Preparing for Final Exams
Like many 1Ls, you may find law school disorienting initially, because you are evaluated in a totally different way than what you were used to in college. While in the past your grade may have been determined by a combination of your class participation, weekly assignments, a paper, and a midterm or final exam, in the vast majority of law school courses, 100% of your grade will be determined by your performance on the final exam.
- the dual purposes of an outline
- how to utilize practice exams
- how to best approach nontraditional law school exams
Outlining is a pretty important part of exam prep in law school. So much so that we've actually created an entire guide for outlining, which is available here. What is outlining exactly? Put simply, it's the practice of taking your class notes, case briefs, syllabus, hornbook-basically all relevant information for a particular class-and synthesizing all of that information into a single document formatted as a multilevel list (AKA an outline).
Checklists and Strategic Plans of Attack
Although it may not seem like it, your professor is limited in the issues he can hide in your exam. This means it's possible for you to anticipate what you could be tested on and prepare accordingly. Checklists are helpful, because they provide a way to make sure you spot every issue hidden in a fact patter, increasing the number of points you can earn on your exam. Plans of Attack lay out how you will address each issue once identified. For example, your Con Law Checklist may look like this:
This does not mean that you have to address each issue on the list. You just know that if you see a question about equal protection, any of the above issues could be implicated, and you want to make sure you address each one that is relevant in turn. Conversely, your Plan of Attack will tell you how to address each issue and may look more like this:
Your plans of attack can be integrated into your overall outline or kept separate as a sort of appendix at the end of your outline. Your checklist should be the coversheet for your outline, so you can go through your fact pattern methodically and take not of which issues you will have to address in your answer.
You've organized your notes and typed up your outline. What's next? It's time to practice, practice, practice. As we've mentioned before, in most law school classes, your entire grade will depend on a single exam. You likely won't have had much (if any) practice writing law school exams, let alone writing an exam for this particular professor. And yet you're expected to knock the ball out of the park your first time at bat. But here's the secret: law school exams are largely formulaic in nature. With enough practice, you'll be able to condition yourself to perform well during the stress of the exam, recognize patterns and implement a plan of attack, and pace yourself to work within the time constraints of your exam. You can learn more about how to write a law school exam with the guide we've put together here.
Take Practice Tests in Simulated Exam Conditions
It's one thing to think about taking an exam. It's another to actually do it. You may be able to easily recall information while studying, but how will you react when you're faced with pages of never-before seen fact patters and a blank computer screen? It's easy to see how panic can set in and cause your mind to go blank. The best defense against such a mental meltdown is to condition yourself to perform under theses stressful conditions. Set aside a block of time in the two weeks leading up to the exam, and take at least one practice exam for each subject. Turn off your phone, find a quiet place to work, and don't review the practice question before you begin.
Pay Attention to Patterns
For example, you should expect to see a question about equal protection on a Con law exam. Once you've worked your way through a few practice questions on equal protection, you'll start to recognize key words that alert you that this is an issue you'll need to address. Moreover, you'll notice that there is a standard procedure you should use when answering an equal protection question. Being able to recognize these patterns will allow you to answer questions more quickly during the exam.
We've spent a lot of time talking about how to best deal with a traditional fact pattern/issue spotter exam. However, some professors like to mix things up. If your professor uses some kind of non-traditional testing format, your best bet is to go to her office and get some pointers on how to prepare. Upperclassmen who have taken classes with this professor before are also a great resource. The two most common types of non-traditional exams are the closed-book exam and the multiple-choice exam, so well give you a few tips for each.
Just because you don't have an outline to refer to doesn't mean you won't be expected to memorize all of the relevant rules of law. After all you're not allowed to bring any notes into the bar exam, but you definitely have to know the law to pass the bar. There are different things you can do to help memorize what may seem like an impossible amount of information. Some students find making and using flashcards helpful. Others like to re-write all the rules until they have them committed to memory. Mnemonic devices can also be really helpful when you're trying to remember a multifactor test. You'll usually remember a mnemonic better if you make it up yourself, but there are a lot of helpful legal mnemonics available on-line too.
Keep in mind, your classmates are mostly type-A overachievers like you, and come exam day, they will likely have memorized all of the important legal rules as well. You need to be able to stand out from the pack. Knowing the rules is not enough; you have to be able to apply them in a clear, thorough, and thoughtful way. Although it is going to take a lot of time to commit these rules to memory, make sure you make time to take and review at least one practice test before your exam.
While not common, multiple-choice exams are not unheard of in law school. They may seem more difficult, because you can't BS your answer, but the good news is, you've been taking multiple-choice exams your entire life. You know how to handle them.
If there's no penalty for guessing, guess. There's no excuse for leaving a question blank. If you don't know the right answer, eliminate the wrong answers. Make sure your answers are correctly transcribed onto the answer form. Watch your time. Don't get bogged down on a tough question. Circle it, and come back to it later.
Each question will be composed of a set of facts and a call of the question. All of the facts mentioned may be important, or some may be irrelevant, but make sure you work within the closed universe of the facts given to you in the question. Do not assume anything not directly stated in the facts. The call of the question tells you what the professor wants you to answer. Make sure you're answering the questions the professor is asking. Sometimes, a professor will ask several questions about one short fact pattern. Make sure you read each question carefully, because your professor may change or modify some of the original facts stated.
You're probably sensing a theme here, but practice tests really are the key to law school success.
Oftentimes in law school, your entire grade will depend on your final exam. Start studying early, and make sure you manage your time well from the beginning.