“I Failed The Bar Exam. Now What Do I Do?”
The day that the bar exam results are released can be a relief for some but devasting for others. Not everyone passes the bar exam—and in fact, a large number of examinees fail. If you failed the bar exam, we are sorry! We know how devastating it can be. You probably feel immensely disappointed, sad, depressed, nervous, hopeless, and maybe even angry. You likely are wondering, “Now what do I do?” In this post, we answer exactly that question, including how to deal with the news that you failed, whether to take the bar exam again and how to prepare to take the bar exam again.
“I Failed The Bar Exam. Now What Do I Do?”
Dealing With the News
It is never pleasant to get bad news. Before you can move on, you need to allow yourself to feel any and all of your emotions and work through them. Take a few days or even a few weeks to process everything. During that time, read our note to those who failed the bar exam here and quotes for those who failed the bar exam here. Coming to terms with the fact that you failed the bar exam can be difficult, but there are a few key points to remember during this process.
1. Understand that you’re not alone.
First and foremost, to get past bar exam failure, remember that you are not alone. The bar exam is incredibly hard. Many students fail it on their first try—and some even on their second and third tries. You are not the first person to fail and you will not be the last, even if it might feel that way.
Try to remember that people rarely share the worst online. They typically share the best moments of their lives. You probably aren’t seeing people advertise that they failed the exam, but you are seeing all the posts from those who passed. So, don’t let social media fool you into thinking that everyone passed but you.
As unfortunate as it is, it is actually pretty common to fail the bar exam. In fact, many states have less than a fifty percent pass rate. So, not only are you not alone if you failed the bar exam, you may actually fall into the majority of examinees for your state!
2. Know that failing the bar exam does not reflect negatively on your ability to be a good lawyer.
There are countless reasons why you may have failed the bar exam—none of which have to do with your ability to be a successful attorney. Maybe you were having an off day and didn’t feel well. Perhaps you don’t test well. Maybe you don’t work great under pressure. Perhaps you were tired from staying up late worrying about the exam. Maybe you prepared best for topics that didn’t appear on the exam, while you weren’t as prepared for ones that were tested heavily on the exam. Failing the bar exam is most likely just an indication that you need to better prepare next time or change up your study strategy.
If you still don’t believe that failing the bar exam is no indication of future career success, consider that many have gone on to pass the bar exam after failing it, including some famous ones:
- Michelle Obama failed the Illinois bar exam on her first try.
- John F. Kennedy Jr. failed the New York bar exam twice before he passed on his third try.
- Hillary Clinton failed the D.C. bar exam on her first attempt but passed the Arkansas bar.
These three are among countless other famous people who failed the bar exam but went on to have successful careers—and you can too!
3. It is absolutely possible to retake the bar exam and pass on your second try.
Many students get caught up in the statistics for repeat bar exam takers. It is true that repeat bar exam takers have a lower pass rate than first-time takers. Keep in mind, however, that someone who takes the bar exam a second time is more likely to pass than someone taking it a seventh time. And someone is more likely to pass the second time if they were close to passing the first time (although having a low first score doesn’t mean that you will fail when you re-take it either!). So, you cannot look at the statistics alone to determine if you can pass the bar exam on your second try.
Even setting aside the statistics, if you fail once, it can be easy to convince yourself that you’ll fail again. After all of the hard work that you put into studying, it may seem impossible to improve your score. Be honest with yourself though before jumping to this conclusion. Maybe you skipped over some lectures or never really grasped certain topics. Perhaps you didn’t take many practice exams or relied on your notes more than you thought while doing practice questions. Those are things that you can do differently next time to improve.
Many students report putting in so many hours studying that they do not know what they can do differently. The key might not be to put in more hours but to study more effectively and efficiently. Read this post with seven questions to figure out why you failed the bar exam to figure out how you can improve and pass on the second try!
4. There is a silver lining.
As awful as it is to fail the bar exam, the silver lining is that you are now at an advantage when you retake the bar exam. First, you now know what to expect from the exam. You’ll walk in familiar with the format, know what to expect with respect to timing, and have an understanding of how certain subjects might appear on the bar exam. Second, you are not starting your studying at “zero,” as you will remember a lot of information that you learned that you can now build off of. Finally, if your jurisdiction gives you a score report, you know exactly what you need to work on to pass. You are ahead of the game when you start to study again, and you have an opportunity to refresh and refocus!
