Negotiating the Bar Course Aptitude Test

Too many students and not enough pupillages has pushed the BSB to launch a BPTC aptitude test. Christian Metcalfe gives some tips on how to pass

Never mind making it at the bar, just making it to the bar is one of the toughest propositions in legal careers, with only one in six UK-national students who complete the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) gaining pupillage.

Despite this, the numbers of hopeful barristers is high – 3,016 applied for the BPTC in 2011-12, down slightly from 3,100 the year before – as do the fees, which now sit between £12,000 and £16,000.

While the Bar Standards Board (BSB) is not planning to restrict access to the course or stop people spending money how they wish, it is concerned about student experience and how, with increasing numbers on BPTC courses, a so-called ‘weak tail’ of students may be spoiling it for the rest.

In a bid to lower the proportion of students with a propensity to fail and ensure those with a low aptitude do not slow down classes, the BSB has introduced the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT) for the 2013 cohort.

An original pilot of the test took place in 2009-10 with about 300 student volunteers. A second pilot was undertaken in 2011 with more than 1,600 students taking part.

In order to ensure that the test would accurately identifying those BPTC candidates most likely to fail, the pilot not only studied the results of the pilot but compared these with the results of the BPTC. A high correlation between the pilot test scores and the students’ final BPTC results, including resit results, was confirmed.

Many students who have taken the test have been far from complimentary, saying that although they understand the need for such a test, as it currently stands it is not fit for purpose.

The Law Society has criticised the BSB for failing to address the real issue in the disparity between the number of students passing the BPTC and the number of pupillages available and adds: “The BSB’s stated aim of improving the student experience and raising standards on entry to and exit from the BPTC supports the implementation of the BCAT. However, this is a relatively minor benefit to be derived from an expensive additional hurdle.”

In the face of such criticism, in July the Legal Services Board gave the green light to the BCAT providing that the BSB committed to undertake a five-year data gathering, analysis and evaluation period. Following the conclusion of this, a formal review will take place with a decision to “continue, revise, suspend or cease the BCAT”.

For the immediate future the test is here to stay, even if its form is further refined. The BSB has promised to produce guidance before the test is introduced, but with applications for the 2013 BPTC opening next month, apart from example questions from a Watson Glaser test on which the BCAT is modelled, there is little for students to go on.

Preparation

  • Complete any example questions you can find – familiarisation with the types of question you will be asked is essential. JobTestPrep has a practice test.
  • Read the instructions. Different types of reasoning are needed, and reading the instructions will guide you on how to answer questions correctly. For example, if you are asked to evaluate the strength of an argument, the instructions will tell you what constitutes a strong or a weak argument.
  • Read the question carefully – misreading a question is a common failing that is easily avoided.
  • Take a breath, you have plenty of time, so use it to your advantage and take time when reading, evaluating and answering. An easy mistake to make is treating this type of test like a verbal or numerical reasoning test and answering questions as quickly as possible. If you rush you will miss key points and answer incorrectly.
  • Don’t be afraid to move on if you do not understand a question. Pick the easiest fruit to begin with and come back for the rest if you have time. The objective is to get as many right as you can, not to complete the test in the set order!
  • Stick to the information contained in the question – critical reasoning tests are not tests of what you think, they are tests of how you think. You will not be required to use any prior knowledge when answering a question, and at times the correct answer will completely contradict what you know to be true based on your own knowledge, but is true in the context of the passage.
  • Logical fallacies: Researching the difference between sound and fallacious reasoning can help maximise performance on such a test. Researching the different types of fallacy (such as red-herring argument, straw-man argument etc) can help you identify them in the test and answer the question correctly.

The test

  • As can be seen from the example questions on the BSB website (www.barstandardsboard.org.uk ), the BCAT is a version of the Watson Glaser aptitude test, which is often used by law firms as the abilities measured are good predictors of future success in roles that require clarity of understanding from multiple perspectives and the ability to reason with fact versus assumption.
  • It is likely to contain around 60 multiple-choice questions.
  • It is designed to test aptitude and critical reasoning and will look for five essential skills: an ability to tell when an inference is justified; to recognise assumptions; to make deductions; to interpret data; and to evaluate arguments.
  • Other than completing example questions, it is not a test that can be revised for.
  • Passing shouldn’t be too difficult – the BSB only wants to prevent the weakest candidates taking up a place on the BPTC.
  • Candidates will be given an hour to sit the test, but the average person should complete it in less than 30 minutes.
  • The cost is £150.
  • You can take the test as many times as you want – subject to an as yet undecided time between retakes (likely to be three months).
  • Test scores will only be made available to the candidate and the BSB, so students need only pass.
  • Candidates will have to physically show up – Pearson Vue will administer the test, probably at its driving test centres owing to the need to check candidates’ identities.

Question types

  • Inferences: In this section you will be provided with a scenario and a list of possible inferences, and will be asked to rate if they are true, probably true, there is insufficient data to decide, probably false and false.
  • Recognition of assumptions: In these questions a statement will be presented and you will decide if an assumption has or has not been made in making the statement. An assumption is something someone effectively takes for granted. For example in “we need to save time in getting there so we’d better go by plane”, it is assumed that the greater speed of a plane over the speed of other means of transport will enable the group to reach its destination in less time.
  • Deduction: You will be provided with information and will need to evaluate a list of deductions made based on that information. If you cannot deduce a particular statement from the information, then that deduction does not follow, and you must select which deductions follow and which do not follow. The answer must be based entirely on the statements made and not on conclusions made from your own knowledge.
  • Interpretation: A short paragraph of information will be provided to you followed by a list of possible conclusions. You will need to interpret the information in the paragraph and decide if each conclusion follows from the presented information. The decisions must be based solely on the information given.
  • Evaluation of arguments: You will be provided with a given question, for example: “Should all young adults in the UK go to university?” You will then be provided with a list of arguments for or against. You will need to assess if each argument is strong or weak. The argument is considered to be strong if it is both important and directly related to the question, and weak if it is not directly related to the question or it is of minor importance, or if it is related only to trivial aspects of the question.

You can get a practice test here .