MBE Strategies: Q&A with Sean Silverman on How to Win the Game of MBE

I asked expert guest and bar exam tutor Sean Silverman for his MBE tips and tricks. In this Q&A, you’ll learn how to massively improve and win at this critical half of your exam!

Sean tutors the MBE to students in all states and teaches essay writing to students preparing for the Florida Bar Exam and the Uniform Bar Exam. He’s the author of the books MBE Essentials, UBE Essentials, and Florida Bar Exam Essentials. Find his contact information after the Q&A.

Things you’ll discover:

  • What’s different about people who pass the MBE?
  • Why do people get MBE questions wrong, and how can you improve on this? (Hint: It’s a skill)
  • Real MBE questions vs. realistic questions?
  • You actually have “lifelines” that can give you an edge in this exam
  • Answers to more questions no one’s asked him before

Q: Hi Sean, thanks for agreeing to answer our burning questions about the MBE. Could you describe your work as a bar exam tutor in 2-3 sentences?

Glad to answer these questions, Brian. Thanks for asking me. I work with students in all states who are preparing for the bar exam. I help students on all aspects of the Florida Bar Exam and the Uniform Bar Exam. For all other states, I help students with the MBE.

Q: I’m going to go straight to the meat of it. When you observe your students studying for the MBE, what single trait is most different about those who improve rapidly (and pass) compared to those who remain stagnant?

I’ve noticed that those who improve more rapidly are those who learn from their mistakes. And because of this, a lot of my teaching is focused on extracting the rule of law from each question so that the rule can later be applied to a new set of facts. That really is the crux of what will lead to improvement on this exam: learning from mistakes and then not making those same mistakes again. Those who do this consistently improve at a quicker pace.

Note from Brian: Agreed. If you’re just grinding through questions and the needle isn’t moving, slow down and ask what needs to be revised in your approach. Quick test to see if you “get” the concept: Redo the same question at a later time, and see if your answer is correct.

Q: Why do people get MBE questions wrong? This may be a strange question, but I suspect it’s not always because they don’t “know the law.”

You’ve suspected correctly. Unlike the LSAT, this is (at least partly) a test of content. It’s definitely true that one’s performance on the MBE will be affected by one’s knowledge of the substantive law.

But the test is also very much a test of skill. You’ve got to get better at recognizing why wrong answers are wrong. The test-writers are under no obligation to make the correct answer perfectly correct. But they can’t make the wrong answers arguably correct.

Those who answer MBE questions incorrectly do so for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that they are too quick to pick the answer they think is right rather than crossing out the answers they know to be wrong.

Q: What should students use to practice for the MBE: (1) real, licensed MBE questions, (2) questions manufactured by Barbri, Kaplan, or other bar prep companies, or (3) a combination of both?

Many know me as a bar exam tutor, but my field is actually test preparation. In addition to the bar exam, I work with students preparing for tests like the SAT, ACT, LSAT, GMAT, etc. On all of those tests as well as on the bar exam I much prefer to work through official questions created by whoever it is that writes the test I’m teaching. I give a ton of credit to companies like Barbri, Kaplan, etc., for creating realistic questions, but I’d prefer to work through real questions rather than realistic ones. Once a student has been through the official questions, those other sources are excellent.

Note from Brian: Same reason you do previous exams to practice the LSAT and you don’t look at law school finals to prepare for essays.

Q: What supplemental resources do you recommend for MBE preparation?

I like the book Strategies and Tactics for the MBE, and I’m a fan of AdaptiBar. There are some lesser-known programs such as Smartbar and Zipbar that I often recommend.

In general, I think students need MBE questions outside of the questions provided by their bar-review company unless the company is using official licensed questions.

Just as one can learn a lot about the MBE from released MBE questions, there is so much to learn from reading released essays either from the NCBE or from the state in which you’ll be sitting for the bar. Often, states will also release model answers to those essays, and it’s a great idea to read those answers and to try to mimic the style of those answers when you write your own answers the day of the exam.

Q: I’ve heard that you recommend Strategies & Tactics by Finz. Any particular reason?

This is actually the one book I’ll use in my tutoring that does not use licensed questions. I work mainly with repeaters, and many of them may have been through all the official questions already. To me, this book does a good job of replicating the nuances and subtlety of the MBE. It’s a backup for me but one that I’ve used quite a lot over the years.

Q: Some bar takers say licensed questions (for example, from AdaptiBar) look nothing like the real MBE questions. Others say they look pretty much verbatim. I’ve seen nearly a 50/50 split. What’s your take on this?

I can be a bit cynical. I don’t know that the NCBE wants to show their best cards. But even if they don’t show their best cards, the cards they do show may be the best we have access to.

I don’t disagree with those who say that there are differences in difficulty between the questions the NCBE has released and the questions on the exam. But there are so many released questions, and if you work through enough of them, you’ll have a decent indication as to how you’ll perform on the exam. People walk out of the test thinking that the questions were much different than those they practiced on, but many of those who think that also end up scoring close to how they were practicing. There’s a margin of error, but it’s not too extreme.

Q: What’s a strategy everyone should keep in mind whenever they start solving a given MBE question?

I recommend first reading the call of the question; I don’t want to start traveling down the fact pattern without first knowing the question I’ll be required to answer when I get to the end.

