The Ultimate Guide to the Bar Exam

Bar exam guide

Everything you need to know about registering for, taking, and passing the bar exam

The bar exam is a mystery to most first-year law students, but it doesn’t have to be. Learn how to apply for the bar exam, what types of questions are included in the bar exam, and how to pass the bar exam.

What do Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, and Kamala Harris have in common?

They all failed their first bar exam. It’s true!

In order to obtain a license to practice law in a particular state, you must (in most cases) pass the state bar exam. As evidenced by these 3 highly-successful individuals (along with countless others who failed the bar exam and went on to have successful careers), this is no easy feat.

While Enjuris can’t take the test for you, we can breakdown the bar exam so you understand what you’re up against (know thy enemy!) and can adequately prepare.

When is the bar exam offered?

The bar exam is scheduled twice a year (generally, the last Tuesday and Wednesday of February and July).

Enjuris tip: The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) recently launched a website dedicated to the Bar Examiner, a quarterly publication providing information on current issues in bar admissions and legal education. Bookmark the website to keep up with developments.

How do you apply for the bar exam?

If you plan to take the bar exam, you’ll have to fill out an application and submit it before the filing deadline. The deadline varies by state, but is generally several months before the exam date.

Most law students take the bar exam during the summer after graduating from law school. This means the student has to submit the application in the spring of their last year of law school.

Keep in mind that the application is extensive and the fee can range anywhere from $100–$1,300 depending on the state. As a result, you’ll need to start thinking about the application well in advance of the deadline.

As part of your application, you’ll have to pass a background check conducted by the state bar association. The background check is intended to determine whether you have the good moral character and fitness necessary to practice law.

To facilitate the background check, you’ll have to disclose personal information. This is done by filling out lengthy character and fitness forms. Though each jurisdiction is different, the character and fitness forms usually require detailed information about the following:

  • Places you’ve lived
  • Employment
  • Education
  • Infractions (speeding tickets, etc.)
  • Disciplinary action
  • Arrests or criminal charges
  • Credit history

You’ll also have to gather and provide certain documents, including fingerprints and law school transcripts.

A stain on your record doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t pass the background check. Every jurisdiction has different guidelines for what constitutes “good moral character and fitness.”

For example, in Kansas, a felony conviction bars an applicant from admission. In Oregon, a felony conviction doesn’t bar an applicant. In Indiana, a felony conviction is prima facie evidence of a lack of requisite good moral character, but an applicant can overcome this evidence.

Enjuris tip: The most important thing to remember when filling out the character and fitness forms is to be honest. Inaccurate or mistaken information supplied in your application will delay its processing and raise red flags.

What are the major components of the bar exam?

The bar exam is a 2-day exam (or, in some cases, 3-day exam) administered in each state to assess whether the examinee is competent to practice law in that state. The format for each state’s exam is slightly different, but generally includes the following sections:

Multistate Bar Examination (MBE)

The Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) is written by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) and is the same test in each jurisdiction (every jurisdiction except Louisiana uses the MBE).

The MBE consists of 200 multiple-choice questions covering the following areas:

  • Constitutional law
  • Contracts
  • Criminal law and procedure
  • Civil procedure
  • Evidence
  • Real property
  • Torts

Examinees have 6 hours to answer all 200 questions. This breaks down to 1 minute and 48 seconds for each question. This presents a challenge for most examinees, as most questions include complex fact patterns and similarly attractive answer choices.

Here’s a sample MBE test question provided by the NCBE:

A woman borrowed $800,000 from a bank and gave the bank a note for that amount secured by a mortgage on her farm.

Several years later, at a time when the woman still owed the bank $750,000 on the mortgage loan, she sold the farm to a man for $900,000. The man paid the woman $150,000 in cash and specifically assumed the mortgage note. The bank received notice of this transaction and elected not to exercise the optional due-on-sale clause in the mortgage.

Without informing the man, the bank later released the woman from any further personal liability on the note.

After he had owned the farm for a number of years, the man defaulted on the loan. The bank properly accelerated the loan, and the farm was eventually sold at a foreclosure sale for $500,000. Because there was still $600,000 owing on the note, the bank sued the man for the $100,000 deficiency.

Is the man liable to the bank for the deficiency?

(A) No, because the woman would have still been primarily liable for payment, but the bank had released her from personal liability.

(B) No, because the bank’s release of the woman from personal liability also released the man.

(C) Yes, because the bank’s release of the woman constituted a clogging of the equity of redemption.

(D) Yes, because the man’s personal liability on the note was not affected by the bank’s release of the woman.

The NCBE scales all MBE scores nationally using a complex statistical formula. In general, to estimate your scaled score, you can add 10–15 points to the total number of questions you got correct out of 200.

For example, if you got 140 questions correct out of 200, your estimated scaled score would be 150–155.

According to the NCBE, the average scaled score from 2014–2018 was 140.8.

The common rule of thumb is that you want to aim for a scaled score of at least 140–145 and, ideally, you want a score of at least 150 to have confidence in passing the MBE.

Bar examinees should aim for a scaled score of 150 to have confidence in passing the MBE. Tweet this

Multistate Essay Exam (MEE)

The Multistate Essay Exam (MEE) is developed by the NCBE and administered in 33 jurisdictions.

