Beware Of The Five Bar Exam Types

By Deborah Sanders

Apart from the essays and the MBE questions, the bar exam is like every other hurdle to success: it requires a certain degree of self-awareness. 

What the makers of commercial bar courses forget is that, in every case, there is a human behind the test. You cannot approach the test as some sterile and fixed pursuit, something entirely outside of you. What gives the package of materials that arrive from your bar vendor any value is you.

Students come to the test with whatever personal traits they possess, and those traits influence the exam preparation process. You cannot will away who you are; traits persist. You cannot negotiate with what the test demands either. You must come to know the contours and rigors of the test and you must apply yourself to them.  

Every year I threaten certain bar takers that they are about to become profiled in my book of bar exam student “types.” The book is still in the making, so for now, the threat is idle, but the point is still valid. 

After teaching thousands of bar students, I have learned that, despite the varied qualities existing in human nature, there is a small, reliable number of bar-taking types. My threat is not intended to prompt change necessarily, or to categorically diminish a person.  No one is trying to change you here.  In fact, please do not try to change dramatically during bar season.  This might be the one time that you can full-on embrace your flaws, openly, shamelessly, be you. 

But you can better adapt your test strategy to your flaws if you are aware of them.  If you recognize yourself in any of these bar-taker profiles, pause and reassess. There is another way, even as you.


1 | The “Start Early” Person

The start-early person is positioned at number one for a reason.  Among bar exam re-takers, this is the most typical type of bar taker I see. 

Start-early people usually explain to me in detail why they need extra time to start their prep work.  And it’s a predictable list. I work. I have a family. I failed three times before and want to get ahead.

The problem with this strategy is that the start early people become too comfortable. Simply hiring a bar tutor or paying for a bar course is a relief for many people. They feel like they have taken some significant step toward preparation.  But this sense of relief actually leads to delay, avoidance and denial.  Start-early people are usually the first to peter out. There is no “getting ahead” in bar preparation. 

Bar prep is a process, and the start date should allow for just enough urgency to promote motivation, but not so much that it creates paralysis or avoidance.  Ten to twelve weeks is usually ideal. 

Every year I get at least two students who come to me for last-minute help with just three or four weeks remaining before the exam.  The pass rate for these students has, so far, been perfect.  I believe this to be the case because those students were afraid, but they were also very focused. They did the work. 

I do not suggest waiting until three weeks before the bar exam as a strategy. Ideally, you want to do work in layers, and over a progression of time that leads into the exam.

But too much time allows for slack. People tend to factor-in and over-estimate the extra time and then squander it.


2 | The Over-Doer

Say this with me slowly: “The bar exam is not law school.” 

There are no extra points for over-doing in bar prep, and much of a bar student’s surplus effort is not translatable in points on the test.  I have heard and seen every version of, “I did all the homework and still failed,” or “I met with a study group, made poster-board charts, purchased hundreds of dollars of office supplies, and still did not pass.”

Since none of these things help with passing, doing some or all of them only adds to the likelihood of burnout. Worse, over-doing usually creates circular, not forward, energy. You will spin, but not advance.  

Similarly, chart making, data crunching, projection calculating—these tasks are all largely unproductive and can get in your head.  And, unlike law school where raising your hand more, going to office hours and general over-achieving may actually help, the steps required to progress in bar prep are fairly specific: you must be consistent, you must do MBE’s every day, you must learn how to spot issues from the tested subjects, you must apply those skills to actual exam questions. 

In short, you must prepare for the test on its own terms. Twelve hours a day of non-productive work, commonly referred to as “studying,” only makes you tired. 


3 | The Micro-Focuser

This student is very common in the re-taking community. A micro-focuser focuses only on one specific problem they are having with the bar exam.  These students will tell me they have identified their weakness and only need help with MBE questions, or the essays, or the PT’s. 

The problem with this strategy is that, respectfully, non-passing students do not know what their problem is. 

Invariably, a student suggesting a certain weakness will be marginal, score-wise, in every area of the exam and need almost an even number of points to pass across them all.  Micro-focusers put emphasis on the part of the exam they liked the least, but I have almost never found a student so solid in one area that only the remaining parts need focus.  Usually, the math does not support a student’s assessment of their weaknesses.  