When I’m reading the facts, I’m thinking about the question and trying to find the answer to it. Once I’ve read the facts, I then begin to work through the answers with the goal of crossing each one out.

When I’m reading each answer, I expect it to be wrong. If it is, I’ll cross it out. If I’m not sure if an answer is wrong, I’ll skip it and move on to the next.  Ultimately, I’d like for one answer to be left at the end that I have not crossed out and I’ll pick that one as the “correct” answer.

Q: Are there any “trigger words” in answer choices that one should pay attention to and seek out, or avoid (overgeneralizing, absolutes, etc.)?

As is true with other multiple-choice exams, extreme words are vulnerable. Watch out for words like “every,” “always,” “never,” etc. More specifically to this exam, I’ve noticed that the wrong answers will sometimes have some complicated language or fancy legal terms in them. The correct answer might have some simple language. In other words, the correct answer tries to hide itself, and the incorrect answer wants your attention. Ultimately, I don’t want students getting too deep into these mind games with the test writers, but when down to two answers it doesn’t hurt to have a couple of tricks to pull from.

Note from Brian: This piece of advice may be particularly useful for foreign-trained lawyers who may not have much experience with the multiple-choice testing style. To reiterate Sean, notice and double check when an answer choice is using absolutes or when it’s calling out to you unnecessarily.

Q: Any efficient marking strategies to keep track of questions you want to come back to, or to keep track of time so that you’re going at the right pace?

It’s definitely important to remember that this is not a test that you need to score an “A” on. Like the gameshow “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” you walk into this exam with many lifelines.

  • The raw scores scale up so you can get many questions wrong and still score at a very high percentile.
  • If you don’t like a question, or you just don’t want to deal with it, skip it, and give yourself time to answer all the skipped questions at the end. By skipping them, you end up giving yourself more time on questions that you have a higher probability of answering correctly.
  • Even if that means filling in your favorite letter for all those questions you skipped, that’s fine. You’ll probably answer some of them correctly just by guessing.

As for speed, that comes with practice. You should time yourself when you’re practicing because you’ll get used to moving through the questions at a given speed and that speed will be intuitive on the day of the exam.

That said, when just starting out, timing yourself while practicing is less important. You want to make sure you can answer questions correctly untimed and then work your way up to answering them correctly while timed. But don’t wait too long to make that switch over to timed practice. Ultimately you do want to practice under the same constraints as you’ll have on the day of the exam.

Q: Any suggestions for stamina to get through 100 questions in 3 hours?

This is a grueling test; it’s a bit like a physical sport. Although I don’t think students are going to work through too many 200-question practice exams over the span of 6 hours, it’s for sure a good idea to work through a couple 100-question exams. You would not want the first time you sit for 100 questions to be the day of the exam. This might be more psychological than anything, but I like the idea of splitting the 100 questions up into 4 quarters of 25 questions. Try to get through each quarter in 45 minutes (if you haven’t been given extra time on the exam). A side benefit here is that you’re only focused on one quarter at a time which, at least for me, makes the ordeal a bit less daunting.

Q: How many practice questions per day and total should you do to pass? (Bad/trick question from my perspective! But I think people want the certainty regardless of the answer.)

This certainly varies. I work with students who are studying full time (not so common with repeaters) and those who are working full time while studying. I tend to recommend a range of 30-50 questions per day, but one’s schedule could affect how realistic that is. You’ve got to see a lot of questions because the more questions you see the less likely it is that you’ll see a ton of new concepts the day that you’re taking the test. But one should never set goals based on quantity. Learning from a fewer number of questions is far more productive than going through the motions on a greater number of questions.

Note from Brian: Yes! I have a friend who is an SAT & ACT tutor as well. He has a saying, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

I’d rather have you master 1,000 questions than go through the motions of 3,000 to “keep up with the Joneses” and not really getting it. Reviewing your work should take at least as long as answering the question itself. What you’re “supposed to do” is what helps YOU learn and understand, not necessarily what helps other people learn. You’re the dean of your own studies.

Q: What is a surprising or counterintuitive insight you have about the MBE, something that most people don’t realize?

I think I’ve only come to realize this because I’ve been around this test for so long, but there actually is a finite amount of material tested in each subject.

Of course, people know this, but when preparing for the exam, it truly seems endless or infinite. You’ll eventually begin to see the same concepts tested repeatedly, and that’s a good indication that you’ve done enough questions in a given subject. Though I should say that even after teaching this test for many years I’ll still see new legal concepts tested and I still answer questions incorrectly. I’m not sure if that’s an impressive aspect of this exam or a terrible one!

Q: Any parting thoughts?

Don’t get down on yourself when you answer questions incorrectly while practicing for the exam. When a question is answered correctly, we’re more likely to gloss over it and not learn the fine nuances that were tested within the question. Use those wrong answers as an opportunity to learn. If you answer a question incorrectly and learn from it, there’s a good chance you won’t get it wrong again when that same issue is tested in another fact pattern.

And eventually through this (frankly, difficult) process of learning from errors you’ll answer enough of these questions correctly to confidently pass the exam.

Note from Brian: I join in concurrence in recommending that you make every question a learning experience, whether you get it correct or not. Just because you were correct doesn’t mean you were right.

Thanks so much, Sean!

You can find his blog at http://mbetutorial.blogspot.com for tips on specific MBE concepts and contact him directly @ silvermanbarprep@gmail.com

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