A second-time bar taker I know told me a great story about the day he decided to overcome the exam once and for all. An adjunct professor from his school who had been particularly impressed by him during the class they had had together looked up his bar results when they were published and found out he hadn’t passed. The professor then e-mailed the student and asked him to coffee. Turns out, that professor hadn’t passed the bar on the first try either.
Coffee ensued. What happened in their meeting didn’t sound too earth-shattering, but evidently it made a big difference to that bar taker, who, consequently passed the second time around. Here’s what I gathered from what the professor said. Some of this might sound a little harsh at first — and of course, all of this is much easier said than done. I’ve also added some of my own advice for repeat bar takers from the work I have done with them. If you’re taking the bar again, perhaps consider the following.
You Need to Stop Blaming the Exam
Who passes and who doesn’t can seem completely arbitrary. Sometimes there is no correlation between doing well in law school and passing the bar. I have known students in the top 10% of their class who failed on their first and second tries, while students at the very bottom of that same class passed the first time. The graders can be rushed, unfair, and subjective. At the end of the day, though, they are exceptionally qualified people who really are looking for something very specific. The bottom line truth is, your exam didn’t have that something, or you wouldn’t be reading this post. So, stop blaming the test and start figuring out what the graders want.
Stop Making Excuses Right Now
When students fail the bar, there is usually some excuse they start tacking on to their “no I didn’t pass” narrative. As a former professor I know used to tell his students, first of all, you didn’t “not pass,” you “failed.” I’m not sure the terminology here makes much of a difference to our internal monologues—most people who fail already feel bad enough, even without throwing around the dreaded “F”-word. But his underlying point was a good one: You need to accept failure in order to overcome it. Almost every student who fails comes up with something unfortunate that happened to them, such as an illness or injury. Or, perhaps they weren’t able to give studying the time and energy it deserved because of their family, work, or other obligations. These things may all be true, but they’re not the reason you are taking this exam again.
I have heard of students who had appendicitis (during the test!), suffered actual personal tragedy, or went into labor before or even in the midst of the exam… and they still passed. There have been students who got so depressed they couldn’t get out of bed for a full week during the last month of their studies, but they were then able to pull themselves together, make up the lost time, and pass anyway. Students who scrapped their entire PT in the last 45 minutes and started from scratch have gone on to pass.
None of these hurdles makes the exam impossible. Maybe your bar exam or study period wasn’t ideal, but making excuses about the past are not going to help you improve for the future. Did you really miss passing by “just two multiple choice questions” like you keep telling everyone, or do you just say that to make yourself feel better? Why? Just stop the mantra. Admit your shortcomings and move on.
Face Your Failure and Take Some Responsibility
What is the real reason you failed the bar? Was it that one trip you had to take for that out-of-town wedding; that one flu you caught? Or, was it a disconnect in something far more fundamental? Did you actually know when you took the exam what the graders were looking for? Did you practice tons of exams with that in mind? Did you then review those exams?
Everyone knows that the bar exam is too expensive and important to take lightly. No one who finishes law school walks into the test center without preparing in some way. For this reason, bucking up and taking responsibility for failing can be extra challenging—it might even be the most difficult thing you’ve done in your life up until this point. For this reason, I have seen students leave the exam half way through—my suspicion is that they want an easier burden, a less scary story to tell themselves and others—and just giving up gives them just that. For some reason, telling people, “I got sick on day two, so I couldn’t finish the exam (and I failed)” is a whole lot easier than saying “hey, I failed even though I tried my very hardest, because my best just wasn’t good enough.”
Whatever the reason is that you personally didn’t pass, you probably already know deep down inside what that was. What was it? It might be hard to come to terms with, but maybe you didn’t know the law as well as you should have. Maybe you didn’t dedicate enough time to memorizing. Or, maybe you memorized so much that you never practiced. Get a firm understanding of the flaws in your strategy or mindset from last time so you won’t repeat the same mistakes twice.
