Why Are Pass Rates Lower in February? (Yours Doesn’t Have to Be)

Bar exam takers are some of the most anxious and superstitious people on the planet.

  • They spend more time agonizing over which subjects will be tested than prepare for each subject (and then get really mad when the subjects actually get leaked, like it did for California did in July)
  • They plug in numbers into score calculators to figure out how many correct MBE answers they could get away with… AFTER the bar (I’m also guilty of this)
  • They get worked up over the smallest indications of possibly passing the bar (“My account won’t let me sign up for the next bar exam! There’s some text that changed colors! My C&F status is different! Does this mean I passed the bar?!”)

It wouldn’t surprise me if someone used a ouija board to divine what a magic 8-ball would say about their bar results. (Spoiler: The answer is always “maybe” because there is no way to know beforehand.)

I’m only judging a little bit because it’s natural to get anxious over a high-stakes exam. But we sometimes focus on trivial minutiae as a proxy for the fundamental questions and answers.

One question that some repeaters (or first timers who don’t take it in July) have is whether they should take the bar in February or July. The lingering concern is whether the bar is harder in February than in July.

This is a valid question, but one that you ultimately need not worry about.

To answer up front: Take the exam that’s coming up sooner (caveated by any upcoming changes to the exam structure).

Why?

  • The longer you wait, the more you’ll forget what you studied and have to relearn everything later. Don’t reset your knowledge needlessly.
  • Burnout. Don’t drag it on more than you have to. There’s nothing wrong with looking into preparing for the bar as early as you can, but more than 4-5 months of actual preparation is probably too much.
  • The more you repeat the exam, the more studying becomes your status quo identity you accept over time. ← YOU WANT TO AVOID THIS.
  • Get this exam over with to move on with your Free Life. The kind of work you want, the kind of job you want, the kind of life you want, are all beyond the bar.

More importantly, there is no real difference between July and February exams in terms of YOUR OWN chances of passing the bar.

This raises (not begs—stop using that phrase incorrectly) the question:

Why are pass rates lower for February bar exams? And what can you do to give yourself the “July advantage”?

I will answer both questions, unlike the plebeians who only answer one of the questions posed to them.

There are several reasons that may cause the lower pass rates in February. Again, most of these won’t affect you personally:

The biggest reason is simple: Most law graduates traditionally take the bar for the first time in July.

For example, in California, about twice as many people take the July bar than the February bar.

The July group of candidates naturally includes more students from schools with high pass rates. In July, there are simply more of those who take the exam after graduation and pass the first time.

There are more repeaters taking the bar in February (for the same reason as above).

If most people take the bar for the first time in July, then there are more repeaters in February. It’s also the case that repeaters tend to have the same issues that caused them to fail the July exam. They repeat the same mistakes unknowingly, can’t make the time, or can’t escape from circumstances that persist in their lives. When your mind or body is elsewhere, it’s hard to adequately prepare for a big exam.

In other words, whatever caused them to become repeaters keeps them as repeaters.

People who have many other responsibilities going on in life—family duties, job or career priorities, health issues—may not have enough time and energy to pass, and end up being repeaters.

It may or may not be their fault that they are repeaters. But, if they want to stop repeating the bar exam, I’d encourage them to take ownership of the situation and make the changes necessary:

  • Stop and take stock of what was missing last time(s). Compare score reports if they have more than one.
  • Learn new strategies or find resources that work for them to address the delta identified above. It’s not shameful to give yourself every (legitimate) advantage to pass the bar. Everyone else is doing the same. In fact, examiners expect you to.
  • Find a source of support. It helps a lot to go through this ordeal with others who understand what you’re going through.
  • Admit that the bar is not a priority, whether they have too many other things in life to handle or they are not interested in becoming an attorney. Put the bar on hold, or pursue a JD-advantaged career. Check out Leave Law Behind for ideas.

Going off the last point, some are simply not serious about the bar.

They say they want to pass, but disappear when it’s time to do the work, or they don’t think through what they need to do.

They go through the routines and motions. The bar is simply the next step they’re supposed to take. But this is a different beast than law school.

