Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Knowing the Format of the Virginia Essays and Using That To Your Advantage

Virginia Essays

The Format

The written portion of the Virginia Bar Exam is a worth 60%, and is comprised of nine essays and ten short answers. You are responsible for 23 state-specific subjects, more than any other bar in the country. The essays will test you on about half of those subjects, with each essay typically testing on more than one subject. The remaining subjects will likely show up in the short answers. On the ten short answers, the average score is 5/10 correct, which should also give you some idea as to their overall difficulty. Most of them will be multiple-choice, while a select few will be fill-in-the-blank.

Each essay is worth ten points and each short answer is worth one point, for a total of 100 raw points. In the morning, you will have three hours to answer the first five essays. Plan for 35 minutes per essay - to read, outline, and answer. In the afternoon, you will have three hours to answer the remaining four essays and ten short answers. Again, average yourself at 35 minutes per essay and 35 minutes for the ten short answers, although the short answers should not take you 35 minutes to complete. Answer the short answers first. If they take you fifteen minutes to complete, then do the math; you now have 40 minutes to complete the remaining four essays.

The VBBE writes tough - but fair - essays. They are not gimme points, and they are not the sort of essays that you can B.S. your way through. On the other hand, they are well-written and seek specific answers (not hide-the-ball-type).  All this is to say that, unlike other bar exams, you can't blow off Virginia's state-specific subjects in favor of investing all of your time into the MBE. If you are not fully prepared for this portion of the exam, you are dead in the water.

The 35-Minute Rule

35 minutes per essay - to read, outline, and answer- means that you have to move efficiently. Barbri stresses the importance of outlining your answer before writing it. They suggest 5-10 minutes for reading, 10-15 minutes for outlining, and 10-15 for writing. If that works for you, do it.

I often found that outlining Barbri's way ate away at precious time, so I didn't really outline. Plus, 10-15 minutes to answer some Virginia essays just isn't possible. As I read an essay, I made small notations in the margin. When the essay posited its questions at the end, I answered each one in a few words (e.g., (a) "No. Summary judgment invalid. Depositions are not used to determine validity. (b) John takes priority because he is a holder in due course. All elements satisfied. (c) Jane may use an Alford plea for X reasons.) My brief jots were the points that I needed to make in my answer - the most important points I needed to cover. Nothing more. From there, I dove into writing my answer. I preferred a skeleton outline if it meant extra time to craft my answer.

State-Specific Subjects

23 state-specific subjects is a tall order. No easy way around it. And accept this fact sooner than later: you will not know everything. Don't try to, either, because you'll give yourself an anxiety attack. You'll never know everything -- but you don't need to either.

That's one of my biggest beefs with Barbri. They throw all of these subjects at you, one after another, and lead you to believe that because all may be tested, all are equally important. That's Barbri's way of covering themselves (i.e., "If we say, 'know everything,' then we can also say 'told you so!' if the VBBE tests you on something obscure.") The problem is, when you try to know everything, you end up knowing everything at a C-level. And that's from where your anxiety will come. As you review practice essays, you'll realize that you don't know the important aspects of each subject as well as you should, because you spent too much time on the obscure details. Your knowledge will be patchy and, in your head, will feel disorganized. How does everything fit together? Why can't I recall material that I already covered? It's a slippery slope that can devolve into a meltdown two weeks before the exam. I just wouldn't recommend Barbri's approach.

Efficient Approach to Studying

Instead (and once more), you don't need to know everything, but you do need to know the important things. Barbri will give you a chart showing frequencies at which the VBBE tests each subject. Looking at this chart, you can break down the subjects into three categories: high, medium, and low. Under high-frequency, place the top 3-4 commonly tested subjects (e.g., VA Civ Pro, Wills / Trusts, Fed. Jur., Equity, etc.). Under medium-frequency, place the middle bunch of commonly tested subjects (there's about 10). And under low-frequency, place the subjects that are rarely tested or, when they are, are not worth very much (there's an additional 10 or so). Then start with the first tier. Study those subjects cold, as typically all of them are tested on each exam. Once you are comfortable with these subjects, then move to the second tier and repeat the process. All subjects are important, but the third tier carries the "least important" ones. Apply your time accordingly.

Knowing a subject cold does NOT mean knowing everything within that subject. Read through all of the practice essays. They are organized by subject. You will see which areas within each subject are commonly tested, and which areas aren't. The practice essays - not the Barbri outlines or lecture handouts - should dictate what to study and where to focus your efforts.

If you want to follow Barbri's schedule and outline practice essays three or four per night, go ahead. I don't recommend it, but it's better than nothing. A better use of your time would be to read the Virginia Essay book from cover to cover at least once. Again, take each subject one at a time. Within each subject, read each essay and its corresponding answer (no outlining). This process will make clear what law is commonly tested within each subject, and which isn't.

