If you got bad news on the bar exam, it’s tempting to put your head in the sand and try to move on as quickly as possible. While the impulse is understandable, it’s important to take a step back and try to figure out why you failed this test if you want to pass next time. One of the best ways to do this is to look carefully at your bar exam score report.
Depending on the state (I’m looking at you, New Jersey!), you may have next to nothing to work with. But many states provide a detailed breakdown of your scores on each essay and performance test, and of your performance on each topic area on the MBE. Unfortunately, some of this information can be confusing if this is the first time you’re seeing it. Luckily, we look at tons of score reports, so let’s break it down.
How Close You Were to Passing
Even the least forthcoming states will tell you your overall score, and the score required to pass. This tells you, in general terms, how close you were to passing if you took the UBE. If your overall score is, say, within ten points of passing, I’d say you have a pretty good shot at passing on your next try, if you do more targeted writing practice, use a tool such as AdaptiBar for the MBE, and get at least some feedback on your work.
If you’re looking at making up a 30- or 40-point deficit, you’ve got some real work to do. In this range, you need to be looking carefully at all aspects of your preparation, and you’re probably going to need significant help to learn how to write a passing essay and performance test and to get a solid score on the MBE. Overcoming a large deficit is possible, but you need to be realistic about what it’s going to require (and whether you have time to do that before the next bar exam). This is definitely not a “I’ll just retake the same bar course and study a little more than I did last time” situation. You need to fundamentally change the way you’re preparing to have a decent shot at passing, when you’re facing such a large point deficit.
(The observant reader will notice I didn’t talk about a 10- to 20-point deficit. There, it really depends on what happened on test day, to decide which category you’d be in. If you just had a bad day, or got some topics you were less confident on, you might have a pretty decent shot next time. But if you feel like you really did your best and got lucky on the topics and fell 10-20 point short, that could signal a larger issue.)
Your Overall Score Breakdown
Most states will also at least give you a breakdown of your MBE versus essay/performance test score. You want to see if one of these is significantly lower than the other. If so, that’s where you need to focus much of your attention. (But don’t neglect the other parts of the test. We talk to a lot of people who fail again because they raise their MBE score, for example, but then see their essay scores drop.)
If you need to raise your MBE score, get AdaptiBar. I don’t know what else to tell you on this one. You need to do a lot of real practice questions, and that’s exactly what AdaptiBar lets you do. If you need more explanations, or prefer a book, buy Emanuel’s Strategies & Tactics. Then do tons of practice questions, and pay attention to what you’re missing and drill that law.
If you need to raise your essay/performance test score, you also need to do lots of practice (sensing a theme here?). Call me biased, but I’d recommend our Brainy Bar Bank, for categorized practice questions, and/or the Writing of the Week (WOW) structured practice video series. Together, they’ll give you all the practice problems you could want, and will show you how to write a passing answer (with fairly minimal knowledge of the applicable law).
Your Individual Essay/Performance Test Scores
If you’re lucky, your state will give you a detailed breakdown of your score on each essay and performance test. This is useful for a variety of reasons.
- It Shows you which Substantive Topics you’re Struggling with. Sometimes, you might think you’re solid on a legal topic, but then get a terrible score on an essay. This is important information! Annoying though it may be, go back and check on the questions you did well/less well on, so you can see where you might need to brush up on your legal knowledge.
- How’s your Performance Across the Day? Oftentimes, you’ll see a drop in your scores over the course of a day, or within a session. If that’s you, it’s probably a combination of two things: fatigue, and timing issues. If you find you’re getting very tired by the end of the day (or before lunch), that’s a sign that you need to do longer practice sessions to build stamina and/or look at other aspects of your day-of preparation (such as making sure you’re eating enough at breakfast/lunch so you’re not starving a couple of hours in). If it’s a timing issue, well, the answer is more practice! That’s the best way to write faster on exam day, along with carefully tracking your time and forcing yourself to move on when it’s time to do so.
- You can See if your Scores are Consistently Low, or Highly Variable. If you’re getting consistently low scores, that’s a different problem from someone who does really well on some essays/performance tests, and terribly on others. If your scores are consistently low, there’s probably something in the way that you’re writing that’s causing you to lose points. Having someone look over your answers to help you identify low-hanging fruit would be a good idea. If your scores are all over the place, this is more likely to be a substantive law issue, so you probably need to look at how you’re learning and memorizing the law, more than your overall writing.
- Are you Stronger on Essays or Performance Tests? Sometimes, there’s a clear variance between your average essay score, and your average performance test score. If this is the case for you, get some extra help on your weaker area, so you can pull that score up and pass.
Your Topical Performance on the MBE
Many states also provide a breakdown by topic of your performance on the MBE, along with an overall percentage performance. This information confuses people, because it’s displayed slightly oddly. What they’re giving you is the percentage breakdown of all the test takers in that MBE sitting who did worse than you did in a topic/overall. So, if you see Torts: 10%, that means only 10% of the people sitting for the MBE did worse than you in Torts, and 90% did better.
Here, you want to look for obvious outliers (pro or con), to help you identify areas you’re stronger or weaker in. (This often carries over to the essays, too. If you’re getting almost no MBE Evidence questions right, for example, you’re probably not acing an Evidence essay, either.)
As with the essays, you also want to look at whether your scores are consistently low, or are highly variable. If they’re consistently low, you probably need more help on the MBE overall. If some areas are great, and others are terrible, it may be more of a substantive law issue.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, it’s possible to glean a lot of helpful information from your bar exam score report, so take the time to look it over and understand what it’s telling you. This is the first step in diagnosing what happened, so you can (hopefully) pass next time!
If you have any questions on your score report, feel free to send it to us, and we’ll tell you what we see.
Best of luck next time!