You’re almost there.
You finished law school, you’ve made a bar exam study plan, found effective study materials such as Brainscape’s MBE review flashcards, and are learning your state’s bar exam subjects.
Now you’re getting ready to do your first practice exam.
Taking practice bar exams is an extremely important part of efficiently studying. Taking a practice exam doesn’t just give you a sense of where your weaknesses are, but it also gives you a chance to practice test-taking strategies and techniques, as well as assess your mental stamina. Building practice exams into your study schedule is critical to bar exam success.
And there are some particular ways to make sure that you’re doing this effectively.
Brainscape has spent years sifting through the cognitive science research to develop the world’s most effective studying method. Let’s just say that we know a thing or two about how to do well on knowledge intensive tests. We’ve written a comprehensive guide on how to study for the bar exam more efficiently that summarizes a bunch of our expertise on studying into actionable tips.
In this article, we want to give you a guide and 23 key tips specifically for how to take a practice bar exam. We’ll cover:
- General bar exam practice test tips
- How to practice for the MBE questions
- How to practice for the MEE and bar exam essays
Let’s dive in.
General practice bar exam tips
1. Don’t wait to take practice exams
You might be thinking that you should wait to take practice exams until after you’re comfortable with the material. This is a really common—and critical—mistake.
Don’t wait until you think you’re ready.
Why? You’ll never feel ready. You probably won’t even feel ready on the day of the bar exam.
Successful bar students take practice exams early and often. Contrary to popular belief, taking a practice exam isn’t just about testing what you know. Research has shown that practice exams are one of the most effective ways to study. One study from the University of Chicago showed that students who took practice exams on material they didn’t know, and then were able to study their mistakes, did better on the actual exam than students who didn’t take a practice exam.
Key Tip: Take practice exams early and often. Use them to learn the law and what you need to improve on. Don’t wait until you feel ready—you never will!
2. Start well-rested and refreshed
Ideally, you should be starting a self-care routine to stay healthy and focused during bar prep. This will make sure you’re at your peak for the big day and that you have the stamina to go through hours and hours of difficult testing.
3. Break up the bar exam questions and take breaks
The MBE is 6 hours, and depending on your state, the essays and other portions can be 1-2 additional days. It’s a mind-bending, exhausting affair. Even though practice exams have much lower stakes, they can still feel incredibly draining.
Remember that the whole process is like a marathon. In the same way that it’s okay to take a break in a marathon and walk for a bit, it’s okay—and encouraged—to take little breaks in the practice test.
While this might be harder on the essay portions, one strategy that can work for the MBE is to break up the questions into chunks. Instead of focusing on how you have 100 questions to complete, break them into 15 or 20 question chunks. Once you’ve completed your chunk, give yourself 15-30 seconds as a break. Let yourself space out or doodle on the page for a bit, stand up, have a stretch, go to the bathroom, or whatever you need to do before going back to it.
Key Tip: Pace yourself on the MBE bar exam questions by doing 15-20 questions at a time and then taking a little mental break.
4. Understand and attack your weaknesses
We get better by identifying and attacking our weaknesses. The benefit of doing practice questions and exams isn’t just to practice taking the exam. It’s also to figure out where your weaknesses are and where you need to improve. If you’re like most students, you will repeat errors over and over again if you skip this step. This could mean the difference between passing and failing.
After each practice exam or question, understand precisely why you got the question wrong or why you missed points on an essay. Did you get it wrong because you didn’t know the law? Did you misread the question? Did you run out of time? Pay attention to patterns and correct them.
For the MBE, one technique that helps students is making an error spreadsheet. Create columns such as “ran out of time,” “misread the question,” “didn’t know the law,” or other categories you’re noticing. After you grade your bar exam questions, track your errors in the columns. This way, you can tell what proportion of errors are from not reading closely enough, what proportion are from going too fast or too slow, and how quickly you’re improving.
Once you’ve identified why you’re missing questions, you can problem-solve.If you’re missing questions because you simply didn’t know the law, that’s where Brainscape comes in! In fact, Brainscape was designed with this exact purpose in mind—creating individualized learning plans tailored to your weaknesses. Every time you miss a question because you didn’t know the law, create a flashcard with the rule, which will then be included in your ongoing daily adaptive study sessions. Improving on even 10-15 MBE questions can make a difference in your score.