The MEE consists of 6 essay questions which can cover any of the following areas of law:

  • Business associations
  • Civil procedure
  • Conflict of laws
  • Constitutional law
  • Contracts
  • Criminal law and procedure
  • Evidence
  • Family law
  • Real property law
  • Torts
  • Trusts and estates
  • Secured transactions

Examinees have 30 minutes to answer each question and are scored on their ability to:

  • Identify legal issues raised by the hypothetical factual situations
  • Separate material which is relevant from that which isn’t
  • Present a reasoned analysis of the relevant issues in a clear, concise, and well-organized manner
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the legal principles relevant to the probable solution of the issues raised
Enjuris tip: To get a better idea of the MEE scope of coverage, consult the NCBE subject matter outline.

Below is an actual MEE question from the July 2013 bar exam provided by the NCBE:

A man asked a friend for a loan. The friend was willing to make the loan so long as the man paid interest at a rate that would enable the friend to make a profit on the transaction. After some discussion, they agreed that the friend would lend the man $4,000, to be repaid one month later together with interest at a rate two percentage points higher than the “prime interest rate” charged by First Bank. (First Bank’s prime interest rate is reported daily in the financial press.)

At dinner that evening, the friend handed the man a check for $4,000, payable to his order, that was drawn on the friend’s account at First Bank. In exchange, the man handed the friend a document signed by him and dated that day. The document read, in its entirety, as follows: “The undersigned hereby agrees to pay to bearer the sum of $4,000, plus interest at a rate two percentage points higher than the prime interest rate charged by First Bank on the date hereof, no later than one month from the date hereof.”

After dinner, as the two waited for a bus together, they were robbed. The robber took the check from the man and the document described above from the friend. The next day, the robber forged the man’s signature on the back of the check and then sold the check to a check-cashing business, handing the check to the manager of the business in exchange for $3,500 in cash. The business and its employees acted in good faith and had no reason to believe that the check did not belong to the robber or that the man’s signature had been forged.

The following day, the robber sold the document that he had stolen from the friend to a local investor, handing the investor the document in exchange for $2,500 in cash. The investor acted in good faith and had no reason to believe that the document did not belong to the robber.

A few days later, the manager of the check cashing business took the check to First Bank, handed the check to the teller, and asked that the amount of the check be paid. But the teller refused to pay because the friend had contacted First Bank and stopped payment on the check.

Accordingly, the teller handed the check back to the manager. On the date on which the document signed by the man called for him to pay, the investor contacted the man and demanded payment. The man responded that he would not pay because his promise had been made to his friend, not to the investor, and, moreover, he should not have to pay because the friend’s check had been stolen from him with the result that he never received the money that his friend was supposed to loan him.

  1. Does the check-cashing business have a right to recover the amount of the check from the friend? Explain.
  2. Is the document signed by the man a negotiable instrument? Explain.
  3. Assuming that the document is a negotiable instrument, does the investor have a right to recover from the man the amount that the man promised to pay in the document he gave to the friend? Explain.

Though the MBE is generally considered more difficult than the MEE, the essay format tends to worry examinees more than the multiple-choice format of the MBE. To reduce anxiety, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the MEE by taking (under timed conditions) as many of the prior MEE’s published by the NCBE as possible (and reviewing the accompanying answers).

State-specific multiple choice and essay questions

Some jurisdictions include additional multiple choice questions and/or essays that cover state-specific laws. For this reason, it’s important to check with the appropriate state bar association before you begin studying for the bar exam.

Multistate Performance Test (MPT)

The Multistate Performance Test (MPT) consists of 1 or 2 (depending on the jurisdiction) 90-minute tasks intended to test an examinee’s ability to use fundamental lawyering skills in a realistic situation and complete a task that a beginning lawyer should be able to accomplish.

For example, you might be given a file (consisting of cases, statutes, evidence, and other information) and asked to draft a memorandum to a supervising attorney or a summary judgment motion.

Enjuris tip: Be sure to review MPT’s and point sheets from prior exams to familiarize yourself with the MPT.

Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE)

The Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) is a 2-hour, 60-question multiple-choice ethics exam administered by all jurisdictions with the exception of Wisconsin and Puerto Rico. The MPRE is unique in that you can register and take the MPRE before the rest of the bar exam. For this reason, most law students prefer to take the MPRE in their last year of law school so they can focus exclusively on the other sections of the bar exam. 

The MPRE is based on the laws governing the conduct of lawyers and judges, including the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct, the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct, and generally accepted principles established in federal and state cases.

Enjuris tip: You can prepare for the MPRE by reviewing sample test questions published by the NCBE.

The Uniform Bar Examination (UBE)

The Uniform Bar Examination (UBE) is a standardized bar exam coordinated by the NCBE that consists of the following sections:

  • MBE
  • MEE
  • MPT

As of February 2019, 35 jurisdictions have adopted the UBE.

The UBE is uniformly administered, graded, and scored. Most importantly, your score is “portable” and can be used to apply for admission to other UBE jurisdictions.

