Bar Exam Essays Part 1: How do they grade the bar exam essays?

by Dustin on

You will spend close to two months, take dozens of practice essays, and spend a good two or three days in the bar exam.  That’s a lot of time to put into the exam, and how much time do you think the graders will invest into reading your essays?  About three to five minutes per essay, at most.

At least once before the exam, it’s a good idea to try the exercise of putting yourself in the shoes of the person who will be holding your fate:

1)      Set the timer to five minutes

2)      Click here to go to a sample essay answer on the calbar website

3)      Read an actual essay exam answer

4)      Come back when you’re done

See, it doesn’t actually take that long to read an answer.  Keep in mind, the exam answer you just read is a ‘model passing’ answer, and believe me when I say this, it is an amazingly well-written answer!  You don’t need to be even close to writing like this to pass.  But, hopefully you will see how CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT it is your essays are structured, organized, readable, and use headings (that topic is for a different post, coming soon).  For a grader to get through your essay in this short amount of time, it will need to be very readable.

Now, if you really want to feel like a bar exam grader, repeat the exercise dozens of times at 10:00pm.  You will be in a very similar situation to what the grader has to do, after spending a full day at work, coming home to his family, and is now trying to meet his deadline of reading 100 bar exam essays this week.  He doesn’t have a lot of time and needs to be very efficient and methodical in his reading.  The easier you make it on him, the better.

Process of Bar Exam Grading

Here is a rough review of the process the graders go through when grading your exam.

Bar exam graders are attorneys who have passed the bar and sign-up to be a grader.  They get paid a stipend (which is likely far less than what they make at their jobs).

After the bar exam is taken, a group of graders get together and take the same essay you just took.  They write out a full essay, including all the rules and analysis.  Then the graders meet together, look at what each of them wrote down, and create a ‘model’ answer.

Next, the graders get together with the student answers, and they’ll each grade the same student answer, giving their opinion of what the answer should receive.  They will then compare their opinions, discuss reasons why, and after several run-throughs, give a breakdown of how many points each issue is worth and a score of what they think that exam answer would deserve.

Then, they grade a second essay, running it through the same process and grading model they had created for the first essay, recalibrating any necessary point adjustments.  Eventually they find a model answer and grading system that all the graders can use.  Although, grading may seem subjective for each grader, believe it or not, if fifteen graders grade the same exam using this calibrated point system, each grader will typically fall within five points of each other.  This is to ensure fairness, equality, and eliminate personal subjectivity amongst anyone grading the exams.  Any grader who’s scores are consistently more than five points off from all the other graders is typically removed.

In California, if your total score for the performance test, essays, and MBE is greater than 1440 you pass!  If your score is below a 1390, you don’t pass.  If it falls between these two numbers, your exam is regraded by a different set of graders.  Hopefully, it is given more points as you still will need to hit the 1440 mark to pass.  For more information on the calibration process and regrading system, click here.

I hope this comforts you a little and gives you an idea of what your exam will go through after you finish uploading or turning it in on test day.

Good luck in passing your bar exam!

“This name appears on the pass list”


All info stated in the article was according to a California barbri lecture I attended during my bar prep and the calbar website.

See Bar Exam Essays Part 2: 8 things Every Bar Essay should Have

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