'I wouldn’t recommend using the BCAT as the only indicator of whether you should undertake the Bar course.'
All students applying to undertake a Bar course need to pass the Bar course aptitude test (BCAT) before beginning the course. The test, which assesses your critical thinking skills, must be taken between December and August. We asked Jacqueline Cheltenham, national programme and student affairs director of the Bar practice course (BPC) at The University of Law, for her insights into how the BCAT works and how best to prepare for the test.
Why was the BCAT introduced?
The BCAT was introduced following the Wood Report, which raised a concern over the standard of people entering Bar courses and recommended a minimum entry standard test. It was designed to filter out those who don’t have the requisite ability to think through and reason legally and who therefore would slow up other students on their course – there is a lot of group work involved on the Bar course.
What does the BCAT assess?
First and foremost, the BCAT assesses your critical thinking skills. ‘Critical thinking is about thinking logically, using an objective approach to evaluate arguments and using relevant information to draw conclusions,’ says Jacqueline. ‘Those are skills that you tend to develop throughout your academic life.’
The BCAT also tests your ability to comprehend written English. It is not assessing everything that you would need to judge whether somebody would make a good barrister – it doesn’t assess your ability to speak persuasively, for example. A sample BCAT is available via the Bar Standards Board (BSB) website. Candidates are given 55 minutes to answer 60 questions. The questions take the form of a statement, followed by a ‘proposed inference’. Candidates must then choose whether that inference is ‘true’, ‘probably true’, ‘insufficient data’, ‘probably false’ or ‘false’. No prior knowledge is required to answer the questions.
How can I prepare to take the BCAT?
The theory is that you can’t really prepare for the BCAT, other than taking the sample test available on the Bar Standards Board website. You should be doing lots of reading – your ability to read quickly and absorb information will help you. It is also important to avoid taking the test at the same time as your finals.
How are candidates scored?
‘Candidates will either receive a ‘pass’, a ‘marginal fail’ or a ‘significant fail’. If you have a marginal fail and there were mitigating circumstances you may want to take the test again, but if you get a significant fail, without mitigating circumstances, then you may need to reconsider whether a career at the Bar is right for you,’ says Jacqueline.
I passed the BCAT – does that mean I would make a good barrister?
It costs £150 to take the BCAT, so it is worth thinking in advance about whether you will be able to pass and, more importantly, whether you will be able to commit to Bar course fees as high as £20,000 at some institutions. Passing the BCAT is no guarantee of a successful Bar career. There are other things you need to judge yourself on to determine whether you would be a good barrister. For example, think about how you would cope with the stress of performing in front of others and the pressures of a fast turnover of cases.
Jacqueline recommends getting legal experience before deciding whether to apply for the Bar course: 'I advise that aspiring barristers get involved in extracurricular activities. For example, on the advocacy side, you can get involved in mooting and debating. You should also aim to do mini-pupillages or, if you struggle to secure one of those, go on court visits so that you can get a feel for the job. You might also want to do some work experience with a solicitor in order to decide whether you like that side of the legal profession – it doesn’t have to be a City law firm, it could be a few days at your local high street firm.’
Look long and hard at the statistics, which are available on the BSB website. Only around one in four who complete the Bar course go on to get pupillage. If you think about that fact and you still want to have a go, then that could indicate the Bar course is right for you. I wouldn’t recommend using the BCAT as the only indicator of whether you should undertake the Bar course.