How to Study for the Bar Exam as a First Timer

So you’ve decided to take the bar exam. What exactly is it, and what have you gotten yourself into?

How to Study for the Bar Exam as a First Timer

The bar exam is a rite of passage to becoming an attorney-at-law (or simply an attorney).

BTW, Black’s Law Dictionary defines a “lawyer” as a “person learned in the law,” and an “attorney” as “one who is appointed and authorized to act in the place or stead of another.”

So if you’ve gone to law school or graduated, you’re technically a lawyer already! For many law students, though, the bar exam is their final hurdle before becoming an attorney. Your journey through law school and passing the bar exam is so you can call yourself an attorney.

But the bar exam is a grueling test that takes days to complete, months (sometimes years) to prepare for, and covers a variety of topics. The pass rate for the bar exam can be less than 50% in some states like California. It’s not uncommon for someone to repeat the exam at least once. Often, bar takers make common mistakes and come back to me, and the real work begins.

Some states have their own jurisdiction-drafted bar exam, like California, Nevada, Louisiana, and Florida. Most states administer the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), which includes the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), the Multistate Essay Exam (MEE), and the Multistate Performance Test (MPT). This map shows which states have adopted the UBE as of 2022:

Which states have adopted the UBE states, UBE jurisdictions

Despite the differences in format and passing scores, the concept of the bar exam and how to study for it are similar across states.

Let’s go over the basics of what the bar exam is about.

The Components of the Bar Exam

The MBE includes 200 multiple-choice questions given in two 3-hour sessions. The MEE includes six 30-minute essay questions. The MPT is a 90-minute “assignment” with hypothetical case files and court opinions. The MBE, MEE, and MPT questions are written by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE).

If you’re taking the bar exam in a state that writes its own exam independently, it will have its own format. For example, California Bar Exam includes the MBE, five 1-hour essays, and a 90-minute performance test (PT) similar to the MPT.

Depending on your jurisdiction, the bar exam will cover different subjects. But almost all states will test:

  • Civil Procedure (Civ Pro)
  • Contracts (K)
  • Criminal Law (Crim Law)
  • Criminal Procedure (Crim Pro)
  • Constitutional Law (Con Law)
  • Evidence
  • Real Property
  • Torts

These are subjects tested on the MBE, which is a multiple-choice section worth up to 50% of your score. These subjects will appear in the essay portion of the exam as well. So these are critical subjects to master.

But don’t worry. You probably took (or will have taken) these courses in law school. Plus, there are solid supplemental resources that most bar takers use. I talk about these to death in other blog posts, and you’ll come across recommendations eventually.

How Many Points Do You Need to Pass?

In order to pass, a bar taker must score at least the number of points set by the jurisdiction. Some UBE states will need 260 points, up to 280. Here’s a map showing the points you need to pass:

UBE passing scores

The California Bar Exam will need a combined scaled score of 1390. As you find out more about your own exam, you’ll get a feel for what that requires in terms of essays, the MBE, and the PT!

How to Approach Studying for the Bar Exam (Especially as a First Timer)

When studying for the bar exam, there are a few basic things to keep in mind.

First, it’s important to develop a study plan and stick to it.

Bar exams are challenging, and require a lot of dedicated preparation.

Imagine taking 5-7 days per subject, and forgetting the first subject after 10 weeks of doing things randomly. Not a good place to be in. Take a bird’s eye view of what you want to do over the whole preparation period, over the next month, over the next week, and each day.

The caveat is that this should be catered to your needs and your weak areas. Does Civ Pro challenge you more? Are you only taking the written portion as an attorney candidate? What you emphasize in your plan will depend on your situation. Also account for buffer days because distractions and emergencies will happen (or you plain want to take a day off).

Start here for some ideas on how to create your own study plan.

It’s not uncommon for someone to “trust the system” and end up panicking (“I’ve fallen into the trap of relying on what Barbri tells me to do”).

