Friday, May 25, 2012

Knowing the Format of the MBE and Using That to Your Advantage

MBE Format

The Virginia Bar Exam is comprised of two sections - the written portion and the MBE. The MBE is standardized (the same questions) for all state bar exams except Louisiana's, which does not use the MBE. Even if standardized exams were your strong suit, don't be afraid of the MBE. You know exactly what to expect on the MBE. Use that standardization to your advantage.

Breakdown of Subjects and Sessions

The MBE is comprised of 200 multiple-choice questions worth 1 point each. Six subjects (technically, eight) are tested equally:
  • Torts - 33 questions
  • Contracts & Sales - 33 questions
  • Criminal Law & Criminal Procedure - 31 questions
  • Constitutional Law - 31 questions
  • Evidence - 31 questions
  • Real Property - 31 questions
Add them up; that's 190 questions. 10 additional questions are experimental and are not graded. Hence, you have a total of 190 raw points available. The experimental questions will test on the same subjects above, and the 200 questions are randomly ordered (i.e., a mix of all subjects).

The 200 questions are answered in two, 3-hour sessions (a morning session and an afternoon session), with 100 questions in each session. One session will likely be considerably more difficult than the other session. For example, if the morning session seemed tolerable, be prepared for a much harder afternoon session. Or, if the morning session was dreadful for you, chances are the afternoon session will serve you better.

Easy, Intermediate, and Impossible Questions

What do I mean by one session being harder than the other? Two ways. First, while all of the above subjects are hard, some on the whole are harder than others. The so-called harder subjects are usually Contracts & Sales and Real Property, partly because of subject matter and partly because of the complexity of the questions. If one session is overloaded with contracts and property questions, that's usually the harder session. Secondly, all of the 200 questions, regardless of subject matter, can be broken down into three categories: (1) Easy questions (50 questions); Intermediate questions (100 questions); and (3) Impossible questions (50 questions). Let's start backwards.

The 50 impossible questions are, well, ridiculous. All the preparation in the world won't prepare you for them. Most likely, you'll be able to narrow the answer choices down to two and make an educated guess. Don't spend too much time on these questions, because the probability that you'll get them incorrect anyway is high. If you get 50% of these questions correct, you're in good shape.

The 100 intermediate questions are the meat of the MBE. How you fare on this set will reflect your knowledge of the law and your ability to successfully apply that knowledge. You want to aim for getting 65% or better correct in this section.

The 50 easy questions are not easy per se. "Easy" assumes that, with a strong understanding of the law and with up to 2,000 practice questions under your belt, by now this set of questions should be second nature to you. Common MBE tricks, which the examiners love to use, also fall under this set of questions. You need to know where the examiners will try to trick you, and how they'll do it, so that you don't get caught in the trick! Your success on the MBE will depend greatly on how you fare on this set, even more than the intermediate section. I repeat, the key to a passing MBE score is answering the easy questions correctly -- all of them.

A Word on Experimental Questions

Once you have a substantial number of practice questions under your belt (e.g., up to 2,000), you should be able to spot most of the experimental questions by appearance. They may be excessively long, sometimes a half-page. Or they may have four answer choices, which all appear seemingly correct or incorrect. Or the question's wording will be very different from the practice questions you took. Or all of the above. If you hit a question like these, don't spend too much time on it. Chances are it's an experimental question, or else it's an extremely difficult graded question you're likely to get wrong anyway

Scoring the MBE

Barbri won't shed much light on this part for you, and that's a shame, because one of the keys to testing well on any exam is knowing how the exam is graded.

As we discussed earlier, with the 10 experimental questions stricken, you have 190 raw points available. What a "good" score is depends on the state bar exam for which you are sitting. A bare minimum safe score in Virginia is approximately 65% or better correct overall, or 125 of 190 questions. A safer, comfortable score is approximately 71% or better correct overall, or 135 of 190 questions. These are raw scores, not scaled scores. The scaled score is the important, final one. The NCBE will take your raw score and, using an overly complicated formula, will curve it to your scaled score. All that you need to know is that the curve will add roughly 14-16 points, depending on raw score. The higher your raw score, the fewer curved points. The lower your raw score, the more curved points. Using our examples above, a 125 raw score will likely result in a 141 scaled score. A 135 raw score will likely result in a 150 scaled score. Again, the scaled score is your final score - the one you care about.

After each bar exam, California's Bar Examiners release a handy MBE Conversion Chart showing the scaled score for each raw score. For your convenience, they are linked below for the most recent February and July exams. Note that the difference between the February and July exams has no effect on the raw score-to-scaled score ratio. In other words, a raw score of 125 or 135 in February equals to same scaled score, within a point, if you received that same score in July.

California's MBE Conversion Chart - February 2011
California's MBE Conversion Chart - July 2011

Weighting the MBE in Relation to the Essay Portion of the Bar Exam

The VBBE weights MBE and written essay portion of the Virginia Bar Exam as follows: MBE (40%) and Essay (60%). Most state bars weight the MBE at 50%, while a minority weight it as 35%. Even thought the Virginia essays are weighted slightly more than the MBE, I would devote equal 50-50 time to each section. Remember, the MBE is where you can rack up big time points. If you put in the work, it's easier to score a 150+ (scaled score) on the MBE than it is on the Virginia essays.
A score like that will ensure an overall passing score on the Virginia Bar Exam in all but some exceptional circumstances (e.g., where your knowledge of Virginia state law is below average, or where you are a very poor essay writer or essay exam taker).

Hope this helps. In one of my next posts, I'll break down the essay portion of the Virginia Bar Exam.


  1. I'm barred in Ohio but I'm taking the Virginia February 2015 bar exam and have searched high and low but cannot seem to find any information on word limits for the VA essay portion of the exam. I will be taking it on my laptop and in Ohio we had a word limit. Just wondering what it is in VA. Thanks!

    1. Virginia does not have a word limit. You will be limited more by time. The morning section is 5 essays in 3 hours, while the afternoon section is 4 essays plus 10 short answers, also in 3 hours. You can distribute your time any way you please; however, given that each essay is worth equal weight (and the ten short answers equal one essay), the breakdown translates to 35-36 minutes per essay. Given the amount of issues and considerations swimming around in a typical Virginia essay, you'll be very busy! Stay on pace; don't spend extra time on one particular essay.

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