Strategies to conquer the MBE

Preparing for the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) is like a gymnast training for the gold.  Just as an athlete combines running and flipping through repetition for a medal, a bar applicant must turn the MBE into a routine to pass, according to Jason Tolerico of and Nathan Kleiner of Critical Pass (

Tolerico launched, a software program, after passing bar exams in California, Nevada, New York, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.  Tolerico achieved 170, 172, 176, 178, and 180 MBE scaled scores, including a perfect 33/33 in Torts. Kleiner founded Critical Pass together with a small team of young lawyers who passed bar exams in multiple states. Critical Pass is a customizable flashcard product, which helps examinees understand and memorize MBE subjects.

Q:  Explain what the MBE is about.

Kleiner: The MBE is a multiple-choice exam, covering six subjects (constitutional law, real property, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, torts), utilized by bar examiners in 48 states (all but Louisiana and Washington). It is administered twice per year, in two three-hour sessions (one in the morning and one in the afternoon), on the last Wednesday of February and July. It is a full-day, six-hour exam consisting of 200 questions, 190 of which are scored.  More information about how the MBE is administered is found at

Q:  How does the MBE test lawyering skills?

Kleiner: The MBE tests reading comprehension. In contrast to an essay or performance test, where good writing can mask imperfect legal analysis, the MBE cannot be “gamed.”  To score well on the MBE, one needs to understand and memorize key legal concepts, as well as finer distinctions in the law.  The only way to get an advantage is to study more efficiently and effectively.  Critical Pass flashcards were designed with this in mind.  The cards save applicants valuable time because they don’t have to create flashcards without knowing the material that is tested.  Users can customize the cards with their own content, such as examples, notes, or mnemonics.  This allows applicants to obtain the benefits of making their own flashcards without spending valuable study time doing so.

Tolerico: The MBE tests how well an applicant resolves a common everyday life situation with the relevant law. Someone with street smarts can do well because the answer to a MBE question changes based on the facts.  For example, if the facts state there is a banana peel on a grocery store floor, and asks if the store owner is liable to a customer who suffers injuries after slipping on the peel, the correct choice may depend on the color of the peel.  Property owners must keep property in a reasonably safe condition by not allowing a hazard to persist.  The color of a banana peel may indicate the reasonableness of time the store owner let the dangerous condition exist.  Similar to real life, an examinee must be aware of nuances in the facts and use objective judgment when choosing the best answer.

Q:  What are common reasons for why a bar applicant may score low on the MBE?

Kleiner: First, you have no chance of scoring well on the MBE without understanding the legal principles that the MBE tests. Additionally, some people have time management trouble.  Practice exams are key.  Every person taking the MBE should take subject-specific practice exams early on. By the third or fourth week of studying, you should take at least two or three hours of simulated practice exams each week. Before the MBE rolls around, take at least three or four timed, fully simulated MBE exams. But taking practice exams alone isn’t enough. Review the answers, especially every incorrect answer choice so you can track the areas where you’re having trouble.

Tolerico: The MBE is a predictor of whether an applicant will pass the bar exam, more so than the written portions.  It is not about picking the right answer, but figuring out why one choice is right and the others obviously wrong.  For example, if in criminal law, the facts are the defendant “acted immediately,” the applicant needs to use real world common sense to eliminate first degree murder since there is no time to deliberate.  You will not pass by just memorizing the law.

Q:  Please provide some multiple choice strategies.

Kleiner:  Bar examiners don't identify MBE questions by subject. To get some idea of what you are dealing with, look at the call of the question first. It will usually identify the subject, or narrow it down to one or two subjects.  It may even indicate what concept the question is testing.  Never choose an answer choice that contains a word or phrase you’ve never heard of, particularly if it’s in Latin.  Those answer choices are almost always designed as red herrings for examinees who don’t know the answer.  

Tolerico:  There have been many changes in the MBE in the past few years. Prepare for the MBE using released questions from the NCBE. licenses MBE questions direct from the NCBE, and follows the NCBE outlines in presenting materials.  For each subject, draw on specific knowledge for the subject.  In constitutional law, understand recent case law from 1999-2008.  In torts, learn the reasonableness of a defendant’s conduct.  For criminal law/procedure, learn intent and the reasonableness of police conduct.  Read the questions and answer choices word-for-word and be aware of descriptive words (e.g. adverbs, adjectives).  Ask yourself:  “How come it is X in one choice but Y in the next?” “How come the facts give you events happening 60 years ago?”  There are no tricks on the MBE so do not look for them.

Q:  What tips can you offer for time management?

Kleiner:  You get about one minute and 45 seconds to answer each question. You have three hours for 100 questions, so approximately one hour for every 33 questions, or 30 minutes for every 17. Before you start the exam, circle questions 34 and 68, knowing you should hit these at one and two hours into the exam, respectively.

Tolerico:  For 2-3 months before test day, do at least 35 MBE questions each day, 7 days a week, one at a time.  When practicing, stress quality.  Do one question and then read the answer before going on to another.  If you do questions in groups, or become too focused on timing or quantity, you may not remember the questions completed or forget the reasons for why you choose an option by the time you review the answers.  Worry about timing after you understand the purpose behind each tested subject.

Q:  Any advice for bar exam repeaters?

Kleiner:  Preparing for the bar exam requires self-awareness.  Watch out for streaks when doing practice exams.  Some people may get seven or eight straight questions correct, and then get eight or nine in a row wrong. Often, this is not because you came across several tough questions grouped together. Rather, the bad streaks almost always start somewhere around a tough question that irks you. Your frustration carries over to subsequent questions, impacting your ability to answer them correctly.  When you hit a question that stumps you, answer it as best you can, then stop and take a deep breath for 10 seconds. Moving on is important, but moving on without clearing your head will hurt you.

Tolerico:  MBE subjects are the legal foundation.  Someone with a scaled score of below 100 will perhaps need to retake the bar exam about four times to pass because the person likely missed three years of law school.  Each time a person retakes the bar exam, the repeater should not expect more than a 10-15% score increase.  A bar exam tutor or prep service who represents or has client testimonials claiming a jump from 63% correct answers to a 92% rate or a score of 192/200 on practice exams is something to question.  In fact, it is completely and utterly false.   Few examinees, if any, can attain my scores, unless they rebuild the legal foundation and do MBE questions as a routine.