One of the questions often posed by anxious law school graduates is this: How many times can I take the bar exam in California before they kick me out of the room?
Of the many things I am grateful for in this life, passing the California Bar Exam on the first try is near the top of the list.
The test is known as the hardest in the country and, consequently, the anxiety leading up to the test is epic. And for good reason. In February 2023, for example, only 32.5% of applicants passed. In light of this, each exam cycle results in a majority of test takers who are forced to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try again.
In this article, we will give you the answer to that critical question, along with some thoughts and perspectives on how to approach repeat exam attempts.
Before we delve into the specifics, it’s important to understand the structure and nature of the California bar exam. As with most states, California’s test is administered twice a year – in February and July.
It consists of multiple-choice questions, essays, and practical performance tests.
If you didn’t pass the first time, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to be a great lawyer.
California’s bar exam is known for its rigorous content and low pass rates compared to other states. In fact, even though California recently lowered its passing score from 1,440 to 1,390 that is still higher than the 1,350 score required for a passing grade in many other states.
Now for the good news.
In California, there is no strict limit to the number of times a candidate can take the bar exam. In other words, if you don’t succeed on your first try, you can retake the exam in the subsequent session, and so on.
That should provide some people who just assumed hundreds of thousands of dollars in law school debt a bit of relief.
Nonetheless, endless retakes of the bar exam simply aren’t the right answer for everyone. Before you sign up for another bite at the apple, let’s take a look at some of the top considerations for repeat examiners.
Each attempt at the California bar exam comes with associated fees. Retaking the exam means paying many of those fees again. Over multiple attempts, these costs can accumulate significantly.
And that’s not even including the cost of retaking various bar exam prep courses. Although some guarantee you’ll pass (with free courses for repeat attempts) and you can certainly reuse the books you bought the first time, you may still incur costs for different courses, study aids, tutors, and the like.
Preparing for the bar exam is time-intensive. Each attempt takes months of dedicated preparation, which could otherwise be spent working, gaining practical experience, or pursuing other opportunities.
Of course, you didn’t go to law school to stay in your current job, did you? Perhaps it’s best to accept your reality, say goodbye to your social life, and pursue the advice of others who have had to work full-time while studying for the bar.
The process of preparing and sitting for the bar exam, only to fall short of a passing score, can be emotionally draining. The pressure of repeated attempts can greatly impact a candidate’s mental well-being.
All of this is understandable and you’re definitely not the only one feeling those feelings. Consider whether you gave yourself enough emotional self-care during prior attempts. If not, it may be time to pay close attention to things like sleep, days off, outdoor activities, or meditation. Taking the bar exam is stressful. That never changes, no matter how many times you have to do it.
Each time a candidate takes the bar exam, the result becomes a part of the public record. Though failing the exam multiple times doesn’t prohibit someone from practicing law once they pass, it might be something prospective employers consider during the hiring process.
The reality is, however, you may have very legitimate reasons for not passing.
You’ll need to get comfortable with explaining those reasons to future employers but once you do, you should have no trouble getting a job.
Take it from someone who practiced law for nearly two decades: day to day practice has very little to do with the conditions under which you take this big test.
If you spend your time between tests in a job or internship that improves your practical skills, your repeat exams shouldn’t get in the way of you and a successful career.
Advice on how to take repeat bar exams is often easy to get and hard to follow. Nonetheless, here are some tried-and-true tips for ensuring your next exam is your last exam.
Understand where you went wrong. The California State bar provides unsuccessful exam takers with access to their raw scores on the written examination questions. This is incredibly useful information to have as it provides you with a framework for your analysis.
For example, which subject matters did you struggle with? Obviously, you’re going to want to give those areas some extra attention next time around.
Did you barely miss the mark with your written answers or were you woefully off-base? If the latter, you might consider getting some help with your overall organization and writing skills.
If the former, you’re probably okay there but may just need some additional time with substance.
Also, be sure to ask yourself the hard questions about what it was actually like for you to take the exam last time. Did you have time management issues? Test anxiety?
Did you try to go old-school and hand write the exam when you are used to using a laptop? Did you take the exam in an unfamiliar city? Did you have a long commute to the test each day?
All of these factors are important in your overall analysis regarding what you can do better next time.
If using the same preparation method hasn’t been effective, consider trying something new. There are lots of ways you can adjust your routine that could make the difference between a passing or failing grade on your next attempt.
For example, if you studied with a group last time, maybe consider going it on your own this time around. If you relied too heavily on the memorization acronyms provided by your study course, consider making your own acronyms (they’re way more fun anyway, in my experience).
If you studied at night before bed, perhaps you should consider getting up early and studying before work. All you know is that exactly what you did last time didn’t exactly pay off. Make adjustments where you feel they are necessary.
Practice exams are likely the best thing you can do to prepare for your repeat attempt. Taking actual tests will not only familiarize you with the test format but also help you work on your timing.
Fortunately, the California Bar provides applicants with prior test questions, selected passing answers, and specific study aids for each one. When you take one of these prior tests as practice, don’t stop at writing out your answer.
Study the other materials the Bar provides for you. Again, ask yourself the hard questions:
After you’ve done this, start to keep a journal of things you know you can improve in order to raise your own test scores. Then tackle those issues one by one. I know all of this sounds tedious, but if the exam were easy, the pass rate would be a lot higher, right?
If you have to repeat the exam, don’t hide from the issue. It’s hard and that’s okay. Talk to friends, family, or other supportive people in your life about how you’re feeling. And then try to let those negative feelings go because they don’t serve you going forward.
Talk to individuals or read the blogs of those who have passed the exam or those who took it multiple times. Trust me, they didn’t pass simply because they got lucky. Perhaps they studied differently than you or prioritized different study tactics. Regardless, their insights and experiences could provide valuable guidance.
While the California bar exam is challenging, the state’s policy of allowing unlimited attempts offers hope and flexibility to everyone who has a dream of being a lawyer. Before you sign up for the next examination, give yourself time to analyze associated costs, both financial and emotional, against the benefits of multiple attempts. If you decide to repeat the exam now, be clear about what you’re going to do differently this time. With determination, the right resources, and strategic planning, you can absolutely achieve your goal of mastering the California Bar exam.
Passing the California Bar exam on the first attempt is a remarkable achievement, given its reputation as one of the toughest in the country.
The journey to success in this challenging exam can be fraught with anxiety and self-doubt, but there’s good news for those who stumble initially: California imposes no strict limit on the number of attempts. This flexibility allows for redemption and a chance to pursue a legal career.
However, the decision to retake the exam should not be taken lightly. Financial costs, opportunity costs, and emotional tolls should be carefully considered. Seek support from loved ones and those who’ve been through similar experiences, and don’t underestimate the power of analyzing previous attempts and adjusting study techniques.
Remember, passing the California Bar Exam is a significant accomplishment, and with perseverance, strategic planning, and the right resources, success is within reach. Embrace the challenge, learn from setbacks, and stay determined on the path to becoming a lawyer.
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