BarEssays Review: Practicing Essays Is Not Enough

Ever wonder what you’re doing with your life? How you even got into this mess?

And by life, I’m talking about California essays (and performance tests) that seem to need a beautiful mind to unravel. Because that’s your life now. It should be. I’ve been there. So has Gabrielle:

(If you’re taking the MEE or another bar, you may want to stop reading when you get to the table of contents.)

Part of why the written portion of the California bar is so difficult is what they demand out of your essays. The hypos are dense and packed with a landmine of issues for you to figure out under constant pressure.

This is one of several reasons why the California bar is considered the hardest bar exam in the country. This isn’t up for debate. You can try, but I will win.

 

For example, an MEE question might be narrow enough that the issue is practically identified for you: Is Defendant guilty of burglary?

Compare with a prompt on the CA bar: What crimes did D, E and F commit? Explain.

You only get 60 minutes to answer. And if you miss a major issue, you’re toast.

Identifying the relevant issues is instrumental to essay success. You get zero points for an issue you never raise, even if you know the rule. At least you might get token partial credit if you put down the issue but fumble around with the rule and application.

Put another way, if you want that 65 score, you need knowledge of issues + knowledge of rules (+ presentation of issues).

You might think “eh, I’ll manage” and continue to absorb outlines and watch lectures since you figure essays are subjective anyway. You might start working on MBE instead because you can see your performance there more clearly. You think back to your nostalgic college days and think you can BS your way through the essays.

Until you actually sit down and try an essay yourself. Until you realize you have more subjects to study for than the MBE, with 13 possible essay topics (not including crossovers)!

When I retook the CA bar, every single fellow repeater from my class had to improve their essays to pass. (I myself used BarEssays to study the second time around (and I passed (although I’m not saying I credit BarEssays entirely (but I totally recommend it and will tell you why below))).)

The essays are a quicksand pitfall covered in tarp and lined with your worst nightmare, so I say you don’t mess around with them. Let me know if you have a better analogy.

I’m sure you’ve had this feeling already, especially if you’re a repeater.

anxious about the written portion

And as you may know, there have been measures that may appear to blunt this effect:

  • The written portion is now only worth 50% (with essays making up 5/7th of the points),
  • The exam is only two days now (why, back in my day…), and
  • The Supreme Court of California is considering lowering the pass threshold.

You may think those are exciting changes, but maybe that’s not entirely true.

With respect to the first two points, each essay is actually “heavier” now.

By that, I mean there are five essays now, all in one day. People report being more exhausted than with the three-day format. It also means the points are more concentrated, making each essay more important than before. See this table for the specific numbers:

Summary of Changes to California Bar Exam as of July, 2017

And as for that third point, I don’t care either way what happens. But if you’re fresh out of law school, lowering the cut score is a short-term solution that may be delaying the inevitable. Imagine the job market getting even more saturated. You may pass the bar, but are you going to get the job you want?

If you’re a reader of my blog, then you know it’s actually more effective to wish you were better instead of wishing things were easier.

So now what?

Stop “studying” and start learning. Study the test, but learn the material.

This is you on “studying”: You forget 99% of what you hear from the lectures. You can never quite remember what you read from your outlines. An unshakeable sense of doom creeps into the bottom of your heart because it feels like you wasted a whole day with no real progress.

So how do you learn and actually get better?

The reason the essay scores on my first attempt were poor was lack of practice. Do your lectures and outlines and flashcards if you have to, but don’t obsess over them. As a reader put it, “I actually only remember little from the lectures.”

Here’s the kicker, though:

Yeah, I said it: PRACTICE alone is NOT GOOD ENOUGH. What good is solving problems and applying what you know if you don’t know whether you did it right? Here’s something else I learned about learning during my rematch with the bar:

YOU NEED FEEDBACK.

What if you could see what a real “passing” answer looked like so that you could learn to write better essays and graders want to throw points at you?

And that’s where BarEssays comes in—a popular supplement for the essays on the California bar which just might tilt the odds in your favor.

