Are you wondering what to do if you see a bar exam question and have no idea how to answer it. Students generally take one of two approaches: Some panic and do not write anything (or barely write anything), chalk it up to a loss and pray that they can answer the remaining questions correctly. Others write beautiful answers that have virtually nothing of great substance in them.
We highly recommend that you take the latter approach. Why? Because bar exam graders are busy. If you write nothing – or close to nothing – they will happily give you a point or two (if that) and be on their way. They do not want to spend hours grading essays. They want to get back to their glass of wine or their Netflix or whatever. So if you write very little you are making it very easy for them to justify a low score.
On the contrary, if you write a lot, you may just convince them to give you a few extra points that you (probably) don’t deserve. We have read thousands upon thousands of bar exam essays and we have seen students get average scoring essays even though they truly have no idea what they are talking about! Every point counts on the bar exam. Learning how to BS a bar exam answer can make the difference between passing and failing. Not to mention it will help you feel more confident walking into the bar exam. So with that….
Here are our 10 best tips to BS a bar exam answer if you truly do not know what to say.
How to BS a Bar Exam Answer – in 10 Easy Steps
1.Take a deep breath.
Do not panic. If you do not know the answer, others do not either. In fact, if you have mastered the art of BS’ing bar exam answers you should be happy to see a hard question. You will likely be graded easier especially if you have mastered these skills.
2. Read the fact pattern again slowly.
Now is not the time to rush through the fact pattern! Instead, slow down and figure out what happened. Make sure to read the facts as many times as you need to. You will need to have a good handle on the facts in order to complete step #6. Reading the facts slowly will also help you calm down and clear your head so you can come up with something to say.
3. Figure out what subject is being tested and, if possible, the topics tested.
Is it Civil Procedure? Family Law? And if so, can you narrow down the topics – is it subject matter jurisdiction? The Uniform Child Custody Enforcement Jurisdiction Act?
If you truly are unsure of the subject or topics being tested, that is okay. But figuring out the subject and/or topics tested can help you with the next steps. (If you cannot figure out the subjects or topics, skip to step #6.)
4. Discuss the background of the law.
Say that the question is testing a motion for summary judgment. You forgot most of what you know about such motions. But you can identify the general topic. Write whatever you know about a motion for summary judgment. Picture where the topic is in your outline and write down what you may remember about it. Maybe you remember that it will be considered a final judgment on the merits – write it down. Or maybe you can recall that the motion will be looked at in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Write down whatever you do know. Basically, we are telling you to outline dump a little bit. If you cannot remember barely anything, that is okay. Move on to Step 6.
5. Use (and emphasize!) key words and as much legal terminology as possible.
If you can remember any key words or any appropriate legal terminology, use and bold the key words (or underline them if you are a handwriter). For example, if you remember that a motion for summary judgment requires the moving party to show that there is no genuine issue of material fact then bold that. This will draw attention to the fact that you know something about the law.
6. Repeat facts.
We saw a student who scored a 9 out of 10 on a tricky spoliation civil procedure question. He did not say the word “spoliation” once but just gave a common-sense analysis of why parties cannot destroy evidence and repeated a lot facts in the process.
He is not alone. We have seen so many students get inflated scores just by repeating facts. They ramble on and just restate the facts in their own words. For some reason, many graders seem to be reading quickly and mistake this for “analysis” (when it is truly just repetition!). Nonetheless, you want to fill up that page so make sure to repeat as many facts as you can. Retell the story of what happened.
This will give you a nice long answer.
7. Arrive at a conclusion.
This isn’t law school. You need to arrive at a conclusion. Even you who are BS’ing the bar exam answer and are not sure what the conclusion is.
So many students do not arrive at a conclusion if they don’t know what to say. Generally, graders seem to treat this the same as concluding incorrectly – that is, you will be subtracted points. It makes it clear you do not know what you are talking about. Graders will be looking for your conclusion!!
Graders look for a conclusion because it is the easiest way for them to tell if you know what you are talking about. So try to figure out what conclusion they want you to arrive at then arrive at the conclusion. If you are feeling confident in your conclusion, say it first. The grader may gloss over your (not so great) rule statements and analysis. If you are unsure of your conclusion, bury it at the bottom of your answer to whatever issue you are discussing.
8. Make sure to answer all of the questions posed.
If it is a 4-part question, answer all four parts.
Some students just don’t answer questions they don’t know and hope the grader won’t notice. This is a losing strategy! Most graders grade according to a rubric and you will automatically get a 0 for that issue if you do not address it. Address each and every question even if you really do not know the answer.
9. Don’t be afraid if you have sloppy organization.
How do you feel when you look at a printed piece of paper (or two) and you see zero paragraph breaks? You just see writing from top to bottom.
If you are anything like most people, you probably are not super looking forward to reading that paper. And if you have not ingested an appropriate amount of caffeine, your eyes may very well gloss over whatever you are reading. And you may barely read it at all.
Our normal recommendation for writing bar exam answers is to clearly separate each issue into a “rule, analysis, and conclusion” paragraph. Write in an organized way to avoid the above glossing-over effect. And to make it easy for the grader to quickly see that you have spotted the appropriate rules and that you know what you are talking about.
However, that advice is suddenly not so important when you do not necessarily want to draw attention to your rules, analyses, or conclusion. It is suddenly not so important if you don’t really want the grader to pay super close attention to what you write. This is not to say you should go out of your way to have a poorly-organized answer. But there is no need to separately set aside your rule, analysis, and conclusion in standalone paragraphs if you are not confident about them.
Just set apart the portions of your analyses that you are confident about, if any. Draw attention to these.
10. Move on.
Once you are done writing your answer, stop thinking about it. Some students let a tricky question thrown them off for not only a few minutes, but the rest of the exam. And some students will talk about that question for days or weeks after the exam. This is completely pointless. You will have tricky questions but do not let it throw you off. If anything, you are at a big advantage if you understand how to BS a bar exam essay answer!
How do you get good at BS’ing a Bar Exam answer?
Practice. When you come across a question you have no idea how to answer, don’t flip right to the Examiners’ Analysis. Take your 30 minutes (or however long you have to answer the question) and try to write a great BS answer. See if you can convince yourself that it is worth a couple of points.
Not only will you perfect your BS’ing skills, but you will also feel more confident walking into the exam as you will have a plan for every question you see!
Ashley Heidemann is the owner and founder of JD Advising. Ms. Heidemann scored over a 180 on the Michigan Bar Exam in February of 2011 after graduating as the #1 student in her law school class of over 200 students in 2011. She, as well as a team of others, offer bar exam courses, seminars, and private tutoring for bar exam students nationwide. This includes services for the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) and Michigan bar exam. Please click here to contact her company, with any questions.