Key Tip: Keep track of why you’re missing questions or points on an essay. Create flashcards with the rules for questions you’ve missed. Study this deck everyday.
5. Don’t beat yourself up
We know—taking and scoring a practice exam can be demoralizing. But, don’t think of a practice exam necessarily as a test of your abilities, but an opportunity to learn—learn how the law is applied, what you know, what’s working for you, and what isn’t.
It often takes hundreds and hundreds of practice questions for students to see improvement. In fact, some students don’t see their MBE scores improve until right before the exam. If this is you, don’t panic. Just make sure that you are focusing on your areas of weakness and understanding why an answer is right or wrong.
Additionally, research has shown that taking practice exams can actually protect against stress during the actual exam. So don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get the score you want, that’s why you’re studying. There’s a reason they’re called practice exams. Take them early and consistently.
Now that we’ve gone over some general practice exam concepts, let’s dive into some specifics about the MBE and essay questions.
How to practice for the MBE
The MBE is a component of every state’s bar exam with the exception of Louisiana. It’s a 6 hour exam composed of 200 multiple choice questions—100 questions in the morning and 100 in the afternoon. Only 175 of the questions are actually scored—25 of them are unscored pretest questions. The MBE has 25 questions for each of the 7 tested subjects: Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Real Property, and Torts.
Here’s our best advice on how to best practice for the MBE bar exam questions.
6. Look for real MBE practice questions and exams
The NCBE (National Conference of Bar Examiners) writes and licenses all of the real MBE questions. Ideally, you’d use the real NCBE questions for your practice exams, but they can be somewhat hard (and expensive) to find. Most bar prep companies (with the exception of a few) write their own MBE questions. Sometimes they’re harder than actual MBE questions and sometimes they’re easier.
If you decide to use non-NCBE questions, just make sure that you’re using a reputable bar prep company with realistic MBE questions. Some students supplement their bar prep courses with programs like AdaptiBar, which uses real NCBE questions.
Key Tip: It’s a good idea to practice with study bar exam questions from reputable sources. Research programs beforehand.
Key Tip: Ensure that when you take a practice bar exam, you’re using one published by a reputable bar prep company, or even better, by the NCBE.
7. Use questions with explanations
You need to know why a question is right or wrong. If your practice questions don’t have explanations with them, they’re not useful to you. Don’t waste your time on study bar exam questions that don’t have explanations with the answers.
Key Tip: Find practice MBE questions that include answers with explanations.
8. Practice like it’s an actual exam
One of your goals here is to see how you would do on a real exam. So, make sure you do the exam in the same conditions as the real one.
Do it in a quiet place with no distractions. Use paper, a pencil, and the printed test. Practice filling in the bubbles. Make it an authentic testing experience.
At the beginning, you may only do the morning portion or 100 questions. Slowly build your stamina over time. After you’ve done a few 3-hour sessions, complete a full 6-hour mock exam no later than 4-5 weeks before the actual MBE.
Key Tip: Create the conditions of the real test.
9. Pace yourself
One of the things that makes the bar exam so hard is the time crunch. Part of studying for the exam is learning to pace yourself.
To do the 100 questions in 3 hours, you need to be doing each question in an average of 1.8 minutes, or 1:48. You’ll be slower at first, and that’s fine. But part of doing your practice study questions is practicing your speed. Build up to getting through them quickly.
Key Tip: Build up to doing each question in under 1:48.
10. Skip challenging questions
One way to pace yourself is to know when to skip a question and come back to it. Try to answer the question first but don't get stuck on it—if it takes longer than a minute, skip it and move on.
The reason for this is that it ensures that you have time to answer all of the questions that are easy for you. Then, if you aren’t able to get through everything, at least you’ll know that you didn’t miss any of the questions you had the best shot at.
Key Tip: If you don’t know a question or it looks like it will take you a long time, circle it, skip it, and come back to it later.
11. Categorize the questions
This strategy may not be for everyone, but it’s been incredibly helpful for some of our students. The idea is that you first read all of the bar exam questions and categorize them into their law subjects. Maybe you write a “C” beside the contracts questions, “CL” for the criminal law questions, and so on.
