True story: I recently interviewed California bar exam tutor, Shana Karpeles, who revealed that she had helped a student who had failed the bar exam 22 times to finally pass on her 23rd attempt.

TWENTY-TWO times. I’ll let that sink in.

If you’re feeling upset about failing the bar exam once, twice, three times, or even more—and hopelessly adrift in an ocean of black letter law, practice questions, and bar exam stress—know this: YOU CAN PASS THE BAR EXAM. Don’t give up.

You just need to do things differently this time around and in this guide, we’re going to show you how!

Hi! We’re Brainscape

Study with the Brainscape app shown on either a phone, tablet or website

We’re the brains, minds, and hearts behind the world’s smartest study app! And we’ve partnered with highly respected experts in the field of law who have faced and vanquished the bar exam themselves, and are actively engaged in practicing law and legal education.

We not only have the luxury of these experts’ experience and advice in writing guides like this one, but we’ve also curated collections of certified MBE and MPRE flashcards, which you can use to drill yourself on the fundamental law concepts you need to know to pass the bar exam.

[Read: 5 Tips for staying sane during your bar exam preparations.]

In fact, Brainscape’s study platform is scientifically tailored to engage students’ cognitive abilities, which means you’ll memorize the material quicker, remember it longer, and actually enjoy yourself along the way, which I’m guessing sounds a whole lot better than the ordeal you’ve faced up until this point, right?

So, now that you know a little more about who we are and why it’s worth listening to our advice, let’s talk about what happens if you fail the bar exam. Are you ready?

Here we go…

What happens if I fail the bar exam?

Absolutely nothing. Zip, zilch, nada, nil, niente. Sure, you’ll have to retake it in six months’ time and, yes, failing the bar exam feels like the end of the world; like your hopes and dreams have been hit by an 8.0 earthquake. But I assure you that this is only a transient feeling. It isn’t the end of the world. Your life has not just turned into a disaster movie featuring a cast of abysmal actors.

It’s kinda awkward actually because we named this whole article “what happens if I fail the bar exam” but the answer is literally a single paragraph long. So here’s the bonus feature: what the heck can you do about it?

Here are your steps!

Step one: Exorcise your feelings

Step two: Scrutinize your bar exam score report

Step three: Ask for your essays back

Step four: Consider what bar prep study methods didn’t work for you

What now? A new plan for bar exam success

1. Exorcise your feelings

Man holding a cross up in one hand and reading a book with thought bubble that says "Begone feelings."

Feel your feelings (because feelings were made to be felt). Sink your face into a box of peanut-butter-and-chocolate-chip cookies. Languish in bed for a week. Watch a Disney movie. Watch five. Ugly cry. Get it all out.

Failing the bar exam is a massive blow, as I’ve made perfectly clear with the extended disaster metaphor. So, don’t even attempt to study right away: you’re not going to do a great job of it if you don’t have the emotional bandwidth and focus.

Rather, take a little time to get over it. And once you’re done with the cookies and Disney movie binges, try something a little healthier and soul-expanding. Like, perhaps a mini holiday somewhere new, or a weekend away with friends. Purge your mind with some beautiful scenery and an invigorating hike, or whatever works for you.

With some time to breathe, and recover, you’ll get that perspective and energy you need to return to your work with renewed vigor!

2. Scrutinize your bar exam score report

Man looking through a magnifying glass

All done? Feeling a little better? Good!

Now it’s time to roll up the sleeves and figure out just what the heck went wrong. There are a myriad of reasons (or combination of reasons) you could have failed the bar. And you might already have an idea or two:

  • You didn’t know the content well enough,
  • You didn’t do enough question practice,
  • You began your bar exam preparations too late,
  • You studied inefficiently,
  • You didn’t have a study plan,
  • You ran out of time during the actual bar exam,
  • You didn’t tailor your answers to please the examiners,
  • You didn’t read the questions properly,
  • You panicked and went blank,
  • You, very simply, had a bad day. Perhaps your pet hamster bit the dust or you woke up with a cold. Sh— happens. The world keeps turning.

BUT whether you think you know the reason or not, it’s vitally important that you scrutinize your bar exam score report to figure out the exact combination of reasons you failed the bar exam. It’s only through knowing what you did right and what you did wrong—either in your bar prep or during the exam—that you can fix your approach and do much better next time.

