How Hard is the Bar Exam

Written by: Will Bond

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The bar exam is a challenging assessment designed to evaluate the comprehensive knowledge, analytical skills, and competence of aspiring lawyers for a career in this profession.

To help you prepare, our How Hard is the Bar Exam guide provides insights on the overall pass rates in each state as well as the specific areas of this exam that make it so tricky and how to tackle them.

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Is the Bar Exam Hard

Without sugarcoating it, the bar exam is a serious challenge for any prospective attorney. This is not only due to the time and effort needed to master the vast array of complex content tested on this exam, but also the psychological pressure associated with knowing what’s at stake if you fail.

Moreover, obtaining the level of knowledge and skill to successfully pass the bar exam requires a huge investment of both time and money. For many, this investment begins with their preparation for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and culminates with their journey toward their bar exam date.

Yet, despite this exam’s daunting nature, recent data from the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) suggests first-time test takers are rising to the challenge with reasonably high pass rates that range between 64% and 94%.

This clearly demonstrates that, with effective preparation and ample time, passing on the first attempt is achievable for any applicant to the bar.

Bar Exam Pass Rate

The tables below summarize the overall and first-time pass rates for the bar exam’s most recent testing cycle data (July 2023) in each state.

Alabama – Kentucky

StateOverall Pass RatePass Rate for First-Time Takers
District of Columbia78%84%

Louisiana – New York

StateOverall Pass RatePass Rate for First-Time Takers
New HampshireN/AN/A
New Jersey61%70%
New Mexico71%84%
New York66%76%

North Carolina – Wyoming

StateOverall Pass RatePass Rate for First-Time Takers
North Carolina69%78%
North Dakota 60%67%
Rhode Island73%76%
South Carolina73%81%
South Dakota74%75%
West Virginia72%76%

Don’t be phased by this data, though. It doesn’t matter if you plan to take the California bar exam or the Florida bar exam, the biggest factor determining your exam success is how effectively you prepare. In order to guarantee effective preparation, many candidates opt to invest in high-quality bar prep courses.

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Interested in getting started? We recommend Kaplan’s bar exam preparation materials, which come with a free retake guarantee, interactive and flexible learning, and lawyer-led tutoring.

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What You Can Expect on the Bar Exam

While the bar exam isn’t the same in all states, almost all jurisdictions have either adopted the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) or slight variation of it.

The UBE includes the following three sections, which candidates take during a two-day period:

  • Multistate Bar Examination (MBE)
  • Multistate Essay Examination (MEE)
  • Multistate Performance Test (MPT)

Alongside the above sections, certain states also may include an additional exam that tests candidates on the regulations and procedures unique to that jurisdiction.

On top of this, with the exception of Wisconsin and Puerto Rico, candidates in all states must obtain a passing grade on the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) to gain admission to the bar.

Read on to learn about the specific challenges associated with each of these sections and the role they play in the overall difficulty of the bar exam.

Multistate Bar Examination (MBE)

In the MBE section, you’ll have to tackle 200 multiple-choice questions — 175 of which will be scored and distributed evenly across the following seven topics:

  • Constitutional Law
  • Civil Procedure
  • Contract Law
  • Real Property
  • Tort Law
  • Evidence
  • Criminal Law and Procedure

For each multiple-choice question in this section, you’ll need to choose the correct option from four potential answers. The specific challenge of this section lies in its demand for high-level critical thinking and the ability to quickly identify the correct rules to apply to specific problems.

In order to succeed in this section of the bar exam, candidates must display quick analytical skills and the ability to adapt and think creatively under pressure.

Multistate Essay Examination (MEE)

The MEE consists of six 30-minute sections that can cover a variety of legal areas, including:

  • Civil Procedure
  • Business Associations (E.g., Agencies and Partnerships, Limited Liability Companies, Corporations, etc.)
  • Conflict of Laws
  • Constitutional Law
  • Contract Law
  • Family Law
  • Criminal Law
  • Torts
  • Trusts and Estates

In this section, the primary difficulty is how common it is for these essay questions to include multiple legal issues. Instead of being able to get away with a deep focus on only one or two areas, candidates need to display a broad understanding across all subjects in order to score highly.

Multistate Performance Test (MPT)

This section of the bar exam is a performance test made up of two 90-minute parts. Within the materials for each part, you’ll be required to use the following resources:

  • The File: This includes source documents that break down a particular case’s facts, such as transcripts, interviews, depositions, pleadings, trials, and client documents, among others
  • The Library: This houses legal resources (e.g., cases, statutes, and regulations) — some of which may be relevant to your assigned task and some of which may not

With these resources, you’ll have to complete the task described to you in the supervising attorney’s memorandum form by extracting the applicable legal principles required to analyze the legal problem you currently face.