Then, go through and answer all of the Contracts questions first. Once you’re done with those, do all the Criminal Law questions. And so on.
While you lose a bit of time going through and categorizing all the questions, you might be able to make it up in the time you save from not having to switch back and forth in your head between subjects. Research shows that it takes significant amounts of time to switch between tasks and orient yourself to new material—some estimate as much as 40% of someone’s productive time. That means you might be able to save time by doing all the questions in one category, and then all the questions in another, and so on.
This strategy might not be for everyone, but consider using a practice bar exam to try it. Part of the reason for doing practice exams is precisely to try strategies like these and see if they work well for you.
Key Tip: Try categorizing the questions into their law subject first, and then answering questions one subject at a time.
12. Read the question before the fact pattern
Some tutors suggest reading the call of the question first, and then the answer choices before reading the fact pattern. This may help you to put the fact pattern into context.
Again, what works for other people might not be the best for you, but you should use the practice exam to try a few different methods and see what you like best.
Key Tip: Experiment with reading the question before the fact pattern.
13. Study your mistakes
This is one of the biggest mistakes that people make: They practice what they already know. Why? Because it feels good. Studying for a practice bar exam is a stressful and uncomfortable process. Studying what you know gives a false sense of security.
But it doesn’t help you in the long run. Don’t be like everyone else; focus your studying on what you don’t know.
Brainscape makes this easy. We our comprehensive MBE flashcards were written by law professors, MBE tutors, and successful students to give you a comprehensive set of study materials. Since our adaptive digital flashcards use active recall and spaced repetition, they are one of the most effective ways to study for the bar exam.
But not only that, Brainscape’s flashcard platform allows you to create your own flashcards and remix them into your own customized study deck. That allows you to create cards based on your errors and easily make these the focus of your practice.
Use this to your advantage. Create a study mix of all the questions you answered incorrectly and practice these across all your subjects. That’s what you’ll get on the exam (and in the real world): a random mix of topics. You never know what will be thrown at you next.
Key Tip: Use flashcards to practice your weak subjects, and put them in a separate deck to make a mix of your most difficult questions.
14. Look at the responses for all questions
Focusing on your errors is a great start, but don’t forget to also check the answers to questions you got right. Sometimes we take a guess on multiple choice questions. You might have gotten some answers right even though you weren’t sure about the answers. Or, maybe you didn’t know the answer at all and just got lucky.
You want to make sure you don’t let the fact that you got a question right lead you into a false sense of mastery of the subject.
Here’s what we suggest. For the questions you get right, go through the answers and give yourself a rating out of 5 for how well you actually knew the answer. And be honest.
This will involve metacognition: thinking about your own thinking process. This is an important skill; using metacognition to assess how well you know something has been shown to improve students’ studying and result in better performance on exams. Brainscape builds this into our algorithm, and this is one of the ways that our platform optimizes study.
Once you’ve rated how well you actually knew the answers you got right, go through each of the alternatives and make sure you understand why each of those was an incorrect answer. For any bar exam questions that you were unsure about or that you know you are weak at, create a flashcard the same way you would if you had gotten it wrong.
This will help you more efficiently study the weaknesses you had that were obscured by the fact you got the question right.
Key Tip: For all the questions you got right, assess how well you knew the answer. If you were not certain, make flashcards for them as if you got them wrong.
15. Actively review the answers
When we say “review” the answers, we don’t just mean read them. We mean engage with them actively. It’s really easy when we’re reading to drift off and stop paying attention. Reading isn’t enough.
How do you actively engage with the answers? One way is by reflecting on how well you knew the answer using metacognition, mentioned earlier. When we think about how well we know an answer, we’re staying actively engaged. You can’t answer that question without paying attention and focusing.
Other ways you can also stay engaged in reviewing the answers include:
- Summarizing the answer using different words. For example, “B was the correct choice because in this case there is enough evidence to give the self-defense instruction.”
- Summarizing the mistake in your thinking that led you to get the question wrong. For example, “I made a mistake and chose C because I missed the part of the question that explained that there was evidence for self-defense being warranted.”
