How to Pass the Bar Exam

Written by: Will Bond

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How to Pass the Bar Exam

For both aspiring and current law students, the journey to becoming a licensed attorney culminates with the challenging bar exam — a moment that marks the transition from the academic to the professional realm of law.

In this How to Pass the Bar Exam article, we’ll break down the most effective strategies you need to be taking advantage of during your preparation as well as discuss the pass rate in your state.

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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Understanding Bar Exam Preparation

Whether you’re approaching the start of your bar exam preparation or are currently in the middle of it, you’ve likely encountered a myriad of “quick fix” suggestions — often along the lines of “all you need to do to pass the bar is this ONE thing.” Unfortunately, these suggestions normally sound too good to be true because they are.

The hard truth is there’s no magic bullet for passing the bar exam — it’s a challenging journey that demands dedication and hard work.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all shortcut, there are a number of proven study tips and learning strategies you can use in order to enhance your chances of bar exam success. It just requires some effort and approaching your preparation with diligence and focus.

Tips for Passing the Bar Exam

In the section below, you’ll find our top bar exam tips for maximizing your chances of passing the bar exam.

Give Yourself Enough Preparation Time

As a general rule, most law students will need between 300 and 400 hours of dedicated preparation for the bar exam. You may need more or less than this, however, depending on how well you performed in law school, how long ago you graduated, and whether or not you took many “bar” classes (e.g., business associations, criminal procedure, and evidence) while at university.

If you plan to study full time, you’ll need to give yourself at least nine weeks in order to meet this recommendation (i.e., studying around 40 to 50 hours per week). If you instead need to balance a part-time study plan with other commitments, you’ll need to start earlier — often between 15 and 20 weeks before your exam date — to accommodate for fewer hours of studying each week.

No matter how far in advance you may need to start your preparation for the bar exam, you should aim to spend about half of it actually learning the material and the rest of the time taking mock exams, answering multiple-choice questions, and writing practice essays.

Taking advantage of practice exams will allow you to build your test-taking skills. It’ll also give you an idea of the subject areas you need to focus more on, which can help you determine if you’ll need more or less than the 400-hour recommendation.

Create a Realistic Study Schedule

With a general idea of how much time you’ll need to dedicate to your bar exam preparation — as well as how early you’ll need to start — it’s time to create a study schedule.

Importantly, you should create a schedule that’s realistic, achievable, and flexible. There’s no point creating a study schedule that lasts a month and relies on you studying 16 hours a day because what happens if you need to take a day or two off for an emergency or other personal obligation?

This is where starting as early as possible can be a great help. Doing so gives you the breathing room to design an achievable schedule that covers all bases, but also can fit around your life.

Regardless of whether you plan to follow a full- or part-time study schedule, it’s crucial to craft a study plan you can sustain long term. While you may have been able to successfully cram earlier on in your academic career, the bar exam requires a different approach.

Given this exam’s extensive coverage of a multitude of legal areas, it’s essential to allocate time for learning and memorization as well as for thorough review and repetition. Your bar exam performance — as well as your mental well-being — will benefit significantly from a strategy geared towards the long haul.

Invest in the Right Resources

In order to study effectively for the bar exam, you’ll need to gather certain materials for your preparation. These include:

  • Black Letter Outlines
  • Practice Essay Questions
  • Mock Performance Tests
  • Practice Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) Materials

If you plan to study independently, look for these resources as second-hand materials from friends or online platforms like Craigslist, Amazon, or eBay. Just remember to confirm the editions are fairly recent because jurisdictions may update the subjects they test on the bar exam periodically.

Many students prefer a more structured approach, however, so choose to invest in a bar preparation course. These courses can make the process of gathering the relevant materials — as well as the overall preparation process — much easier and less stressful because the provider will handle it on your behalf.

In fact, many of our readers find that investing in the right resources — whether it be study materials, a bar preparation course, or tutoring — contributed greatly to their success on the bar exam.

Recommended Course

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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Study Broadly

Unlike in law school where exams assess your depth of knowledge, preparing for the bar exam will require you to switch strategies. Instead of delving deeply into specific subjects, aiming for a broader understanding of a wide range of legal topics is the key to success.

Don’t strive for expertise in any single subject. You should instead focus on acquiring a shallow, but comprehensive understanding of multiple areas of law during your preparation. This approach will allow you to cover a greater scope of material, increasing your chances of encountering familiar topics on the exam.

The reasoning behind this approach is that you’re not expected to become an authority in any particular subject, but rather to attain a passing score on the bar exam. You can maximize the chances of that happening by aiming to grasp just enough about each area of law to obtain a score in the top percentiles.

