MBE Strategy Guide

I recently took and passed the July 2011 California Bar Exam and the February 2012 New York Bar Exam. I can tell you from first-hand experience that studying for these exams is a difficult and stressful experience. The workload is overwhelming, managing your time is of paramount importance, and you will never really feel like you are fully prepared to take the actual exam.

In this guide I attempt to separate fact from fiction, and provide the critical information that I wish I had when I was studying for both of the exams I took. When I was preparing for the California exam, I had absolutely no idea what to expect or how best to prepare. Consequently, I spent a lot of time studying outlines when I should have been doing practice questions. Knowing this made the New York exam immeasurably easier.

These exams are difficult and require serious discipline and preparation, but they are not impossible, and your best weapon as you face them is knowing the format, content, and environment of the actual test. First hand experiences of the test taking environment were frustratingly difficult for me to access as I was preparing. Now, having come out the other side of the CA and NY exams successfully, I can look back and say that if you focus on a few critical points now, you will greatly increase your chance of successfully passing the bar.

Whether you have finished law school and are in an exam-prep class getting ready for July, or are still in law school and want to get an advantage over your peers by starting early, this page offers techniques that worked for me. I hope they will help you too.

The Multistate Bar Exam is First and Foremost an Endurance Test.

200 multiple choice questions may not sound that bad to some people, but anyone who has actually sat down for a full-on practice MBE knows the truth. It is a grueling mental and physical experience. According to anecdotal evidence from bar prep instructors, scores for the afternoon session are consistently lower than scores for the morning session. This was certainly true for me in my practice exams. It’s not because the afternoon questions are any harder, but because after 4-5 hours of close reading under time constraints, your brain will simply not function as well as it did coming into the exam in the morning.

When I took the California exam, I thought I had it rough, but there was a guy who sat in the row behind me who was 70 years old! We chatted on the morning of day-3 and he told me that although the day-1 essays were brutal, it was the day-2 MBE that nearly broke him. He said when it was over he felt like he had been hit by a truck. He powered on through day-3, and walked out with his head held high.

For me, both times I took the MBE (no reciprocity between NY and CA!) the heavy concentration wore on my ability to think clearly. In New York they allow water and small food items which were very helpful, in California they don’t allow any food or drink. Be sure to check your local rules, because your strategy will depend on whether or not you can bring food into the exam hall. If food is not allowed, you’ll be better off front-loading with a healthy breakfast of slow digesting carbohydrates and protein like oatmeal, eggs, and lean meat. If food is allowed then you can pace yourself with snacks throughout the exam (I used nuts, dried fruit and coconut water) to keep your focus and energy levels up.

Take Practice Tests Early and Often

My main technique for handling the endurance aspect of the exam was to be sure to practice MBE questions as often as I could, and every single day of the month before the test. I built a schedule for the month listing how many questions I would take and on which topics. I started with 30 questions a day and rotated between all six topics. I ramped up the number of questions until on the last two days before the exam I took a full practice test each day consisting of mixed set questions.

For the full practice exams I tried to simulate the exam-taking environment as best I could. I took the exams at a local library so there would be some distractions but people would generally be quiet. I wore earplugs. I used a watch to time each session (CA only allowed non-digital watches, NY was more lenient).

Manage Your Time During Practice Tests 

I made sure to use ALL of the time allotted for each session. I marked the many questions I was unsure of and although I answered each one as I passed it, I went back to them with any extra time I had at the end of a session.

Practicing this way was absolutely crucial to building up my endurance. It was like going to the gym: you start off with light weights and slowly build up to being able to lift heavier and heavier. By exam day, even though I never felt fully prepared, I was obviously prepared enough.

Stay Healthy

It is easy to lose sight of a lot of other things while studying for the bar exam. Everything else seems to fall by the wayside as this singular goal becomes the all-important focus of your entire life. However, I urge you to consider at least one other aspect of your life while studying: your health. In the final analysis, good health is a crucial part of being able to successfully take the exam.

By health I mean eating well, sleeping well, and exercising. These three fundamental pillars of good health affect not only your physical endurance (so crucial for the MBE in particular), but also your mental acuity. Using caffeine or sugary foods to boost your energy levels is a terrible strategy, because you will eventually crash, and when you do you will lose any advantage you may have initially gained.

If the exam were only 3 hours long I would have a different opinion, but the MBE will demand your undivided attention for two 3-hour sessions. The entire bar exam will stretch over two or three days (depending on where you take it). So nutrition intake should be measured and balanced to give you the maximum amount of sustainable energy over the longest period of time.

Eating Well

Diet is a very individual thing. Everybody has different nutritional strategies and ideas. I suggest experimenting with various foods and see how they affect your endurance over time. For me, I found that eating three meals a day with a balanced intake of protein, low-glycemic-index carbohydrates, and healthy fats was the key. I ate eggs, lean meats, fish, avocados, nuts, oatmeal, fruits that were not to sweet, and loads of leafy green vegetables. I did not eat candy, bakery goods (muffins croissants, white breads), starchy foods or alcohol. See what works best for you, but pay attention to how the food you eat affects your ability to concentrate 2 or 3 hours after you eat it.

