For many law students, the part of the bar exam that causes the most anxiety is the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE)—also known as a grueling six-hour multiple-choice test. I believe this is because unless you are someone who has a natural affinity for multiple-choice exams, you likely have been haunted by them throughout your academic career.
But you do not need to live in fear! You can be successful on the MBE even if you have struggled or had anxiety in the past related to multiple-choice tests.
Why are multiple-choice questions frustrating in a legal scenario?
When I interviewed Sean Silverman this week about the MBE, I asked him this question and he had a thoughtful reply: “Law doesn’t really lend itself to the absolute answers required by a multiple-choice test.”
That is a very astute point! We spend a lot of our time in law school debating the “what ifs” and arguing both sides of every question (sometimes even saying that the outcome isn’t as important as the debate); yet our licensing exam asks us to forget all of that and chose the best answer. Frustrating? Sure! Hopeless? No!
How to find success on the MBE:
- Become an expert at multiple-choice test taking. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be this extreme, but you do want to understand the way these questions are formed. For example, what tricks do the bar examiners use to lead you to the incorrect answer? If you know what these tricks are, that can help you notice them and not fall for them!Some of these types of tricks include the following:
- Putting incomplete or incorrect definitions in the answer choices.
- Making an answer obvious—so you think that can’t possibly be the right choice.
- Using fancy Latin terminology that no one has heard of.
This is not a complete list, but when studying for the MBE you should keep your eye out for such patterns in order to train yourself not to fall for their tricks!
- Take the skills you have as an expert fact reader and apply them to multiple-choice. Many students have told me that they feel like the MBE tests completely different skills than the essay portion of the bar exam. Do you need different test-taking skills? Sure. But I would argue that your skills as an expert fact reader will help you on the MBE as well as on the essay portion. So don’t leave those skills at home on MBE day!Let’s take a hypothetical example: The fact pattern describes a doctor who is shopping at the supermarket when he sees someone fall and have a seizure. He is running late for an appointment so he walks away without helping the fallen customer. The doctor is sued for negligence for not helping the customer.If this were an essay question, what facts would have signaled to you a legal issue? Hopefully, the fact that he is a doctor. What legal issues does this raise? Probably, about whether or not just the fact that he is a doctor would give him a heightened duty of care. I would guess, were my hypothetical a real MBE question, that the correct answer would have something to do with the doctor’s duty of care. Because those are the important facts in the fact pattern.So as you work on the MBE, don’t leave your fact-reading skills at home. Use them! They might need to be tweaked, but don’t think you need entirely different skills to find success on multiple-choice questions.
- Be mentally ready for the MBE portion of the exam. I have to say this really struck me when (of course, after my own bar) I started learning more about the MBE. The reality is most of us will get a “failing” or “bad” score. A “good” score on the MBE can be just 65-70 percent correct answers (depending on your jurisdiction). And to all of us over-achiever law school types that means—well—failing.Does it feel like you are failing? It did to me! I remember going back to my hotel after the first three-hour session and thinking that it was a bit hopeless to go back for the second part. There was no way I could have gotten enough right to pass! (Luckily, I did though.) And then, surprisingly, I found the afternoon session was easier.I think it is important to call out the fact that you need to be mentally strong to attack the MBE portion of the exam. Also, be prepared for these feelings of frustration and failure—so you can keep going and hopefully end up passing the test!
- Find the right MBE study tools for you. There are tons of blog posts, books, and approaches on how to study for and take the MBE. What does that large amount of material tell you? That there is no one right way. You must find the right tools for you. So here are some suggested resources.
- Do you like studying with books? Outside of the books supplied by the major commercial bar review courses, check out Emanuel’s Strategies & Tactics for the MBE.
- Do you like studying online? AdaptiBar is very popular with students. As is the Multi-State Edge.
- Do you love using flashcards? I like the Critical Pass flashcards, although there are plenty of others out there including some by Kaplan. It is important to learn more about them and pick ones that match the way that you study.
- Do you like working with a tutor? There are a number of tutors who also specialize in working with students on the MBE.
There are no shortages of resources; the key is to decide what is the best resource for you.
- Practice and have a practice plan. I am not going to presume to tell you exactly how much to practice. There are plenty of different philosophies (35 questions a day versus 50 questions a day, etc.). But here is one thing that almost everyone agrees on. You must practice! And you can’t just practice— get some right/get some wrong—and then move on.You must study the answers and the explanations. Did you get the question right for the right reasons? Did you miss the question because you didn’t know the law? If that is the case, write it down and learn the law for the future—so you won’t get caught in that trap again.Also, no matter what study tool you use, you should take a practice exam ahead of time before the bar (on paper where you have to read the MBE questions and bubble in the answers). You should make sure you simulate the testing environment and the way that the test is actually administered.
Still have a while before you sit for the bar exam?
If you’re not sitting for the bar exam immediately, test out what study approaches work for you when studying for things like the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (which many students take in their last year of law school). If you have signed up for a review course, often you will be given materials to assist with your preparation. Try out those materials. If you are having a hard time studying with them, then you need to experiment with different tools for future multiple-choice exams. Learn from each exam experience. It can only make you better prepared for taking the bar exam.
The MBE can be a challenge for many bar examinees. However, don’t give up hope! Preparing in the best way for you will make sure you get the score you need to find exam success. Good luck!
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.