You Get One Shot: the Exam
The top anxiety-inducing aspect of law school is that, for most classes, your entire grade for the semester is decided by one exam. You spend your whole first semester attempting to prepare for four exams that are going to determine your near-term employment prospects, having never taken a law school exam and having no idea if you’ll be any good at it. Are you sweating already??
We will cover exam preparation in more detail in a separate portion of this series, but—given the all-important nature of the exam—let’s begin by setting the stage with a little context about the end-game so you can always keep your eye on the prize. A typical law school exam is as follows: You will be asked to draft several long essays based on prompts (usually fact patterns), often with the aim of “issue spotting”—facts are peppered in that raise potential legal issues, as well as some red herrings designed to throw you off. The prompts range from the very specific—does Party A have a claim for tortious interference with contract against Party B?—to the very general—discuss the rights and liabilities between Party A and Party B.
Some professors limit the number of words or pages you can spend on a particular essay. Occasionally there’s some multiple choice. Sometimes the prompts will mirror the topics and examples you have covered exactly. Sometimes the professor will throw in something you didn’t cover at all, in the hopes that you can use the concepts raised and connections drawn during the semester to provide some insight on a topic that is entirely new to you. Most exams are open book/open note. Some are comprehensive of the topics you covered throughout the semester, while others focus on a few, seemingly random (and often narrow) topics.
Generally, exams are going to reflect your reading and lectures from the semester. Professors are (usually) not trying to trick you and, instead, are merely trying to test whether you can take the legal doctrines for that subject and apply them to a set of facts you have not seen before.
Many professors make past exams available during the semester to help you prepare. Reviewing past exams is an excellent way to get a sense of your professor’s approach to crafting an exam, as well as to practice drafting a law school exam essay. More on that later.
In short, “How to Succeed in Law School” is largely about “How to Succeed on Law School Exams,” so always be evaluating whether what you’re doing is (or is not) setting you up for success.
Your Class Notes: the Key to Success
The single most important resource available to you when preparing for exams is the notes that you take during your class lectures. Why? Because the person who is going to be grading your exam—the professor—is the one talking. And if you pay attention, he or she will tell you exactly what they think about all of the topics they cover.
[T]ry to see the question through the lens your professor has given you and adopt, where possible, the language and thinking around the topic he or she laid out for you in class.
So pay attention!
If the prof uses a particular phrase to describe a concept—write it down! If the prof expresses a view about the outcome of a case or a policy change that would benefit the area—write it down! If the prof makes a connection between two seemingly disparate cases or areas of law—write that down too!
It’s commonly said that law school exams are not about “regurgitation.” And, insofar as you will asked to analyze a fact pattern you have never seen before and to generate a new piece of writing in response to a generalized prompt, sure—that’s true. But you should not take the “no regurgitation” point too far.
Your exam is not the time to be inventing new ways of discussing the topics covered in class or to get too creative. In drafting an exam response, you should be incorporating how your professor covered the material into your exam responses. Specifically, try to see the question through the lens your professor has given you and adopt, where possible, the language and thinking around the topic he or she laid out for you in class. Think of your class lectures as the proverbial breadcrumb trail your professor is leaving to guide you on how they view their subject matter. Since he or she is holding the grading pen, you might want to follow that trail!
The bottom line is this: if you want to do well on your Torts exam, the best place to look is your notes on what your Torts professor told you about Torts.
(More on best practices for creating quality notes, as well as how to use your class notes in exam preparation, later in the series.)
Text Books, Hornbooks
This may or may not go without saying, but it behooves you to complete the reading assignments for each class before class. In my experience, though arduous to get through at first because the subject matter is so new, the assignments typically weren’t all that many pages. In any event, at the beginning, keeping up with your reading is basically all you need to be doing, so just do it. You’ll get a lot more out of the class lecture (and hence, your notes will be better) if you have done the reading and have context for the discussion.
Another important aspect of your reading assignments is the notes section after the main cases. There, the textbook author is giving you insight into key topics raised in the reading, such as highlighting central themes, mentioning other relevant cases or drawing important contrasts or connections. Many people skim (or skip) the notes to save time on their reading, but the notes help synthesize what you just read (or show you that you missed whole point of what you just read altogether!) and are well worth your attention.
(In some instances, your professor may have authored your text book. In that case, the notes and other commentary in your book are doubly important and a great source of additional guidance on your professor’s (AKA, exam grader’s) view of the world.)
As for hornbooks, in my experience, unless your professor wrote the hornbook, it’s probably not that useful. I wish I had saved the money and not bought all of those “you have to have this” hornbooks. At the least, if there is a particularly popular, supposedly useful one, go in on one copy with some friends or borrow it from the library. (A friend did remind me, however, that hornbooks can be useful for hypos and practice questions when preparing for exams. But, generally, I found that the substance of these books was not that useful.)
Professor Office Hours
Nerd alert—I went to professor office hours with my study group (see an upcoming post for a discussion of study groups). Though it is certainly not essential that you do this, in my experience, when professors say they are holding office hours at an appointed time and that you should stop by, they actually mean it. My professors were always happy to see us and engage with the material. However, they are smart busy people, so you should come with some prepared questions and respect their time. A great use of office hours would be to consolidate some things you’re still not sure about (for example, after a study group meeting) and then visit office hours to talk it through with your prof. If this is just too nerdy for you to contemplate, I understand, BUT don’t let questions pile up. If you’re not getting it, you should go talk to your prof, either solo or as a group, ASAP. Trust me when I tell you, if you’re not getting it now, you’re not likely to have a sudden revelation without some guidance. This stuff is really hard; don’t be too proud to enlist some help. It’s much better to intervene early and get back on track rather than dig a hole so deep you can’t climb out.
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