Improve Your MBE Score: 3 Rules for Effective MBE Preparation

I know I’m asking for a lot here, but think back to law school for a moment. What do you remember?

  • That fresh feeling of starting a new journey in a new place
  • That cute girl next to you at orientation who smelled really good that you couldn’t help but introduce yourself to her and live dangerously close to the edge of flirting because she’s friendly and smart and familiar with the obscure music you listen to, but you force yourself to be platonic because you’d already locked yourself into a medium-distance relationship right before law school for some reason, and then she gets married to some balding guy with thinning hair and a suspicious mustache while you end your own relationship right before graduation because you’ve accepted that your life is full of irony
  • FINAL EXAMS WORTH 100% OF YOUR GRADE

That escalated fast, but you know what the deal is. Final exams are serious business!

Basically, they invite you to join them in what looks like a warm pool party but instead charge you more than the median household income and then throw you into the cold winds of society.

So what do you do two weeks away from the final? I mean, after you procrastinate for a week and get that same sinking feeling you get as when you realize your carton of fries is almost empty.

Right, you go “oh shit” and finally print all those old essays that your prof tested in the past. It’s less likely that you’d look for essays that another professor wrote or from some book from Amazon unless you were some kind of weird gunner.

Same with bar essays… You’d practice with the exact same essays your bar examiners have given out before. You wouldn’t go back to the 7-page-long hypos from law school.

Then why would a bar taker insist on practicing for the MBE using questions someone wrote at Barbri/Kaplan/PMBR? Or get their essays “scored” by an underemployed seasonal contractor who gets paid $3 an essay and has no incentive to help you?

That’s a rhetorical question. The “difficulty” of their questions doesn’t give you the right kind of stress testing. There are undeniably better choices for MBE prep after talking with people who pretty much volunteer this info on me.

This is no joke because the MBE is worth up to 50% of your total score. In fact, it is 50% in CA and UBE states at least. The MBE is formidable, but it’s a very improvable and figure-out-able portion of the bar.

If you’ve started by crafting a flexible study schedule that works for you, the MBE is a good place to start since it’s where the points are, you don’t need to write, and MBE subjects will overlap with your essays anyway.

Below, I’ll offer (1) sources of MBE questions you want to use based on your budget and (2) how to optimize using them.

 

Improve Your MBE Score: 3 Rules for Effective MBE Preparation

Up to half your score hangs on a series of letters. I don’t mean essays, which are also a series of letters.

Ah yes, the MBE is everyone’s favorite multiple-guess section. 1.8 minutes per question for 6 hours. Paranoia from 7 of the same letter in a row. 50/50 choices that make you go, “Damn, what’s with this ultimate decision?”

That’s actually the good thing about the MBE. It’s relatively objective and quantitative. This means improving on the MBE is relatively simple.

Keep these rules in mind to go from multiple guess to multiple choice:

  1. Quality > quantity.
  2. Practice with real MBE questions (+ whatever you can get for Civ Pro).
  3. Track your “win rates” separately, and use this data to focus on your weaker areas.

 

Quality over quantity

You have no right to say “oh I get it now” unless you can actually apply the rule to a question correctly.

Each question can be a LESSON or a VALIDATION.

It’s critical to thoroughly review and understand the answer explanations in their entirety, for each choice for each question you get wrong and right

If you (happen to) get a question right, you feel like a goddamn genius. You don’t want to kill the buzz and relief by reading the explanation. You got it right in the end, so what’s the point? You’re too busy. You have other questions to do.

Well, just because you’re correct doesn’t mean you’re right. You want to know that you got it right for the right reason. Each question is an opportunity to validate your understanding (if you chose the credited answer) or to learn the legal principle (if you were wrong).

That said, you could separately note the principle behind the questions you got wrong, and save them for later review. This is another example of prioritizing your weakness.

In other words, it’s more about the QUALITY of learning than the QUANTITY of questions you do. If you can get both, great.

Yes, you should do enough questions to cover a broad range of issues, but who do you think is going to do better?

  1. The person who did 2,500 questions and learned nothing (maybe didn’t even read the explanations)
  2. The person who did 500 questions, struggled to learn 500 times, and can get most of those right if done again a few weeks later

If you can do thousands of questions and keep up the quality of analyzing them, all the better!

One way to accomplish this might be to, (1) in the beginning, spend more time reviewing answer explanations and analyzing what went wrong and right. (2) Later on in your schedule, speed up through more questions and explanations, especially the ones you redo.

However, if you do thousands of questions without figuring out the rationale behind the correct answer, you might as well have not done them at all. Don’t let your neighbors (who have apparently done thousands of questions already) spook you into keeping up with the Joneses.

