Jones: Stresses of bar exam sometimes can go beyond the test itself

January 10, 2018
jones-tyler-mug Jones

“It’s only minimal competence.” This well-meaning phrase is meant to reassure bar examinees that, though the exam is difficult, you only need to pass it, not receive a high score. Despite the minimal competence standard, bar examinees still stress about the exam. As a recent examinee, I want to share how three significant changes surrounding the bar exam in the past 20 years have contributed to examinee stress.

The current exam consists of three parts divided between two days:

The Multistate Performance Test: Adopted by Indiana in 2001, the MPT is part of the written portion of the exam. It is worth 20 percent of the exam’s total points and tests an examinee’s ability to apply fundamental lawyering skills in a hypothetical situation; it does not test substantive knowledge.

The Indiana Essay Exam: The current IEE consists of six essays worth 30 percent of the exam’s total points. While there are only six questions, the questions draw from a diverse array of Indiana law (and federal income tax law), such as family law, business formations, and administrative law.

The Multistate Bar Examination: Adopted by Indiana in 2001, the MBE is a multiple-choice section worth 50 percent of the exam’s total points that tests doctrinal legal subjects rather than Indiana law.

While the MPT and IEE can cause anxiety due to the limited time examinees are given to answer all the questions and because of the uncertainty about which topics will be tested, the MBE is the most dreaded portion of the exam for most examinees. The MBE forces examinees to pick one answer rather than delve into the issues presented in the question, as we are taught to do in law school. The questions are designed to be tricky and the prompts are often entire paragraphs. To prepare for the MBE’s difficulty and for the inherent fatigue that comes from completing 200 multiple-choice questions a day after writing essays for seven hours, my bar prep lecturers advised me to do as many practice questions as possible. While I completed about 1,750 of such questions over a two-month span, many of my friends did more. In addition to the sheer quantity of questions, the substance of the MBE covers a wide range of topics, and examinees are advised to maintain a quick pace — one question every 108 seconds — simply to finish it on time. It is no wonder that examinees stress about the MBE.

Technological advances have also changed the bar and bar prep — mostly for the better. Some bar prep courses are now wholly electronic, and others offer online lectures and materials, permitting examinees greater flexibility in when and how they study. Examinees are also able to use mobile devices for bar prep, such as through apps for MBE practice questions or FaceTime sessions with tutors. With respect to the exam itself, since 2012, examinees have been able to type their written responses on their personal laptops if they purchase special software.

But, the convenience afforded by these advances is not without its own stress. Technology can malfunction: laptops freeze, chargers die, and internet signals necessary for downloading lectures or uploading exam answers can be slow or non-existent. Indeed, when I took the bar, the extension cords for the three people to my left did not work and these panic-stricken examinees had to wait for tech support to find extra cords for their computers. During the middle of the IEE, one of my friends had his laptop shut down and he was forced to handwrite his answers after tech support was unable to revive his laptop. I bought a new laptop just for the exam, in anticipation of such issues. Yet even my new laptop lagged when I attempted to submit my typed responses to the written portion of the exam.

All other stresses aside, the most significant contributor to examinee stress is the economy. According to statistics reported by The Indiana Lawyer last March, law students with debt incurred an average debt of $116,412. This is part of a national trend of skyrocketing law school debt that some have found to have increased by as much as 59 percent in the last decade. Still, these are averages; I have at least two friends who have more than $200,000 of law school debt. Moreover, the growing debt crisis is complicated by the fact that the job market is shrinking and there are proportionally fewer jobs available for recent graduates than a decade or two ago.

All examinees are aware of these circumstances. They understand that passing the bar is a prerequisite to obtaining a legal position capable of satisfying their debt. Moreover, they understand the increasing difficulty in finding any job, let alone a position that compensates them enough to offset mountainous loan payments and pay their other bills. And though past examinees have had jobs dependent on passing the bar, it has never been in conjunction with this level of debt. In short, the economy has intensified bar takers’ stress to pass the exam, find a job, and pay off debt.

Thus, many factors stress examinees beyond the difficulty of the exam. So instead of telling examinees “It’s only minimal competence,” offer to buy them lunch, hear them out, and help them address the stressor that is bothering them, whether that means networking to find a job or getting them away from a computer screen for a digital detox. I guarantee they’ll thank you.•


Tyler Jones is a recent graduate of the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. He took and passed the July 2017 Indiana Bar Exam and currently serves as a judicial law clerk at the Indiana Court of Appeals. The opinions expressed are those of the author.