Ultimate BarEssays Review

Why BarEssays Is FIRST on My List of Supplements for the California Bar Exam

 

Here are a few approaches you could take when preparing for the essays:

  • You could watch lectures, take diligent notes, and absorb outlines via osmosis. You’ll “figure it out later” since you’re familiar with what the rules look like anyway.
  • Nah, you feel like you need more. As a person of action, you could do the essays assigned by your prep course, and memorize outlines so that you can write beautiful rule statements. Feels good to check off your to-do list and see the progression meter tick!
  • Nah, you’re hella woke, why not do all the past essays in existence? Seeing is believing.

One could conceivably pass the bar using any of the above methods (in increasing order of likelihood).

But what’s missing here?

Remembering the material and doing the essays are great things to do, but what about the stuff after that?

If you ask me, you would improve your essay scores more with the following “Practice + Feedback” loop:

  • picking a handful of essays (say, 4 to 6) that cover a broad range of issues, and then writing or “cooking” them (i.e., identifying the issues and reciting the rules within 15 minutes),
  • getting feedback by comparing your work against actual or model answers, and
  • repeating this cycle.

To that end, if you want to more effectively prepare for essays on the California bar, consider BarEssays to provide the feedback element. I’ll go into more detail in a little bit.

This is your rare shot at passing this damn exam. If something could make it even 1% less likely to waste yet another 6 months of your life, would you consider $124 to be a worthwhile insurance policy?

That’s the cost of a standard BarEssays subscription (after coupon code) which lasts until a few days after the end of the next bar exam, usually March 1 and August 1. I’ll show you how to get the code at the end of this review.

First, let’s see if BarEssays is something you’d find helpful, as I did.

Table of contents

 

BarEssays gives you real answers that score low to high, so that you can compare your answer/outline and see what you did right or wrong

While answers written by Barbri or answers selected by the State Bar are helpful, they’re “model” answers. Of course, no one studies a “bad” answer.

“Perfect” selected answers from the State Bar (which are as representative as Instagram models with filters and MySpace angles) and Barbri’s model answers are helpful to the extent that they present the issues very well and explain concepts in such great detail.

Like that one time I finally learned what a 12(b)(6) motion was by reading one of the State Bar answers. Some gigantic nerd had written a really long account of the history and purpose of the rule (and still managed to stay within the time limit).

Apparently, they’re usually essays that represent the top answers in the state, sometimes by former Supreme Court clerks. This does a disservice to students who try to emulate them.

So while these model answers can be great learning tools, writing a treatise is not even close to what you’re looking to do on the exam.

One of the helpful things about BarEssays is that you can see what a particular essay would look like as, say, a 55 or a 65 or a 75. Something written by a regular person, the guy/girl next door instead of Abercrombie models.

"I used BarEssays when reviewing every essay"

Here’s what the search interface looks like (click to enlarge):

B

It seems like a lot going on, but it’s pretty straightforward:

  1. Choose a subject.
  2. Choose a preset score range.
  3. Choose a year from the dropdown menu.
  4. Choose an administration or both from the year you chose.
One drawback with the BarEssays interface is that I wish one could just search through ALL the scores at once (or a selected range), not separately in the three preset categories as shown. This way you could find all the available answers (low, mid, and high scores) for a given subject and year(s) with a single search. Being able to search a particular date range might also make it a bit more convenient. Or even a way to filter essays that test a particular issue (but you could check the issue list yourself as you’ll see below).

Then, in descending order of score received, see…

  1. The student answer
  2. The essay question
  3. State Bar selected answers (seems to be mostly newer essays from 2008)
  4. BarEssays’ model answer (premium subscribers only)
  5. If available, the student answer with annotations on what it did right and wrong, written by BarEssays staff (premium subscribers only).

In a sense, these answers can become tools to “model” your own answers after. For example, you could look at what a 55 answer looks like and make your way up to a 75 answer.

Are your issues and rules like the 55 answer? Or the 65 or 75?

BarEssays can get you that immediate feedback to your work. No need to wait 48 hours for your Barbri grader to get back to you.