I’d estimate that I studied about 700-800 real questions for my second attempt and ended up doing 130+ out of 200 on a mock MBE three weeks before the bar (the 700-800 include the 200 from the simulation).

It’s the difference between this “Super Lean Man” (watch how he performs each rep): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2ulMqORR0o

And THIS GUY: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mT2hRJkBJxY

Who do you want to be?

Of course, feel free to do as many as you want. This is your bar exam.

 

Practice with authentic MBE questions

Why? Same reason you don’t use essays from law school to prep for essays on the bar.

  • Questions written by people other than those who write the actual MBE questions are not reflective of the style you see on the actual MBE. You’ll end up confused and second guessing on the MBE.
  • “Fake” questions can be excessively complicated or easy. If you want to stress test, set a lower time limit to solve the real questions (say, 1.5 minutes instead of 1.8).
  • People say using real questions over “expert”-written questions helps them. It’s also helped me a lot.

Emanuel MBE: "The qs are exactly what I recall on the bar."

Why use real MBE questions

Is there any reason not to use real questions? Exceptions:

  • Civ Pro (see below for options)
  • Subjects you’re so terrible at that real Qs would be wasted on you until you have a better foundation
  • You can’t invest at least $62 in one of the below supplements (skip to the next section)

A few options for real MBE questions based on your budget:

1.    I highly recommend Emanuel’s Strategies and Tactics for the MBE Volume 1 (6th Edition), which includes a full practice exam and has author-written Civ Pro questions that I hear are excellent.

Cost – low budget: $62

This is a must IMO if you want to get started on your MBE studies. It’s relatively affordable with 500-600 real, licensed questions. The value comes from the breadth of coverage, the clear and helpful explanations, tips and primers for each subject, and being on paper (some students prefer this experience than doing questions on screen).

Get it in very good condition at least so that you don’t see the previous owners’ markings.

How to use: Read the primer for each subject, answer every question on a separate sheet, and analyze their explanation in their entirety, including (A) through (D) for each question, including questions you get correctly.

So essentially, read the book cover to cover (which is what I did and is worth it). Hey, I never said you wouldn’t have to put in the work.

I don’t recommend the 5th edition given the picky, nuanced Civ Pro MBE questions that have appeared lately on the MBE.

Curious about what it looks like inside?

Subject overview
Questions
Explanations

2.    If you liked Volume 1, also consider Emanuel’s Strategies and Tactics for the MBE Volume 2, which is formatted differently but is good if you know or want to improve on specific issues.

Cost – low budget: $42

How to use: Get it as an optional add on to Volume 1. Don’t get it without Volume 1. Use as a supplement for specific issues.

What it looks like inside

Disclaimer: If you buy anything using the links above, I’ll get like 4% of the sale price as an Amazon affiliate, at no cost to you. If you want to spite me out of 4%, go to Amazon and search for it yourself

Also, I’m not affiliated with the author in any way. I liked the books and am comfortable recommending it.

3.    Get AdaptiBar for a comprehensive online database and tracking of all questions available for licensing (with Civ Pro questions written by them).

Cost – high budget: $365 (with coupon) / $215 for repeaters

How to use: Create question sets pulled from the entire universe of available questions from the NCBE (1,530 real questions + 200 simulated Civ Pro Qs + 15 simulated Real Property Qs). AdaptiBar will adapt to your strengths and weaknesses (hence the name) and generate an appropriate mix of questions. Analyze your timing, create printable reports of questions and answers you got wrong, and generate practice exams.

If interested, I go into extreme detail and lay out pros, neutrals, and cons in my ultimate AdaptiBar review.

Why use AdaptiBar

If this is helping, consider signing up for my slightly famous weekly emails to get the AdaptiBar coupon and more neat discussion straight to your inbox (sometimes with exclusive material that’s never posted anywhere on the blog). Tell me where to send you the goods below:


What about Civ Pro questions?

No one has real Civ Pro questions available right now. Here are some ways to practice:

  • Included in options 1 and 3 above
  • Included with your bar course – might as well, good enough if you already spent four figures on it
  • Free supplements – BarPrepHero has a free practice exam with 30 Civ Pro questions here. The NCBE has sample questions here (no answer explanations).

 

Keep track of separate “win rates,” and focus on weak areas

It seems like everyone merely tracks their overall MBE percentage score, which is fine per se. But it’s entirely possible that you’re awesome in one subject yet not so much in another, and your overall percentage doesn’t reveal this!

Subtle distinction—but this is easy to check for. Your goal is to constantly focus on your weakest subjects (without slacking on the others) until they’re no longer your weakest.

