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10 Common Reasons for Failing the Bar Exam

Dean of Students, Penn State University Dickinson School of Law

Before starting the bar exam preparation process again, unsuccessful examinees should take a look back and determine why they failed because understanding the reasons for failing will help guide their preparation efforts this time around. The common reasons for failing the bar exam are not mutually exclusive and many are related. Don’t be surprised if more than one applies to you.

1. You did not study enough. Perhaps the most common reason for failing the bar exam is not studying enough. Preparing for the bar exam is a full-time job and you should set aside about 60 hours a week to study for the 8-10 weeks prior to taking the exam again. The bar exam is not an intelligence test; there simply is no substitute for dedicating a substantial amount of time for focused study. If you were employed or had other significant commitments that took time and energy away from your bar exam preparation efforts, make sure to minimize them this time around. No matter how smart you are, you cannot pass without a substantial amount of studying. Your results will correlate to the time and effort you devote to bar exam preparation.

2. You began bar exam preparation too late. I tell my students all the time that you pass the bar in June not July (or January for February takers). The work and effort you put into bar exam preparation at the beginning pays higher dividends than the work you do at the very end. Out of all the tips that you will hear or read, this one will be among the most important. If you can begin your preparation early, it will considerably ease the burden on your head and lessen a lot of stress that you would otherwise feel later on. The more you postpone your studying and preparation, the harder it will be for you.

3. You did not take a commercial bar review class. Did you try to save some money by not enrolling in a commercial bar preparation course? Did you borrow materials from a friend who was enrolled in a commercial review course last year or the year before? The benefits of a commercial course at this point outweigh the financial costs and include ensuring you are studying the most current material tested on the bar exam and providing you an opportunity to ask questions of experts in the field.

4. You studied inefficiently. Were you inefficient with the time you devoted to bar preparation? Did you try to learn everything? Spending an equal amount of time and effort preparing for everything tested on the bar exam is an extremely poor strategy and a common mistake among unsuccessful test-takers. The bar exam is “pass/fail”. You can miss more than 30% of the questions on the MBE and still pass. There are several critically important categories of law you must do well in to pass the bar. There are several more categories of law you do not need to do well in in order to pass the bar. In MBE: Beginning Your Campaign To Pass The Bar Exam, Wolters Kluwer (2011), I analogize campaigning for president to passing the bar exam. You can lose more states than you win and still win a presidential election if you win the important states. Likewise, if you focus your preparation efforts on the most highly tested areas, you will greatly increase your chances of passing.

5. You ran out of time. It is very difficult to pass a test you were unable to complete. You must strategically and purposefully allocate your time relative to the worth of each MBE and essay question. You have 1.8 minutes on average to answer each MBE question. Some will take a little longer, some shorter. But you should plan on completing 17 questions every half hour. While you are practicing, give yourself a little less time. Similar to athletes training for a big game, you will want to get to the point where your practice sessions are more difficult than the actual exam.

6. You did not do enough practice questions. There is simply no better way to prepare for the bar exam than by practicing. If you were entering a free throw contest in basketball in ten weeks, how would you prepare? You would practice shooting free throws! Many unsuccessful examinees tell me that they spent far too much time studying outlines because they thought they couldn’t do practice questions until they understood the law. The outlines should be used as a reference tool. You will learn more law by doing the practice questions than by reading outlines or watching videos. Most importantly, you will be learning in the context of fact patterns so you will be seeing how the law is applied (or misapplied).

7. You did not know your audience. Students are surprised when I tell them that most bar exam essay graders only spend a few minutes reading essay answers. You must write clearly, succinctly, and use “buzz words.”

8. You panicked. If you aren’t nervous before the bar exam you aren’t human. But you have all taken high stakes exams before and this one is no different. You have taken the LSAT and many, many law school exams and you must have done well or you wouldn’t be eligible to sit for the bar exam. You know how this works by now: you will be nervous as exams are distributed and even more so as instructions are given. You will open the exam, read the first question, and get into the exam “zone” just as you have done countless times before. Distractions and nervousness will fade into the background.

9. You did not read carefully. The bar exam is basically a reading comprehension test. If you are like most people who failed, you came very close to passing. You don’t want to give away valuable points because you were careless and misread a question.

10. You simply had a bad day. And finally, sometimes people just have a bad day because they aren’t feeling well or are dealing with family or other relationship issues. Life does not pause during exam preparation or on test days.

About the Author

Keith Elkin is the Dean of Students at the Penn State University’s Dickinson School of Law and teaches Fundamental Skills for the Bar Examination, a bar preparation course offered at Penn State Law. He is the author of MBE: Beginning your Campaign to Pass the Bar Exam (Aspen, 2011) which is based on his experience working with hundreds of bar exam candidates and the pedagogy of his course.

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