You've heard the old sayings: Fail to plan and plan to fail. If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up anywhere. Those old sayings have a lot of relevance when it comes to law school exams. You need a plan to do well on law school exams. You just can't show up for the exam, read the questions, put pen to paper and expect to do well. Or at least, most students can't. You need a strategy.
You can develop your plan by focusing on three distinct areas--before the exam, during the exam and after the exam. The following are some strategies that you can apply to the process of taking a law school exam. Some of the strategies you applied in undergraduate school, some are common sense, but most concern the unique skills and approaches that you need to succeed in law school.
If your professor gives you any advice or instructions about how to prepare for or take her exam, follow those instructions over any strategies you might read here. This includes any suggestions on exam preparation, the questions you are directed to answer on the exam, and the way in which the professor wants those questions answered.
Before the Exam
One of the best ways to prepare for law school exams is to take practice exams. Old exams are either on file in the library or available in the Distribution and Copy Center. You must read, outline and study your course material, but the best way to determine if you truly know the material and can articulate that knowledge in writing is to take a practice exam. The exams show you whether you can apply your knowledge to a distinct body of facts in a fact pattern by identifying legal issues, articulating the legal rules, applying those rules to the facts and reaching a conclusion.
You should take practice exams under exam conditions--following time limits and undisturbed. One of the best uses of a study group is to have members compare and discuss their answers to exam questions. Two heads can be a lot better than one in spotting all of the issues in a complicated fact pattern.
Another way to test your knowledge of the material and to improve your test-taking skills is found on the computer. Computer Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) lessons provide interactive exercises where you enter in responses to questions based on fact patterns and receive an instantaneous evaluation of your answer, prompts to guide you to or the "right" answer. You learn the law and how to apply the law to a body of facts. Some of the CALIs are mini-tutorials in a particular subject. There is even an interactive CALI on how to take law school exams, titled "Writing Better Law School Exams: The Importance of Structure". There are CALIs on every first-year subject and many upper level courses. Most CALIs tell you how long it should take to complete the exercises, and they range anywhere from 10 minutes to 1 hour.
To access CALI lessons online, you must request an Authorization Code either from the Law Library Reference Desk or by emailing Lori Strickler. CALI DVDs are also available at the library reference desk for offline access to the lessons.
Open Book Exams
Basically, study for a closed book exam the same way you study for an open book exam. Don't be lulled into thinking that you don't have to study harder or prepare more. In fact, your professor's expectations may be greater if you have an open book exam. You still have to know enough law to identify the issues when you see them, and only repeated study of the material will do that for you. But, you can use other materials to provide the specific details of the rules, statutes and cases that you need to answer the questions.
A good way of preparing for all open book exams is to condense your outline into fewer pages to easily find the legal rules and principles. In a rule-based class, such as Civil Procedure, you might annotate the rule book to easily find the rules and applicable case names. Or, if the class has focused on a workable number of conspicuous and important cases, like the personal jurisdiction area of Civil Procedure or Constitutional Law, you might condense an outline focusing on case names, analogies and distinctions related to those cases.
Physical and Emotional Health
It goes without saying, that you want to be in top form for your exams. Don't cram until the last minute. High mental anxiety can prevent you from achieving at your best, and it can also work its way out in your body in any range of physical ailments from headaches to backaches to stomachaches to colds. Get enough sleep. Eat nourishing meals. Exercise to keep your body and mind sharp. If your mind starts to wander, and anxiety, worry and fear start filling up the places where sharp analysis and memory should be, reclaim your mind.
One of the best ways to calm yourself down and refocus your mind is to breathe deeply! When we're stressed or worried, we stop breathing or we take shallow breaths. Breathe deeply for 10 minutes, focusing on every breath in and out. After 10 minutes, you'll feel some of the benefits of a more relaxed body and mind. After about 20 minutes, your blood pressure and heart rate will be regulated, energy-building endorphins will flow into your system, your mind will clear up, and your recall will improve.
Even given the above, sometimes you get sick. If a serious illness prevents you from taking or arises during an exam, check the student handbook for what you should do.
