Breaking the Bar Exam Barrier

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Imagine yourself the day before the bar exam. You are too excited to sleep, but you make yourself do so anyway. You have chosen your clothes for the next day. You know your travel route and an alternative in case of emergencies. You feel good. You feel ready. You feel confident. And yes, you are a little anxious. But you have stayed on your schedule. Your body is in relatively good working order. You have absorbed so much information that you can actually visualize pages of text from your study outline. Are you having trouble imaging this?

I tell students all the time that the bar exam will be one of the easier exams they will ever take because of the simple fact that there are correct or best answers, based upon objective, verifiable law. Yet, few of them believe me. When given the choice, too many bar candidates would rather think about the exam in skeptical, even fatalistic terms. They choose to do so because of the tendency to view the bar exam in isolation, as if it were separate from the process which the candidate had begun in the first year of law school. The process of becoming an attorney.

If you can think of the exam as a part of that process, one which will bring you closer to your goal of becoming an attorney, one that will leave you with skills and knowledge you will find useful for the practice of law, then the bar exam will not loom as some large, insurmountable obstacle. It will merely be the next logical step in your development.

To turn your thinking around, it will require that you learn as much as possible about the next step in your process of becoming an attorney. That step happens to be the admissions process, of which the bar exam is simply a part. If you are about to take the bar exam, you may not want to spend time learning about the process. Too much detail. Yet, it is this level of detail to which you must attend if you are to pass the exam. Therefore, begin focusing on the detail now by taking this opportunity to learn as much about the admissions process for your jurisdiction of choice as you can. Read on.

Getting to know your bar exam

Each state or territory sets its own criteria for admission to practice law within its borders. This is why there are over fifty bar exams and just as many sets of admissions criteria. The admission process can be straightforward or convoluted. It may require evidence of fitness and character to practice, in addition to bar exam passage. It may require an interview, a background check and the like. Familiarize yourself with the admissions process of your chosen jurisdiction.

Criteria for admission to the various jurisdictions can be found in the "Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admissions Requirements," published by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. This guide consists of twelve charts listing admissions criteria for the states and territories, including their bar exam information. You may obtain a free copy from the ABA Order Fulfillment Department, American Bar Association, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois, 60611, or call the ABA Service Center at (312) 988-5522 for copies.

The Process Begins

Some law schools will obtain bar exam applications for their students. Some do not. Always check with your school's Registrar. Once you receive the application packet, read it carefully. Do not depend on word of mouth for information. You need first-hand information on what you need to do and by when. For example, you may need to be fingerprinted or photographed. You may need to supply handwriting samples. You may need certified checks or money orders. All deadlines for any such submissions should be circled in red on your monthly calendars, listing what must be done and by when. The process can get rather complicated, so the better acquainted you are with it, the easier time you'll have completing it. Take New York, for example.

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The application packet is mailed gratis (for now). The completed application must be accompanied by a money order or cashier's check. Applications with personal checks will be rejected and returned. In some instances, there is a fee just for the application packet, e.g., Kentucky, Colorado, and Idaho charge $10 for their packets. Telephone the jurisdiction first to find out about fees for the application. Of course, this fee will be separate from the filing or exam fee which must accompany the completed application. Those fees range from $200 to $1100. Start saving money now if you anticipate financial constraints.

Read all instructions before completing the application. Consider photocopying the original and using the copy as a draft. Once completed, note when to mail the application. For example, the New York Board of Law Examiners must receive your completed application (which should be mailed return receipt requested) post marked at least 60 days, but not more than 90 days before the date of the exam which you intend to take. You will need to be vigilant during your study period to ensure that you receive your letter of admission and your assignment to a test center in advance of the exam. Make sure that you have a copy of your completed application, just in case. You may receive a receipt for your application. See sample A below. Safeguard the receipt, along with a copy of your certified check, again, just in case.

(These samples are presented for form only. Rely only on the actual documents received.)


Dear Candidate:

We acknowledge receipt of your application for admission to the Bar examination. Please note that the number appearing in the upper left hand comer near your address is your permanent file number. You should refer to it in all future correspondence with the Board to expedite processing of your communication.

Your application will be processed and if it is complete, an admission pass to the examination will be mailed to you. You should receive this pass about one week before the examination—


Executive Secretary

If your admission ticket does not come on time, do not panic. Call the bar administrators to make sure that it is en route, so that you do not waste time or energy on a potential distraction. If you cannot get through to them and you are enrolled in a bar review course, call and enlist their assistance. Once it is in hand, read the admission ticket. It should designate location, times and seat number. See sample B below.

(These samples are presented for form only. Rely only on the actual documents received.)


This is your admission ticket to take the bar examination at the following time and place:


TUES., FEB. 21 - 8:45 A.M. to 12:15 P.M. and 1:30
P.M. to 4:45 P.M.
LOCAL SECTION WED., FEB. 22 - 8:45 A.M. to 12 NOON and 1:30 P.M. to 4:30 P.M.


The examination will start at 9:00 a.m., but you should be in your seat by 8:45 a.m., in order to read the instructions to be found there. You should also listen attentively to the oral instructions which will be given between 8:50 and 9:00 a.m. You are responsible for providing your own pens and no. 2 pencils.

Pay attention to the location. If you do not know where it is, go there at least once before the exam to work out travel arrangements and to get a sense of the space where you will be sitting. Notice on our sample above that the candidate was assigned to a passenger ship terminal. You would want to visit such a unique location in advance of the exam to determine whether there are characteristics of the test site that may impair your ability to concentrate and, if necessary, to prepare for them. For example, bring ear plugs if it is noisy or carry a sweater for drafts. You may need to bring to the attention of those in authority such potential distractions as allergens, physical obstructions or inaccessibility of facilities.
"65.000 or Bust"

There are different types of scores which you can receive on the local portion of the bar exam, each corresponding to one of the separate sections. The sections are often of unequal weight, requiring the use of measures to provide an overall passing score; hence, the scaled and/or combined scores. Where available, learn the total score you need to pass the exam. For example, Oklahoma's passing score is 2400. Pennsylvania has a score of 129. In Colorado, it is 276. In Texas, it is 675. Oregon's is 65.000. This information is generally contained in the information packet mailed to candidates by the local boards of bar examiners. You can also find it in the National Conference's Guide.

Knowing this information allows you to visualize a passing score. Once you have put form to an idea, it will make it easier to attain because you can actually see your goal. There is less mystery, more certainty.

From here until the exam is over, your lucky number should be the score needed to pass your bar exam. Once you have fixed the passing score in your head, visualize that score on bar-related documents you may encounter. See it on any sample bar exams or questions you may take. Obtaining such materials can be as simple as contacting the bar examiners.

For example, New York sends a sample bar exam as part of its information packet. Vermont will send prior essay questions with its application packet. For a nominal fee, you may obtain sample questions, if not full exams, from such jurisdictions as some states send prior questions as part of their application packets which require the payment of a fee.

With these materials in hand, a quick, initial read through will show you that it's not as bad as you thought. Indeed, it is quite do-able. Maybe you'll be one of the students to believe me when I say that the bar exam will be one of the easier exams you will ever take and pass. Therefore, visualize that passing score on your exam booklet. Write that score down on post-its and put them on your refrigerator door and on the bathroom mirror. When defeatist thoughts or contrary people come your way, see your passing score, your name in print and force yourself back into a "Yes I Can" mode.


About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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