Remote/Online Bar Exam Logistics and Strategies

You’re probably wondering how this whole remote bar exam thing is going to work.

  • Do I get scratch paper?
  • Can I use a desktop?
  • How many monitors can I use for ExamSoft/SofTest/Examplify (or whatever exam software)?
  • Do I need to be online?
  • Can I print?
  • Are they going to proctor me through a camera?
  • Can I take bathroom breaks?
  • What about cheating?
  • What about the MBE? How many questions? Is it all on a screen?
  • What if I’m handwriting?

Uh, yeah, I’m sure you have a lot of questions.

Right now, all the states are having a brawl and doing whatever they feel is necessary to conduct their bar exams.

Many states are shifting from in-person paper testing to an almost entirely digital exam, at least for the 2020 Fall bar exam. This is a significant change, and something worth discussing in terms of preparation and test-taking strategies.

This post will address two things:

  1. Testing mechanics for taking a remote bar exam. See below for information on all states, but the initial focus here is on California
  2. Strategies for preparing for and taking a test entirely on screen, assuming your state is administering the exam online and doesn’t allow paper for at least some portion

Btw I’m not going to call this an “online bar exam” because it’s done almost entirely OFFline. Only the check-ins sessions require an Internet connection.

Remote testing rules and procedures

As noted, everyone is doing things differently. Some are doing it in person, some have canceled, some are remotely administering the exam… Not very uniform.

For example, here’s Professor Amy Myers on Nevada:

What I’ve gathered is that each state will be setting its own rules for the software, proctoring, etc., and even the “UBE” jurisdictions will not be giving the same exam – the 100 MBEs, the essays, and the PT will differ, even though they’re going to try to stagger start/stop times to be the same across time zones to avoid cheating. NV has said no copy/paste or highlighting, but scratch paper is ok since it’s open book, so it’s just weird.

The uniform answer might be to look into procedures that are set or will be set by your state bar authority. Continue to keep an eye out for new developments via Facebook groups, Twitter, and your state bar website.

Here are ongoing announcements about what each state is doing for their bar exam. Look at that messy map!

California released an FAQ about testing procedures. You can find general info here, with the FAQ here (PDF with ongoing updates).

The 2020 October California Bar Exam will have one day of 5 essays and another day of 100 MBE questions (two sessions of 50 MBE questions) and a 90-minute Performance Test.

Written and MBE portions will be weighted 50% each as usual, despite having fewer MBE questions. The MBE will be even more critical in October.

Breaks include one hour of lunch break and 15 minutes of break between each essay and each MBE session.

This means the CA Attorneys’ Exam will be over two days.

By the way, you are not required to take this exam remotely. In-person exams are still available if you prefer it or can’t find space for a remote exam, “so long as you are determined to have extenuating circumstances justifying an in-person exam,” with COVID-19 guidelines in place. You’ll still be tested in the same way with virtual paper for essays, “unless paper materials are part of your granted testing accommodation.”

As for the remote testing, here’s a quick rundown of the main points:

Tech requirements

  • You will need a laptop (no desktops) and a webcam
  • You will be required to take a mock exam to familiarize yourself with the software and to set a photo ID
  • You cannot use another monitor

Internet connection

  • You need Internet connectivity to go online to log into each session and access the web for an exam session password
  • Make sure you have a solid connection because you won’t be able to complete the exam if you can’t verify your identification and get into a session. Consider a backup such as a hotspot on your mobile device set up outside the room, available as an alternative should your Wi-Fi go down during the login period

Exam software features

  • You get virtual/digital scratch paper on screen
  • You can copy and paste (FAQ says “cut and paste,” but I assume copying is also possible). You can paste text in your answer from the digital scratch paper—but not from the questions
  • You can highlight text in the questions
  • You can annotate MBE questions by striking through answer choices or flagging to come back later

You’ll see what the interface looks like in the mock exam, but it may look like this screenshot from the FYLSE baby bar:

Remote bar exam software interface
From a dentistry exam. You didn’t miss any subjects. More screenshots here (large PDF).

