Bar Exam Blues – What to Do When You Don’t Pass

I have not failed
Virginia Bar Exam

Virginia Bar Exam (Photo credit: Philip Larson)

The bar exam, like immunizations, driver’s ed, and other necessary evils, is one of those experiences that you do not want to repeat.  You persevere through relentless study and the nerve-racking wait for exam scores by repeating the mantra, “I only have to do this once.”   So, what do you do when you get the heart-dropping news that your efforts didn’t result in a passing score? Whether you expected it or were completely blind-sided, take a few days to decompress before beginning your retake journey. Also, take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone in the multiple test takers’ club; some famous faces are there to keep you company.

What Went Wrong?

Once you return form your much-needed break, it’s time to self-assess. Your assessment should be supplemented by any documentation your state board of bar examiners provides about your actual score. Think back to how you felt taking the test. You must pinpoint exactly where you went off course before you prepare to retake the exam. Below are some questions to get you started.

Test Preparation

“Day of” Test-Taking Conditions

  • Were there obvious gaps in your knowledge on the day of the test?
  • Did you feel like there were questions or types of questions you were not prepared to answer?
  • Were you significantly more comfortable with either the MBE or the State specific portion of your bar exam?
  • Did you have one too many “Jesus take the keyboard…” moments where a concept was completely brand new to you?
  • Did test anxiety rear its ugly head?
  • Were you able to finish the exam?
  • Were you easily distracted by what your neighbors were doing around you?
  • Were you physically and emotionally at your best?


The Reapplication Process

Be proactive about finding out key deadlines for the next exam date so that you can gather any supporting documentation you’ll need. Some state notification dates are awfully close to the application deadline for the next exam administration, so don’t wait. Take initiative, visit the website, and make a list of everything you must do to submit a timely reapplication. 

You’ll also want to confirm whether the other licensing requirements you’ve completed will expire. For example, does your state set an expiration date for your MPRE scores? (MPRE scores are generally good for 2 years or 4 years from the time of passage.)

Bar Prep Courses: Love it or Leave it 

Another important consideration is whether you need a different bar prep course.  Bar prep courses are not one size fits all.  If you followed the rigorous study regimen recommended by your bar prep course and your commitment did not pay off, it may be time for you to look elsewhere.

When you’re considering another bar prep course, think about the way you learn. After 19+ years of formal education, you should have a sense of the kind of learner you are and how your brain works.  If you’re not sure, review this handy infographic to gauge your learning type. If your learning style is incompatible with your current bar prep course, call your friends and ask about their experiences. Try to stay away from the company reps though as their opinions may still be colored by the student representative perks and the sales pitch programming they received.

Finally, consider how your schedule will accomodate another round of study. Chances are, you weren’t working the first time you studied, but you may be now. So, examine the different courses for what you will need to fit studying into your schedule.  Does the course offer flexible access to materials online and on mobile devices. Is class time required or can you study on your own online? 

Getting the Biggest Bank for Your Bar Exam Buck

Bar prep courses are EXPENSIVE. If you’re sticking with the same one, most allow you to retake the course for free, so you’re set. However, if you’re moving on to a new one because you’ve exhausted your free retake or you’re unsatisfied, start contacting other companies now. 

If you didn’t adhere to your initial study schedule, you know what you should work on: everything. However, for many students, targeted study is a more effective option. With targeted study, you focus on your weaknesses –  understanding and retaining state law or tackling MBE practice on torts, con law, contracts, property, criminal law/criminal procedure, and evidence. The National Journal and FindLaw have helpful lists of bar course supplements for those interested in targeted study. 

Tutoring is another alternative; however, keep in mind that tutoring is pricey. If you’re willing to take on the added cost, make sure you have the time to dedicate to preparing for your tutoring sessions. Do not spend money on a resource you’re not committed to taking full advantage of. If you’ve got both the time and the cash, tutor on.

Managing Your Stress While You Study

Let’s face it, studying for the bar exam is always stressful. But, there are a few things you can do to manage your stress level. First,  if you exercise regularly, continue to do so. It’s not only good for you, but also gives you a reliable study break.  Next, do not publicize that you are retaking the bar exam. Avoid the well-meaning, but annoying non-lawyers (or lawyers) who ask how things are going by playing your “retake” hand close to the vest.

We wish you the best of luck on your retake journey.  If you’re interested in tailored advice about how to approach your retake, drop us a line.

Are you still waiting on your bar exam results? Are you trying to figure out how to support friends who are retaking? Let us know in the comments?

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Blueprint JD Staff

The Blueprint JD editorial team is a group of law students and lawyers passionate about legal diversity led by Managing Editor K. Suzette Akins.