In addition to studying broadly, it’s equally crucial to prioritize your study efforts on topics that are most likely to appear on the exam. By focusing your attention on these high-yield topics, you can ensure you invest your study time in a way that’s most likely to lead to results.

This is another reason for why bar review courses can be a great investment, as the providers creating them already have an intimate understanding of these high-yield subjects and are likely to design their programs accordingly.

Bar Exam Pass Rate

Bar exam pass rates in the United States vary widely, depending on the jurisdiction. According to data from the most recent testing cycle (June 2023), for example, overall pass rates varied from 64% to 94%.

This section discusses a number of factors that contribute to these variations, alongside the raw data, so you can tailor your preparation strategies to address these specific challenges and increase your chance of success.

Bar Exam Format and Content

One of the biggest factors influencing the variation in pass rates is that, when it comes to state bar exams, not all jurisdictions follow the same format. In fact, even some of the states that adopted the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE) have implemented additional, state-specific components to reflect local laws, regulations, and legal practices.

This can lead to the bar exams in certain states proving more tricky for candidates who must face the challenge of familiarizing themselves with the unique content and format of their respective state exams.

Passing Score Requirements

Another key factor to mention when considering the reason for the variation in pass rates is that each state’s board of bar examiners has some discretion over the minimum score required to pass this exam.

While the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) sets the national minimum passing score for the UBE at 260 out of 400, states that adopted the UBE may raise this requirement as they see fit — with some jurisdictions requiring a score as high as 272.

Moreover, non-UBE states have even greater autonomy in terms of their grading requirements and pass thresholds because they employ their own format for the bar exam.

State-Specific Regulations

Finally, the variations in each state’s regulations regarding bar admission and taking the exam also contribute to differing pass rates. Here are some examples of how these variations may appear:

  • Academic Requirements: Each state sets the educational background and prior legal experience candidates must have in order to take the bar exam. In states with lower educational standards, this naturally leads to lower pass rates because a greater number of candidates with limited legal education or experience may take the exam
  • Limits on Bar Exam Attempts: While some states impose limits on the number of times candidates may take the bar exam, others don’t. This can lead to discrepancies in pass rates because candidates in states with unlimited attempts who don’t pass will have more opportunities to continue failing the exam when compared to states with stricter limitations
  • Transfer of MBE Scores: In some states, candidates may transfer their previously obtained MBE scores. In such states, bar exam pass rates may be higher because this option allows candidates to dedicate more time to the other areas of this exam than their counterparts in states that don’t permit MBE score transfers

Understanding these variances in state regulations is essential for comprehending the disparities in bar exam pass rates across the country.

Bar Exam Pass Rates by State

The tables below list the passing score and pass rate of candidates who sat the bar exam in each state in the most recent testing cycle (June 2023).

Alabama – Kentucky

StateOverall Pass RatePassing Score
District of Columbia78%266

Louisiana – New York

StateOverall Pass RatePassing Score
Louisiana70%See Jurisdiction
New HampshireN/A270
New Jersey61%266
New Mexico71%260
New York66%266

North Carolina – Wyoming

StateOverall Pass RatePassing Score
North Carolina69%270
North Dakota 60%260
Rhode Island73%270
South Carolina73%266
South Dakota74%See Jurisdiction
West Virginia72%270

While this data is useful for tailoring your bar exam preparation, it’s important not to let it get to your head. The most important factor influencing your chances of passing the bar exam is how well you go about preparing.

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.

4.7 out of 5 starsKaplan ($1,699+)

How to Pass the Bar Exam FAQ

Is it hard to pass the bar exam?

Passing the bar exam can be challenging due to its comprehensive nature and rigorous testing standards. Success often requires dedicated preparation, a thorough understanding of legal concepts, and effective exam-taking strategies. To learn more, check out our How to Pass the Bar Exam article.

How do you pass the bar exam on the first try?

Passing the bar exam on the first attempt involves diligent preparation, including the creation of a structured study plan, reviewing substantive law, practicing with past exam questions, and seeking support from mentors or bar prep courses to enhance your chances of success. For guidance on how to succeed in this exam despite its difficulty, see our What is the Bar Exam article.

What is the easiest state to pass the bar exam in?

The difficulty of passing the bar exam can vary by state, and there’s no universally agreed-upon “easiest” state. Factors like the exam format, content, and pass rates contribute to differences in difficulty levels among states.

How do you succeed on the bar exam?

To succeed in this test, focus on comprehensive preparation during your bar exam study. Because most bar exam essays test a wide range of subjects, mastering a broad range of legal concepts and practicing with sample questions is essential. Additionally, prioritize time management, maintain a positive mindset, and seek support from mentors or a commercial bar review course to optimize your performance.