Giving what the essay graders want to see on the California Bar Exam: Q&A with BarEssays founder Gil Peles

When I think of supplements for the essay portion of the California Bar Exam, the first one I think of is BarEssays.

You’ve probably heard of it. BarEssays is one of the most popular study supplements for the essay portion of the California Bar Exam. It’s a collection of more than 3,000 real graded high- and low-scoring essays and performance tests from past California bar exams.

If you’ve ever wondered what an actual good answer is supposed to look like, this is how you can improve your essays—by comparing your practice essay to a variety of real graded student examples. I also wrote an in-depth review of the site here.

But how can you make the best use of it?

I asked Gil Peles, founder of BarEssays, if he would like to talk about that, and he agreed.

Here are some of the nuggets you’ll pick up from this Q&A:

  • How can you tell what the bar examiners want to see (and what you might be doing wrong)?
  • Formatting: What’s the difference about essay answers you want to write on the bar exam (as opposed to in law school)?
  • What kind of IRAC does Gil recommend for the bar essays? What should it look like?
  • How early should you start working on essays?
  • What can you do with your practice essays to get the most out of them?

Take it away, Gil:

Q1: What led you to start BarEssays?

I came up with the idea when I took the bar exam more than 10 years ago. I enrolled in the largest bar review course and was failing every essay that I turned in. I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong because I believed that my essays were as good as the review course model answers. I eventually realized that the review course model answers at that time were actually terrible!

One day while studying in the library I explained my frustration to another student. The student was retaking the bar exam and possessed essays from her prior exam, which were graded by the actual bar examiners. She received high scores on several of her essays, even though she did not pass the entire exam (which is common). The student offered to let me see her prior graded exam essays so that I can get an idea of what the bar examiners really wanted. I jumped at the opportunity.

After going through her essays at length, and comparing the high-scoring ones to the low-scoring ones, a light bulb went off in my head: Oh that’s what the bar examiners want! Why didn’t the review course show us this to begin with??

I spent the next several years acquiring student essays from past exams. I did this while working for a big law firm. On my few spare weekend days I would travel all around the state to bar review classes and contact students to see if they possessed prior graded essays. It took a lot of time and effort over a multi-year span to acquire the first batch of several hundred essays.

Now, the website contains more than 3,000 essays including a range of high- and low-scoring examples to every essay and performance exam tested since 2005. There is nowhere else to obtain this type of material anywhere. Review courses continue to only provide (often faulty) model answers.

Q2: Let’s go back to that “lightbulb” moment. What was significant about viewing real graded exams versus the review course model answer?

Review courses will assign essays to practice and then provide model answers written by the course to compare your practice essay. But the models are not real student answers. They are written by review course staff and never graded by the bar examiners. Usually they include so many minor issues and so much analysis they are very different than what any student can realistically write. Sometimes, as with my review course, they are not even good!

Real student answers show you exactly what the bar examiners considered to be good or bad. They show you what students are able to write during the actual bar exam. Comparing your practice essay to a range of scores will allow you to properly self-calibrate and see if you are writing something comparable to a high-scoring essay.

The format of real student high-scoring answers is also very different than most model answers, and this is what struck me immediately. Review course model answers tend to erroneously include lengthy and unnecessary analysis. By contrast, high-scoring real student answers often look more like outlines than essays.

High-scoring real student answers also effectively use “Bar Exam IRAC” which is very different than law school IRAC. Bar Exam IRAC formats an essay so that a grader can provide maximum points in a short time span. It shocked me that review course model answers do not teach us to write in this manner.

Students look at lengthy review course model answers and realize that there is no way in the world they can replicate them. It’s the same with the official state bar released answers. These are the top answers in the state, likely often written by attorney specialists in each field who are taking the attorney exam, and look nothing like the average passing answer. Students want to write a passing essay, not a model or the top answer in the state, so why not get to right to the point and show students what they realistically need to do?

Note from Brian: Just do well enough and leave the treatises to the mega nerds.

Q3: Can you expand a little on Bar Exam IRAC?

Bar Exam IRAC is a method of structuring your essay to make it easy for the grader to give you the most points in a short period of time.

Bar graders can only spend a few minutes on each essay. Graders don’t have time to search for your issues and rules if they are hidden inside long paragraphs. They don’t have time to read a massive amount of overly in-depth analysis.

Bar Exam IRAC formats everything so that the grader can quickly see you understand the topic. Often times this looks almost like an outline, rather than an essay. Points are scored by hitting the major issues, correct rule statements that include all of the relevant elements, and straightforward analysis that uses all of the facts in the pattern.

Your analysis does not need to become an essay of ten different ways to look at an issue. The graders do not have time for that. Keep it simple to show the graders you have a grasp of the rules, and use the facts. But again, space everything out in the correct manner so that the grader will give you all the points you deserve!