Remember that bar review courses are there to support you, not the other way around. Always ask yourself if what you’re doing makes sense to you. If you’re fixated on trying to increase that completion meter, stop and ask if you’re actively learning or simply getting familiar with the subject matter going through the motions but unable to use what you learned

Second, be sure to tackle practice questions from past exams.

The more practice questions you answer, the better prepared you will be for the real thing. Practice as if it were the real thing, and do the real thing as if it were practice.

Don’t hide behind lectures and outlines and endless memorization. Play offense by trying to tackle the questions, and just as important, study the sample/model answers to see where you were deficient. Then use an attack outline like Magicsheets to patch up your understanding.

Get organized.

Make sure you’re organizing all your notes and materials, your document keeping track of rules you keep missing, and create a timeline for yourself so that you know what needs to be done when, according to the study schedule you crafted above (although this is a living document that will change over time). Your study schedule is yours, and it should cater to your needs.

When you boil it down, there are only THREE things you really need for bar prep:

  1. Source materials: outlines, past exam questions, model answers, etc.
  2. How-to knowledge: If the above is WHAT to study, this is the HOW to study.
  3. The will to act and the ability to self-motivate.

I did a live workshop about starting your bar prep and about these three things (video and timestamps here):

Following these tips and ignoring what you don’t need (there’s an overwhelming amount of noise out there) will help you approach studying for the bar exam with confidence and ease.

Real confidence for the bar exam comes from competence. Pep talks that tell you you’re doing great are like empty calories from a candy. Use the motivation while the sugar rush is there, but if your goal is to pass the bar exam, optimize for learning and try to be as prepared as possible rather than aiming to barely pass.

How to Manage Your Energy on the Day(s) of the Bar Exam & What to Expect

The day of the bar exam can be daunting.

People are gonna say “you got this” (when you feel anything but). I personally avoided people until after the exam. Here are some tips to help you manage your energy and make the most of your time.

1. Get a good night’s sleep. This will help you be alert and focused on test day. You’ll probably be fueled by adrenaline regardless, though. On my second attempt at the bar exam, there was a garbage truck making noise from 3 AM to 5 AM the morning of the first day 🥲

2. Bring food to your hotel (for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or whichever meals you want), or get them the night before so you’re not scrambling in between sessions. You’ll need the energy to focus for several hours straight. But you won’t have time to buy food

3. Arrive at the testing center early to allow yourself time to adjust to the environment and relax before the exam starts. You can even check it out the day before.

4. Pace yourself throughout the exam. Keep track of how much time you have. Don’t spend too much time on any one question, but make sure you answer all of them. Not finishing an essay or PT is a common pitfall. Outlining each essay question can help you allocate your time to each issue. A fully identified essay is better than an incomplete masterpiece.

5. Take breaks as needed, but don’t spend too much time away from the test room.

6. After each essay session, do a quick overview of subjects that haven’t been tested yet.

7. Finish strong! You’ll feel your focus wavering near the end. Don’t lose focus. Don’t give up. This is your one chance to do it. Use your last few minutes to check over your answers one more time.

Here are more detailed last-minute tips for bar week (including what to bring). Yes, bar WEEK… The exam begins before you even step foot into the test room.

What You’ll Do After the Bar Exam

If you’re taking the bar exam for the first time, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

First, don’t forget to upload your answers. Don’t get in trouble because you couldn’t wait to have that post-bar pizza party. It ain’t over until you get that upload confirmation.

Then, a bittersweet emptiness may form in your heart. You just spent weeks and months making this exam your whole life, and now it’s gone. You get attached to the struggle.

In general, you can start to relax a bit (at least until the final two weeks before results come out when agony sets in). There’s nothing you can do at this point. Sleep. Stop talking about the exam. Let people buy you dinners.

Here are 21 ideas on what you can do to live a normal life after the bar, including career development and just fun shit tbh.

This is just the prologue before being an attorney. Enjoy it. Until then, you have work to do. Check out the rest of my blog for strategies and resources.

To stay on track until the exam (and get coupons and a free guide on 4 don’ts and 4 dos), sign up for my weekly newsletters:

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