How hard is the bar exam? I’m not going to sugarcoat it: the bar exam is hard.
Sure, pass rates depend to some extent on the state, but in 2019, 58% of individuals that took the bar exam passed it. The other 42% are smart individuals that got through law school, but who didn’t study efficiently enough.
Don’t let that be you.
The bar exam is hard, but that's because law is hard. The practice of law is hard. The bar exam is just the beginning of a career of doing difficult things. You need to rise to that challenge.
By preparing yourself. It's important that you're using all the right tools and that you learn how to study so that you remember what you’ve learned. For a full guide on how to do this, check out our guide on how to study for the bar exam efficiently.
In this article, we’ll explain the 8 most difficult parts of the bar exam and how you can make sure you’re ready for those things so that they are as painless as possible.
How hard is the bar exam—and how you can make it easier
1. The massive body of law
Studying for the bar is like drinking out of a fire hydrant. It feels never-ending. There’s always more to know. And it comes at you too quickly. The challenge is synthesizing the law into a coherent body so you are ready for whatever question comes your way on the test.
You need a way to effectively study so that you’re prioritizing what’s important and so that you’re remembering what you’re learning as quickly as possible.
What you can do:
- You need to make a study plan to prioritize what’s important. You need to ensure that you’re making time for yourself to learn everything. Then you need to take a practice bar exam so that you can find out what your weaknesses are. And then you need to attack those weaknesses so they turn into strengths. A study plan will help you organize everything you need to do and make sure you have time for it. We talk about how to make an effective study plan in our guide on how to study for the bar exam more efficiently.
- Study using Brainscape’s MBE Review flashcards. We’ve built our MBE Review flashcard decks with input from bar exam prep companies, professors, tutors, and students. It’s comprehensive, covering everything on the MBE. Not only that, it’s designed using cognitive science to be the most effective study tool to actually remember what you learn. Sure, your bar prep course will be helpful, but you can’t just tick off the boxes and feel done. Use our MBE study review to really master the material and pass the bar.
2. Time pressure
The exam is timed, which is pressure in itself. But more than that, the majority of students are learning everything they need to for the exam in about 10 weeks. The huge time crunch is part of what makes the bar exam so hard.
You need to learn the material quickly and then take the test quickly.
What you can do:
- Study efficiently with spaced repetition. Studies show that the most efficient way to learn is with a combination of actively recalling the information and using spaced repetition. That means repeating the things you know more often than the things you don’t. Brainscape’s algorithm automates this process so you’re always practicing what you need to but not getting overwhelmed. This is the fastest way to learn—and remember—new material. It’s how you can beat the time crunch to learn everything.
- Train yourself to complete the test quickly by taking practice bar exams. There’s only one way to get faster at taking the bar exam, and that’s by practicing it. You need to practice the MBE questions until you can do them in an average of 1 minute and 48 seconds. And you need to practice whatever essays you might have to write for your particular state’s exam. Taking practice exams will help you develop the speed you need to get through all the questions and answer them correctly.
3. The questions themselves
Imagine yourself exhausted and reading, “If Maynard wins at trial, the least likely reason for him losing is … ”. You’ll be ready to tear your hair out. What do they want? The best reason he should lose? Is the best answer the most incorrect answer? The least incorrect answer?
People will tell you the bar exam is one of minimum competence. While this is technically true, that doesn’t mean the questions are easy. In fact, many of the MBE questions are designed to trick you and you’ll find that many of the choices could be, arguably, correct. The content is riddled with exceptions and nuanced parts of the law.
You need to get comfortable with those nuances and be able to answer difficult questions.
What you can do:
- Practice the test questions. You need to swim in these questions like a pool; doing laps and laps until the way they are written becomes second nature. There are patterns throughout all of these questions. The way to see the pattern is by looking at as many of them as possible. As soon as you’re done learning an area of law, and you've mastered it with your flashcards, you want to be taking practice exam questions on it.
- Read all the question answers. The best way to get insight into the logic of the test questions is by carefully reading the answers. Do this even for questions you get right. Read to see why each of the incorrect answers is incorrect and also why each of the correct answers is correct.
- Attack your weaknesses. Most people avoid the subjects they’re not good at, but that’s not a good strategy for passing the bar. You need to actively target your weaknesses so you can get them better. You can do that by making flashcards on Brainscape for areas of law you get wrong. And, you can create decks of the areas of law you’re the least confident in. Part of using your time effectively is practicing the areas you’re not comfortable with.
4. Lots of unknowns
Part of what makes the test so difficult is not knowing everything about it. While some states will provide you with essay topics ahead of time, lots of states don’t. For example, If you’re taking the UBE or you’re in California, you will have no idea what the essay topics are in advance.
You need to study in such a way that you’re ready for anything … but especially ready for the most commonly tested subjects.
What you can do:
- Learn what the most tested subjects are and master those. While you can never be absolutely confident about what you’ll see on the test, it’s easy to make a good guess. For example, while you know that the MEE, which is the essay section of the UBE, could ask questions in any of 15 areas of law, there are five that are the most commonly tested: civil procedure, contracts, corporations and LLCs, family law and trusts, and future interests. Some rules are also more commonly tested than others. Knowing that, you can focus your study on those.
