Reflections of the Patent Bar Exam

Lessons learnedRecently I took and passed, on my second attempt, the United States Patent & Trademark Office Registration (bar) Exam.  It is a daunting experience but manageable with some occasional misery in the mix.  The exam is offered once a year in Virginia on paper otherwise you schedule your own computer exam at a Prometric testing site. The total time needed to prepare for the exam is about 150 hours of solid study/course time.  It is a hundred questions divided into two three-hour sessions with an hour break.

On both exams I took, there were about seven questions from old exams, which were on my exams making for easy points and a great time conserver. Ten of the questions are beta questions that do not count toward your score but you have no way of knowing which ones they are.  It is critical to do as many past test questions as possible, after you have mastered the applicable law and rules, to be adequately prepared.   Doing at least 400 hundred-practice questions should be a minimum target. It is most important to review the all the questions and understand why you got them correct or incorrect.

Many of the questions have 2 or 3 layers to them, which makes them very difficult because of the tendency to hone in on what is perceived, be a single issue.  So you may get a question correct but for the wrong reason which makes it important to read each answer option and understand the reasoning behind the correct answer. Try taking half and full day practice exams with the goal of averaging 3 minutes per question so you will have about half an hour to look up questions.

The exam is open book to the extent that the relevant documents are available on a pop up screen that closes after each question is answered.  Some questions may be close calls and you pick an answer but keep going to finish all of the questions.  You then go back to find the right answer, so the extra time lets you pick up some easy points. Trying to look up answers, even if you know the exact place to go, before completing all the questions will likely result in disaster due to the time consumed in going to the source materials. Some questions may only be a sentence long while others are several paragraphs long making it necessary to get through all the questions before trying to look up the answers.

The exam also is also limited to a finite number of testable areas but the exam is always upgraded. There was new testable material added to my most recent exam over the year since I took the first exam including International Design Registration and new Supreme Court cases. Other recent updates include the AIA (America Invents Act) which was major change in the law 2013 along with new proceedings such as Inter Partes Review, Post Grant Review, Supplemental Exam, Citation to Prior Art and Derivation.

Your best shot to pass is to take a review course for several reasons. First, they will narrow what you need to study and know for the exam. Secondly, they will have study guides and preparation materials that would otherwise not be accessible to you. The course will also focus your study and provide strategies to make your study efforts more efficient.  Taking a live course can be even more beneficial because of having lecturers available to answer your questions and enhance your understanding in a way a static video cannot. The prep course I took was offered by PLI (Practicing Law Institute) has a very high pass rate for first time takers while the overall pass rate for all takers in recent years has averaged under 50%. The last actual past exam released by the Patent Office was from 2003 where so much of the new material is not covered. PLI stood out in this regard because they write questions for the new material in the manner of the Patent Office. John White, one of  the PLI course instructors, is a former patent examiner and had written actual exam questions while at the Patent Office. So John along with Gene Quinn have written questions that you may not see elsewhere.

Some improvements and advantages to the computer exam is that it allows you to mark questions, to identify questions you may not have answered and allows to strike out answers under the questions to narrow your options. This really helps when going back to do look up answers. My process of studying involved reading all the materials, doing the exercises and viewing all the online lectures. Following this, I attended the live program and thereafter spent 2-3 hours a day studying, with a day or two off per week and then did 8 hours a day for 3 days prior to the exam reviewing materials and doing practice exams.  I came close to passing my first exam but took it in a condensed time frame that prevented sufficient preparation to get over the top. If your planning on taking the exam just be dedicated to the process, pace yourself and good results will follow.


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Join the Discussion

5 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    May 31, 2016 12:56 pm

    It is a tough exam. I took the exam long ago after studying with PLI and Bob White. I passed the first time, but I can see how less time might have meant it went the other way. There is so much to digest. I found the most help, though, was taking the advice of Bob and going through the test and marking the ones I knew from memory, and then going back and looking up all the ones that I didn’t know from memory. It made me more relaxed.

  • [Avatar for Gene Quinn]
    Gene Quinn
    May 31, 2016 10:50 am


    There is very little claim drafting on the exam. Years ago those taking the patent bar had to write patent claims, but since 1998 the exam has been 100% multiple choice with no drafting. Over the years the exam has moved away from claim drafting multiple choice questions in favor of other topics.


  • [Avatar for Gene Quinn]
    Gene Quinn
    May 31, 2016 10:49 am


    I’m sorry that you don’t like that fact that the article mentions PLI in one sentence. The author did, in fact, take the PLI course and he did, in fact, pass the patent bar. The fact that you find this article pathetic speaks more about you than anything else, at least in my opinion.


  • [Avatar for Lisa]
    May 31, 2016 10:44 am

    While the article has a few bits of useful information, I hate that it is a plug for John White and PLI. Pathetic.

  • [Avatar for David Stein]
    David Stein
    May 30, 2016 10:15 pm

    No claim-drafting? I’ve been told that a claim-drafting exercise was added sometime after I took the exam in 2000.