The feedback comes from self-evaluating your answer/outline this way.

I believe self-evaluation is more valuable than having a tutor do it for you. Self-evaluating usually gives you a deeper understanding of what you need to do, because you’re the one sitting down and thinking about it. What’s more reliable than actual scores and learning the pattern of what gets you a high score?

Of course, if this hasn’t worked for you and you trust your tutor or grader, then get a tutor or grader. Listen to yourself first of all. Just don’t let fear automatically make you lean away from your work by default.

To get the most value out of your feedback loop, I would suggest looking at least three different answers that scored below a 65, a 65, and above a 65 (ideally ones that have annotations in them). You could also look at multiple high-scoring ones to see what are the patterns that got them the high scores.

BTW, just because someone failed the exam (and thus received their essays back), it doesn’t mean a given essay is failing material. Plenty of high-scoring answers are available.

Here are some examples that scored a 65 or above.

Remember that the true scarcity of this world is human attention. The grader is your client. Notice the clean headings, clean IRAC, clean presentation in these examples. There’s no ping-pong BS either!

Look at enough of these answers, and your own answers might start to look similar… When you have seen enough data, you KNOW where you went right or wrong. This is a bar intuition that will serve you well.

You’ll also notice that the most important components of IRAC are solidly present in the high-scoring answers. More specifically, here are the components in order of importance:

  • Relevant issues and sub-issues stated in clear headings: Sub-issues include parsed rule elements, nuances, exceptions, defenses, and related minor issues.
  • Relevant rule recitation: As long as the key elements are there, word the relevant law as you understand it.
  • Application (“analysis”): Don’t focus all your energy here while practicing essays or on the bar (PTs excepted); this is different from law school! Get the I and R right, and you’re home free for that issue. Can they even objectively grade this part? Hmm… hint hint.
  • Conclusion: Conclude and summarize your argument.

Remember what I said in the prologue about issue identification. Without the seeds of issues, no IRAC will sprout and bear points for you. A deadly path.

Graders may not care about you or have time to ponder your analysis that deeply. I’ve heard stories about graders reading your shit on the toilet and at red lights, no joke. Pun was intended.

Yes, graders are actual real-life humans, like you and your non-employed classmates.

So I would focus most of my preparation efforts on being able to present the right issues and recite the relevant rules so that the grader can at least skim through and get the sense that you’ve approached the problem correctly.

And BarEssays is an excellent place to see what official graders have deemed to be the “right” issues and rules.
 

BarEssays is the biggest collection of actual California essay answers—and essays themselves—with actual scores from actual graders

BarEssays’ collection spans back all the way before Y2K—from 1999.

After that dramatic declaration, there’s something stirring within me… Is this… “emotion”?

I feel slightly bad for the small exaggeration above because, while it’s technically true, the bulk of the graded answers are from 2005 and on. This still gives you over a decade of essay answers to pick from. In fact, there are over 3,000 of them.

Recent essays are more likely to be representative of the essays you’ll see on your exam anyway, so this works out.
 

If you’re a premium subscriber, you get BarEssays’ model answers and student answers that are annotated by their in-house graders

If you get a premium subscription (for $50 more), you’ll have even more opportunities to get self-feedback on your answer/outline.

What I mean is that you’ll get access to BarEssays’ own model answers. It’s like a filtered version of your prep course’s model answer or the State Bar’s selected answers, except it removes all the fluff (you know, those giant walls of text in their analysis that some gunner probably wrote)…

…while staying relevant to what actually got points. It’s like having the “ideal” answer.

Check out these samples of BarEssays’ own model answers:

Some graded answers also come with grader annotations that give you extra tips on how the answer did well or how it could improve.

For example, see this answer and this answer and the comments in the bubbles.
 

Little-known features of BarEssays include short outlines and templates (for premium members), lists of issues tested over 2000-2015, and essay submissions reviewed by BarEssays staff

Outlines, checklists, and templates (premium only)

If you end up getting a premium subscription, you get a little something extra:

BarEssays templates

The most useful aspect here seems to be the templates.

