Ultimate Guide to Preparing for the California “Baby Bar” Exam (FYLSX)

Worried about passing the California Baby Bar Exam and moving on with your law school career? Feeling overwhelmed by all the information needed to pass this test?

Also known as the First-Year Law Students’ Exam (FYLSX or FYLSE) to stuffy law students, the baby bar can feel like a huge roadblock on your way to graduating from law school.

You might even be wondering, “How am I facing this much resistance this early into my law career?!”

Worry no more. Breathe a sigh of relief. There’s a way out to put this behind you.

The baby bar (and indeed the full bar exam) is also about knowing the exam, not just the covered material.

You can strategize for the exam once you discover how the baby bar works, how to properly answer essays, and how to prepare for multiple-choice questions.

What is the California Baby Bar Exam, what’s tested, and how hard is it to pass the baby bar?

The baby bar is a one-day test that lasts for 7 hours, given twice a year in June and October. It includes:

  • 4 one-hour essays each given a raw score of 40 to 100, plus
  • 3 hours of 100 multiple-choice questions.

Both portions cover three subjects: Contracts, Criminal Law, and Torts (general law, not California law).

Essays and multiple-choice portions are weighted equally. Each portion is converted to a 400-point scale, and the passing score on the baby bar is 560 (800 possible points).

If your total scaled score is between 540-560, you still get a second chance. Your exam is sent for reappraisal, where a grader reviews your entire exam and determines whether it merits a pass or fail when taken as a whole.

You probably knew all this already, but again, it’s instrumental to know the exam itself, not just barge ahead with memorizing rules and issues (yes, issues are key). Once you know the exam, you can begin to develop an approach to beat it.

As you can see, the baby bar is sort of a kids’ meal version of the General California Bar Exam, which includes two days of testing with 5 essays (that can cover any of 13 subjects including California distinctions), 1 performance test, and 200 multiple-choice questions. But don’t worry about that just yet.

That doesn’t mean the baby bar is a walk in the park. Some recent statistics: 20.7% passed the June 2021 baby bar, and 14.0% passed the October 2021 baby bar!

But these statistics don’t have much bearing on your own chance of success. (Also because you have an advantage just by reading my website.)

Who needs to take the baby bar?

Here are some categories of law students who need to take the baby bar after finishing their first year of law study:

  • If you completed your first year at an unaccredited or certain distance-learning law school
  • If you’re studying through the Law Office Study Program (LOSP) to become a lawyer without going to law school
  • If you don’t have two years of college work attending an accredited law school
  • Some law schools (even accredited ones) ask students who are on academic probation or academically disqualified to pass the baby bar to continue law school

Law students who advanced to their second year of law study at an accredited law school and completed a minimum amount of undergraduate work are generally exempt from taking the baby bar.

To get credit for all law study to date, you must pass the baby bar within the first three administrations that you’re eligible to take the exam. If you pass after the first three times they are eligible to take it, you’ll get credit for your first year only.

How to prepare for the baby bar effectively

So that’s all well and good to know what the exam’s about.

Now, how do you actually pass it? How can you write good essays and answer multiple-choice questions correctly? What are some resources to prepare for them?

While traditional bar courses give you WHAT to stay, you also want to know HOW to study. The raw materials aren’t enough.

I’ll show you some important how-to basics below, including:

  • The fundamentals of proper IRAC (they don’t teach you this in law school)
  • Practical application using past exam questions
  • Ensuring the quality of your studies for essays and multiple choice.

Even if it seems obvious or you think “I know that already,” keep in mind that that’s exactly how you end up overlooking the fundamentals. “I know this already” is the most dangerous thought you can have.

You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down, and the level of everything you do will rise.“—Michael Jordan

How to get a higher score and pass the essays on the baby bar

You’ve probably heard the fabled “IRAC” (issue, rule, application, conclusion) in law school.

You may know WHAT to do, but do you know HOW to do it when the chips are down? When pencil hits paper, will you know which issues to put down and apply the rules?

Let’s go over each component of proper IRAC:

Issues

First, know that issues are king. If you can’t identify the right issues, you don’t even get the chance to recite the rule and analyze the issue. No issues = no IRAC = no points.

I want you to forget the term “issue spotting.” This tempts you to stare at the essay question and randomly pull issues out of the page because you’ll “know it when you see it.” As you probably found out, this is unreliable.

Instead, I recommend a more methodical approach where you check through the finite number of testable issues. I call this “issue checking.

There are only so many ways they can test you on the issues. Just like fact patterns, there are issue patterns. Once you see enough of these issue patterns, you’ll develop an intuition, and you’ll be able to recognize the correct issue that corresponds to the fact pattern.

I also recommend that you outline the issues before you write the essay. Much of the heavy mental lifting is done at this stage. Once you identify the issues, you’re halfway home free because the rest of it is plug and chug.