The bar exam is a surreal, mind-bending affair. Most states’ exams are 2 or 3 days of 6 hours of testing in a row. Factoring in the time for you to get there, get ready, the breaks, and getting home, lots of people are putting in 10 hour days of high-stakes, nervous, difficult work. It’s mentally exhausting.
But that’s part of the gig: to pass, you need mental stamina. Like physical stamina, you can build it up.
What you can do:
- Eat well, exercise, and sleep. If you take care of your body, you’ll be setting yourself up to have the energy you need to get through the exam. Your diet is an important part of how you perform. Since your body and mind are so closely connected, being active is important too. If your body is functioning well, your brain will too. And, perhaps most important of all, you need sleep to consolidate your learning. Get your 7 to 8 hours a night and develop a healthy sleep routine. Together, these things will help you build the stamina you need to make it through the exam without burning out.
- Practice. The bar exam is a marathon. The way to make it through a marathon is to train, starting with shorter distances and then longer ones. It’s the same with the exam. You need to train the questions, fewer at first, and then more of them. Eventually, you need to take practice exams. Taking practice exams will help you build the stamina you’ll need for the real thing.
6. Mental anxiety
It’s normal to get anxious about such a high stakes exam. But this one is especially anxiety-provoking.
Be ready to feel like you're going to fail during your bar preparation. And, as you're writing it, you'll feel like you're failing. And then, after it's over, you'll be sure you failed it. I don’t know anyone who thought they passed. Why? Because you probably will have missed a lot of content. But, that doesn’t mean you actually will fail. Depending on the jurisdiction, you can miss 40% of the questions and still pass.
That feeling of “I’m failing this test” while you’re writing it, can be super distracting and can impact your performance. Being able to work through that anxiety will be key to performing well.
You need to get ready for it to feel uncomfortable and continue anyways.
What you can do
- Be prepared for it to feel really hard. Even if you feel like you’re failing, don’t let that get in the way of you continuing to the next question and giving it your best shot. Don’t let previous difficult questions throw you off of the next questions. Just know that everyone feels like this and most people still pass.
- Develop strong support. The best way to get mentally resilient is to develop your social circle. Get your family, friends, and partner on board with you when you begin your bar exam study plan, and have them there around you to support you through it. And then, enjoy them helping you recover after it.
7. Time management
A majority of students say the hardest part isn’t the exam itself. They say the most difficult part is the time management and the months-long preparation leading up to the exam. It’s not easy to continually evaluate what you know, what you need to know, and how you should spend your time.
You need to develop effective ways to prioritize and focus your effort.
What you can do:
- Create an effective study plan. I’ve said this earlier, but the best way to manage your time is by creating a strategy of attack. It can (and should) change as you go, but you need something to use as your guide so that you know what to do from hour to hour and from day to day. For more detailed advice on creating an effective study plan, check out in our guide on how to study for the bar exam more efficiently.
- Use efficient study methods. At the risk of repeating myself, I’m going to emphasize that not all study methods are created equal. There’s a reason people only remember a small percentage of what they read: reading is not an effective study method. Brainscape studied cognitive science for years to develop the most efficient study method, and it’s not a reading application. It’s a flashcard application. Using flashcards with spaced repetition is the fastest way to learn. Don’t only watch video lectures and read notes. Instead, make the most of your time by using study methods that will help you learn and remember quickly.
8. Waiting for the bar exam results
If you think studying for the bar exam is hard, wait until you’ve finished writing it and are waiting for the results. As what many believe is a cruel joke, the results of the July test often come back just before Thanksgiving. This part is tough because it’s out of your control. Maybe you’ll be a lawyer … and maybe you’ll just go back to working for your uncle’s construction company.
You need a way to cope with the wait.
What you can do:
- Distract yourself. Brainscape’s specialty is teaching you lots of content quickly; we’re not experts on how to wait patiently. We can’t really help you there. Maybe try learning French or learning Spanish ... That way, if you need to run away from it all and start again, Europe could be a possibility for you. Kidding. Sort of.
The bar exam doesn't have to be too stressful
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but yes: the bar exam is hard.
But it is manageable. It’s just an exam and you’ve taken lots of them. Some students like to make out the exam to be much harder than it actually is as a way of boosting their own ego. Sometimes law school has a culture of “this is the worst thing ever”. Sure, it’s challenging. But lots of people became lawyers before you and lots of people will do it after you. It’s doable.
The difference between the 58% of people that pass and the 42% that don’t is just this: work. Those who pass work hard and work efficiently.
Be that person. Be the person that draws a line in the sand and says, “I’m going to do this.” Be the person that makes a study plan, uses effective study methods, takes practice exams, learns from their mistakes, and develops healthy study habits.
If you do all those things, you can pass.
And then you can focus on all the other challenges you’ll face in your law career.
You’ve got this.