In this section, the specific challenge lies in how closely it’s been designed to reflect legal practice. You’ll encounter intentionally unrelated details as well as partial, vague, or contradictory facts akin to the uncertainties often encountered in real-world legal practice.

This mirrors situations in which clients or supervising attorneys provide unreliable or incomplete information in an attempt to determine your ability to identify inconsistencies or gaps and discern potential avenues for acquiring supplementary facts.

State-Specific Component

In addition to all non-UBE states, the following jurisdictions that do use the UBE also administer their own state-specific section of the bar exam:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • New York
  • New Mexico
  • Washington

Among UBE states, this section isn’t normally something candidates need to worry about because — with the exception of Missouri, Washington, and New York — it only involves completing a course, class, or seminar on the jurisdiction-specific law separate from the bar exam.

However, because jurisdiction-specific sections are unique to each state, candidates may find it more challenging to adequately prepare for these portions of the test. For example, they may find fewer study materials and resources available for this section when compared to the standardized portion of the exam.

Moreover, state-specific legal issues can be complex, nuanced, and highly particular. This can make it trickier for candidates to demonstrate a deep understanding of these intricacies vs. the broader legal principles tested on the standardized UBE.

Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE)

The MPRE is a two-hour exam of 60 multiple-choice questions that candidates must pass in addition to their state’s bar exam in order to gain admission to the bar.

It assesses a candidate’s understanding of the professional conduct of both attorneys and judges, including:

  • The American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct
  • The ABA’s Model Code of Judicial Conduct
  • Constitutional Common Law and Principles
  • Evidentiary Issues
  • The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure
  • The Federal Rules of Evidence

The MPRE can prove particularly tricky for candidates due to the number of skills it simultaneously assesses. You’ll have to analyze hypothetical scenarios that involve ethical dilemmas faced by attorneys and judges, and then identify the appropriate principles and rules that apply — often in situations with ambiguous or conflicting factors.

Success on the MPRE depends on having a thorough understanding of the federal rules that apply in these situations as well as the presence of mind to identify and apply them where required.

How to Prepare for the Bar Exam

Despite these challenges, passing the bar exam on your first try is highly achievable with the right attitude, study resources, and preparation techniques.

Here are our top recommendations for candidates in the process of preparing to take the bar exam:

  • Start as Early as Possible: The most important thing you can do to cultivate your future success in the bar exam is to start your preparation as early as possible. This’ll not only give you the best chance of learning the vast amount of information tested without cramming, but also ensure you obtain a good understanding of the foundational topics related to practicing law covered early on during law school, such as Contract, Tort, and Constitutional Law
  • Focus on Studying “Broadly”: Due to the breadth of subject material you’ll face during the exam, it’s essential to aim for a wide-ranging understanding of various subjects when studying vs. an in-depth knowledge of only a few
  • Use Mock Exams Extensively: Taking numerous mock bar exams over the course of your preparation is essential because it’ll allow you to build familiarity with the real test as well as monitor your progress. Moreover, these practice tests will clearly highlight the areas of the law that require more of your attention — information you can use to adjust your preparation strategy
  • Gain Hand-On Legal Experience: Pursuing the avenues available to you for practical experience while in law school (e.g., summer internships and mock trials) is a great way to apply what you learn in the classroom as well as build some real-world legal skills — both of which are a great help in the bar exam

One of the easiest and more straightforward ways to kick-start your preparation for the bar exam is to invest in a reputable, high-quality bar exam prep course.

Recommended: Interested in getting started? We recommend Kaplan’s bar exam preparation materials, which come with a free retake guarantee, interactive and flexible learning, and lawyer-led tutoring.

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How Hard is the Bar Exam FAQ

Is the bar exam the hardest test?

While the bar exam is renowned for its difficulty due to its comprehensive nature and high stakes, other exams like medical board exams or the certified public accountant (CPA) exam also pose significant challenges to candidates. For guidance on how to pass the bar exam despite its difficulty, see our What is the Bar Exam article.

How hard is it to pass the bar exam?

Passing the bar exam requires diligent preparation and a solid understanding of legal concepts. However, with that said, the exam’s difficulty ultimately will depend on each law student based on their prior legal education, study habits, and bar prep course they used. For more information on this topic, see our How Hard is the Bar Exam article.

Which state has the easiest bar exam?

If you only look at exam pass rates, Utah has the easiest bar exam with a 92% overall pass rate. However, several factors play a role in determining which state has the easiest and most difficult bar exam. These include the state’s exam format, its passing scores, and the complexity of the state-specific laws it tests.

Is the LSAT or bar harder?

Between the LSAT and the bar exam, there’s no comparison in terms of difficulty. While they both require a lot of preparation in order to pass, bar exams are the final, most difficult hurdle law students must pass on their journey to being able to practice law.