Bottom Line

Studying for the bar exam is hard enough, so don't make it harder on yourself. Use your time efficiently by following a schedule that corresponds with the law the VBBE frequently tests. In other words, apply far more time to understanding the subjects on which the VBBE will almost certainly test you, and less time on the ones on which they may only briefly test you. It's better to know nothing about Tax Law but to be fluent in VA Civil Procedure than to know both at a C level. The former approach will yield more raw points.


  1. I'm doing Barbri for the NY exam, do you believe this method will apply there as well?

    Would you read an essay and model answer and then go and study the applicable law, then go to another essay and do the same?

  2. First question:
    For New York's essays, absolutely. This approach is applicable to any bar exam. The point is to properly organize the vast amount of law so that you apply your energies to where it will matter most (as opposed to thinning your energy across the entire board). The best way of knowing where to apply your energies is by reading past essays. That way, you'll have a very good idea of which subjects are most frequently tested and, within those subjects, which issues are the most frequently tested.

    BTW: New York's essays - their difficulty, that is - is right on par with Virginia's.

    Second question:
    No. I read the essay question, then went straight to reading the model answer. As I read the model answer, I made index cards from the model answer to learn the law. I kept the index cards short and to the point, and usually in a question form. An essay might not be worthy of any index card, or it might be worthy of four or five if it's packed with lots of law. Usually, I averaged one or two cards per essay. I started from the first essay in the first subject and worked my way to the last one in the last subject. Took about three weeks, averaging 15 or so essay per day. The index cards - a good stack by the end - became my "outlines" so to speak. I retained a lot more law by rifling through 20-30 cards for a particular subject than I did trying to digest that subject's 30-40 page outline. The cards didn't encompass everything - just the things the bar examiner's had tested on in the last 15 or so years. Pretty good trade-off.

  3. So what did your study schedule look like? Did you not even bother watching the lectures and do only essays and MBE questions? If you don't mind me asking, how well did you do on the exam?

  4. I was working full time, so my available hours were less, which I preferred. (If I have more free time, I tend to be less efficient.) So I studied maybe 35 hours per week for about 3.5 months, plus I took the last two weeks off to study full-time. But never more than 8 hours in a day. For the state side, I put the bulk of my time into making index cards from the essays, and then learning those index cards. For the MBE side, I read and re-read Emanuel's short outlines, listened to PMBR CDs, and did practice questions and made index cards from the ones that tripped me up. Again, not all at once. It's a gradual step-by-step process; focusing on the most important subjects first, and then working my way down. Barbri's lectures are helpful for the important subjects. The rest? . . . no. The cost (in terms of the amount of time invested each day into watching them) outweighs any benefit gained.

    Virginia doesn't release passing scores, so I'll never know for sure. What I can say is that, in the final week before the exam, I did a practice MBE exam and got a 149 raw (about 162 scaled).

  5. I am taking the VA bar after already getting licensed in CA. I'm working out of the Barbri essay book and getting a little worried about the sheer volume of citations they include in their model answers. CA was MUCH more concerned with understanding the principles and doing a good analysis. Does the VBBE expect citations like the ones contained in the Barbri book? And the amount of detail? I just got finished looking at Civ Pro essays that reads like a statute - so much minutiae! Please tell me barbri essays are more exhaustive than I need to be on the actual exam!

    1. The VBBE puts a lot of time and effort into crafting its essays. While the VBBE does not expect citations, the thoroughness and expansiveness of Virginia's essays is for real and is what distinguishes them from all other jurisdictions, including California. You're beginning to see why the Virginia Bar Exam is, in my opinion, the most challenging bar exam in the country.

      Having said that, Barbri answers are incredibly well-polished. You cannot possibly write that much, and that perfectly, with 35 minutes per essay. But the core legal principles, the CRAC method, the meat of each essay -- you would be wise to know all of that well by test day.

    2. Thanks for the insight. What's your opinion on the model answers supplied by William & Mary? They aren't quite like Barbri's answer style. Would those answers be considered a strong essay?

  6. Thank you for the tips and insight. How would you recommend preparing for the short answer potion of the state exam?

  7. I am taking the VA bar in 2 days, and I really wish I would have found this website before studying - I feel exactly how you described; like despite all of the hours I spent this summer studying, I cannot recall a thing!

    I almost didn't get a bar prep course, and I am hesitant to say that I may have been better prepared had I not. I think you know yourself, and know how you study best - but when you have Barbri or Kaplan you feel obligated to do it their way...and their way may be great for some, but not all.

    With that being said, I think your tip to use essays to study is excellent! In the last week I have changed my pattern from using essays to test my knowledge on a topic that I just studied, to using them to actually learn what I apparently didn't learn while grueling over the outlines for hours and hours.

    I will recommend this website to any bar takers in the future!

    1. Happy to hear that you found my blog useful! How was the bar exam for you?

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