Sleeping Well

Sleep is another one of those often-overlooked aspects of a solid bar prep strategy. Many of us think that if we can only cram in one more hour of studying we will be better off on exam day. Wrong. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of studies that demonstrate what everyone intuitively knows: lack of quality sleep affects mental agility and physical endurance, two of the most important attributes of the successful bar examinee. If you are interested in learning more, this Wikipedia article is a good springboard to a collection of studies.

Everyone has a different timetable for when they do their best work. If you are a night person, stay up all night, but be sure to sleep well during the day. If you tend to get up early, do it, but get to bed early and shoot for at least 6 good hours, preferably more. One exception to this “adjust to your own rhythm” model is that when you get within two weeks of exam time, you should start to adjust your sleep cycles to the exam time. Usually the exam will begin around 9am. Work your schedule so you are up with plenty of time to make it to the exam hall by 7:30 or 8am. Your specific instructions will tell you what time to arrive. Don’t be late and don’t be tired!

Exercise

Everyone has a different take on exercise. All I can say is that for me exercise was critical. Not only did it help to keep me alert and on point during study times, it also made me tired enough to fall into a deep sleep each night. I ran about 4 miles every other day and that worked out well. If you’re not into running you can do whatever it takes. Ride a bike, jump rope, jog in place at home, go to the gym, swim, do push-ups, whatever. Just try to get at least 30-45 minutes of moderate exercise every other day.

This may be too much information for some, but here are a couple of articles that I found interesting:

Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity

Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition

Start at the End

I learned one of the best little tricks out there from a law school professor: start the MBE at question number 90 and go to 100. Then go back and start from 1 and go to 89. The reason for this is simple. When you get into the exam hall and the proctor says “begin!” everyone opens the exam book at the same time and starts racing. You can hear the rustle of pages turning all around you, and if you hear someone turn the page before you do it has the subtle effect of making you feel like you are falling behind. Worse: you might anticipate this feeling and race through the first page to be the first page-turner. In this case you have not given your full concentration to the questions before you. If you start at question 90, page turning no longer matters.

Read the Call First

This is a common bit of advice, but well worth reiterating. When I was studying, it took me a while before I really remembered to do this every time. The call of the question (the actual question line at the end of each fact pattern) will often give you a clue as to several aspects of the question. First, you may be able to determine which topic you’re dealing with. For example, a call like “what is the most serious offense that the defendant can be convicted of?” clearly indicates you are in the realm of criminal law. Knowing that you are dealing with a crim law question as you read helps you to focus on the facts you need to solve the problem.

Second, the call can sometimes indicate important facts to look out for. In the example above, not only do you know you are in crim law, but you know you are hunting for a specific offense. Because criminal offenses are element specific, you should quickly be able to narrow down which offense is the most serious based on the facts in the body of the question.

Finally, sometimes the call will not only tell you the subject, but also the theory to identify. For example, you may see a question with a call like this: “can the teenager sue the driver for battery?” In this call, not only do you know you’re in the world of torts, but you also know you are looking for the elements of a battery. This is very helpful in eliminating all extraneous facts from your field of focus. You know you are looking for an intentional tort, therefore usually at least one, possibly even two answer choices can be eliminated because they give unintentional tort, or strict liability answers. Use the call to your advantage.

Know the Black Letter Law

Of course there is no substitute for knowing the elements of all the major crimes; of the types of tenancies; of the contract defenses; of the torts, etc . . . In fact, although it may seem like a daunting task to memorize the hundreds of elements in all six topic areas (and to be fair, it IS a daunting task), in many ways it is the low-hanging fruit of MBE preparation. The MBE is a rule-based exam. There can be no guesswork, no opinions, and no split authority. Every correct answer choice must be incontrovertibly correct, and every wrong answer choice must be demonstrably wrong.

Knowing the black letter elements in as many topic areas as possible is your absolute best defense against the MBE. If you know the elements cold, the exam writers cannot trick you. MBE questions often revolve around fine-line distinctions in black letter elements: The door was already cracked open when he entered. Is this a “breaking?” You bet it is, so long as he was not lawfully authorized to be there. Are the additional terms in the acceptance sent from merchant to merchant included in the contract? Yes they are, so long as they do not materially alter the terms of the offer. Details like these make up the bulk of MBE questions. If you know your black letter cold, you will ace the MBE.

Memory Techniques

We all learn differently, but there is a growing body of research that clearly demonstrates that memorization techniques really work. These techniques work particularly well for lists of discrete items like black letter elements. Of course we all know mnemonics like MIMIC for the exceptions to the rules on admissibility of character evidence, or MY LEGS for the Statute of Frauds categories, but there are more sophisticated ways of remembering lists of items that involve special relationships and imagery as well as using music to help remember things. If you Google “memory techniques” you may find one that works for you. I found these videos by a girl who goes by the You Tube name of Slursaner to be helpful. She is singing about NY topics, but she covers many of the MBE topics as well. Check these out.

Pace Yourself

Finally, studying for the bar exam is exhausting. As I have already said, it is physically and mentally draining. If you do it for too long without a break you can drive yourself crazy. When I was studying, I made sure to clock myself out at 7pm each night, and unless I was falling behind, I would take one day a week off from studying.

I strongly urge you to make a schedule and stick to it. If you find yourself falling behind, revise your schedule to make it attainable, and be sure to work in some serious downtime.

If you have any questions, post them in the comments. I would be happy to answer them.

Good luck in July!

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