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Five important points to keep in mind as you begin your bar exam preparation

Dean of Students, Penn State University Dickinson School of Law

  1. The best time to pass the bar exam is the first time. One’s odds of passing a bar exam do not increase the second time around; in fact the opposite is true across jurisdictions: one’s odds of passing decrease dramatically with each successive attempt. Do not take the bar exam until you are ready. If you are preparing with the mindset that “I can always take the test again if I fail” or “Hillary Clinton and John F. Kennedy, Jr. failed the bar, and eventually passed”, you are preparing to fail.

July 2011 Pennsylvania Passing Rates for Specific Attempts

Successful Unsuccessful Pass Rate

1st: 1,635 287 85.07%

2nd: 21 57 26.92%

  1. Strategy is just as important as the substantive law on the bar exam. Focus your preparation on the most heavily tested topics first, maximize your areas of strength in others, and identify a few areas of law that are reasonable to concede because of the disproportionate amount of time it would take to learn the material relative to the number of questions you are likely to see on the bar exam. That said, there are certain areas you simply cannot concede. These areas are: Negligence, Individual rights, Constitutional protections afforded the accused, Hearsay, Presentation of evidence, Formation of contracts, and Performance, breach and discharge of contracts. These seven areas combine for about 80 questions or 40% of the MBE.
  1. You will maximize your chances for success by reading very carefully. You can avoid missing crucial points by minimizing careless errors. Most people who fail the bar exam come within a handful of points of passing. You do not want fail because you were careless.
  1. Don’t over-rely on substantive outlines at the expense of doing practice questions. You need to learn the law in the context of fact patterns because that is what you will be tested on. Go through questions and answer choices systematically and methodically. Understand why every wrong answer is wrong, even if you answered the question correctly, before you move on to the next question. As a result, you will not only increase your substantive knowledge of the law but also how it is applied, or misapplied, on actual questions. Likewise with your state essay questions. Many commercial companies encourage students to only outline their essay answers because it is easier for them to provide you feedback and you can get through more of them. However, outlining answers is not the skill you will be tested on and you should write complete answers for every subject on your state exam, at least twice.
  1. The bar exam is “pass/fail”. You must be strategic not only in your studies but during the exam itself. The goal is not to answer all the questions correctly, but to maximize your score. Do not let yourself get stuck on a hard question. You will be wasting valuable time, while losing confidence. Take your best shot by eliminating any obviously wrong answers and move on. If you don’t know the answer in two minutes, odds are you will not know the answer in three, four, or five minutes. When you get stuck, you necessarily are taking time away from other questions. Hard questions are not worth more than easy questions. Every question is worth the same one point.

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