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Tips for Taking the California Bar Exam

August 29, 2022 | Purdue Global Law School

The California bar exam has a reputation for being challenging. Compared to bar exams administered in other states, its average pass rate is consistently lower.

According to the State Bar of California, the pass rate for the February 2022 California bar exam was 33.9%. This percentage includes both first-time and repeat applicants and is a significant drop from the February 2021 pass rate of 37.2%.

By comparison, the February 2022 New York bar exam had an average pass rate of 45%, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners. The pass rate of the bar exam in less populous states, such as Utah and New Mexico, routinely reaches above 70%.

One explanation for the California bar exam’s low pass rates is that the state requires a score of 1390, which is well above the national median cut score of 1350. Prior to 2020, the California bar exam’s cut score was even higher, at 1440.

If you’re a law student getting ready to take the California bar exam, it’s important to be prepared. In this article, we’ll cover what you need to know about the exam and list some of our top California bar exam tips.

Format of the California Bar Exam

The California bar exam is administered twice a year—in February and July—over a two-day period. The exam dates always fall on a Tuesday and Wednesday, usually in the last week of the month.

The exam is made up of three parts:

  • Five one-hour essay questions

  • One 90-minute performance test

  • The Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), consisting of 200 multiple-choice questions

The questions on the California bar exam cover a range of legal topics. According to the State Bar of California website, these subjects include:

  • Business associations

  • Civil procedure

  • Community property

  • Constitutional law

  • Contracts

  • Criminal law and procedure

  • Evidence

  • Professional responsibility

  • Real property

  • Remedies

  • Torts

  • Trusts

  • Wills and succession

Essay Questions

You will have one hour to complete each of the five essay questions on the California bar exam. In each prompt, you will be presented with a hypothetical legal scenario and asked to answer questions such as whether the client is likely to win their case or how the court should proceed based on the evidence provided. You may be asked to apply general legal principles as well as principles specific to California law.

The essay portion is completed on the first day of the California bar exam. You will complete three essays in the morning and two essays after lunch. You will also take the performance test in the afternoon of the first exam day.

On the State Bar of California website, you can view past essay questions and selected answers. Reviewing these sample questions can be a great study tool as you prepare for the exam.

Performance Test

The 90-minute performance test measures your ability to perform certain legal tasks, such as writing a memorandum or drafting a settlement letter. Each performance test question includes a file and a library. The file contains facts about the fictionalized case, and the library contains legal authorities that you should cite within your response.

The performance test portion of the bar exam is designed to mimic real-life legal tasks that you may encounter outside of academic settings.

As mentioned above, the performance test is completed on the first exam day, typically in the afternoon. Altogether, the first exam day consists of six and a half hours of testing time—five one-hour essays, and the 90-minute performance test.

Multistate Bar Examination

The Multistate Bar Examination is a six-hour, multiple-choice exam made up of 200 questions. It is administered as part of bar exams across the country and does not include any questions on state-specific laws.

The MBE covers seven subjects:

  • Civil procedure

  • Constitutional law

  • Contracts

  • Criminal law and procedure

  • Evidence

  • Real property

  • Torts

You will typically take the MBE on your second day of the California bar exam, completing 100 questions in the morning and 100 questions in the afternoon. You get three hours each for the morning and afternoon blocks.

Studying for the California Bar Exam

The California bar exam may be daunting, but the earlier you begin studying, the more prepared you'll be. Below are some study strategies and tips that may help you pass the exam.

Carve Out Study Time in Advance

It takes around 400-500 hours to prepare for the bar exam, according to Martin Pritikin, dean of Purdue Global Law School. To determine when you should start studying, think about how many hours you can dedicate to your studies each work. Are there any changes you make to your usual routine to allow for more study time? For example, can your spouse or roommate help with errands while you prepare for the exam? If you work, can you temporarily reduce your hours?

Typically, law school graduates study full time between their graduation and the bar exam. If you graduate in May, for example, you will want to study full time until the late July bar exam. If you anticipate having trouble finding time to study, you may want to begin studying sooner.

