The 3 Components of the Bar Exam
The bar exam consists of three main components in most jurisdictions: multiple choice, essays, and a performance test.
Excelling on each requires different approaches. The multiple choice section (called the "Multistate Bar Exam") is the toughest and counts for a significant part of your total score. The performance test ("PT") is the easiest is the least important to your total score. The PT assesses skills more than knowledge. There's not a lot of studying you need to do other than taking a couple of practice PTs.
The essays count for a lot of your total score, and while they can appear difficult, they're not if you know what you're doing. And knowing what you're doing doesn't necessarily mean knowing the legal issue being tested in and out. Rather, it means understanding how to write an essay so it looks like you know the law and how to apply it.
How essays are scored & how they can be gamed.
To understand why essays are an art, it's important to think about how the bar exam is scored. On the multiple choice MBE, a machine scans your answers and determines how many you got right and wrong. In other words, the MBE is binary — you either know the answer or you don't. There's no middle ground.
Essays, on the other hand, are graded by humans. These essay graders have a finite amount of time to read and grade hundreds (if not thousands) of essays on the same question. It's not an enviable task.
We'll let you in on a secret — bar exam essay graders are not reading each answer carefully. They are reading quickly to determine how well you, the bar examinee, understand the question and how to analyze the answer. In doing so, they're looking for key terms that a proper analysis of the question would require.
Additionally, essay graders are scoring your answers on a point scale, usually 1-5. So, unlike the MBE, even if you don't know part of an answer, you can still get points for what you do know. This is huge. And it's why you should never give in or feel defeated if you're stumped by an essay.
Essays test big issues more than wrinkles.
While the MBE always includes questions on minor exceptions or wrinkles, essays are different. Essays almost always test major, large legal issues. To the extent they test small legal exceptions or wrinkles, it comes as a small part of the question.
This means that for every main issue on the bar exam, you should understand the proper analysis, terms, elements, and tests involved. For example, for Equal Protection, know the standards of review and when they apply. For a Contracts question, make sure you're referencing key issues like offer, acceptance, and consideration.
How to game a bar exam essay.
The most important thing you can do in creating a good bar exam answer is write a clear, organized answer that discusses key facts and legal terms involved in the essay question.
Briefly outlining your answer before you start writing is particularly important to ensuring you do this well. Use either the IRAC method (issue, rule, analysis, conclusion) or the CRAC method (conclusion, rule, analysis, conclusion) — whichever you're comfortable with is fine.
Make sure you're writing concise paragraphs and sentences. Why? It makes reading your answer quickly much easier. An essay answer filled with half-page paragraphs and run-on sentences will not help you.
On bar exam essays, showing you know what issue is being tested is as important as how well you know the issue. If you know the issue, you know the key terms, elements, standards, etc. involved, even if you don't know the answer. That alone is enough to create a really good bar exam essay. The key is writing clearly and concisely, making sure you're including the key terms, elements, etc. involved, and referencing the facts at hand.