Rules

Rules are obviously quite important on the baby bar exam. You need the principle to analyze the issue. The problem is that many bar takers are obsessed with the rules. It’s understandable because there’s a shitload of rules to know. But consider:

  • There’s a difference between memorizing rules and being able to recall and recite the rules.
  • There’s a difference between knowing a rule and being able to use the rule.
  • Memorizing the rules isn’t enough. You must also memorize the issues.

How do you do all this? Take a look at these 4 myths of memorizing for the bar exam and 5 ways to remember and recite the rules.

Issues and rules are the top components of writing a passing essay on the baby bar. Law school may emphasize the parts that come after (writing huge paragraphs analyzing all sides to appeal to the professor’s academic side).

But instead, it’s like an inverted pyramid on the baby bar exam—where issues are more important than rules, which are more important than their application. All are important, of course, but you’ll do great on the baby bar essays if you can nail the issues and rules.

We’re not completely out of the woods yet, though. Let’s talk about those parts that come after.

Application and conclusion

Some call this part “analysis.” I prefer to call it “application” of the rule.

It’s a reminder that we’re not looking for beautiful prose or creative writing. Those people (including my old self) tend to FAIL the essays and wonder why when they wrote so “well”.

This is really important: Write like a bar taker, not like a lawyer, an academic, or someone who wants to share their life insights. Give up the temptation to write with convoluted sentence structures and profound vocabulary.

It should be like watching concrete dry. Mechanical and robotic. We’re taking logical steps based on the rule.

"I knew that a systematic approach was best - and that having key frequently tested rule statements memorized was also awesome for attacking the subject matter - as this type of approach took the 'thinking' out and put the 'robot' in. Bar essays are not thinking games, but robot mechanical ones. Thus, a canned systematic approach was best. . . . as this type of approach took the 'thinking' out and put the 'robot' in. Bar essays are not thinking games, but robot mechanical ones. Thus, a canned systematic approach is best.""
"They served their purpose when I had an anxiety attack. I didn't have to rely on my 'thinking' but on recalling like a robot what I could remember on the sheet."

Don’t worry about sounding smart. Stick to the issue at hand. Answering the question cleanly is the smart answer.

Once you do this, tie it all up with a conclusion. More nuances about application and conclusion are in the article linked below, but this should get you started especially with the most important components: issues and rules.

Putting this all together, I go over IRAC in this article and how STUPID SIMPLE it can be—with examples so you can see what they look like.

I know that law school doesn’t really teach you how to do well on the baby bar or the bar exam, and barely covers how to succeed in final exams. So don’t get stuck trying to create a monster based on what you think law school wants. The baby bar is a different beast.

Practice your baby bar essays (and review the model answers)

It’s crucial that you don’t read this and just nod your head. Give it a try yourself!

I’ll see some people say, “I read the book. I read the outlines. I watched the lectures. But I still failed!”

Again, there’s a difference between knowing something and being able to do it yourself. You don’t learn to ride a bike or speak Spanish by reading a book. If all you did was memorize some rule as a fact, your body has no clue what it needs to do with it. If all you do is read about how IRAC is done without trying it yourself with real Contracts, Criminal Law, and Torts essays, how will you know you can do it on the actual baby bar? You can also find graded bar exam essays in my essay answer bank.

I get it. Active learning is hard on the brain. But only doing passive busy work is surprisingly exhausting and only gives the illusion of progress.

Timing: In the beginning, you don’t have to time yourself. But eventually, it’s important to take practice tests under timed conditions. Pull up four essays (two essays for your weakest subject), and give yourself four hours to have at it.

“Practice practice practice” is insufficient: Take your time to compare your work with the selected answers to see if you’ve at least organized the relevant issues and recited the right rules. Self-critique your work. This post-mortem feedback is at least as important as outlining and writing practice essays because that’s where the learning happens.

Keep in mind, though, that the selected answers aren’t perfect answers. They’re high-scoring answers that may vary from each other, so they may have some inaccuracies. If something seems off, investigate it. This is another way to learn the material.

If you need extra help with approaching and organizing the essays, Approsheets are issue checklists and flowcharts that will make sure that you check for relevant issues in essays so you don’t leave any points on the table. Magicsheets are condensed outlines that contain the issues and rules you should know on the baby bar exam.

I put together a package for the California Baby Bar. It’s not offered anywhere else but here. Check out the full samples for other subjects (halfway down the page).

Magicsheets and Approsheets are perfect complements to each other, so I recommend the bundle.

How to get more questions right on the multiple-choice section of the baby bar

You have 3 hours to answer 100 multiple-choice questions, which is the same pace as the MBE (Multistate Bar Exam), the multiple-choice portion of the full bar exam which includes two sessions of 100 questions in 3 hours each.

