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by Brian Zhang | February 09, 2021

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It’s frequently recited that a scientific or technical background is a prerequisite to practicing patent law. But what does that really mean? It’s a misconception largely stemming from failure to distinguish between patent litigation and patent prosecution, but it is actually true for the latter. Patent prosecution does indeed, in simplified terms, require a scientific or technical background. The source of that requirement is the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) registration examination, commonly known as the patent bar exam. Read on for more information about the patent bar exam, who is eligible, how to apply, and what you should do to prepare.

What is the patent bar exam?

The patent bar exam does not test for scientific or technical knowledge. The requirement is only for eligibility to take the exam. The exam itself consists of 100 multiple-choice questions mostly based on the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure (MPEP). Of those 100 questions, 90 are scored, and 63 (70%) must be answered correctly to pass.

Who is eligible to take the patent bar exam?

There are multiple ways to qualify, and the requirements can get complicated, as detailed in the USPTO’s General Requirements Bulletin. If you have a bachelor’s degree in one of the listed majors of Category A, you’re in luck—you only need to provide an official transcript showing that your degree was awarded. The list of Category A majors is quite comprehensive, but it doesn’t cover all of the possible science, technology, and engineering majors out there. If your major is not listed, resort to Category B by showing that you completed a certain combination of hours in physics, chemistry, biology, and/or engineering courses. The documentation under this category is more involved, as you’ll need to provide course descriptions from your university’s course catalog specific to the year in which you took each qualifying course. If you don’t qualify under Category B but have practical engineering or scientific experience, you can take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) test and, thus, qualify under Category C.

How do I get started?

Consider carefully the timing of your application. After you apply, it should take four weeks or less to hear back. After you obtain your notice of approval to take the exam, you have a limited window of time during which you can take the exam. As such, it’s advisable to begin studying for some time before you apply. The window is usually 90 days (but this time period may be temporarily extended due to COVID-19, so check the registration materials). Fortunately, the exam is administered on an on-demand basis at commercial testing centers, so you have the flexibility to schedule a date that works for you.

What should I do to prepare?

Make a study plan tailored to your needs. Generally, it’s recommended by some prep course providers that you study and prepare for about 200 hours in total. You personally might need more or less time than that, but it’s a good approximation. How those hours are distributed, however, can vary wildly depending on the circumstances under which you’re preparing. You may be able to get it done in a month or two if you have the time to really focus heavily on it. You’ll need to gauge how much time and energy you can devote depending on factors like your course load and any extracurricular commitments.

Be practical—give yourself room to breathe and time to process. The material can get tedious and repetitive, even if you like patent law, as the exam is more about procedure. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment and frustration by establishing an unrealistically lofty goal. Also, while doing practice questions is important to the preparation process, you should spend considerable time adequately learning the material first. There are only so many practice questions available, and you don’t want to repeat them enough that you end up only memorizing the answer choices instead of internalizing the material behind them.

Find your preferred preparation method. Unguided self-studying is possible, but simply trying to memorize the thousands of pages in the MPEP is probably not the most efficient way for most people. You might have some familiarity with the major bar exam prep services—don’t expect a similar experience with patent bar prep courses. You won’t find such a large and highly advertised market for patent bar prep. The most reputable, but costly, option is the Practising Law Institute (PLI) course, available in either online or in-person format. Other options include PatBar, Patent Education Series, and OmniPrep. Many courses have free trials. These are very handy because the delivery and format of instructional content as well as the interface of simulated practice exams are crucial to your studying experience and will vary among providers. Cast a wide net and try different providers to find the right one for your budget and learning preferences.

Best of luck on your exam!

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