Deciding Whether and When to Re-Take the Bar Exam
Once you fully process that you failed the bar exam, you can decide whether you want to retake it, and if so, when. Generally speaking, it is best to take the following bar exam (e.g., if you failed the July bar exam, take the February bar exam), with a few exceptions. The advantages of taking the next bar exam include:
- Building off your current memory. The sooner you take the bar exam again, the more you will remember. The material is still pretty fresh in your mind, especially compared to a year from now if you wait to retake the exam. And whatever you don’t remember will come to you a lot more quickly than it does when you are learning it for the first time.
- Less likely to give up. If being a practicing attorney is something that you really want, do not wait. People who wait for a long time to take a bar exam tend to never go back!
- Free bar prep courses. Most likely, the commercial course that you took will provide you with free materials for the second bar exam. Some require that you complete a certain percentage of the course to qualify, so check on each individual course’s requirements.
- Quicker process. Why drag out what is already such a long process? By taking the next bar exam, you will be a licensed attorney that much quicker!
With that said, there are some situations where the next bar exam administration may not be ideal. Read on for the top questions to ask yourself when deciding whether and when to re-take the bar exam.
Is being a licensed attorney still something that you want?
After receiving a failing score, some realize that practicing law is no longer what they want to do. Perhaps they have become passionate about some other career while waiting for the bar results. Or they want to pursue a “JD preferred” or “JD advantage” job instead, which does not require them to pass the bar (read more about JD preferred career opportunities here!). If you failed the bar exam, consider your goals and aspirations. If being a licensed attorney is still something that you want, then you should re-take the bar exam!
Are you burnt out?
The timing for taking your next bar exam depends on how you feel after the first exam. Although it is rare after taking just one bar exam (and more typical after taking two or three bar exams, or more), some examinees do experience burnout.
How can you tell if you are burnt out? People who are burnt out usually cannot imagine opening a book or studying one more minute. They wake up every day feeling exhausted at the thought of studying. They essentially can no longer function when it comes to studying. They need a break, and they know it. If this is you, then absolutely re-consider when you will re-take the bar exam. Rather than the next administration, it may be best to wait a full year before retaking it. And when you do retake it, read these tips on how to avoid burnout!
Do you need more time to learn the material?
You may have started a new job after the bar exam and need to study while working full-time. Or you may have failed the bar exam by a significant number of points. Perhaps you have a wedding to plan or some other large commitment. Under those circumstances, you may need more time to learn the material. The last thing you want to do is take bar exam after bar exam without ever fully preparing, so take any extra time you need before retaking the bar exam.
If you still aren’t sure what to do, read this post on the advantages and disadvantages of taking the next bar exam.
Preparing to Re-Take the Bar Exam
When you are ready to retake the bar exam, it is important to make positive changes the second time around to increase your chances of passing. That means figuring out what went wrong the first time, which is pretty subjective. You may just need more time to learn the material, in which case you can stick to your original study plan. More likely though, you will need to try a different approach to studying. Some possible changes include:
- Hiring a tutor. A tutor can help keep you on track with your studying. They will offer helpful feedback and tips on how to improve. Access our free guide to hiring a bar exam tutor here!
- Buying different outlines. A key component to passing the bar exam is using strong outlines. If the outlines are too long, too short, too confusing, or contain incorrect information, they will not be helpful. Consider replacing or supplementing your current outlines.
- Using different practice questions. If you didn’t use real practice questions the first time around (e.g, the questions released by the NCBE), be sure to do so now. The NCBE-released bar exam questions are the best because they prepare you for the format and level of difficulty of the actual exam.
Read this in-depth guide on how to pass the bar exam after failing to prepare to re-take it.
And just remember that after you’ve failed the bar exam it is absolutely possible to pass it on your second try. The key is to work hard and not get discouraged. You made it through law school, which is an awesome feat in and of itself—and you can successfully pass the bar exam as well!
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