Running out of Time on Essays and PTs: Help!

Students have been telling me at every bar review lecture this summer, and coming in to office hours regularly with pleas of: “Help: I’m not finishing the essays and PTs I’m writing.”

If this is you, you are not alone.


1) Delighted to hear you are writing practice essays and PTs.  Keep at it!  That is critical to your success.  Nothing worries me more than people who say, “I’m too busy learning the law to write practice exams; I don’t know enough yet to write.”  You learn by writing.  And, if you knew all the law in the world in theory but had never practiced bar exam essays and performance tests, you would likely not pass the bar exam.

2) Also glad you are practicing under timed conditions.  Too many students write open book and/or giving themselves unlimited time, and never learn to perform under the strict constraints and exam conditions they will face on their bar exam. Again, keep at it!

3) Let’s also look at what it is that you are doing that is taking the time that puts you over time on essays and PTs.  Knowing what is taking your time can sometimes help you trim down your time in certain areas.


  • Are you working with an outline?  Outlining before you write, providing yourself a roadmap (that you can turn into headings to give the grader a roadmap) takes time but ultimately can save time.  (You don’t waste time cleaning up a disorganized rambling answer.)
  • How long are you spending reading the question and thinking before writing?  It may seem counter-intuitive, but one way to speed up writing is to invest more time in understanding the problem before you begin writing.
  • Next, on essays, assess what is taking the bulk of your time?  Is it issue spotting?  If so,
    • a) learn the law more fluently.  The better you know the rules, the easier it is to spot issues.
    • Read more carefully.
    • And, practice with many many essays.
  • Is it rule statements?  Memorize succinct (concise and precise) rule statements.  You should not need to spend time thinking about how to phrase a rule.  You should spit it out.  That will come with practice and active work on memorization.  (Remember, how you learned vocabulary studying a foreign language?  Memorize your legal terms that way.
  • Next, is it analysis?  Again, a careful reading of the facts and practice will help.  Also, practice writing out model answers (copying them). That will help tune your ear to a successful essay answer, and it will help you see if you are spending too much time doing the analysis portion of your writing.

Pay close attention to how much time you spend on each part of your essay writing and you will likely gain insights into where and how to increase your speed and efficiency.


As to PTs, the first time saving tip is seeing the big picture, figuring out what the performance test is really asking you to do, and figuring out at least the major rules that need to be written down. These are huge areas where many students struggle, and get bogged down.  You have to find the “freeway” (the main rules); you cannot get caught up in the “side streets.”

With timing, how much over are you?  If you are 30 minutes or less over time, complete 4-6 more exams under timed conditions and see where you are. Practice alone may speed you up.

Complete at least 2 each week now.  (You want to master them as much as possible in June since they are open book and leave more time for essay and MBE work, which require memorization, for July.)  You should see your timing go down significantly, just by virtue of getting more comfortable with these.

Be sure to take the time you need to read, and think, and outline.  Even if you are a slow reader, the better grasp you have of what the assignment is and how to organize a logical and thorough response, the faster you will be able to type that response.

Also, with each practice PT you complete, watch for time saving techniques, such as:

  • “Book briefing” and using the table of contents of the Library to list the page numbers where all the holdings are, rather than writing all the rules out in an outline,
  • Using shorthand cites, and
  • Typing your headings right into your document and then populating that “outline” rough draft as your final draft.

Note too that a way to save a great deal of time is skimming the File first, then only going back to it in detail when you know the law (so you don’t get mired in the irrelevant material in the File).

You also may have about 10 minutes or so of an adrenalin boost on the actual exam, but do not bank on that.  Keep practicing writing these out in full so that you get your timing where it needs to be.  And, with each practice test, take note of where you are getting caught up and push yourself to move more quickly through those slow moments.

For more tips and strategies for success on the bar exam, see Pass the Bar: A Practical Guide for Achieving Academic & Professional Goals.

Author: Sara J. Berman

Sara J. Berman, a graduate of the UCLA School of Law, is a Professor of Law and Assistant Dean at the Touro Law Center. She formerly served as a Director at the Washington DC-based Center for Legal Education Excellence.

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