- Think about the different choice options and why they’re not correct. For example, “A doesn’t make sense because the judge wouldn’t instruct the jury on the defense’s theory of the case.”
- Making flashcards that are relevant to the question and answers. For example, “What are the three elements of IIED? (1) extreme and outrageous conduct with the intent to cause, or with reckless disregard of causing, emotional distress; (2) the plaintiff suffered severe or extreme emotional distress; and (3) the defendant's conduct is the legal cause of the plaintiff's emotional distress.”
Key Tip: Don’t just read the answers when you’re reviewing them; engage in the answers and actively review them.
How to practice for the MEE and bar exam essays
Most states have essays as part of their bar exam. Some use the MEE (Multistate Essay Examination), which is a part of the UBE. Others use their own essays. Chances are, you'll be writing essays of some kind on your bar exam.
Bar exam essays are essentially simplified law school essays. You need to study for these in ways that optimize your study time.
Here are some tips for how to practice bar exam essay questions.
16. Focus on the most highly tested areas of law and rules
Some areas of law and legal rules are more highly tested than others. To do well on the essays, learn what these rules are and focus your study on them.
For example, the following areas of law are fair game on the MEE that many states use:
- Corporations and limited liability companies
- Civil procedure
- Conflict of laws
- Constitutional law
- Criminal law and procedure
- Family law
- Real property
- Secured transactions
- Trusts and future interests
- Wills and estates
However, these topics usually make up the majority of the MEE:
- Civil procedure
- Corporations and LLCs
- Family law and trusts
- Future interests
Knowing that, focus on these topics more than the others. Make sure that you can crush them.
That goes for particular rules, too—some are more highly tested than others. Here’s a short list of the most highly tested rules on the MEE:
- Agency and Partnership: Types of Authority (Actual and Apparent)
- Civil Procedure: Jurisdiction
- Civil Procedure: Venue
- Contracts and Sales: Contract Formation
- Corporations and LLCs: Fiduciary Duties
- Corporations and LLCs: Lawsuits by and Against Shareholders
- Evidence: Hearsay
- Evidence: Impeachment
- Secured Transactions: How to Form a Perfected Security Interest
- Torts: Negligence
So study these with particular intensity if the MEE is part of your state’s bar exam.
Focusing on some topics may mean neglecting to study others. That’s okay. Your goal isn’t necessarily to be perfect, it’s to pass. Studying smart means making sure you know the stuff that will almost certainly be on the bar exam.
Key Tip: Find out what the most commonly tested topics and rules are for your bar exam and prioritize your study on those.
17. Write practice essays early and often
Just like with the MBE, don’t wait until you feel comfortable with the material before writing practice essays. Most students don’t start actually memorizing the essay portions until the end of June or July. This is a mistake.
As soon as you finish a topic or lecture, try writing a practice essay on that topic. Often, synthesizing your thoughts on paper is one of the key ways students learn the law and consolidate it.
We know this can seem intimidating, especially if you don’t feel comfortable with the law yet. But here’s a technique our students swear by that should ease you into the process:
- For the first 4 weeks, treat each essay as an open book exam. Use whatever materials you need to write the answer—simply knowing what law is being tested and where to look is a key skill.
- Once you’ve done the open book method, transition to closed book practice essays and focus on active recall.
Key Tip: Write practice essays as soon as you learn the topic or subject. Don’t wait until you feel ready. Use the open-book method for 4 weeks and then transition to writing your essays with the closed-book method.
18. Write out bullet points for the main arguments
This is essential. For every essay, you want to write out the bullet points of the main arguments you would make to respond to the fact pattern. This is essentially a detailed outline, clearly identifying the logic in your answer and the important pieces of relevant law.
As in your law school essays, you want to make sure your essays have a clear, logical structure. In our experience, the IRAC structure is the one that leads to the best grades. It may seem like it’s too simple, but the IRAC system is the best way to make sure you do well on your essays. IRAC stands for:
- I - Issue. State the issue. Usually, these are clearly stated rather than hidden in the fact pattern.
- R - Rule. State the rule. State it as clearly as possible. Bold or underline keywords so that your marker can easily recognize them.
