Courtesy of Executive Bar Review
By Fedora J. Nick
A? B? C? D? Tough call. All four answer choices seem plausible. This is a very common tale among bar exam applicants sitting for the Mulitstate Bar Exam, better known as the MBE. The MBE is a 200 question multiple-choice exam administered in almost every state as part of each state’s own bar examination. Covering 6 major subjects, the MBE tests substantive law and an applicant’s ability to comprehend the given fact pattern and correlate it with a given answer choice.
I have tutored bar exam applicants on a one-on-one basis for over a decade in preparation for the California Bar Examination. Although most students are able to grasp the written aspects of the exam, they tend to find the MBE more consistently problematic. Too often students tell me that even after they practice 5000 questions (yes, really 5000) they are barely able to score above a 65%. The MBE is tricky; however it should be somewhat comforting to know that because it is an objective exam, there is only one right answer. This is very important to note because if an answer choice is partly correct, or is subject to ambiguity or debate, it is by default the wrong choice.
Mastering the MBE is all about how one approaches the studying. As with most things, quality over quantity is key. Learning how to take a multiple-choice exam is just as important as memorizing the law necessary to achieve a successful result. Over the years I have developed proven techniques for success on the MBE. My first piece of advice is to not attempt it alone. Bar exam preparation courses are there to assist you with everything from subject matter outlines to work with, sample questions to practice with, and scheduling advice on how to best allocate your time.
As a private bar exam tutor and partner in a leading bar exam preparation course for over a decade, I have found that students have a very limited amount of time available to them to allocate to bar exam study and preparation. Students are busy: families to support, hectic work schedules, etc. Specific to the MBE, I recommend that all candidates start with a basic overview of the substantive law. Much too often candidates spend way too much time memorizing outlines and too little time practicing technique. Mastering the law is important, but your ability to summarily dismiss certain answer choices that are clearly not correct is also key.
Study tip 1: Review one MBE subject at a time. For example, read a Tort outline and then focus on Tort MBE questions. Your first run through of an outline should be somewhat cursory; no more than 8 hours total. Remember that you already completed your coursework in Torts in law school, so although you think you do not remember the subject, it will start to come back to you.
Study tip 2: Know your definitions. Much of the MBE tests your knowledge of the black letter—memorize all your intentional torts by definition, followed by the elements of Negligence, followed by the elements of Defamation, etc.
Study tip 3: Verbalize your knowledge. The quickest way to memorize the law is to talk it out. Enlist the services of a friend, or simply talk to a mirror. If you can essentially “talk out” a subject, you will retain it. I also suggest that my students record their own outlines, and then listen to their own voices for easier retention.
Study tip 4: When approaching an MBE question, read the call of the question first. It is the quickest way to get a handle on what the subject matter of the question is. DO NOT read the answer choices yet. The key is to figure out the correct answer to the question before you even look at the answers.
Study tip 5: Read the fact pattern quickly and try to determine the central issue. For example, the central issue in a crimes fact pattern may surround a larceny. The MBE tends to supply you with too many facts – many of which have little or no relevance. In determining whether a larceny did or did not occur, you need to quickly look up from your paper, and say the definition of larceny to yourself. If larceny is defined as the tresspassory taking and carrying of another’s property with the intent to permanently deprive, then you must quickly go to the answer choice which correctly identifies this point of law.
Study tip 6: Who wins? Based on the above, before going to the answer choice, determine who wins. If the call of the question reads “Is A guilty of larceny” determine, based on your definition, if he is in fact guilty. If the answer is yes, then cross out the answer choices that state that he is not. This method should narrow your choices down to two.
Study tip 7: Law always wins. If you are able to narrow your choices down to two, the problem is often that both remaining answers look good. Another comment I often hear from students is “I can narrow it down to two choices, but I always pick the wrong one”. The general rule is that if an answer choice contains an accurate statement of the law, then it is the right choice. If it is only a partial statement of the law, it is an incorrect choice. If one of the remaining answer choices contains an accurate statement of the law, and the other choice contains a correct factual statement, law wins. Pick it and go to the next question.
Study tip 8: Implement “fact matching”. If the two remaining answer choices contain only factual information, meaning information from the fact pattern, try to match them up. If the words in the answer choice appear in the fact pattern, this is most likely the correct response.
Study tip 9: Take a break. If you find yourself missing question after question, you are doing too much. You should practice no more than 50 MBE questions per sitting before taking at least a 30-minute break. In addition, complete the 50 questions, and then look at the answers. You are not getting an accurate assessment of your score by bouncing back and forth between question and answer.
Study tip 10: Focus on the questions you miss. After completing a series of questions, take each question missed and write out a note card on the central issue. Figure out whether you missed the question based on the rule of law, or whether you missed it due to reading comprehension. Isolate your area of weakness and then select additional questions within that area for practice. These study tips are simply a guideline to help increase your score. With patience, and proper technique you can and will pass the MBE. Good luck on the exam.
Fedora J. Nick is the managing director of Executive Bar Review. She has long been recognized nationally as a leading expert in the bar preparation field. Ms. Nick works with general bar exam and attorneys exam candidates through private one on one tutorials. She is the author of the NBR Performance Review, co-author of the NBR Hypothetical Enhancer Method and has lectured at top law schools and consulted for national bar exam programs including Emanuel Bar Review. Ms. Nick received her JD from The American University Washington College of Law in 1995, where she served as the editor of American Jurist Magazine. She clerked for the Federal Communications Commission and worked in NBC’s Law & Government relations division. She is a member of the State Bar of California and is admitted to practice before the Ninth Circuit, Northern, Central, and Southern Districts of California. In June of 2000 she was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States.