What You Should Know About the Bar Exam

Online testing and assessment, quality monitoring

This year, a number of states including Idaho, Texas, Arizona, and Michigan weighed potentially lowering their cut score for the bar exam. Supporters of a lower cut score argue that lowering the cut score helps increase passage rates for underrepresented test takers.

For law school applicants, the idea of taking the bar exam may be premature, but it’s something that will eventually become top of mind when they hope to practice law. Gabriel Kuris, founder of Top Law Coach and contributor at US News, recently discussed what law school applicants need to know about the bar exam, including character and fitness requirements that may impact law school applications.


Most states will offer the bar exam twice a year, in February and July. Exams are typically administered over two days with one day devoted to a standardized 200-item test known as the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). The second day typically focuses on the essay portion, known as the Multistate Essay Exam (MEE) or a performance portion, known as the Multistate Performance Test (MPT).

Additionally, every state except Wisconsin requires test takers to complete the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE), which consists of multiple-choice questions on legal ethics.

Location also plays a role. Typically, people choose to take the exam in the state where they plan to work.

“They may also consider the difficulty of the bar exam, since states differ in their state-specific content as well as the passing score that they accept for the MBE,” Kuris writes. “When lawyers want to practice in a new state, they may have to retake all or part of the bar exam for the new state. However, some states have reciprocity rules that allow eligible lawyers to avoid retaking the test.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that you need to attend law school in the same state where you plan to take the bar exam.

“Many applicants reasonably assume that they should attend law school where they plan to take the bar exam, but this is not necessarily true,” Kuris writes. “Because law school teaches you how to think and write like a lawyer, law school courses focus on legal gray areas and arguments with no right answer. Law school classes, exams and papers require you to parse legal issues and make arguments from a set of facts.”

The bar exam, on the other hand, focuses on the specific laws of the state that the exam is administered in.

“Bar exam questions do have right and wrong answers,” Kuris writes. “Law school classes are unlikely to prepare you well for the bar exam, although it would be difficult to take the bar exam without the solid foundation of a legal education.”


While law school applicants typically won’t need to worry about the bar exam prior to attending law school, Kuris says that there is one section that they should pay special attention to: character and fitness.

“This component of the bar exam varies between states but typically covers lack of candor, criminal record, untreated mental illness and substance abuse, and financial irresponsibility,” Kuris writes. “This is why law school applications often ask detailed questions about applicants’ disciplinary and criminal records.”

When answering these questions in your applications, Kuris recommends being honest and transparent about past mistakes.

“It is better to confront these issues while applying to law school rather than years later when you are applying for bar admission,” Kuris writes. “When you make such disclosures, write an explanatory addendum to provide context. Highlight active steps you have taken to rehabilitate yourself and distance yourself from prior misconduct.”

Sources: US News, Tipping the Scales, The State Bar of California, American Bar Association

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.