During the Exam
Take time to organize. If the exam includes suggested time limits for a question, follow that suggestion. If more time is allotted to a question, it probably has more issues and is worth more points. You can only get so many points per question, so do not spend more time on a question than suggested. Save time by not restating the facts (unless it's in the context of how the law applies to the facts) or the professor's jokes. Don't raise issues not suggested by the facts. And, don't discuss exceptions which do not apply.
Be especially mindful of time limits in an open book exam. It's easy to keep looking for the answer, thinking that it must be there in the materials that you brought into the room. If you haven't finished an answer in the allotted time, stop looking for it and move on. A constant search will only frustrate you and cause you to lose points.
By and large, the key to doing well on the typical law school issue-spotting, fact pattern essay exam is to understand and apply IRAC. IRAC, in short, stands for issue, rule, application and conclusion. You must spot the issue, articulate the legal rule, apply the rule to the facts, and reach a conclusion.
Taking the Exam
The following is one step-by-step approach to taking an exam. There are variants to this approach, but it provides a basic organizational scheme.
- Start by reading the question from beginning to end without using a pen. Get the big picture first. As you read, think that you will be writing to someone who knows nothing about the topic, although you will be writing for your professor, who knows "everything" about the topic. Follow directions and make sure that you understand what you are being asked to do.
- Go back and read the question again. This time, pick up your pen. Underline the facts, words or phrases that cause you to think about legal issues. Make notes in the margin, if you want, as issues start jumping out at you.
There is usually a great deal of information in an exam fact pattern. Every sentence or word may be significant. Ask yourself, why is this fact included? What is its significance? Every fact may mean something. Consider these particularly:
Why this date? If an exam question begins, "On January 28, 1999....", think about the significance of the date. Is there a statute of limitations problem?
Does the fact pattern include a husband and wife? Look for a marital relationship issue. Is one party's age mentioned? Look for an issue concerning infancy or capacity.
Every adverb and adjective is potentially significant. Do the events occur at a particular time of day, and is that significant? Are weather conditions mentioned? If so, why?
- Read the question a third time. As you do, start making a list on scratch paper of all the issues you see in the question. Leave plenty of black space between the issues. When you see a fact that is relevant to a particular issue, note that fact under the issue in your list of issues.
One way of identifying issues is to organize the facts (the facts you underlined in step 2) into separate transactions or events. Each transaction or event can present a problem that must be resolved. You can consider these problems that must be resolved to be issues.
- Look at each issue you just identified in the above step. Write down the rule that's necessary to resolve the issue or answer the question that issue raises in the blank space under that issue. In most instances, you need to know more than the majority rule. Consider including in your answer how the issue would be resolved under the minority view, Restatement, UCC, common law, statutory view, etc.
- Put numbers next to each issue to establish the order in which you will answer the questions. Answer major issues first. If you run out time, you've covered the most important issues in the most depth possible.
- Now you have an outline of your answer. Doing the above steps or something similar may take about 1/3 of the time allotted for that answer. That's fine! You need time to thoroughly analyze and outline an answer. Just leave yourself enough time to write the answer. You must outline, but don't put off writing.
- Start writing, putting the most important issue first, following IRAC for each issue. For example:
The first issue is whether there was consideration to support Jack's promise to...For a promise to be enforceable, it must be supported by consideration. Consideration is defined in the Restatement as bargained for exchange; benefit/detriment. Here, there appeared to be no bargain because...[apply facts].A court probably would conclude that there is not consideration.
Remember that you must see both sides of an issue, like any lawyer must. There are arguments that can be made on both sides, and, in an exam, you generally have to make them. Think like a lawyer with a client with a problem, and the client wants an objective analysis of the facts. Explain why and how you reach the conclusions that you do. Show your reasoning based on the law and policy and the application of your facts to the law. Address every genuine issue that the facts raise, even if you think that your analysis of that issue would make the others moot.
Don't ignore issues because you think they are too obvious. For example, in torts, don't omit a discussion of a defendant's duty to plaintiff because you can't believe the professor wants you to discuss the obvious. The professor wants you to discuss all non-frivolous issues. You may dispose of the matter in a line or two, but let the reader know that you recognize the issue.
If you feel that you must assume an additional fact when answering the question, state what that additional fact is. But, be careful about doing this. Generally, the facts that you need are already in the fact pattern.