A person with a 118 MBE score, for example, cannot focus specifically on the essays because nothing they do on their essays would permit passing with that MBE score.  Typically, repeat takers have almost evenly split scores, yet the sense among students that one area is weaker than the other is very common.  Just because you feel weaker in one area does not make it true. It is always best to treat bar prep holistically.

The other problem with focusing on one part of the bar exam is that each test is different. You cannot store away a prior effort, unless your jurisdiction allows a bifurcated score. (This presents a dicey proposition itself. Registering one part of the exam where you have achieved a passable score means you lock in the score you need on the other portions.)

MBE work, for example, requires constant reinforcement. The general population begins MBE work at right around fifty percent. That includes first-time takers, recent re-takers, and people who have not sat for the bar exam for ten years.  MBE work is not a skill that you can preserve.  It must be done every day before the exam to get better.

So, if you think your “problem” is essays, you are probably wrong and it probably does not matter on a re-take even if you once were correct.  Likely, if you focus on one section to the exclusion of another, you will suffer points in the non-emphasized section.


4 | The Non-Doer and Reluctant Taker

In truth, these are the same people.  If you have no independent desire to sit for the bar exam, and by independent, I mean, a personal goal not of someone else’s making, please do not do it. 

Plenty of parents pay me for my course on behalf of their child.  Often, they will explain that their child really wants to pass the bar exam but lacks motivation. If I am hearing this from a parent it probably means the student does not want to put forth the effort to earn the license or the career. 

Paying for bar prep does not equal passage.  Parents with checkbooks are the biggest threat I see to many students’ success.  A student straining to conjure up the resources necessary to prepare properly is usually a student that really wants the result.  Most of my students have jobs, families, and other commitments, often with very fixed budgets. Yet these often overly-committed students tend to fair better than those without any internal impetus, regardless of the availability of economic and time resources.


5 | The Serial Bar Taker

The great thing about law students is that they are generally very ambitious. “Ambitious” can also be characterized compulsive.  Law students by nature are a special sort of determined.  That quality probably gets many students into law school.

In many ways, being determined should be celebrated.  But if, in the drive to do what you set out to, you sign up for the exam repeatedly without taking a thoughtful pause, you may be setting yourself up for repetitive failures. 

Sometimes a pause is more effective than a restart.  Paying for the test and buying new materials does not assure passage. In fact, if what you need is a hiatus, those things will delay much-needed internal work.  Sometimes what a student needs most is a break from the harangue of the test and a minute to figure out why they are doing it.  If someone else wants it for you, stop.  If you are angry with a prior effort, stop.  If you feel hopeless, stop.  

People often reflexively sign up for a second, third, or even fourth try, out of sheer frustration when they are not in a place to put their anger or despair into a useful channel.  Often a re-take after a meaningful pause permits purpose and a balanced and renewed perspective.  

If you recognized yourself in any of these profiles, do not despair. You can take the test just as you are so long as you are honest with yourself and adapt to that reality.  If you are pushing to “start early,” do some introspection. What’s really going on?  Starting in earnest is more important than a few extra weeks that you will likely resent and waste. Take a purposeful break.  Even if you do intend to retake the next exam after an unsuccessful attempt, the two or three weeks in between can allow for you to store needed energy, connect with family, get the normal stuff out of your system, setting you up for a better retry.  For the obsessive and the micro-focuser, here’s your chance to see lawyering as a big-picture pursuit.  

Whichever of these categories represents you—some people occupy several—self-awareness is everything.  So many students find that the bar exam, and its emotional hurdles, is emblematic of personality flaws and that those flaws are magnified during the bar prep process. It’s true that the bar exam will make your weaknesses more prominent, but it also provides an opportunity to overcome them on the test and beyond.



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Deborah Sanders is owner of Bar-None Prep and is based in New Jersey. She has been teaching thousands of bar students throughout the country based on her unique method aimed at providing a methodical and predictable approach to passing the bar for more than a decade. She is writing a book on "The Spiritual Path to Passing the Bar" and her writings can be read on, where she has a regular column, and Deborah also independently tutors law students both through her company, Bar-None Prep and on the platform.