How Hard Is the Bar Exam? Why Is the Bar Exam So Hard?

No doubt, the bar exam challenges even the toughest and baddest law students. It requires a great deal of preparation if you want to improve your chances of passing.

Is the bar exam that difficult? What makes it so hard? How hard is the bar exam really?

It’s not just the overwhelming academic aspect of it. There are several aspects that make the bar exam an ordeal (as some call it, a hazing ritual or a rite of passage).

Why Is the Bar Exam So Hard? How Hard Is the Bar Exam?

These five aspects of what makes the bar exam difficult to pass are often overlooked:

  • Financial (the true cost of the bar exam)
  • Mental
  • Emotional
  • Physical
  • Psychological

Let’s go over these in detail one by one so you can prepare for them.

Financial: the true cost of the bar exam

The cost of taking the bar exam varies depending on your state. But generally, the cost of the bar exam can reach close to $1,000 just for registration fees and laptop fees.

There are logistic costs, like hotel expenses and transportation expenses if you’re coming from out of state or city, or even from another country, to take the bar exam.

There are study and preparation costs. Bar takers typically enroll in a big bar review course, like Barbri or Themis. This can cost $2,000 or more (so make sure you use them correctly). Some bar takers enlist the help of a tutor. This can also range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, even $10,000 if you invest in certain programs!

You’ll most certainly need at least one extra supplement, which can cost tens or hundreds of dollars. (But bar prep doesn’t have to be expensive.)

If you consider the opportunity costs of not having a job so that you can prepare for the exam, that’s two, three, six, or more months of not earning income from a job. In the meantime, they have expenses like rent, food, etc.

As you can see, preparing for and taking the bar exam is a LARGE financial investment. At a minimum, it costs thousands of dollars to prepare for the bar exam.

Multiply these costs EACH time a bar taker doesn’t pass the exam. Talk about pressure.

But that’s why it’s important to Make This Your Last Time and put all this behind you. That’s why I do this.

The mental aspect of the bar exam

The amount of law to know is overwhelming. There are over a dozen subjects to know, like a mega-final exam.

The mental stamina required puts constant mental pressure during the exam. The bar exam is a two (sometimes three) day test that covers many different topics. It’s a long exam with time limits. It tests you in different formats, some of which you may not be naturally good at:

  • On the multiple-choice section (MBE), you answer questions based on a short hypothetical fact pattern. You’ll constantly switch modes and pull your knowledge from different topics in your head, creating mental friction.
  • The essays measure your ability to spot legal issues and apply the law to fact patterns. You’ll have to answer questions based on hypothetical scenarios. The key is to quickly come up with relevant issues and recall the appropriate rules, and analyze the hypothetical—all within 30-60 minutes (you should outline the issues and rules first so you can organize a plan of attack).
  • On the performance test (PT or MPT), you demonstrate skills that lawyers would use in practice scenarios. Specifically, you’ll have 90 minutes to synthesize all the transcripts and case law to present a memo or argument. It’s a closed-universe, open-book portion of the exam, but bar takers often run out of time because they have to read several documents and put together an answer within 90 minutes.

This is why bar takers are fixated on memorization. This is why bar takers are afraid to test their knowledge. This is why they get obsessed with predictions so they can take shortcuts. They hide behind outlines and passive learning. It’s too painful and scary to approach practice questions.

Your test-taking skills are put to the test to their limits. But not to worry—these are learnable skills. And no one will know absolutely everything. You just need to pass, not blow the exam out of the water. If you review actual student answers, you can see that you don’t need to be perfect, just good enough.

The emotional toll of the bar exam

Successful bar preparation isn’t just about knowing the law and knowing how to apply it. It’s also about having the confidence to perform well on the exam.

This confidence comes from having a good study plan, and developing competence through experience, focus, and intuition. It also comes from being in control of your emotions and not letting them get the best of you.

Before the exam, as you prepare, you want to avoid “freaking out.” On the days of the exam, you need to stay calm, remember your training, and keep your eyes on the prize.

But the idea of the bar exam is so stressful and can cause so much anxiety that it can take an emotional toll on the bar taker regardless. Not only the bar exam approaches, but the part where you WAIT for results can be nerve wracking, too.

Questions like…

  • Will I pass?
  • Am I preparing correctly? Is this big bar review course really helping me? How do I know I’m practicing correctly?
  • What if I fail the bar exam? Will I know what to do? Will I get fired? Will I ever get a job? What will my family and friends think? Did I make the right choice to go to law school? My other friends are already in their careers, and I’m stuck in this loop of uncertainty. Will I make it out OK? Please, I just need to pass this…

Bar passage rates can get low, putting additional pressure. In California, February pass rates hover around 35-40%, while July pass rates are 50-60%. Other states will have higher pass rates. But each UBE state sets its own pass score. What’s a passing score in one state may not be a failing score in another. Some people may go with the easiest bar exam and transfer the score, if it’s portable.

You get nightmares. Your personality might even change!

It’s also not uncommon to hear that relationships end because of the bar exam.

This bar prep experience can be emotionally jarring, so emotional and mental fortitude are instrumental to passing (and staying sane).

Physical needs of studying for the bar exam

You can easily imagine a student reading books, watching lectures, taking notes, and doing practice questions. It’s a physically static thing to do.

But taking care of your body is also important. This is also part of “preparation.”

Getting good sleep, exercising, going outside for air, eating well, and socializing — whatever makes you feel fresh — are some things you don’t want to forget. Since preparing for the bar exam is such a learning challenge, the body should be able to support it.

Psychological aspect of bar prep

With all the pressure, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, and unmotivated.

People will keep saying shit like “you’re smart,” “you can do this,” and “you’re going to be just fine” because they don’t know any better. They don’t really care or think about what their empty words do to you. They just want to get away from your stress. From their perspective, it’s your problem, not theirs. Good luck!

The shame and feeling of incompetence that comes from failing the bar exam are also high. People may not judge outwardly, but you may feel like a huge failure, less than human. You studied for three months and had nothing to show for it.

So instead, constantly reframe the situation, don’t be tempted by these negative thoughts and emotions, and make sure you have a solid plan to beat the exam.

“The mind is 50% of this exam. It has to be in the right frame.”

Mental Engines is a mini course that can help reframe your situation into positive thoughts and positive actions.

Did this illustrate how hard the bar exam is? Is it still worth it to take the exam?

To prepare for the bar exam, it’s clear that you want to take the time to study and practice (and review) as much as it makes sense to your situation. Fortunately, there are many resources for bar takers to give themselves all the advantages they can get.

For instance, the blog goes over many strategies to deal with different portions of the exam. I also go over recommended resources and supplements that will help you prepare for the exam more effectively and more efficiently. It’s not enough for almost all bar takers to simply rely on a big bar review course like Barbri or Themis.

With enough preparation, you can succeed. You are capable, and it’s only a matter of time and the right approach.

To get started, sign up for the weekly newsletter here, where I send strategies and insights, MBE Q&As, and inspirational passer stories — straight to your inbox:

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