Online exam rules and protocols

  • No books, papers, notes, etc. are allowed—except when using physical scratch paper during the PT
  • You cannot choose the order of essays
  • You get one essay question at a time to be answered in a one-hour session, and you cannot go back to a previous essay
  • You get regular breaks (see above) but cannot leave the view of the webcam unless you finish a session early and upload your answers
  • No food or water allowed

Cheating, proctoring, and monitoring

  • Your conduct is monitored by AI and gets human review if flagged as suspicious activity. If you end up getting a notice of violation of exam rules (Chapter 6 notice), you can appeal it
  • I understand there are concerns about bad actors who may find ways to cheat. Don’t concern yourself with them because there will always be people trying to cheat the system. Even in traditional exams from before, one could take a bathroom break to peek at notes. In that sense, remote testing is more secure since we have to stay in view of the camera outside of breaks. It’s like everyone gets a personal proctor. Knowing how to find the issues and use the rules is more critical than being able to write the perfect rule statement

See the FAQ for more details, including ExamSoft system requirements.

Will this be the procedure in 2021 as well? That will probably depend on the state of the coronavirus. We’re getting only 100 MBE questions because the NCBE was unable to produce more.

Strategies and approaches for studying for and taking a remote bar exam online

If remote testing mechanics are now in place for your state bar exam, it’s a good idea to start practicing on the screen and wean away from using paper as you’re preparing.

(Here are a ton more tips from ACTUAL bar takers who took the bar exam online for the first time.)

Try to get used to a smaller screen real estate during your studies. Software functionality may crowd the view window for the question, File, or Library, and the text input field.

Even better, if you can, try to get a laptop with a large screen (and of course with webcam). A laptop with a 15-inch screen or more would be much better than something like a 13″ laptop.

How to split your screen

Let’s say you want to simulate having virtual scratch paper and a place to write your answer.

If you’re using one of the later versions of Word (with the ribbon on top), there are a few options you can play around with to simulate a split screen:

New Window opens up another instance of the same document in another window you can arrange.

You can split the screen up and down instead by using Split.

Or you can simply open up two documents (or even different programs like Notepad and Word) and view them side by side.

More specifically for essays

Being able to outline issues and rules on the screen, then filling in the analysis directly into the skeleton outline may actually be more beneficial and streamlined than transferring paper notes into words.

👉🏻 Review and practice the issue checking and essay cooking strategies on screen so that you have the issues and rules ready to go.

For the essays on the actual exam, consider outlining the issues and rules directly into the answer box instead of using the scratch paper so that you can fill in the outline instead of copying and pasting.

👉🏻 And make sure you can complete each essay within the allotted time, as you may be limited to a fixed time session prescribed by your bar examiners (for example, 1-hour session per essay, rather than 3-hour session for 3 essays). One way to guide yourself is to allot each of your issues a time limit on your outline.

For the PT/MPT

Same deal. You’ll have to juggle the File and the Library as well. Expect to have less space to handle each, so see if you can borrow a laptop with a large screen.

You will likely be able to use scratch paper for the PT, so make use of them if you need to. You could also take the approach you would with essays and create an outline directly on the screen. Try both and see which one is more helpful for you!

For the MBE

You may already be accustomed to reading questions and answer choices on the screen if you’re using digital tools like UWorld, AdaptiBar, NCBE study aids, or the like.

If you’re already using (excellent) physical resources like Emanuel’s Strategies & Tactics, you can still create an answer sheet on the screen even if you can’t read the questions on a screen. Something as simple as a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet would work. You could also use this MBE Practice Sheet.

If you haven’t gotten the Strategies & Tactics book yet, a Kindle version is also available for your viewing pleasure.

👉🏻 In any case, practice NOT marking up the questions as you solve them, since you probably won’t be able to do so on the actual exam. And make sure you can answer 50 MBE questions in 90 minutes.


You can reduce eye strain by lowering the brightness (not contrast) on your monitor, and using any “night light” features on your operating system to reduce blue light.

  • Windows users, search your settings for “Night Light”
  • Or you can install f.lux to reduce blue light (for Windows and Mac)
  • Look out for other light sources in your room to prevent unnecessary glare

Any other tips from your studying experiences? Anything important I missed? Let me know.

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