Did you identify the relevant issue and recite the relevant rule—but aren’t sure how to present them? (Presentation is the third piece to get that 65 if you recall what I said up in the prologue.) With a template, you can literally plug and play the issue and rule statements, all ready to go in IRAC form.

Check out how it works with these Contracts templates.

The templates would probably be most helpful early on in your studies, not while you’re cramming with just a few weeks looming. Not studying earlier is the unspoken 6th top regret of the dying:

"Biggest regret. To take Barbri and trust it for everything. Not spend time creating concise rule statements way before bar prep. Not writing more essays in timed condition..."

You get the idea.

Issue lists

First, you can select a subject to instantly jump to all the essays tested from 2000 to 2015 within that subject.

Each question then has a brief summary of the tested issues. Note that the more recent questions are pretty much placeholders, as seen in Question 3 below, for example:

Also, you can use this free essay locator to find essays for each subject from 2001 to 2013.

Essay submissions

With extra, you can get your essay graded by BarEssays staff. See the details below (click to enlarge):


 

What about performance tests?

Now that PTs are worth little over 14% and only 90 minutes long, I’d prioritize more on essays (and the MBE). Either way, the written portion is worth half of your grade. BarEssays has resources to help you succeed with that half.

Although it’ll be a while before there’s an appreciable number of answers for the 90-minute PT, I believe you should prepare with the 3-hour legacy PTs anyway. BarEssays has plenty of PT answers to look at, unless you feel entitled to cutting your PT prep time by half.

Also, stop calling them “MPTs.”
 

Pros, neutrals, and cons

Before you “think about it later” and end up impulse buying at the height of desperation in a few weeks, take a minute to consider whether it could be a worthwhile investment at some point, whenever you may be ready:

Pros – one-stop shop for your CA essay needs

  • BarEssays is an excellent tool for getting FEEDBACK on your essay answer or outline (via self-evaluation). Remember the Practice + Feedback loop. Mere memorization or practice alone is not enough.
  • You can instantly access all of these for the duration of your subscription…
    • every essay question since 2005 (with some going back to 1999)
    • the biggest collection of actual graded answers (over 3,000) for California essays and PTs
    • annotations and model answers (premium)
    • short outlines, checklists, templates (premium)
    • a list of issues tested
  • The site loads insanely fast. You might think this isn’t a big deal, but it is if you’re in the flow and want to look up something quickly or are looking for multiple essay answers in a row.

Neutral – disclaimers and things to consider

  • Fairly priced (it’s not free, and it shouldn’t be). You might be paying $1,500 or $2,000 or $4,000 for a prep course. You might be paying $365 (with discount code) for AdaptiBar. What’s another $124/174 (with discount code) to give you quite literally everything you need to prepare for the essays?
  • This is a self-directed resource. That is, it’s not going to have lectures that spoon feed you, but it’s pretty close to a spoon given all the things that come with it. You’ll have to use this tool the way you deem most fit for your learning. The hammer isn’t going to swing itself.
  • It will need time to build a repository of the 90-minute PTs, but by nature of the recent change to the CA bar, this can’t be avoided. I suggest doing the 3-hour PTs anyway.
  • No premium model answers written by BarEssays for PTs. Fortunately, this isn’t a big issue with the new changes. There are still graded applicant answers as well as links to selected answers from the State Bar.

Cons – somewhat clunky interface

  • Search interface for essays and way to access outlines and templates are clumsy.
    • You’re forced to individually click on every file you download or open, which could be distracting. You’ll click dozens, if not hundreds, of times to download the essays, outlines, and templates you want.
    • There are many steps to take before you get to the essays (see image of interface above). Would like to see a way to search the entire score range, or a range you can input yourself (for example, select/type in 65-85 or 55-65). Perhaps also a way to search a selected range of years as well.

Regardless of what you think at this point, let me say that BarEssays is not a requirement for you to pass the California bar.

