If you just took a bar exam that was delayed and administered online due to Covid-19 concerns, you may be wondering how this affects your trajectory for re-taking if you find out you failed. You’re not alone. Many students in your position are wondering the same thing.
The problem is that bar results in some jurisdictions aren’t even scheduled to be released until after the deadline to register for the next exam. Obviously, if you fail and decide to re-take immediately, you would be given some kind of grace period to sign up. However, that really doesn’t help answer the question many students are currently grappling with: when should you start studying if you don’t even find out whether you passed until a few short weeks before the next exam?
The following is my advice about who needs to start studying now:
1. You encountered technical, timing, or other difficulties on the previous exam
The online bar exam was anxiety-provoking for many students because the technological requirements, software, and even instructions in many jurisdictions (like California!) kept changing until right up until a few days before the exam.
When you think back to your exam experience, ask yourself:
- Did I run out of time on any essay, PT or MBE session?
- Did I have problems dealing with the exam software that I think negatively impacted my performance?
- Did I “choke” on any essays or the PT due to a lack of knowledge or anxiety?
- Did I feel overly anxious or write “stream-of-consciousness” essays without first planning what to say?
If something happened during the exam to make you think that you probably won’t pass without some stroke of luck, that is not a good sign. You should probably start studying again now if you plan to re-take in February.
2. You did not give studying your best shot last time around
Let’s put confidence aside for a moment because, in reality, it’s a poor predictor of success. I have talked to countless bar students before, sometimes during, and after their exam days. Whether one person feels “confident” that they scored enough points to pass pretty rarely equates to whether or not they actually did. I’ve seen many students who are convinced they failed, only to be pleasantly surprised when they find out they passed. On the other hand, many other students just know they passed, and are completely shocked when they find out otherwise.
Now, let’s look at the work you put in when you studied for the most-recent exam:
- Did you write at least one closed-book, timed essay every single day (or close to it?)
- Did you practice about one PT per week and find that you could usually finish them on time and get the correct structure?
- Did you practice lots of MBEs and score around 70% in all subjects in the weeks before the exam?
- Did you find that there were no areas of law on the exam that surprised you because you studied and memorized all the black letter law you needed?
- When you think about your study routine and productivity, can you honestly say you gave it your very best effort?
If you answered “no” to any of these, you should consider studying now if you plan to re-take in February.
3. The stakes are really high that you pass ASAP
I often work with students who have a job lined up for after they pass the bar. Or, sometimes, they are currently in a job which has made it clear that they will be let go if they do not pass. Similarly, some students are on work-contingent visas and risk immigration nightmares if they do not pass and begin a job immediately.
If you fall into any of these categories, or otherwise stand to lose something important (besides your motivation and sanity) if you get bad news on results day, you should start studying now.
4. You’ve gotten low scores on previous bar exams
If you took the last bar as a re-tester and your most recent score sheet missed the mark by a lot of points, you should start studying now. Is it possible that you made up 100 points and reached the passing threshold? Sure. However, if you didn’t, and you plan to re-take in February, you should begin studying now. Before going back into any tired study routines, though, ask yourself if there is anything about your process that needs updating. Are you in danger of repeating the same mistakes? If you want different results, you need to change your tactics.
On the other hand, here are the students I think could probably wait it out and study later:
You mastered the material, practiced a lot, and feel pretty sure you passed
You know that feeling of “flow” that some artists, musicians and athletes describe when they are centered, focused and just know with all their heart they are kicking the ass of a particular task? Did you feel this way while studying for the bar. What about during the exam itself?
Bar prep is grueling and exhausting even under the best circumstances, so I’m not expecting that any of you felt like you were completely in the zone every day, or on every practice essay. But, if you know you studied your hardest, scored high on your practice work, and have no reason to think you didn’t pass, you could go ahead and wait to study until results come out.
You did well on law school exams and consistently scored well in practice
The bar exam is not the same as law school finals for several reasons. (1) Timing is often harsher, (2) the volume of material spans many subjects rather than just one course, and (3) the grader is not a professor who may try to read between the lines and give you the benefit of the doubt. These are some reasons why the bar is harder.
That said, if you did a great job on in-class exams in law school (both writing and multiple choice) and applied those same study skills and exam-taking strategies to the bar, you may very well have passed the bar.
Of course, it’s not that simple. I’ve worked with lots of students who did just fine, or even exceptionally well in law school and still failed the bar. The problem is often not a lack of smarts, skill, or test-taking ability, but rather, misconceptions about how the exam administrators are testing information, how to write analysis a grader (not law school professor) would give high marks to, and a lack of timed, real-exam-condition practice.
So, if you not only did well in law school but also have some great practice work from bar study to back up your confidence, you could wait until results come out to contemplate studying again.
You have no problem waiting until July, 2021 if you need to re-take the exam
If you can wait to re-take until July, 2021, maybe you should. Why? Because this would remove you from the sticky situation of even having to decide whether to start studying ASAP. If you pass, great! If you don’t, oh well, you can figure out a game plan if and when that happens.
Also, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the Coronavirus. We know for sure the Feb. 2021 exam will be online (at least in California). However, come July, that may not be the case. If you can afford to side-step this whole predicament and take a slower, more planned-out approach to studying again (only if that even becomes necessary), that could be your best option.
What if you’re still not sure?
Simple answer? Start now. What have you got to lose? Oh wait, your sanity, time, and general well-being? Hmm… Okay, point taken. So, base your degree of zeal on the points I mentioned above, and start off by asking yourself:
- What do I lose by waiting to study until results are published?
- What do I stand to gain by beginning to study now?
- Can I take a measured approach and start reviewing and practicing here and there?
- What sort of study schedule would be feasible and realistic for me in this moment?
The last thing any recent examinee wants to do is dive back into studying all over again. The good news is, if you just took the bar, you probably have a lot of law and study skills sharp and ready. Perhaps, the best approach is to practice under real exam conditions, at a set time every week and work on keeping your attack plans and black letter law fresh just in case.
Hopefully, once results come out, you can breathe a sigh of relief and never look at this exam ever again. Just in case, though, it might not hurt to do some work here and there to make sure you’re not left with a matter of days to get exam-ready if you happen to get bad news come January.