- A - Analysis. Apply the rule to the facts. This will not be as long as law school essays. Usually, just apply the rule to the facts and conclude. (Although, depending on your test, you may get points for recognizing a majority and minority view here.)
- C - Conclude. Conclude your argument. This is very important. Don’t be vague or on the fence; write a clear conclusion. On most essays in the bar exam, there is a “correct” conclusion. Don’t argue both sides as much as you might in law school.
Basically, you want to make it easy for the marker to give you points. Laying your essay out in a standard format that is consistent with what they are expecting will make it easy for them to give you the points. The easier you make it for the marker, the better you’ll do.
Key Tip: Study for essays by writing out a bullet outline of the main arguments that you would make. Practice using IRAC to structure your essays.
19. Don’t fully write out all your practice essays
While you want to practice writing out the essays in full, you’ll waste time if you do this for every one. Instead, we suggest that for the majority of the prompts, you simply lay out the bulleted structure that you would use to write the essay (as above).
Then, for every second or third one, you can write out the full essay. This strategy will give you the practice for writing out the full essay under the time constraints that you’re given, but also allow you to practice a good number of prompts.
Of course, when you’re giving yourself a full, timed practice bar exam, you’ll want to write out the full essay.
Key Tip: Write out every second or third essay in full. For the others, simply make a bulleted outline.
20. Write for the reader
Make things easy for your grader: keep it organized. This means structuring and formatting your essay in a clear way. You can do this by:
- Using paragraph breaks to break up your work, especially between the issue, rule, analysis, and application. You could even use headings to make these clear.
- Write what they’re expecting. For example, when you’re talking about the insanity defense, don’t just describe the test, actually use the words “M’Naghten test”. Using appropriate keywords will help your grader to give you marks you deserve.
- Emphasize keywords. Graders get tired too, and often they end up scanning essays instead of fully reading them. Write for scanners by underlining or bolding keywords (if your exam software allows).
Key Tip: Use formatting and language that makes it easier for the marker to give you marks. Put in paragraph breaks, use language they’re expecting, and underline or bold these keywords.
21. Make flashcards for consistent mistakes
Use the model essays to check your answer. Like the MBE questions, you should take note of your mistake patterns on your essays. Then, make sure you’re practicing your weaknesses.
Making flashcards (e.g. in Brainscape) can help with this, since they are an effective way to learn content over the long term. You can make flashcards on the law that you don’t know well enough. For example, for joint tortfeasor questions, you can make flashcards that include each of “joint and several liability”, “joint liability” and “several liability” and the differences between them.
Key Tip: Use flashcards to practice law that you consistently make errors in.
22. Make flashcards for how to approach certain types of essays
Another strategy is to make flashcards for how to approach certain types of essays. For example, Your flashcard for getting an essay prompt on a Wills and Trusts essay on intestacy could be:
- Look at the intestate statute;
Key Tip: Use flashcards to practice your strategy for approaching particular types of essays.
23. Write essays under timed conditions
As with the MBE, make sure you take your essay test under timed conditions that match the test you will be taking. The MEE has 6 essays to write in 3 hours, giving you 30 minutes for each of them. In California, there are 5 essays and you get an hour to write each of them.
Ensure you understand what your state’s bar exam essays will be like and match your timing to that.
Key Tip: Practice writing the essays the same way that you will have to in the real exam.
Nail your practice bar exam, nail the real thing
The bar exam is hard. But practice makes progress.
You have to make at least one practice exam part of your bar prep so that you can figure out what you need to practice and test out your strategies for taking the bar exam.
We strongly recommend incorporating Brainscape’s MBE review flashcards as part of your study. Flashcards that incorporate metacognition and spaced repetition are by far the most effective and efficient way to remember the mountain of information you need to pass the bar exam. Our platform is designed based on the most recent cognitive science to have you learn what you need to in the shortest time possible. They can help you remember what you need for both the MBE and for your essays.
If you’re not using flashcards, you’re at a huge disadvantage for writing the bar exam.
Most importantly, remember that you can do it.
If you engage in a comprehensive and efficient study program, you use these tips on how to take the practice bar exam, and you revise based on your errors, you’ll pass the bar exam. Don’t freak out. Just make yourself a study schedule, build in practice, and do the work.
You’ve got this.