Create a Study Schedule

It’s crucial to come up with a plan for how you will divide your time among different subjects. To make your study schedule, create a list of the topics covered on the bar exam and assign a target date to each. The amount of time you’ll be able to spend on each subject depends on how long you have until your exam date. You should also consider leaving a few weeks of buffer time leading up to your exam, which you can use to revisit any topics that have been causing you difficulty.

Use Active Study Methods

Active learning refers to forms of learning that require you to engage with the material in a meaningful way. While passive study methods such as reading notes or listening to a lecture can work well for many students, it’s important to balance these passive learning methods with active learning methods, such as writing your own exam questions or debating with other law students.

Practice Writing Timed Essays

The essay portion of the bar exam not only requires a deep understanding of the law—it requires you to communicate your reasoning within a short period of time. Some bar takers tend to obsess over memorizing as much material as they can and fail to practice their writing and analysis skills.

Using sample questions, begin practicing by writing untimed essays and work your way up to writing essays within the one-hour time limit. Outlining essay responses may be efficient, but it is no substitute for writing out full essay answers.

Generally, you’ll want to follow the IRAC method when writing your essay responses. IRAC stands for Issue, Rule, Analysis, and Conclusion. On the California bar exam, the analysis portion of your essay tends to have the biggest impact on your score.

Learn the Format of California Bar Exam Questions

The more familiar you are with the format of California bar exam questions, the less time you will need to spend making sense of the instructions. As you study, you’ll begin to notice some commonalities. For example, all MBE questions follow the same multiple-choice format, with four potential answers for each.

Pay special attention to the format of performance test questions. This section may feel unfamiliar compared to what you’ve encountered on other exams, but it’s the most similar to the tasks you will actually perform as a new lawyer.

Take Advantage of Bar Exam Preparation Resources

Following a California bar exam study guide can be a great way to keep yourself on track and ensure that you are studying relevant material. Popular California bar exam prep resources include:

Some commercial study guides are more expensive than others, but they can be tremendously helpful as you prepare for your exam. Be sure to check if your school offers any discounts on study guides. At Purdue Global Law School, for instance, students are given a significant discount on Kaplan Test Prep’s bar preparation program.

In addition to discounts on commercial products, many law schools provide a variety of free bar prep resources to their students as they approach the end of their degree program. Students at Purdue Global Law School receive one-on-one and group coaching from the school’s Director of Bar Support.

How Long Do You Need to Study for the California Bar Exam?

As mentioned above, 400–500 hours is the recommended study time for the California bar exam, but this is only a guideline. The amount of time you need to prepare for the exam depends on how familiar you already are with the subjects and how well you retain material while studying.

In general, you should expect to spend at least two months studying for the bar exam. If you’re not able to study full time in the two months leading up to your exam, you may wish to begin studying sooner.

Plan Ahead for the Day of the Exam

As you approach the date of your exam, be sure to plan ahead for how you will get there. California has a fixed number of testing centers, and if you don’t live nearby, you may want to stay in a hotel the night before your exam. Try to get a good night’s rest the night before and avoid any late-night cramming. In the morning, give yourself plenty of time to travel to the testing center, factoring in any potential traffic delays.

No food or drink aside from water will be allowed in the testing room, but you will have a lunch break on both days. You may want to pack a lunch to bring with you, especially if you have any dietary restrictions.

While it may be tempting, it’s best not to talk to other bar takers about the exam during your lunch. Discussing specific questions may stress you out and make you second-guess your answers, especially if your fellow bar taker interpreted the question differently than you.

Once you complete a section of the exam, try to put it out of your head and focus on the next section. Thinking about something you should have written differently will just distract you as you complete the next portion of the exam.

Prepare for the California Bar Exam with Purdue Global Law School

The curriculum of Purdue Global Law School’s Juris Doctor program is designed to cover the topics included on the California bar exam. This four-year, 100% online program features foundational courses in legal research, legal writing, and professional responsibility. You can also use your elective credits to explore specific legal topics, such as cybersecurity law, immigration law, or health law.

To learn more about how Purdue Global Law School can prepare you for becoming a lawyer in California, reach out today.

About The Author

Purdue Global Law School

Established in 1998, Purdue Global Law School (formerly Concord Law School) is Purdue University's fully online law school for working adults.

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