Check out this example of a wills essay that scored 70, which is a solid passing score. Notice how cleanly it is set up, spacing out each issue, rule and analysis. The graders can look at this essay and easily reward the maximum amount of points. Also notice how the analysis is succinct but not excessive. This is what I mean by Bar Exam IRAC.

Brian wrote an in-depth analysis of Bar Exam IRAC in this great article.

Q4: I notice on your homepage that many law schools provide students with BarEssays memberships. How does this work?

Many California law schools realize the value in having their students use BarEssays as a review course supplement and subsidize access for all of their students.

These schools include UCLA, UC Davis, University of San Diego, Santa Clara, and others. Several other law schools have their own internal bar review courses on campus and use BarEssays material within their courses instead of model answers. I work with more than twenty law schools in some capacity. Student feedback from these law schools is always tremendous.

Check with your law school to see if you could be part of a supplemental review program.

Q5: How do you recommend students use BarEssays combined with their bar review course?

First of all, students should practice essays from day one. Even when you do not have the topic memorized, practice essays open book. It is crucial that you begin the process early.

After practicing an essay, spend some time comparing your practice essay to both the low-scoring and high-scoring examples. If you decide to use BarEssays, it will have plenty of examples for you to look at there.

Think about why the low-scoring examples received fewer points than the high-scoring examples. See where your essay fits in. Through this process, you will eventually learn how to write a high-scoring essay just like the ones you saw.

Note from Brian: Feedback is at least as important as practice. To be clear, model answers from your bar course (BarEssays also includes their own) and released answers WILL be helpful for seeing how the issues are set up, for example. But they may not be representative of how detailed you need to be, realistically.

After studying enough of the graded samples over a period of a few weeks, it will become second nature to you. Students often report an “AHA” moment where they understand what they need to do. Also, there are limited ways to test each topic, so you will recognize repetitive patterns in the essay questions.

Note from Brian: There’s a reason they’re called fact patterns. Look out for issue patterns as well.

There is no substitute for practicing and self-grading your essays. Review courses will have you turn in essays to be graded by their staff. This is helpful, assuming the staff graders are good (which is not always the case), but it is not as important as self-grading. Self-grading forces you to think critically about what you did right and wrong and how you can improve and replicate a high-scoring essay.

Note from Brian: You care about your success the most, more than your review course, more than your law school, and certainly more than a random grader. You are the dean of your studies. Only you can prevent forest fires.

Q6: I notice that you have extra material on the website, in addition to the essay database. Can you describe that material?

There are two types of BarEssays memberships. The standard membership includes access to the essay database, which contains 3,000  examples of every essay and PT tested since 2005. The premium membershipincludes a lot of extra helpful study material. I employed staff that previously worked at the state bar to draft this material.

The premium material includes Essay Attack Outlines, which are memorization roadmaps for many of the most commonly tested essay topics. The premium material also includes our own model answers, formatted in Bar Exam IRAC, which you can easily compare side by side to the real graded student answers. The premium material also includes Bar Grader Reviews, in which our staff reviewed in detail hundreds of essays in the database and wrote pop-up notes throughout with tips and explanations of why the essay received a particular score. Students find the premium membership material extremely helpful in learning and memorizing the subjects.

You can read more about the memberships, and obtain samples of all of the material, on this page.

Q7: What kind of feedback do you get from students about BarEssays?

I constantly receive incredible feedback. During the bar exam season, students repeatedly note that BarEssays fills a void by the inadequate essay preparation of their review courses. I’ve met people at networking events who literally broke down crying after meeting me because they felt that BarEssays made the difference for them after repeating the exam. I love to hear that BarEssays is helping students through a challenging time of their lives.


Thanks Gil!

Remember that the essays and performance test make up half of your score on the California bar (or YOUR ENTIRE SCORE if you’re taking the Attorneys’ Exam).

Let’s recap what we learned about how to improve your essay and performance test answers from the man who’s seen over 3,000 actual essay answers:

  • There is a way to study what the bar examiners want to see—by studying past essay and PT answers
  • Realistically, “Bar Exam IRAC” and formatting on your answers will look different from model answers written by bar review courses and sample answers released by the California State Bar
  • Bar Exam IRAC: Make it easy to grade in the limited time the graders have. Hit the relevant issues and rules, and write straightforward analysis that uses the facts
  • Start your essay practice early enough (from day one) so that you can recognize the patterns
  • Get feedback by self-grading your essays: Compare your answer to actual low- and high-scoring answers

One last tip: If you decide to tap into the resources BarEssays has, I’d suggest looking up and reviewing at least one answer that scored below 65 and at least one answer that scored above 65, comparing your work to theirs.

If you’ve read all the way through this Q&A and are interested in a BarEssays membership for your next California bar, Gil is offering a $25 discount for my readers. You can grab an offer code by signing up for my emails here and checking the welcome email:
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