Bar Exam Essentials Part 1: Practical Preparations

Woman meditates in library

It’s one of the most notorious trials in academia: the bar exam. A two-day marathon of three tests in one—six questions for the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), two Multistate Performance Tests (MPT), and 200 multiple choice questions on the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE)—it is the quintessential assessment of legal knowledge necessary to practice law in the 36 jurisdictions (including Washington state) that have adopted the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE).

As with many things nowadays, the bar exam too is becoming less restricted by where someone lives. Across all U.S. bars, more people are opting to take the UBE to be admitted by transfer in another state, from 511 admissions in 2014 to 2,700 last year, according to The Bar Examiner.

Bar examinations may be increasingly consistent from one state to another, but it’s still helpful to know the particulars of your local exam process. The following information passed on from the dedicated and tireless WSBA admissions team should help alleviate any concerns or questions and provide some guideposts for what you need to know before arriving for the exam. Even if you’ve already passed the bar, you might be curious to learn why certain peculiar items are prohibited, which is covered in the second part of this blog, “Bar Exam Essentials Part 2: Which Items are Prohibited, What to Expect, and Post-Exam Tips for Future Lawyers.

Spoiler warning: leave your hoodie at home.

Pre-Exam Checklist

  • Be Responsive: Stay vigilant in checking your online admissions account notifications. Failure to respond to official inquiries in a timely manner is the number one reason that prevents some people from sitting for the exam. Also keep your contact information up to date as it’s the only way officials will deliver important notifications to you, including your exam results.

  • Be Thorough: When filling out your exam application, be as comprehensive with your responses as possible. The more information and supporting documentation you provide, the better admissions officials can assess qualifications.

  • Troubleshoot Early: To use an approved laptop for the essay and performance test questions on the first day of the exam, you must purchase and install ExamSoft on your MacBook, Windows laptop, or Microsoft Surface Pro (iPads and other tablets are prohibited and incompatible with the software, which restricts the device to only the necessary functions to write and format a text document). To familiarize yourself and ensure your device will function properly, take the ExamSoft mock exam. If your laptop fails before the exam or is incompatible with the software, contact to obtain special permission to download the software on a new laptop.

  • Review the FAQs: The WSBA maintains an extensive list of common questions and answers about the bar exam. You can find FAQs for the character and fitness review and general lawyer bar exam topics on the admissions page.

  • Pack Essentials: On the second day (multiple choice portion) of the exam only, exam takers must bring a minimum of two No. 2 pencils—old-fashioned wood and graphite; no mechanical pencils allowed, and this is a time in your life when it absolutely must be a No. 2 pencil—and can also pack pink block erasers—similarly, no mechanical erasers. Pencil sharpeners are also prohibited, but electronic sharpeners will be placed outside the exam room. Of course, you’re free to bring more than the minimum pencils, and encouraged to do so. Exam takers are also permitted to bring in one house key and a car/hotel key. You will not be permitted to have a wallet or purse in the exam room, so limit your valuables (cash, credit cards) to the bare essentials. All of the items on your person, minus a laptop, must fit within a clear, quart-size, plastic zip-close bag.

Day of Exam Essentials

Regrettably, the outside world won’t cease simply because you’re taking the bar exam.

An earthquake previously struck in the middle of an exam being conducted in Bellevue. Fortunately, no one was injured; unfortunately, it was a very unwelcome distraction at one of the worst conceivable times. According to WSBA staffers who were there, the exam was halted for several minutes until it was deemed safe to resume. Only a few exam takers decided to call it quits and try again later; the majority picked up where they had left off. In fact, admissions officials compared the pre-earthquake and post-earthquake results to be sure the temblor didn’t unfairly rattle exam takers’ mental states as well, but found no significant change.

Other issues, ranging from power outages to seat-change requests due to body odor have also come up in past exams. So admissions officials prepare for all manner of situations that might disrupt an exam. For instance, and though it hasn’t happened yet, they have a plan in place should someone go into labor, which is almost always a possibility with at least one exam taker within the window of their due date. Admissions Manager Gus Quiniones said a bar exam birth is often top of mind, but he literally knocked on wood and said it hasn’t happened yet. (A new mothers’ room is available for any exam takers who would like to pump/nurse, so long as they’re accompanied by a female proctor.)

To make things as stress-free as possible for yourself, here are a few more tips from WSBA admissions:

  • Early Bird: Registration on exam day starts at 6:30 a.m. and the exam begins promptly at 8:15 a.m. If you arrive late, you must have a seating card and valid photo ID to be allowed into the room—note that late arrivals will not be allotted extra time. Plus, arriving early will provide you enough time to register, get through security, plug in your laptop, and get settled without rushing.

  • Tech Happens: Rest assured that a computer disaster will not impact your ability to finish the exam. ExamSoft automatically saves your work every 60 seconds, so even a catastrophic computer malfunction can at most wipe out one minute’s worth of data. Simply alert a proctor or staff member of the situation and you will be allowed to continue by hand—exam graders will combine the electronic and handwritten portions so there’s no need to start from scratch. Additionally, ExamSoft does not include a spellcheck, so you’ll be on an equal grammatical level across all formats.

  • End Game Time Management: You will not be allowed to leave your seat for any reason during the last 15 minutes of each exam session, even to use the bathroom. Plan bathroom breaks accordingly. (It could be worse; in some states, bathroom breaks aren’t allowed at any point during the exam.)

For more information about the list of prohibited bar exam items and what you should do after finishing your exam, see “Bar Exam Essentials Part 2: Which Items are Prohibited, What to Expect, and Post-Exam Tips for Future Lawyers.”

The Summer Bar Exam will be held July 30-31 at the The Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center.