Don’t Start Steering Yourself Toward Burnout
Sometimes in their zealousness, repeat bar takers forget that they are living, breathing humans who need exercise, sleep and food. Studying can become an obsession and consume all hours of your waking life if you let it. Visualize your last meal. Did it involve flash cards? I’ve even seen waterproof bar flash cards for extra bath time fun. If you’re studying for the bar as you try to shower or eat, chances are, you’re letting the exam take over your life and you need to set some immediate boundaries. Burnout is really possible, and it can be very counterproductive. Keep study time and free time completely separate if you can. You have to give your brain a chance to recharge once in a while or it will never have the strength to perform the monumental task you’re asking of it.
Review Your Score Sheets As Soon As You Get Them
When you fail the bar, you will get your essay and PT exam booklets back along with a summary of your multiple choice scores. The essays won’t say what you did wrong on them, but you will have access to some model answers. Once the model answers are posted online, read and compare them to what you wrote for each essay. Notice the structure of your essays, the way you applied law to facts, and which facts you used in each section. Did you miss any issues? Did you discuss things that neither model answer raised. If so, you were probably wasting time. Were any of your essays or PTs unfinished, riddled with errors or “stream of consciousness”-type prose?
Going through your own work from the exam you failed is absolutely crucial to the steps above about excuses and accountability. Stare failure in the face. Maybe your essays were awful. If you have the ability to see that, then you have the ability to do something different this time. If you can’t or won’t let yourself see the differences between what you wrote and what the model answers came up with, you’re putting yourself in real danger of failing again. If you shut your score sheets away in a box somewhere, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. Use your score sheets for the learning opportunity they are. I’m not saying it will be pleasant—of course not—but it will be worth it.
Wallow in Misery and Self-Pity … But Then Cut It Out
Failing the bar, for a law school graduate, is probably the most traumatizing and shameful professional scenario imaginable — short of being disbarred. Failure is often linked intrinsically to overwhelming feelings of unworthiness. Students can even begin to question their ability to ever practice law or become a successful attorney. If you try to study with this kind of self-doubt gnawing away at your mental energy, you won’t be very productive.
You need to suffer this loss (and really soak into the pain of it all) before you can wade through it and trudge onward to your bright, shiny future. Failing the bar can feel like a tragedy — especially for students who have never in their entire academic careers ever failed anything. Moving away from grief without fully processing it is a surefire way to have grief sneak up and consume you when you least expect it — often, when you’re at your lowest or most vulnerable point (e.g. right before or during the next test). You don’t want this to happen.
Give yourself at least a full week of recovery time. Don’t start outlining the day after you get the bad news in the mail. Ease yourself through this painful experience by sharing it with those closest to you. Let them support and care for you. Focus on being good to yourself. You may never feel excited about jumping back into 8 or 9 hour days of studying — because let’s face it, that sounds horrible — but at least wait until you’re ready and you feel you have the mental and emotional fortitude and physical stamina to do what it takes.
Change Up Your Game
What did you do last time you studied? Did you make your own outlines? Work with a bar study course, company, or tutor? Whatever process you took part in last time clearly didn’t work for you, so it’s time to try something else. I’m not saying you have to throw away all your books or study materials, but recognize what contributed to your failure before, because repeating it now won’t do you any good.
Slay the Dragon
The professor in the coffee meeting scenario above talked about “slaying the dragon” once and for all. In order to triumph over this exam, it is crucial to commit yourself, but convincing yourself — even believing wholeheartedly — that you have the desire to pass is not enough. Every single person who walks into that exam room wants to pass or they wouldn’t be there. I’ve had students tell me with all the conviction they can muster that they want to pass, they need to pass. And I believe them. But what you need to do is to study smarter than you did last time — and that can mean something different for everyone. Yes, you have to want it, but you also have to honestly assess the reasons for your failure and realistically formulate a new and different approach.
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Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- Why I Hired a Bar Exam Tutor
- 5 Things I Did Differently the Second Time to Pass the Bar Exam
- You Failed the Bar Exam! 5 Tips to Get Ready to Study Again
- Coming Back After a Bar Exam Failure — Gearing Up to Study Again
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