It cannot be stated enough how important it is to apply the facts to the law. You should interweave the elements of the rule(s) with key facts, applying appropriate legal principle and policy. Show which facts support and prevent application of the rule. Step by step. Element by element. The important questions to ask yourself are: Are the facts sufficient to establish each element of the rule? Which elements will be disputed?
If you run out of time: Sometimes it happens, despite your best efforts. If you run out of time to write an answer to every question, at least outline an answer. Write the outline in your bluebook and/or include the scratch paper that outlines your answer inside the bluebook and refer the professor to the scratch paper. You may receive partial credit for at least recognizing the issues and knowing enough law to outline an answer.
Special Types of Questions
Although the above guide is geared towards completing an essay exam, the following are a list of general summary tips to follow while writing an essay exam answer.
Remember to read the exam instructions carefully. It may sound obvious, but you can lose valuable points if you disregard the professor’s instructions. If the professor wants you to write on every other page or double space your answers, do it.
Remember to organize and outline your answer before you start to write. This will keep you on track and ensure you cover the most important issues first.
Keep your sentences simple, short, and to the point. You do not want to confuse yourself while writing or the professor while he/she grades your exam.
Use your new language. You are learning the language of law and should reflect your understanding of it on exams.
Know your professors and write for them. Pay attention to what they stress in class, as this is probably how they want their exams answered. If they stress policy, talk policy in your answer. It is also helpful to review your professor’s old exams, as this may give you clues as to how they want questions answered.
Discuss every legal controversy you identify. Even if the issue appears too obvious, give it a sentence or two in the answer. It is important to at least let him/her know that you recognize the issue.
Remember to use “because”. It is not enough to just identify issues; you need to explain them as well. The “because” will demonstrate to your professor that you understand the concept and can explain why that concept applies to the circumstances in the question.
Do not just recite facts. You will use the facts to argue for or against your conclusions and apply them in your answer.
Remember to take practice essay exams. Doing so will help you to be more comfortable with the types of questions asked and the time limits imposed. You will also hone your analytic skills and learn the information better.
These questions are shorter than and often answered differently from the longer essay question. The most important thing to remember in answering these questions is to focus on the question that you are being asked to answer. Be sure that you know what you're being asked to answer, and answer it precisely. Don't delve off into areas that you are not being asked to answer thinking that it might get you points. You may not have much time or space to apply IRAC, nor may you be asked to supply an answer that requires an IRAC-type analysis.
Developing a strategy for answering a short question really requires advance preparation, and here's where the value of looking at old exams is paramount. Look at the old exams to determine your professor's style. What type of short questions does the professor ask? Then write out your answer to a few of the questions. If possible, ask the professor how much detail she expects in the answer or look at the model answer. You may be surprised to find that the answer that gets full credit is the one that gets right to the point, not the one that provides the most information.
Forget the old adage that there's no right answer on a law school exam. With multiple choice questions, there is a right answer. Many strategies have been developed to help students answer questions on multiple choice standardized exams, like the bar exam, but they are not totally applicable to a law school exam because bar exam questions are designed to be answered in just over a minute. Professors draft multiple choice questions differently.
One helpful strategy in reading any multiple choice question is to:
- go to the end of the problem and first read the question you are being asked to answer. This allows you to match the facts in the problem to the issues raised in the question;
- go back to the beginning and read the entire problem--carefully; and
- then read the answer options.
After the Exam
Don't discuss the exam with other students. They will see issues that you didn't and visa versa, so why torture yourself? Only your professor knows what he was looking for, and only your professor's evaluation of your exam is relevant. Next semester, when your professor makes your exam available and/or reviews the old exam, then you can see where you did well and where you need improvement.
Adapted and revised from presentations by Professor Ruth Gordon, Professor Leonard Packel, and Sheilah Vance, former Assistant Dean for Academic Support, at Villanova University School of Law, November 16, 2001, at a study skills workshop titled, "Successful Exam-Taking Strategies," and on articles on exam-taking techniques by Ruta Stropus, Director of Academic Support, and Charlotte Taylor, Assistant Dean for Multicultural Affairs and former Assistant Director of Academic Support, at DePaul University School of Law, and Linda Feldman, Director of Educational Services at Brooklyn Law School.