Updated 4 December 2018
The Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT) is an assessment of critical thinking skills designed to ensure that only those candidates with the potential to be successful are admitted to the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC).
BCAT was introduced following concerns over the ability and quality of trainees entering BPTC courses. The test is designed as a filter to prevent those who don’t have the key qualities needed to be a practising barrister – critical thinking skills and reasoning – entering the BPTC and impeding another student’s progress.
BCAT is designed to measure a person’s ability to approach a situation and a) objectively evaluate it based on limited information plus b) see certain issues from a variety of perspectives. In short, it evaluates the basic skills needed to function as a barrister. These skills, known as critical thinking, can be broken down into the ‘RED’ model:
A flaw of the human condition is our natural tendency to believe the truthfulness of information we are presented with, even when there is little or no evidence to back it up. Being aware of, and critically questioning, assumptions can help to reveal where a ‘fact’ is undermined because of a lack of evidence or flaws in an argument. It is a vital skill for members of the bBr to be able to question assumptions from a variety of viewpoints.
Accurately scrutinising the strengths and weaknesses of an argument means asking the right questions to uncover the underlying evidence. Individuals tend to either favour information that supports a view they already hold, or they allow their emotions to inhibit their objectivity.
Drawing appropriate, evidence-based conclusions requires a person to be able to bring together all the facts and information at their disposal. When drawing conclusions, it is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence and to avoid generalisation. Perhaps most importantly of all, showing good judgement means being comfortable changing your position when the evidence warrants doing so.
BCAT assesses the ability of candidates in these three areas, using a bespoke test based on the Watson Glaser model. This model of critical thinking dates from the 1920s and is still widely used today throughout the private and public sectors. In addition to forming the basis of the BCAT, the Watson Glaser model is also regularly used by law firms as an assessment tool for recruitment.
The BCAT was introduced in 2013 by the Bar Standards Board (BSB), following a report by the Bar Vocational Course Review Group, chaired by Derek Wood QC – widely known as The Wood Report.
Research, as well as practical experience, had shown the BSB that students who failed the BPTC tended to do so because they lacked the necessary reasoning and critical thinking skills to function in a high-pressure courtroom environment.
Since a large part of the BPTC involves role-playing courtroom and client interactions, The Wood Report concluded that students without these skills not only wouldn't pass the BPTC, but their lack of progress would impede their more able peers.
To tackle the issues of individual failure and group underachievement, the report recommended the adoption of a test to assess the likelihood that an applicant will pass the BPTC, with a pass being the condition of entry onto the course.
Before it was introduced formally in 2013, the BCAT was tested on over 1,600 students studying courses in the UK. The results clearly showed that a higher mark on the BCAT was the best indicator of an individual’s likelihood to achieve a good BPTC result.
In particular, the BCAT validity study showed that the test was a stronger predictor of a candidate's BPTC grade than A-Level results, degree classification or what university the student attended.
Once they have taken the BCAT, students receive either a ‘strong pass’, ‘pass’, ‘marginal pass’, or ‘significant fail’. Students are expected to answer over half the questions correctly to pass the test.
Candidates who receive a ‘pass’ will be eligible to enrol onto a BPTC; those who fail will not. Students who fail, and where there are extenuating circumstances, may resit their BCAT in an attempt to achieve a pass. They can resit up to three times in a calendar year.
Only one in four students who pass the BCAT, however, go on to win a pupillage and complete the BPTC. Although passing the BCAT is a prerequisite to obtaining pupillage, it is far from the only thing which firms look at when choosing between BPTC candidates.
BCAT costs £150 to take if you sit the test in the UK or £170 for students sitting the test overseas. The Bar Standards Board provides a full list of test centres where BCAT is available. There is also a test centre locator on the Pearson Vue website, allowing individuals to find their closest location.
It is only possible to take the BCAT within a specified window of dates each year, determined by the BSB. These are usually from January to September.
Although the BCAT is available globally, it is not possible to sit the test in any language other than English, and students are required to answer all the questions on a designated computer provided by the test centre.
Candidates are given 55 minutes to attempt the BCAT and will receive their results as soon as they have completed the test.
The BCAT does not test a student’s legal knowledge. Instead, questions are posed which aim to test the candidate’s ability to think through problems clearly and logically.
The questions on the BCAT are divided into five sections:
In this section, students are asked to come to conclusions based on evidence adduced on the test paper, which are specified as either ‘observed’ or ‘supposed’. Each question presents the student with a short paragraph of detailed information, followed by a statement which could (correctly or otherwise) be inferred from the given text. The candidate’s task is to make a judgement as to the accuracy of the statement based on the evidence.
This second section of the BCAT tests a student’s ability to recognise and allow for assumptions as part of the critical thinking process. Students are presented with a statement followed by an assumption, and are asked to work out whether or not the assumption is made in the presented statement.
During this third test section, candidates are presented with a series of stated facts followed by a conclusion which those facts may support. The student’s task is to determine whether the evidence presented supports the stated conclusion.
The fourth section also tests the candidate’s ability to make a logical interpretation of the facts as presented. Each question has a paragraph of information followed by a statement and, once again, asks the student to judge whether the statement follows from the text.
Finally, the BCAT presents a set of questions made up of a statement, followed by several possible arguments that may be made relating to that statement. Candidates are asked to determine whether each argument is strong or weak based on the facts presented.
To assist students in preparing to sit the BCAT, the BSB and Pearson Vue (the test provider) do make some sample questions available, as well as an entire sample test. Check out these resources:
Since the BCAT is a psychometric test of critical thinking ability, rather than a test of learned facts or knowledge, there is a limited amount of preparation that candidates can undertake. Some BCAT test tips for candidates are:
Although the BCAT tests a candidate’s ability to think critically rather than directly examining the skills they have learned or tools they use, there are some things students can do to improve performance. Not all of these strategies will be effective for every candidate, and most will find that they need to pick and choose the tools that work best for them.