Why Smart People Fail the Bar Exam


By Ashley Heidemann

Smart students frequently fail the bar exam. Some of these students did really well in law school. Some of them are brilliant. How can they fail?

Here are six reasons that you may fail the bar exam even if you are intelligent:   

1. You think too far outside of the box.

A person who falls into this category may see the fact pattern “A hit B” and think: “Well, what is a ‘hit’ -Is it merely a tap? Or was it a punch? Was A acting in self-defense? Were A and B playing sports? Was there implied consent? . . . No, A is not necessarily liable for battery!”

This person tends to think of a plethora of creative arguments for every bare fact pattern on the exam. This is not necessarily bad - after all, inquisitiveness, creativity, and thinking outside of the box can be ingredients for a fabulous lawyer. Unfortunately, however, these ingredients are not highly valued on the bar exam. These students lose points on multiple choice questions for arriving at incorrect conclusions even if they understand the law. These students also tend to shy away from the boxy, formulaic answers that graders expect to see on state essay exams and lose points there as well.  

If you tend to think outside of the box (and the fact pattern) a bit too much, use your study period to train your brain to work on approaching the bar exam in a more systematic, formulaic way.

2.  You do not know the law well enough.

There are several reasons that may explain why you do not know the law well enough.  

A common reason is simply a lack of time. Maybe you were working while you were studying for the bar exam. Or maybe you didn’t take as many bar exam-related courses in law school and simply need more time to learn the material.

Another reason may be that you did not comprehend the law. Perhaps your bar review course wasn’t tailored to your learning style. Some students find themselves furiously filling in the blanks on lecture handouts and checking items off of a To-Do list provided by their bar review course – without actually learning anything.

If you fall into this category of students, take the time you need to study. Additionally, consider acquiring bar exam materials that are tailored to your learning style or retaining a tutor.

3.  You suffer from anxiety. 

Anxiety may inhibit your ability to study well throughout the bar exam study period. It may also cause you to “freeze” during the exam. If you suffer from anxiety, take steps to actively reduce it, and perhaps seek professional help.  

4. You need to improve your time management.  

You may study really well, know the law, complete all of the practice problems – but not complete the exam.  If this describes your bar exam experience, make time management a priority when you study for the next exam. Take several timed exams before the actual bar exam and bring a watch or timer with you to your next exam. 

5. You simply have bad luck.  

You slept in. You were sick the morning of the exam. You got into an accident. Or you suffered an unexpected death in the family.  If you happened to have a bad day when you took the bar exam, the solution is to simply gear up to take the exam again.

6. You did not practice answering questions.     

Maybe you did not complete nearly enough multiple choice questions or essay questions when you studied. Students that do not practice tend to know the law really well but do not know how to apply it to fact patterns. As a result, they feel blindsided by the exam. If this describes your bar exam experience, it is a good idea to make practicing a priority. Schedule a set amount of multiple choice questions and essay questions to answer each day.

If you failed the bar exam, do not be discouraged or think of yourself as any less intelligent. Instead, figure out why you failed so you can improve your score on the next exam.


Ms. Heidemann is a bar exam and law school tutor. She graduated as the Number 1 student in her class of over 200 students at Wayne State University Law School in 2011 and received a score of over 180 on the Michigan Bar Exam. Her website can be found at www.excellenceinlawschool.com.