I’m not saying you “need” to use BarEssays. This is your bar exam, and you should do what’s right for you. I’ll let your prep course lecture you on “the 59 things you must do to pass!”

Sure, having the one or two selected answers from the State Bar and the model answers from your prep course do help. If you’re fine with that, honestly, that can also be enough.

Other things that are not a requirement to pass:

  • You don’t REALLY need a tutor who’s going to charge you $150 an hour to review your essays.
  • You don’t need commercial online graders who are in it to grind mass essays and don’t care about your improving.
  • You don’t even need graders from Barbri or Kaplan.

Put another way, if you yourself don’t want to self-evaluate your essay answers/outlines, you’ll either have to (1) pay a lot or (2) not get the level of feedback you need.  Why? Because evaluating essays is real mind-numbing work if you’re reading someone else’s paper!

Don’t get me started on the times I’ve done this for my readers (which I will never do for free again).

All that said, BarEssays can only help you if you use it properly and give yourself the gift of instant feedback.

Hopefully this helped you get a better idea of how to prepare for essays at least, whether you supplement with BarEssays or not. Not just to become a minimally competent scorer on a particular essay… but to become better at essays in general.
 

Verdict (and coupon for $25 off BarEssays)

Essays will continue to suck, more so than ever. Don’t wish things were easier. You can’t control that. Instead, wish that you were BETTER. And you CAN get better.

One way is to make use of the abundance of opportunities for feedback. Such feedback is available via…

  • Selected answers (free online),
  • Model answers (if you have a prep course), or
  • BarEssays (with a range of actual graded answers).

BarEssays would be at the top of my list of supplements to get if I were preparing for the California bar again. Nowhere else would you be able to study various specimens from previous students.

You can not only get a clearer idea on how to properly answer a particular essay and learn the approach for a particular subject or topic, but you can also learn how to write a good essay in general and get that much closer to minimum competence (whatever that is).

To stress again, this is a tool that’s out there to be used, not a magic pill (which doesn’t exist). It’s not going to automatically improve your scores without you putting in the work.

Remember it’s been up to you all along. No tool is going to change that. No one else is responsible. No one else is going to care as much about your own exam as you do. Only you can prevent forest fires.

***

If you’re interested in using BarEssays to prepare for the California bar, you can lower the cost with my $25 coupon code by joining my email list. (I’ll get a finder’s fee, too. Win-win-win.) You’ll not only get the coupon code right away, but you’ll also get weekly bar discussions straight to your inbox (sometimes with material you’ll never see in the blog).

Just enter your email below. You’ll get the offer code automatically once you confirm and I get your permission to email you.


With the code, it’ll come out to $124 for the standard subscription and $174 for the premium subscription.

Thanks for reading my review of BarEssays. I really hope it was helpful! Let me know if you have any questions down in the comments.

Brian

2 Replies to “BarEssays Review: Practicing Essays Is Not Enough”

  1. I am 79 years of age and am going back to try to pass. Took it 13 times, passed essay once but didn’t get the license because I failed the MBE which had just been inaugurated. This was 35 years ago. You may ask why bother at age 79? Only one reason. I discovered I had been screwed out of a ton of money literally by relatives that I had loved all my life. Then I discovered the facts of life. No attorney is going to take my Billion dollar case on a contingency. I didn’t have to take the BAR to figure that one out. Answer. if he mishandles anything and loses, he opens himself up to a huge malpractice lawsuit. Then I don’t have $500. per hour to pay a successful examinee anyway. Finally, I have been around long enough to know you don’t delegate big money matters to anyone but yourself if you want to win. (Variation on that old bromide: “if you represent yourself, you have a fool for a client”. Not true. Not when you discover the facts of life as I did at 79. So, I’m giving it another go now and if I pass plan on getting even with a lot of sons of bitches, which will be more than enough personal satisfaction, not to mention the $$$’s I finally will marshall into my own pockets.

    1. Unique combination of circumstances there! I’m guessing you’re taking the California bar (given the article you commented on)… there are some good resources for you out there to assist you. Do your best with the preparation.

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