My little sister, Bean, was not emotionally prepared to pass the BAR.
Don’t get me wrong – she was academically prepared. In the months and weeks leading up to the July 2021 BAR exam, she studied every day from 8 am to 11 pm. It was grueling. Her skin broke out, she gained weight, and she cried constantly. I tried to help her when I could, but I’m not a lawyer, so I did some other stuff, like help clean her apartment and send her Grubhub coupons. My actions did not make her stress completely evaporate, but at least I could help. I also knew on some level what Bean was going through. One of my best friends is a lawyer, and the BAR exam was like the Sword of Damocles dangling over her head. I wish I could go back in time and be more supportive of her.
In the weeks leading up to the release of the results, Bean was a mess. She wandered around my house like a ghost with unfinished business. She cuddled her dog like it was a living stress toy. I would get regular requests like, “Hey, can you make cookies? Wait, don’t make cookies. When are you making the cookies?” So sometimes, I would make cookies.
This all leads to me arriving at Bean’s apartment on Friday, November 12th, at 5:45 pm. The only light in her apartment came from all of the candles she’d lit in prayer. Her apartment smelled like the incense used in Greek Orthodox funerals. She left her apartment regularly to take the dog she was pet-sitting for on multiple stress walks. She wore an outfit of grey sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and I made a point to bring up the special jersey she wore when she needed comfort. She was mentally prepared to fail and have to start the whole process over again.
Bean passed the BAR. Thank God she passed. Or thank whatever universal deity she prayed to that she passed. I don’t want to discredit the hard work she put into this exam, but we can all admit that a teeny bit of luck is necessary to pass the BAR. No reasonable person can know all of the law, so applicants have to hope that the exam tests them on a good subject. That happened with my sister.
The thing about the California State BAR is that it is a notoriously difficult exam to pass. Per the July 2021 BAR results, of the 7,390 applicants to take the exam, 53.0% passed. The 3,473 applicants who failed will have to retake the exam, including submitting to the same rigorous studying schedule. Some of those applicants are going to take a break from studying and re-evaluate, and maybe even a few will decide that law is not for them. My heart goes out to all of these people because I have been all of them at some point.
No, I’m not a lawyer, but I am an accountant. I am not, however, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). To become a CPA, you have to pass 4 separate exams (in no particular order) and then fulfill a bunch of other requirements. It sucks. I never got to the other requirements because I never passed an exam.
And trust me, I tried. I spent years of my life, my supposedly fun 20s, preparing for and failing CPA exams. I first began taking accounting courses in 2015, aka the worst year of my life and stuck with it for the wrong reasons. When going through a family crisis, some people run away to other states and marry strangers. I’m the kind of person who arrogantly chooses a new career path because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I threw myself into that new career path. I took all the required accounting courses to qualify for the exam, and then I proceeded to study for, and fail, every exam that I took.
It was brutal. Over and over again, I would pay my exam fees, commit to a new schedule, and try to learn everything. And nothing worked. I tried different CPA prep materials, I tried studying in other places, and I tried taking appropriate breaks to re-evaluate what I was doing wrong. Finally, at one point, I was crying with some friends after receiving yet another failing score of 68 (passing is 75), and said, “Screw it, I guess I’ll try going to graduate school instead, because this isn’t getting me anywhere, and no one wants to hire me.”
Hindsight is 20/20. Realistically, I probably could have gotten a decent job without going to graduate school, but that path didn’t feel right to me at the time. At the time, I thought that no respectable business would want to hire me because I was a total loser who couldn’t pass the CPA exam and didn’t even have a master’s, something that seemed essential for success.
Here is where my story is less depressing: I managed to get into a decent graduate program for a Masters’s in Accounting, and within a year, I had a master’s, a job offer, and a couple of friendships. I also left with a renewed purpose, and I was determined to retake the CPA exam. Everyone told me I was going to pass this time. Everyone said, “Girl, you got this.”
I got a 68. Again. Turns out I did not “got this.” Despite a master’s degree, my friends, family, and classmates’ support, and the new fancy CPA training program my work supplied, I failed the exam again. I was devastated. After everything I went through, to have to say I failed again? I was ashamed of myself. Why couldn’t I do this one thing? I felt like human trash. I thought of everyone who’d ever expected anything of me or said I was smart and felt ashamed. Even though, realistically, no one really cares whether or not I’m a CPA. That’s the thing about shame – it’s self-centered.
At the same time, my friends from my master’s program began systematically clearing their exams. My closest friend from the program passed all four exams on her first try, which, frankly, is an incredible achievement and also not surprising. I was so proud of her. And so proud of all of my other friends who seemed to be succeeding in their new careers. And once I was done cheering for their success, I threw myself a pity party.
There’s nothing quite like when you and someone else are taking the same exam, and one of you passes while the other one fails. It feels awful. It’s not like jealousy. It’s not as though I ever felt like “I hurt, and therefore I want you to hurt, too.” No. I would never want to take away from the joy and success of my loved ones. I just wish that their success hadn’t also reminded me of my failure. Comparison truly is the thief of joy.
It took me a long while to realize that passing the CPA exam may not be in the cards for me. I fell victim to the sunk cost fallacy for a long time. Eventually, I realized that I didn’t love accounting enough to continue taking and failing these exams. Some people take the CPA exam repeatedly until they pass, and I think that internal strength and determination are admirable. The CPA license is not for me, and I’m okay with that. The last exam I took was in 2020, and I didn’t even look at my score until weeks after it was available. For my self-respect, I am glad that I moved past that pain and hurt.
This brings back to now. Back to my sister passing the BAR exam, which is not like the CPA exam, but there are similarities. That night, when she found out her results, she cried from pure relief. I was, and still am, elated for her. We briefly debated her making an Instagram post to share and celebrate her success but decided against it. She didn’t want to brag but also knew how many people failed the BAR each year, and she didn’t like to accidentally remind someone. She understands how painful it is to fail an exam, especially one that you’ve been working towards for so long. She knew because she’s empathetic, but also because she’d seen me cry too many times over my failed exams.
So to those of you who did not pass the July 2021 California State Bar, I just want to say that I see you. I feel your pain and disappointment. I hope you do not tie your self-worth to this exam because you are so much more than a test result. I wish you the best of luck with whatever you decide to do in the future, whether that be charging forward again until you pass or moving on to something else. It’s your life, and I hope whatever you choose makes you happy.