This part is similar to the full bar exam. But you’re facing questions from three subjects: Contracts, Criminal Law, and Torts. This limits the scope but also means you have to be proficient in all three subjects to do well. You can’t just wing one subject.

Using real multiple-choice questions

As with the essays, you must see actual questions and answer them correctly now, before the exam. There are several great resources, such as AdaptiBar, UWorld, Strategies & Tactics for the MBE, and others.

AdaptiBar offers a program for Baby Bar takers (for $295).

UWorld and Strategies & Tactics are catered to full bar takers, so they include questions for all eight of the multiple-choice subjects tested on the MBE. That means UWorld may be overkill for the baby bar unless you can stomach the cost ($360 with this discount code).

So for the baby bar, I’d recommend either an AdaptiBar subscription (for Baby Bar) or Strategies & Tactics for the MBE Volume 1 (which costs less). Getting both may be overkill since the questions will overlap.

Also, consider the add-on lectures for the three tested subjects with AdaptiBar. You can check my review for AdaptiBar here to see if it’s worth the cost.

If you’re looking for a lower-cost option, the Strategies & Tactics book has it all: authentic questions licensed from the NCBE (the people who write these questions), excellent explanations by the author, short guides with tricks specific to each subject, at a relatively lower cost (fluctuates depending on availability but is typically between $50-150). You’ll also want it in your arsenal for the MBE down the line.

The one downside is that you’ll only have about 50-60 questions per subject. There are more questions mixed in with the full-length exam, but you’ll have to dig out the subjects tested on the baby bar manually (Contracts, Crim Law, Torts).

So what does it look like inside? (Click to embiggen)

Subject overview

Quality of practice with multiple-choice questions

How to use AdaptiBar or the Strategies & Tactics book:

I recommend going through the entirety of what they offer for Contracts, Crim Law, and Torts. That includes the overview guides (if using Strategies & Tactics), all of the questions, and the answer explanations—ALL of the answer explanations, whether you got the question right or not—almost to the point that you’ve practically memorized the questions and answers.

If you (happen to) get a question right, you feel like a genius. But just because you’re correct doesn’t mean you’re right. You don’t want to ruin that feeling by finding out you got it for the wrong reasons… But celebrations are saved for after you pass, not before.

Each question can be a LESSON or a VALIDATION. Make sure you were correct in your choice and your reasoning. The learning happens when you review the answer explanation and fully understand the concept, not when you do the questions.

Further learning may happen after you redo the question sometime later. Redoing questions is a highly underrated strategy to solidify and confirm your understanding and see other angles. You’ll need to do more than the questions provided in the book anyway.

Put another way, it’s about the quality of study, not just the quantity. I’d rather you master 150 questions than do every question you can get your hands on.

Timing: Also, keep in mind that the pace is 1.8 minutes per question on average to finish 100 questions in 3 hours. That’s about 34 questions per hour and 17 questions every half hour. In the beginning, you don’t have to time yourself, but be able to answer the questions at this pace by the time you take the baby bar.

If you need more questions and pointed practice, I’d also recommend Strategies & Tactics for the MBE Volume 2.

This book is a little different from Volume 1 in that the questions are organized by issue. If you’re having trouble with a particular issue or concept, this is a good way to look at the table of contents and drill down on the issue.

Interestingly, the author gives the answer and explanation right below the question, so you’ll need to find a way to cover it up first so you don’t spoil the answer. Here’s a preview of what it looks like (click to embiggen):

As with Volume 1, if you get this book, see if you can do all the Contracts, Crim Law, and Torts questions at least once.

Shortlist of resources for baby bar preparation

When you boil it down, you only need THREE things to succeed on the baby bar exam:

  1. Source materials
  2. How-to knowledge
  3. Will to act

Source materials: I consolidated the resources and supplements I recommended above for baby bar prep.

How-to knowledge: Additionally, you want to know HOW to study, not just WHAT to study.

Above, I explained the fundamentals of proper IRAC, practical application using past exam questions (write essays, and compare at least issues and rules with selected answers), and ensuring the quality of your studies.

Will to act: Lastly, you need your own self-motivation to practice and review your work.

Don’t just read or “study” something and think you got it. Otherwise, you’ll be one of the repeaters and become a mere statistic… Remember that “I know this already” is the most dangerous thought.

The baby bar is not an easy exam. It may feel like you’re starting from behind the starting line, but don’t compare yourself to others or get discouraged. It’s just a test—one that you can definitely pass with the right approach: Be aware of how the exam works, brush up on the necessary skills outlined above, and don’t be shy about using the resources available to you.

"I just had to share because I'm so excited... I just passed the Baby Bar. Thank you! Your Magicsheets helped me study!"
Here’s the link to Magicsheets and Approsheets again.

Best of luck on the baby bar and let me know how it goes. I hope to see you again when you take the California Bar Exam in a couple of years!

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