This will raise your overall correct “win rate” anyway. Here’s one way to make that happen…

Every time you finish a set of questions, tally up how many you got right and wrong for each subject and subtopic of your choosing (see below image for examples). If you’re doing a full, 200-question practice exam, track that separately.

Say you did a full practice MBE. Results might look something like this:

Improve your MBE score with math

Here’s where math comes in: For each subject and subtopic, I calculated a “win rate” by dividing the number of correct answers by the total number of questions. Excel or other spreadsheet software makes this convenient.

I also noted subtopics, such as negligence, crimes, hearsay, etc. Even though my Criminal Law in general was great, Criminal Procedure was horrible.

Then, I arranged each subject in order of strength so I know where to study more. For me, Property, Torts, and Contracts tended to be worse.

When parsed out like above, I could pinpoint the exact cracks in the pipe, the areas I needed to study more carefully. Although I had a generally good score of 73% in Crim Law, I was able to see that Crim Pro (40%) was bringing it down from a 90ish %. So I drilled Crim Pro questions from Barbri.

This kind of analytics creates useful data to surgically treat your weaknesses: Keep track of your worst three subjects. Do more questions for those subjects. When your “worst three” ranking changes, do more questions from those subjects.

  • This raises the question: What about doubling down on your strengths? I prefer to address weaker areas because I feel that there is a diminishing return on how much better you can get on your strong subjects; there’s always going to be really tricky questions that require niche knowledge. Moreover, your knowledge in the MBE will carry over to your essays. If you get hit with an essay that you didn’t really prepare for on the MBE, then it would have a doubly negative effect. All your subjects should naturally improve over time anyway as you keep practicing.

If you refuse the temptation to pursue absolute equality, you’ll waste less time going after subjects that need less attention instead of shoring up your weak areas. It’s like admitting that you have a favorite child even though you love them equally. Show some tough love to the other kid who needs it.

 

In sum

The best thing I can tell you about the MBE, realizing after doing 50 practice Civ Pro questions to test and tweak my Magicsheets condensed outlines, is to make every question a learning experience.

I’d rather you do 10 productive and effective practice questions than 50 “efficient” questions. Whether you get a problem right or wrong:

  1. Read and understand the answer explanations—all of them, for each answer choice. This helps you internalize the rule or a nuance of the rule.
  2. See which fact(s) were key to arriving at the answer. This helps you look out for that type of facts next time you see a similar issue.
  3. Be open to circling back and redoing it. If you really “got it,” you should be able to answer correctly. If not, redoing will help you get to that point.

If an explanation doesn’t make sense to you, don’t just ignore and move on. Question it and dive into research on your own to make sure whether your rule or your interpretation of it is correct. You’ll thank yourself when you see a similar question.

Now your turn: What was your biggest takeaway from this? What would you tell your friend if you wanted to advise them on improving the MBE? Comment below with some ideas.

15 Replies to “Improve Your MBE Score: 3 Rules for Effective MBE Preparation”

    1. Hello user “facebook”, could you tell me specifically what you tried and how it turned out?

      For example (and you can tell me more), what did you do that wasn’t effective, what kind of questions did you use, how did you study the questions you practiced, how long have you tracked your scores, and what were your results before and after that period of time?

      If you think there’s a way to make this more effective for you, please let me know.

  1. Hi . I found your website and facebook group really helpful. Im a foreign attorney who will sit in the July 2016 Bar CA exams. Its a struggle for me come think of it because I didnt attend law school here in the US and we practice Civil Law where I come from. I did an early review because I need to learn a lot. In the course, I enrolled with Barbri (because its the bar prep I was introduced at). However, when I tried practicing a few of their MBE questions, I was failing. My confidence level is dropping down. I tried Emanuel book and I progressed in Crim Law (although still needs to work on other subjects). My friend who took and passed the NY bar (also a foreign attorney) recommended Adpatibar. But it is going to be another burden for me to enroll. Should I take it and ditch barbri mbe if its not working for me? Thanks!

    1. Hi Marianne, glad to be of help. It’s a good idea to get ahead on studying, but be careful not to burn yourself out (and possibly making it harder to memorize) by doing so over too many months (5-6 months may be stretching it a bit).

      Although I have not used AdaptiBar myself, I have heard great things. After doing some research, it may actually be one of the best, if not the best, single supplement for the MBE.

      I say that because it has a large depository of real questions, and it will adapt (hence the name) to your strengths and weaknesses, which is what I discuss in the above article. One of the reasons you’ve progressed in Crim Law is likely because of the real questions contained in Emanuel.

      Since AdaptiBar has over 1,500 questions, it is plenty. If you run out, redo them (if you really get it, you should get 100%). If you get AdaptiBar, I would ditch Barbri MBE entirely. The downside is the cost, at $395 ($60 off if you use my code, “MTYLT”).

