Best Bar Exam Tip: Think Like a Grader

It is hard to believe that I am already working with students for the July bar exam. When I talk to my students about each part of the written portion of the test, I hear myself making one statement over and over again, “You must think like the bar exam grader.”

As you likely know, the grading of the written bar exam is done by real people reading stacks of essays one after another. In some states the graders are practicing attorneys and in other states the graders may work for the state bar. But in any case, it is commonly accepted that graders spend limited time on grading bar exam essays, often 2 to 3 minutes per essay and 3 to 5 minutes per performance test (that is the norm in California and the accepted norm in other jurisdictions as well). But really the amount of time doesn’t matter so much, compared with the realization that the graders are reading incredibly quickly.

So what does that mean for you, the exam taker? It means that in order to write a successful exam answer, you must think like the grader. You must write understanding how the grader is reading your exam. And you must be kind to the grader and make the grader’s job as easy as possible! So how do you do this?

1. Use smart headers. Students are often annoyed by hearing me talk about headers over and over again, but headers are guideposts—they help the grader know where he/she is going or heading (yes, very quickly). If you leave out headers, you risk the grader not appreciating an issue that you are raising. Don’t believe me? Here is one example of where headers had a big impact on a bar taker’s score.

I was reading a failing answer from a student a number of years ago. The essay required an answer in five parts (it was an evidence question and there were five pieces of evidence that needed to be discussed). The student discussed all five, but he included a header for only four of the five pieces of evidence. His score was so low, it didn’t seem to reflect the work he had done for all five evidence issues. So I had to worry—had the grader thought the student had not addressed all five pieces of evidence, because he didn’t have a header for each one?

The moral of the story is don’t risk this happening to you! You need to take a few moments and use thoughtful headers to make the grader’s job easier.

2. Write professionally. Many students think that because they are writing incredibly fast on the bar exam that they can ignore typos, sloppy writing, or even traditional writing norms (e.g., writing in complete sentences and using capital letters). Remember, this is a professional exam. Some states even make you dress up to sit for it! You want to present yourself like a lawyer—and in my opinion this includes writing in a professional way.

Does this mean that the writing needs to be perfect? No! But you want to write a high-quality first draft of your work .

Although graders typically do not give points for professionalism, it is almost certain that snap judgments are made on the initial presentation of your work. So don’t discredit first impressions; they can definitely make a difference on your bar exam score.

3. Use key words and phrases. Many students are really stressed by the idea that they have to memorize mountains of law to present it perfectly on the essays. I would argue that instead of perfection, you want to memorize short and concise rule statements that include the appropriate key words or terms of art. Because when a grader is reading quickly, he/she is likely going to be looking for key words such as “foreseeability” or “reasonable.” It is less about the exact form of the rule statement, but more about what is in the rule statement. So when you are practicing your rules, make sure you are learning rules that will make it easy for the grader to decide whether or not you know what you are talking about.

4. Use paragraphs to highlight quality analysis. Paragraphs, along with headers, allow you to guide the grader’s eye. You can help by highlighting important elements for the grader to focus on. If you have an issue that has a lot of great analysis of the facts, make that analysis its own paragraph. Show the grader that you focused on that topic. Singling it out will demonstrate that you appreciated that it was a hot-button issue and you gave it the time it deserved.

5. Practice reading your answers and evaluating them like a bar exam grader. It is great to get feedback from other people (your bar review company or a tutor) but you also want to take time to give yourself feedback. Along with carefully evaluating your work, you want to read your work as a grader would—so go through your answers carefully and see if your work is “skim-able.” If you find your own work challenging to get through, then that is a sign that you may need to clean up your act.

6. Learn from others’ work. If you are studying with friends for the bar exam, perhaps you can get a group together and trade essays in order to get even more feedback. Or you can get exposure to other student essays through books (the What Not to Write series) and websites (in California you can check out Some students find reading other real student answers helpful in evaluating what makes a “good” or “not-so-good” essay.

Warning: Don’t become obsessed with sample exam answers. Many jurisdictions produce model answers that students can study. These model answers are great examples (especially if they are student answers) of what the graders are looking for. But remember these are just for guidance! Don’t become obsessed with sample exam answers thinking that you will pass only if you create an answer that looks like the model answer. Instead, think about what you like about the answer. Read it quickly and evaluate what the author did to make it a great answer. Is it easy to read? Did it have lots of headers?  What can you learn from the essay? But reviewing sample answers is not supposed to make you feel bad—or make you question whether writing a passing answer is even possible. Remember this is a learning process!

So as your bar exam study process gets under way, take time to start thinking like a bar exam grader. Doing so will help you write quality exam answers that will make the grader’s job very easy and hopefully lead to a passing score.

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®.

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5 comments on “Best Bar Exam Tip: Think Like a Grader

  • Thanks, Lee. Great tips!

    I’ve been stressing (and it’s only MAY!) b/c I can’t seem to get my time down on the MPT’s (for the July UBE in WA). I’ve been waking up in night convinced I should cancel my application and get my money back!

    These tips help. I think that if I draft memos/briefs that are simply organized well enough, highlight all the obvious issues, and fill in ea heading/sub-heading w/ a simple 3-4 sentence paragraph, that will be sufficient to at least not let the MPT’s drag my score down. The being to finish, which I think is more important than a well written 1/3 effort. Do you think? Also, any tips for speed building.

  • Hi Caroline: Thank you for reading. There is a great book by Mary Campbell Gallagher on the MPTs that you might want to check out. She has really good tips for being efficient and working quickly.

    I also think that practice is definitely one way to be more efficient. I think that if you need to streamline your work you can perhaps come up with some methods for reading the packet more efficiently to save yourself a bit more time for writing. In addition, organizing your writing before you write it key — it helps you work quickly and not waste time while writing your answer. I hope this helps. Yes, finishing is important, but so is analysis. Make sure you don’t spend too much time on the rule statements and leave yourself time for analysis (which is where many of the points come from).

    • Yes, I have both MCG’s books (MPT/MEE). I had been working though the sample MPT’s w/ frustration. However, we spoke yesterday afternoon, and she set me straight. [We were introduced earlier in April when I participated in one of her teleseminars.] My time improved immediately after we spoke. I do read more carefully than I have time for…and go on way too much in the analyzing the issues. I have no choice but to change my ways… (I’ll keep you updated.)

      • Great! I am so glad you were able to reach out to Mary and that she was helpful. She is definitely an expert on the MPTs!

        One thing to consider when streamlining the reading process — if you find yourself over-highlighting and reading too carefully, you may want to drop the highlighter and pick up a pen (I find my students don’t underline as much as they would highlight). In addition, sometimes I encourage my students to (even literally) sit on their hands while reading — thus having to *decide* when to mark something up before doing so. This can make your reading more efficient and your note taking more productive. Please keep me posted and feel free to email me if you want to chat about anything else (lee[at]

        • Thanks. yes, I use a only pen. Funny you should mention this problem: not more than a minute ago, I concluded I was underlining waaaay to much. I reprinted the practice MPT I was working on and decided to start over–ha!

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