Bar Essays Graded

According to Patrick Lin, a former grader and pre-tester for the California Committee of Bar Examiners for eight grading cycles, and founder of BAR EXAM 101, a Los Angeles, CA bar exam tutoring company, the bar exam is a passable exam, and not as impossible as some people make it seem.

Q:  Explain how bar exams are scored.

Patrick Lin:  In California, as explained on the California State Bar website, graders assign raw scores in five-point increments on a scale of 40 to 100.  They evaluate answers and assign grades solely on content. Though handwriting, spelling, or grammar is not considered in assigning a grade, careful communications assisted me in getting through an answer.  Like any test, not just the bar exam, the easier the person reading an answer understands the examinee’s position, the easier it will be to award points.

Q:  What are common reasons for why a bar applicant may fail?

Patrick Lin:  From my tutoring experience, people fail when they do not: 

1. Understand the law:  An applicant’s grasp of first year law school subjects, such as torts, may not be fresh, and many people graduate from law school without the fundamentals of law necessary to pass the bar exam.  It is imperative to have a good understanding of the law, whether someone needs to just sit down and refresh themselves or teach it to themselves for the first time.   Having quality sources and taking the time to really understand the law, is important.

2. Memorize:  People often wait until the end to memorize the law. Then they realize memorizing so many subjects in a few weeks isn’t enough time. Memorizing the law must start early with techniques to trigger memory.  Practicing that memorization throughout the process is also important. 

3. Organize:   Organization of your answers in the right way is pivotal to communicating what you are trying to say to the grader.  Make it confusing and the grader won’t know how to grade and you’ll end up on the wrong side of the points. People often over-think and don’t sit back and try to make it simple to understand.  Remember, if you can’t make sense of it, how can someone else reading it?

4. Spot issues:  Issue spotting is where it starts.  This comes by knowing the law and practicing enough essays and performance tests that you recognize the limited ways issues can be introduced.

5. Have confidence:  Anxiety comes from under-preparation. Having confidence in your preparation and knowing you are getting good quality information from a good source is vital to success in my opinion.   This alleviates test-taking anxiety, which is often associated with being frazzled and not having any direction. 

6. Answer the question:  Often times, people answer a question based on an outline, and not on the question itself. Always answer the question asked.

Q:  In an essay, what is most important - organization, issue spotting, rules, or analysis?

Patrick Lin:  All three are important. The basis is IRAC (issues, rules, analysis, conclusion), which involves issue spotting (I), knowing the rules (R), analysis (A), and finally organizing it in a way that makes it easy to understand, that equates to a high score.  Focusing on only one thing isn’t enough, all three have to be done well to get good scores. 

Q:  If an applicant does not remember the rules for an issue, does the person get any credit for an analysis where s/he makes up the rules?

Patrick Lin:  The strategy I give students when they don’t know the law is to make up the law the student believes is the right law and come up with an analysis that utilizes the facts relating to that issue. Obviously, if you are incorrect on the law, you won't get credit for the rule but may get some credit for the analysis, if you hit the right facts. However, most of the time, issues are based on reasonableness, and stating a rule that is reasonable (makes sense) will get you some credit since you'll likely be correct on at least part of it. However, the best strategy is to know the rule and study well so this won’t happen. 

Q:  What tips can you give for preparing for a performance test?

Patrick Lin:  First, follow directions. Most people fail because they don’t follow directions.  Next, organize — what components go into completing the tasks. The format approach is usually IRAC. Except the difference is you add an explanation of the cases that make up the rule before doing the analysis. Finally, start writing before the suggested 90 minutes so you have more time to assess and figure out how to answer the question. Learning how to quickly read the library is very important.

Q:  What prompted you to start BAR EXAM 101?

Patrick Lin:  I've been tutoring since 2006, and private one-on-one tutoring is all I do for a living. BAR EXAM 101 gives a student an understanding of what graders look for, without any gimmicks. A student with a proper foundation in the law and instruction on how the exam works has an edge over those who go in without a good foundation and understanding.

Related articles:

Using The "Four T’s" To Achieve Bar Exam Success

How To Memorize Bar Exam Outlines

3 Steps To Improve Your MBE Score

How much time is needed to study for the bar exam?

measure of an applicant's ability

In a notice recently published by the Committee of Bar Examiners, and available on the CA State Bar website, the new 2-day CA Bar Exam will continue to be designed to measure an applicant's ability to analyze legal issues arising from fact situations.

With respect to the essay questions, an applicant's answer must demonstrate minimum competency, meaning the answer must show knowledge and understanding of the pertinent principles and theories of law being tested, their qualifications and limitations, and their relationships to each other. In the words of the Bar Examiners, "The answer should evidence the applicant's ability to apply the law to the given facts, and to reason in a logical, lawyerlike manner from the premises adopted to a sound conclusion. An applicant should not merely show that he/she remembers the legal principles, but should demonstrate his/her proficiency in using and applying them."

With respect to the Performance test questions, an applicant's Performance Test answer is graded on its compliance with instructions, and on its content, thoroughness, and organization. In the words of the Bar Examiners, "The measure of passing goes to an applicant's ability to:

1. Sift through detailed factual material and separate relevant from irrelevant facts, assess the consistency and reliability of facts, and determine the need for and source of additional facts;

2. Analyze the legal rules and principles applicable to a problem and formulate legal theories from facts that may be only partly known and are being developed;

3. Recognize and resolve ethical issues arising in a practical situation;

4. Apply problem solving skills to diagnose a problem, generate alternative solutions, and develop a plan of action; and

5. Communicate effectively, whether advocating, advising a client, eliciting information, or effectuating a legal transaction."

If you would like a PDF of the Professional Responsibility February 2017 California Exam Question #5, please enter your email address, and you'll be able to download the guidelines thereafter.


The Committee utilizes a grading procedure designed to ensure that the difficulty of passing the exam remains unchanged from one administration of the exam to another. The statistical technique, called scaling, converts scores on the written portion to the same scale of measurement as the MBE.

MBE scores are reported on a scale ranging from 0 to 2000 points. On the written section of the exam, applicants are graded initially on a basis of 700 possible raw points: 100 points for each of the 5 essay questions, and 200 points for the Performance Test.

The scores obtained on the written section are then translated to the 2000-point MBE scale. An applicant's total score is the scale MBE score (on the 1000-point scale) multiplied by .50 plus the converted score on the written section multiplied by .50. Scaling ensures the two portions of the exam carry the relative weights assigned to them: written (50%) and MBE (50%).

For more information related to the description and grading of the CA Bar Exam, please go to the CA State Bar web site for the full content of this notice published by the Committee of Bar Examiners.  

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