For example, let’s say you pass the bar exam in Washington (1 of the 35 jurisdictions that’s adopted the UBE). After passing the Washington bar exam, you receive a job offer from a law firm in Texas (which has also adopted the UBE). So long as your UBE score meets the minimum score requirement for Texas, you can transfer your score to Texas (and therefore become licensed in Texas without having to retake the bar exam).

As you can imagine, the UBE gives recent law graduates a lot more flexibility when it comes to looking for a job.

Enjuris tip: In addition to meeting the minimum score requirements, some jurisdictions have additional restrictions (such as limiting the amount of time you have to transfer your score, or requiring you to complete an online jurisdiction-specific test). Be sure to check with each jurisdiction to make sure you’re aware of the requirements.

Where should you take the bar exam?

You need to be licensed in the state where you plan to practice. You might already know which state this is.

But what if you don’t?

If you haven’t secured a job by the time the bar registration deadlines roll around, you’ll want to sign up for the bar in the jurisdiction where you’re primarily targeting your job search. Alternatively, you can take the bar exam in a jurisdiction that’s adopted the UBE, which will give you some flexibility in your job search.

What if I need to be licensed in more than 1 state?

  • Bar reciprocity: Some states have reciprocity rules that allow a lawyer who has passed the bar in another jurisdiction to “waive in” to their own jurisdiction without having to take another bar exam. Generally, the states that share reciprocity are located next to each other. Washington D.C. has the most liberal reciprocity rule and allows you to waive in if you pass the bar.
  • Bar exam reciprocity: Some states will accept the MBE scores from another jurisdiction (you’ll still have to take the other components of the bar exam in the state).
  • Uniform Bar Exam (UBE): As discussed, the UBE gives you the option of transferring your score to another jurisdiction that has also adopted the UBE. In some cases, you’ll also have to take an additional jurisdiction-specific component. For example, in New York you’re required to take an online course on New York specific law called the New York Law Course (NYLC). Find out if your state has a jurisdiction-specific component here.

How do I prepare for the bar exam?

Understanding what the bar exam is and how to apply for it is only the beginning. During your last year of law school, you’ll need to start thinking about how you’re going to prepare for the exam. Let’s take a look at some of the questions you’re likely to have, as well as some tips to help you pass the exam.

How long should you study?

How long you need to study for the bar exam is dependent on your specific circumstances.

The general recommendation is that you should spend approximately 400 hours studying for the bar exam. This amounts to 50 days studying full-time. Keep in mind that for some people this will be too much time and for others it won’t be enough time.

In general, examinees should plan on spending 400 hours studying for the bar exam. Tweet this

When deciding how much time to give yourself to study for the bar exam, consider the following:

  • Whether you’ll be working during the months leading up to the bar exam
  • How well you did in law school (and how quickly you learn new material)
  • Whether you’re an efficient studier or a procrastinator
  • Whether you need periodic time off to recharge 

Should you take a bar exam review class?

When it comes to studying for the bar exam, there are 2 main options. You can study on your own or you can take a bar review class.

For students who wish to study on their own, there are hundreds of independent bar exam preparation books available. Examinee’s can also review old bar exams and answers published by the NCBE.

For students who want more guided assistance, commercial bar review courses are an incredibly popular option. For years, Barbri was the only bar exam review class (and it’s still the most popular option), but now there are a host of alternatives — everything from live lectures to online courses.

Whether or not you should take a bar exam class depends on your specific circumstances. You should, however, consider the following factors:

  • Cost: Bar exam courses can vary from $100 to thousands of dollars.
  • Study habits: After 3 years of law school, you’ve learned that everyone prepares for exams differently. How do you best prepare? Are you the type that benefits from a study group or do you do better when studying alone?
  • Schedule: Some bar exam courses require all-day attendance. Others (such as online courses) are much more flexible. Will you be working during the study period?
  • Discipline: Are you good at creating a schedule and sticking to it, or would you benefit from a fixed schedule and someone providing more guidance and motivation? Are you good at analyzing why you got a question wrong, or do you need assistance with this sort of analysis?

5 tips for passing the bar exam

By this point, you might be overwhelmed by the information dump. You just want the tips!

So here they are — 5 tips for passing the bar exam:

  1. Make the most of your study time. You’ve probably heard the expression “work smarter not harder.” Ten hours at the library scrolling through your phone and casually flipping through bar materials is far less effective than spending 2 undistracted hours focusing like a laser.
  2. Set weekly goals. Thinking about the bar exam can be overwhelming. Set small weekly goals so you know you’re on track and so you can feel a sense of accomplishment.
  3. Trust yourself. You made it through 3 years of law school. Don’t throw every study habit you developed out the window because a bar instructor, student, or an online article tells you to. Nobody knows what works for you better than you.
  4. Use real exams. There are a lot of companies that create sample bar exams. These sample questions can be incredibly helpful. But, they’re no substitute for the real thing. Take advantage of the actual exam questions sold by the NCBE. 
  5. Don’t neglect yourself. Studying for the bar exam is a marathon. You don’t want to burn out before you take the actual exam. Be sure to take some time off throughout the process.

Go forth and good luck! Enjuris is rooting for you.


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