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Top 5 reasons people really fail the bar exam

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Man who Failed the Bar Exam
Trying to figure out how to pass the bar exam on your second attempt? Let JD Advising help you reconfigure your approach.

If you failed the bar exam, you may feel a range of emotions—including anger, disappointment, frustration, and hopelessness. You may even question your decision to go to law school. Or wonder if you are cut out to be a lawyer.

Remember that the bar exam does not measure intelligence, success, or your ability to practice law. There are multiple reasons that perfectly smart, capable, and talented lawyers-to-be fail the bar exam. In fact, you can see a list of very successful people who failed the bar exam here! You are in quite good company!

It is common to fail the bar exam and then pass on a later attempt. Thousands of repeat bar exam takers pass every single administration! The key is to figure out why you did not pass the bar exam so that you can change your approach and pass on your next try.

Once you’ve taken a few days to process the fact that you did not pass the bar exam, it is time to start thinking about a new approach. After all, if you study for the next bar exam the exact same way you studied for the prior one, you should expect to get the same result.

In other words, if you do what you did, you will get what you got! 

A great first step is to reflect on why you might have failed the bar exam so that you don’t make the same mistake twice. Here, we cover five of the most common reasons we see for failing the bar exam. We base these on our expertise in helping repeat takers pass the bar through our courses and tutoring programs.

1. You didn’t know the nuances of the law. 

This is one of the most common mistakes we see. Students often have a good understanding of the general law but do not have the finer points of law memorized. Unfortunately, the bar exam does not test only the general principles of law. Instead, it tests the nuances, the details, and the exceptions to the rule.

If you did not take a significant amount of time to learn your outlines, or if you only started reviewing during the last couple weeks of bar prep, you may be in the category of students who simply did not know the details of the law well enough. The good news is you can make memorization a priority! Incorporate it right into your schedule from the beginning and you should see a big difference in your score.

If you get overwhelmed when you see a large stack of outlines to learn, we recommend making it manageable and working with small portions of your outlines at a time. Have friends or family quiz you so that you know you have the ability to call up the law from memory. Check out these posts on how to memorize bar exam outlines and bar exam memorization tips to get started!

2. You didn’t practice enough essays.

Another reason you may have failed the bar exam is that you did not write enough essays or performance tests. If you put off reviewing essay questions and performance tests until the end of bar prep, you are not alone! The good news is that you can likely improve your score with a relatively small tweak to your schedule.

Add answering essays and performance tests right into your study schedule so that you are making essay practice a part of your regular routine. This way, you will see exactly how issues are tested. You will practice writing rule statements from memory. And you will get a feel for how much you need to write to receive a passing score. You will also be able to work on timing.  

Making this one simple change in your study schedule can make a big difference on exam day!

3. You didn’t have a focused approach to the MBE.  

There are two common mistakes we see with regard to the MBE. First, some students do not use released MBE questions. Instead, they use questions invented by a course or company. Those questions are not necessarily bad, but the best source of practice questions is released questions. That is, questions written by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). You can read more about other sources for real MBE questions here! Incorporating released questions into your practice can make a big difference. You will get used to the format of the bar exam and see how the NCBE likes to test issues.

The second mistake students often make is trying to race through as many practice questions as possible. Students often get so nervous about the MBE that they rush through questions each day. They answer hundreds of questions but never see their score improve. Instead of doing this, slow down so that you can see actual improvement in your MBE score. Set aside time in your study schedule to answer MBE questions in a methodical way. This way, you are likely to see faster and greater improvement in your score.

4. You didn’t practice your timing.

Timing is a very important aspect of the bar exam. If you know the law but you don’t have time to answer the questions asked, you will not pass the bar exam. So, it is not enough to just know the law. You also have to make sure you have enough time to show the grader you know it!

Students especially struggle with timing when it comes to the performance test portion of the bar exam. Students often fail to practice performance tests under timed conditions before they take the exam. Then, they are surprised on exam day when they run out of time.

If you struggled with timing, the good news is that you know this now, so you can correct it for the next exam. Make sure to incorporate timed exams into your study schedule. Complete your timed exams under test-like conditions so you get a good feel for what exam day will be like.

Looking for more timing tips?

5. You didn’t follow a study plan.

Lastly, a common reason for failing the bar exam is not having—or failing to follow—a study plan. A good study schedule is key. There is a lot of material tested on the bar exam, so being able to devote enough time to learning each subject and practicing test questions is critical. Creating a solid plan will help relieve your anxiety as you will always know whether you are on track. 

If you’re taking the Uniform Bar Exam, be sure to check out this post on how to create a UBE study schedule.  For a more detailed plan, check out this 45-day bar exam self-study schedule here.

If you are looking for a free and informative webinar on how to plan the next steps after failing the bar exam, sign up for JD Advising’s free webinar here. (This webinar will also be available on demand.)

Remember that if you change your bar exam approach, you can also change your bar exam result! Good luck—you can do it!