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There are six different types of questions on the multistate bar examination, or MBE: contracts, torts, Constitutional law, criminal law and procedure, evidence, and real property. All MBE questions are framed as short fact patterns with multiple-choice answers. In many respects, the MBE is a reading comprehension exam. Test-takers are asked to read short passages, apply certain fundamental laws and legal principles to those facts, then answer a series of questions about that application.
Each MBE is made up of 200 questions. The exam is typically administered over one full day, with the first hundred questions being administered in the morning, the second hundred after a brief lunch break. Every student who takes the MBE on a certain date receives exactly the same exam, with the same MBE questions. The MBE is only offered twice a year, typically on the last Wednesday in February and the last Wednesday of July. These dates correlate with the bar examinations of most U.S. states.
The vast majority of U.S. states incorporate the MBE questions into their required bar exams. Passing a bar exam is required in order to begin practicing law in most jurisdictions. The MBE, like most standardized tests, is scored but also scaled. A student’s raw score, based on the number of correct answers, is converted to a scaled score reflective of how all examinees performed on that specific exam. Different states have different requirements for how high a score must be to be considered passing.
Most students practice answering MBE questions as a part of their bar exam preparations. A lot of the material on the test is based on general, rather than specific knowledge. For this reason, specific legal codes and rules learned in law school may not be helpful. Most MBE questions provide students with the law they are meant to apply. The real test is in how students treat the questions' facts in light of that law, hypothetical as it may be.
The MBE is not designed to test how much law a person knows. Rather, its aim is to evaluate how competent a person is to practice law, which is in many ways a much softer, grayer assessment. The MBE questions attempt to evaluate practice ability by asking students to choose the best legal reasoning, identify the strongest arguments, analyze legal relationships, and choose positions, among other things.
Although the six subject matter areas of the MBE questions are familiar to most examinees, the way the questions are framed requires a lot of practice. Fundamental legal principles are of course important, and a firm understanding of how the law works is imperative. More important is an understanding of how to look for what the question is actually asking, and a strategy for how to dissect the given fact pattern for the best — not necessarily merely a correct — answer.
MBE questions are all written by lawyers and attorneys who are members of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, or NCBE. The NCBE oversees the administration and scoring of the MBE. Before each exam, the NCBE releases subject matter outlines for each of the six MBE question types. It also publishes MBE study aids and practice questions across all six subjects, which are available for purchase.