Pro Tip: Read ‘The biggest reasons people fail the bar exam’ for a more detailed understanding of where you might have derailed and what you can do about it!

3. Ask for your essays back

Students writing a paper at a table with markers and post its and paper

In keeping with the previous point, which is getting feedback on your bar exam performance, see if you can get your essays back. Not all jurisdictions will oblige this request but it’s certainly worth asking because reviewing your writing can give you further clues as to where you went wrong.

  • Did you fail to spot an issue?
  • Did you state an incorrect / irrelevant rule?
  • Did you neglect to sufficiently substantiate your arguments?
  • Did you forget to answer the examiner’s question?
  • Did you structure and format your answer incorrectly?
  • Did you run out of time?

Identifying where you bled points on your essays is key to helping you focus on your weaknesses when you start practicing again during bar prep 2.0. Oh, and vitally important too is working with a mentor or tutor during this process who can give your practice essays detailed critiques.

Pro Tip: When writing essays, you’re not aiming to get 100%. You simply don’t have time for perfection. 70% Is a healthier number that’s more than sufficient to pass AND will eliminate some pressure.

4. Consider what bar prep study methods didn’t work for you

Woman in blue sweater with hand on chin thinking about which bar prep to use

You failed the bar exam so CLEARLY something didn’t work for you. And if that “something” had anything to do with your study approach, then this is where you’ll discover what it was and how to correct it. Here are some of the common culprits:

  • You didn’t build in enough time for content memorization and review. Solution: Draw up a new, very detailed study plan that splits all the content up into manageable daily goals, and use Brainscape’s certified MBE flashcards to help you memorize and review that content TWICE as efficiently!
  • You didn’t do enough practice questions. Solution: Take time to source reputable question banks and practice exams and then read ‘How to take a practice bar exam (23 key tips)’ so that you squeeze the most out of them. Heads up: many students only get a fraction of the value out of these exams because they don’t spend enough time working through their performance assessments.
  • You were staggered by the sheer demands of the bar exam because you didn’t do a full-length practice exam (and so had no idea what you were in for). Solution: Do one every 10 days to two weeks under real exam conditions so that you can (1) work on your time management and (2) become accustomed to the physical demands of such a marathon exam.
  • You went the self-study route only to regret it. Solution: Find yourself a bar prep provider that caters to your particular learning preferences (independent versus hands-on) and lifestyle (in-class and structured versus online and self-guided). Read ‘How to pick a bar review course’ for more help with that.
  • You got distracted easily and struggled to focus. You made it through law school so you clearly have what it takes. You might just need to take a little more time to prepare. Solution: If necessary, try new study environments that can offer you more peace and less distraction. You might also consider investing in a pair of noise-cancelling earphones. Check out: ‘How to focus better when studying.’
  • You didn’t make time for self-care and got burned out. Solution: Exercise, sleep, socialization, and some form of stress-management technique, be it yoga, meditation, or weightlifting, are crucial for physical and mental health and wellbeing. And these are crucial for a good bar exam performance. So read ‘How to deal with bar exam stress’ and get your lifestyle right!

A new plan for passing the bar exam

Success kid (Young child with sand in hand and gritty smirk) telling you "you can do this"

You’ve taken the steps to figure out what you did wrong in your preparation and/or during the exam: now you need to design a new strategy that will help you deftly side-step your mistakes, like a dog turd on a hot pavement.

This new strategy—bar exam study plan 2.0—has a very definite goal: to get you through your retake with a good, passing score. That’s it. I’ve pretty much covered how you can do that in the above-mentioned points but now I want to emphasize the following:

You’ve got to keep your spirits up.

According to the stats given by The State Bar of California, California’s 2021 February bar exam, half (47%) of all first-time test takers and three-quarters (73%) of retakers failed. In fact, some of our nation’s most successful attorneys, politicians, and leaders have failed the bar exam and still went on to do great things. Besides, if Shana’s student could pick herself up after failing the bar TWENTY-TWO times, holy crap, so can you!

So, stay positive, keep a healthy perspective, focus on what works for you, work hard, and you will rise to the challenge of the bar exam!

For the full scoop on nailing the bar exam, read our seminal guide: How to study for the Bar Exam more efficiently, which contains all the tips, tricks, and tools you could possibly need to pass the bar exam on your next retake!