      If you decide NOT to get AdaptiBar, I would use Barbri MBE for drilling particularly problematic areas, while using Emanuel questions as the real indicator for progress. The downside to Emanuel is the limited quantity (about 500-600 questions in the first book?), which is why I would use (and have used this way) Barbri for drilling.

      So either way, you are fairly well equipped to study the MBE at the moment. You can always enroll later.

      Hope this helps, Marianne!

      1. Thank you so much! Well at least Adaptibar is not as expensive as Barbri. Had I known these before I chose barbri, I wouldve searched for cheaper yet effective options (I dont want to lose my faith with barbri though because bar prep hasnt started yet) Ill try to adjust my expenses in case. I needed to study early because Im working 8-5. I only have 3-4 hours of study during weekdays and catch up during the weekends. Besides, Im a foreign attorney with 0 knowledge on how US laws are working. There may be slight similarities with where I came from, but I must admit, this is a different ballgame =)

  2. Hey,

    Hope you are well and I would like to thank you for this wonderful resource.

    I have just failed the bar in my second attempt. I got a score of 657 in July 15 and 624 in Feb 2016, both the times MBE has been my downfall with scores of 122 and 116 respectively.

    I exclusively did S&T ed 1 and 2 and a few BARBRI question totaling around 1200 MCQS for the feb bar and roughly 700 MCQs from BARBRI in the july bar.

    It is clear to me that MBE is where I should put my efforts on and the strategy that you have outlined makes sense. Do you think if I do adaptibar/S&T will that suffice? or do you think that I should go even further?

    Moreover, I am a foreign educated candidate and what do you think my ideal target number of MCQs should be.

    Thank you

    1. Hey there, so sorry to hear that you have to retake.

      I believe the NY bar weighs the MBE at half of your score, quite a significant portion. So I agree that the MBE is probably where you’ll see the most return on your time investment. I would guess that this is especially true for a foreign-educated candidate like you since you do not have to produce any writing like in essays.

      To answer your question: Yes, in terms of resources, AdaptiBar and S&T are more than sufficient. You won’t run out of real questions. You may see some overlap in questions, though. At the least, the primers on each subject within the S&T could be helpful.

      The real question is, how will you use those resources to see improvement? As discussed in this article, I’d like to encourage you to focus more on your worst subjects, and really understand your reasons for getting each question right or wrong. Improvement will come from that sort of constant feedback and learning every time. And don’t be afraid to redo problems.

      Let me know how it goes!

  3. HI I have just one question on the mbe practice. Besides reviewing the why I got the answer wrong or right do you also recommend writing out the rule over a few times for the one you missed.? I hear so many different answers about that, do flash cards or write the full question and answer or just write the rule. So what have you found to be the most efficient and effective way to do deal with the wrong answer or are you simply recommending to review and understand why it was wrong and move on? Thank you in advance

    1. Hi Sophia,

      Some people do like to write out the rule. I would write out rules that you miss repeatedly (2-3 times) because I find that there isn’t really a need to do so if you are able to remember next time without much difficulty.

      I do not believe you should write out the question itself. What is needed while you practice is to patch up the holes in your body of knowledge. Thus, I would thoroughly review all the answers (right and wrong) for all questions (that you got right as well as wrong). Then when you see a concept that you didn’t know about, note it (or write it down–it’s up to you) for next time.

      So the most effective way I found was to really understand the concept and how to apply it (quality). It doesn’t help to just do questions and not learn anything (pure quantity). It would also help to redo the question or at least not be afraid of redoing it the next time you see it later on in your studies.

      Since I think they’re busy work to create, I’m not a flashcard person, but it works for some… If you used it with success in law school, by all means, use flashcards.

      Not sure why I wasn’t notified of your comment, just happened to notice this. Apologies for the late response!

  4. Between Emmanuel and Adaptibar, which one has better answer explanations and guidelines? Is it worth getting both? What about BarMax MBE bank?

    1. Bridget, I believe they are similarly helpful. Emanuel does explain each answer choice clearly, perhaps in great detail. AdaptiBar is good as well. Compare the explanations in Emanuel from this post with those in AdaptiBar in this review: http://www.makethisyourlasttime.com/adaptibar-review/

      If you have the budget, I think it’s worth getting both. Emanuel gives you the “realistic” paper experience across a broad range of issues, as well as strategies for each subject, while AdaptiBar has more questions to do, is a bit more up to date with the newer subject matter, and is more portable. The latter is about 5x as costly as the former.

      I’m not aware of BarMax’s MBE bank, but people generally favor AdaptiBar over BarMax.

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