Why the California Bar Exam Is So Hard
With both the October 2020 and February 2021 California Bar Exams steadily creeping closer, many students are stressed out with bar prep. They are plagued with the same question, wondering why the exam is so challenging and has such low pass rates. By now, you’ve probably heard from all sorts of people about their experiences and why they felt the exam was difficult. You won’t know for certain until you’ve sat down and taken the exam for yourself. With that in mind, below are a list of objective reasons explaining why the California Bar Exam is so hard.
UPDATE: California passed an order on January 28, 2021 that allows examinees who narrowly passed the California Bar Exam between July 2015 and February 2020 to be admitted to the state bar after completing 300 hours of supervised legal work (no second bar exam is required).
Why the California Bar Exam Is So Hard
California Bar Examination Pass Rates
The state of California suffers from one of the lowest pass rates in the country. This low pass rate heavily influences and shapes how many people view the test both before and after taking it.
Recently, California has had some terrifying pass rates. This includes a February 2020 overall pass rate of only 26.8 percent. In years prior, the pass rates were slightly better, but not by much. For example, the February 2018 overall pass rate was 27.3 percent. The pass rates for July 2018 was 40 percent overall. In February of 2019, the pass rate was 31.4 percent overall. However, an unprecedented essay topic leak in July of 2019 increased the pass rate to 50.1 percent overall.
To better illustrate the statistics of the February 2018 California Bar Exam, consider this. The February 2018 test had a total of 4,701 individuals sit for it. In total, only 1,282 of those original 4,701 individuals ended up passing the examination.
The Large Candidate Pool
In comparison to other states, California has a large number of applicants. The fact that California’s population of exam takers is so large contributes to the overall lower pass rate the state is regularly pumping out. To put this into perspective, in 2017 California had 12,985 applicants who sat for the exam. Almost every other state except for New York had a significantly less populous pool of exam takers. For example, Arizona had 971 applicants, Colorado had 1,103, Florida had 4,413, and Texas had 4,208. That means that combining the applicants in 2017 from Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Texas would not even come close to the number of applicants that sat for the California exam that year!
The “Cut” Score
California has also historically suffered from a notoriously high minimum passing score, also known as the “cut score.” This significantly impacts the overall pass rate for the state. For example, only one state, Delaware, had a higher passing score than California until the passing score was lowered by the California Supreme Court in 2020 (discussed in more detail below). The fact that California has traditionally had a high cut score has definitely factored into the overall consensus that the California Bar Exam is one of the most difficult in the country.
The New Lowered Cut Score
Much to the delight of future California Bar Exam test takers and after years of begging by California law schools, the California Supreme Court announced it would permanently lower the minimum passing score for the exam in July of this year. The Court lowered the score from 1,440 to 1,390, placing California more in line with the passing scores required by other states. Overall, California’s new 1,390 passing score places it seventh highest in the nation. For context, New York’s cut score stands at 1,330. Learn more about how the California Bar Exam is scored, including the MBE and PT!
Despite permanently lowering the cut score, the California Supreme Court recently voted to only apply the change going forward. They did not apply it retroactively. The first administration of the California Bar Exam to enjoy the new lowered passing score will be the October test. The new cut score should help improve the less than stellar statistics that surround the test.
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