2. Study groups are a gamble. Unless you are continuing with the group you have been in since Torts, finding an appropriate rhythm with strangers has the potential to detract from purposeful and productive studying.
  3. Exercise and eat right. Meeting the pizza delivery guy does not count as exercise unless you climb down 30 flights of stairs to get it. Sugar, fat, salt, and caffeine are not food groups.
  4. Do not talk to other test-takers for two weeks before the exam. Your friends will remember things that you have never heard of and they will confuse you with their notions of arcane issues of trust law. Don’t let yourself be distracted.

Taking the bar exam

  1. Top tool: a wrist watch. You will not be able to use your cell phone’s clock, so beg, borrow, but do not steal a watch, and set it to 12 o’clock. Calculate the time allowed for each question, and write the time on your exam sheet. After one hour (1 o’clock) on a 60-minute question, you must move on. Whatever small number of points that you might earn for writing 30 minutes beyond that allotted time will not make up for missing a question entirely. You get no points for questions that you skip.
  2. Read the questions. Read them again. Follow the instructions. If you are asked to write a memo to a client, do it. If you are hand-writing the exam and are instructed to write on every other line on every other page, do it. Whether writing or typing, know that a live person will read your answers. Make it as easy as possible for that person to give you points.
  3. Using IRAQ, outline your answers, and do not start to write before you think carefully. The late Earle Kyle IV, who graded seven rounds of bar exams, often advised University of Minnesota Law School students that bar exam graders can tell if you write without a plan because relevant issues surface after you have dissected red herrings. You may get points for something on your outline. Can’t remember the law? He suggesting discussing the facts.
  4. Telepathy is not a bar exam tool. Kyle advised students that their exams are graded against a grid. He noted that bar exam graders do not know what you know, and that test takers should write down everything. For a ConLaw question, write: “This is a Constitutional Law Question. [1 point] It involves state action [1 point].”
  5. Do not risk your career on this exam. Bar Exam Graders are the last stop on your road to becoming a lawyer and inappropriate answers calling your fitness into question will be referred to the Board of Law Examiners. Nothing in your answers should be funny, snide, nasty or obscene.

Think clearly. Write eloquently. Good luck…


  1. Avatar thenambypamby says:

    You forgot:

    1. Don’t get a crippling hangover after the first day of the bar exam. This could cramp your style on the final day.

    If only I’d known this…

    • Avatar BL1Y says:

      Meh. I had about 9 drinks after the first day of the Alabama bar exam, woke up with a hangover, puked, and still passed the thing easy-peasy.

      As for the BarBri stuff, per Bob’s comment, the question is whether you think you’ll study on your own. If you’re good about it, self study, if you need the structure, pay for BarBri.

  2. Avatar W. Lewis Black says:

    14. Avoid deaths in the family (like, say, your mother) within three weeks of the Bar Exam, if at all possible. It really impacts the quality of your last-minute studying….

    1. Take Bar/Bri and show up for class every day, but don’t feel you have to follow their plan exactly. I recall they suggested 2000 practice MBE questions. I did about 700 and scored very well on the MBE – and I graduated in the middle of my law school class.
    2. Take the weekend PMBR class close to exam time. It’ll help you suss out which is the almost-best (but incorrect) answer.
    3. I am convinced that a person who fails the bar exam (in high pass-rate states like MN and WI, where I am licensed) either does not study (possibly because s/he deep down does not want to be a lawyer) or just freaks out at exam time.
    4. If you do fail, decide if you really need a law license to be happy. If so, take the test again ASAP. And pass it. I know good attorneys who failed the first time, and terrible attorneys who were grade stars in law school and passed the bar the first time.
  3. Avatar Bob Larson says:

    Don’t bother taking Bar/Bri. Instead, buy last year’s study materials, and read the Conviser versions of each subject, multiple times.

    Also, don’t kill yourself studying. 4 – 6 hours per day, 5 days a week, for the three weeks before the exam is plenty.

    What you should worry about most is your legal writing; if you can’t write well, learn, and fast. It’s the most vital skill you can have, and you can score points for a well-structured argument that’s straightforward and concise a lot easier than you can with a hodge-podge of jumbled facts, poor analysis, and scattered elements of law.

  4. Avatar Karol Puzinowski says:

    An excellent post but you failed to include some important suggestions like purchasing a “yelling jar”

    In all seriousness, some great tips. Thank you. Taking the bar this summer.

  5. Avatar Joe Jones says:

    The advantage of paying for Bar/Bri is that it gives you a clear framework and schedule to study for the bar, as well as a bunch of practical hints for scoring extra points. If you just take on the outline by yourself, you will know the material well but might not present it in the way the bar examiners want to see it.

    I did Pieper instead of Bar/Bri for the NY bar, and highly recommend the program, in part because it focuses on how to write the essays — an important component of the score and very difficult to learn from a book.

    Be sure to buy your bar course on an airline credit card so you can use the miles for a vacation afterwards!

  6. Avatar Joel Anderson says:

    I just don’t understand how one can use Iraq to pass the bar…don’t they have different laws entirely over there?

  7. Avatar Wade Coye says:

    One of our office’s prized case managers is on sabbatical for the next 3 months to study for the Florida bar. Our entire office is rooting for her! Thank you for these practical tips, as I will certainly pass them along to see if they can be of assistance to her. She told me she feels she’s been preparing for this her entire life, and I have the fullest confidence in her abilities. My best advice? Stay focused while studying. Don’t think you can take your materials to the pool or beach and fully absorb the information there. The best way to train yourself to prepare for the seriousness is to take it absolutely seriously.

  8. Avatar Matt Racine says:

    I agree these are good tips. I am a believer in the power of visualization to help you calm your fears and increase performance. One good thing to do is visualize walking into the bar exam testing area and remaining calm. Also, visualize your end goals: receiving passing results and being sworn in. If you visualize yourself already having passed, it is that much easier to make it a reality.

  9. Avatar Jeffrey Totty says:

    If your school has an Academic Success (or similar) department and offers coaching with a bar licensed counselors, take advantage of what this department and these coaches have to offer. In addition to the commercial courses, students can also get additional writing and MBE workshops. It helps to have a dedicated coach/mentor who has been there and whose sole duty for this brief period of time is to assure that students pass the bar the first time out.

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