They merely think about passing the bar. The goal is to pass the bar, not just to think about passing the bar. They overestimate themselves and underestimate the exam, the worst thing you can do. They think it is OK to have distractions pulling their attention away. They wait for motivation and energy to fall from the sky. They go to school and collect degrees to delay self-sufficiency.

They’re afraid of what comes with success—impact on others, becoming a professional, doing consistent work.

They have not learned how to learn. They think reviewing outlines and lectures will help, when you’ll forget 99% of what you consume. They may spend a lot of time, effort, and money—but not on things that move the needle. They brute force their way through multiple exams. “One of these days, I’ll pass.”

This is a test that requires some self-reflection and a conscious, thoughtful approach to see whether you’re learning. If they just “wing it” every time, they will keep repeating the same ordeal.

Good news: The bar exam is a learnable skill. If you’ve graduated from law school, you are capable of passing.

“Is there a tighter curve because fewer people are taking the exam in February?”

Maybe. But the way each exam is calibrated and statistically adjusted for difficulty, your scaled score should (theoretically) be equivalent to other exams. For example, if you get a 130 scaled MBE score, that’s equivalent performance to 130 scaled if you had taken another exam, even if the number of questions you got correct is different.

See this snippet from the NCBE regarding MBE scores:

“The performance information provided for the MBE is a scaled score which can range from about 40 (low) to 200 (high). MBE scaled scores are calculated by NCBE based on a statistical process known as equating that is commonly used on standardized examinations. This statistical process adjusts raw scores on the current examination to account for differences in difficulty as compared with past examinations. Equating makes it possible to compare scaled scores across test administrations because any particular scaled score will represent the same level of knowledge/performance from one test date to another. Equating helps to ensure that no examinee is unfairly penalized or rewarded for taking a more or less difficult form of the test. Because the adjustment of scores during equating is examination-specific (i.e., based on the level of difficulty of the current examination as compared to previous examinations), it is not possible to determine in advance of the test how many questions an examinee must answer correctly to achieve a specific scaled score.”

Snippet from the California State Bar regarding scaling:

“Scaling is a statistical procedure that adjusts the scores assigned by the graders. This adjustment is used to ensure that an applicant’s likelihood of passing is not affected by any variation in the difficulty of the written section (includes both the essay and PT questions) across administrations. Almost all United States jurisdictions scale their written scores.”

Still worried about taking the bar exam in February? How do you give yourself the “July advantage” in February?

Realize that pass rates have no bearing on your own chance of success.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there about falling pass rates, and waves of optimism when there’s an uptick in pass rates.

Let’s reframe: Pass rates represent how other people did. It doesn’t affect the probability of your passing. Your own anxieties and fears hold you back.

You could still fail a test that has a 90% pass rate if you don’t prepare for it. Likewise, you can pass a test that has a 40% pass rate if you sufficiently prepared.

We notice that there are people who pass the exam even in the unlikeliest scenarios. I’ve spoken with people who had a 30- or even a 9-percent chance of passing, with a job and family to boot.

How did they beat the overwhelming odds? Who are these people? Well, they are just regular people.

Those doom-and-gloom statistics are irrelevant if you find the right strategies that work for you. If you believe everyone is failing, you give yourself an excuse to be stuck. It’s not true. Lots of people are passing. You can be one of them, too.

In a way, that’s more unnerving than martyring yourself. But it’s always been up to you.

Use the extra time to prepare for February.

The amount of time you typically have for the February exam (at least 12 weeks) is longer than for July (about 10 weeks).

Look to your predecessors.

If you’re taking the bar in February, you probably know people who have taken the exam in July.

What did they do? What would they do differently? Their past will guide your future.

If you’re a repeater, you already have background knowledge.

You can jump into practice immediately. By using rather than consuming, you’ll retain the information better, and more importantly, retain how to use the information. That’s how you hone your bar intuition. No need to spend the first two months memorizing and “getting ready” first.

What’s the takeaway from all this? You can give yourself an advantage instead of hoping to take advantage of “the system.”

How do you feel about taking the bar in February now? Let me know what you think below.

If you want to your rock your bar preparation for February, get in on my bar strategies and inspiration straight to your inbox every week. Plus AdaptiBar and BarEssays coupons and a free guide to kicking Performance Test ass. Let me know where to send them:
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