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.
So does this mean you should start studying for your final exam on the first day of law school?
In some ways, yes. While most law schools offer reading days for students to prepare for final exams, it's impossible to cram for a law school exam. You should prepare for your exam throughout the course of the semester and use the time before exams to make your final push toward the finish line. This guide will focus on what you should be doing in the weeks leading up to the exam, that final push before you cross the finish line.
In this guide, you'll learn:
- 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).
You can integrate outlining into your exam prep throughout the semester. Spend some time at the beginning of the semester reading over a commercial outline to orient yourself to the class and get an overview of what will be covered. You can check out our library of outlines here. Starting mid-semester, you should be periodically reviewing your class notes and condensing them into outline form. Refer back to your commercial outline to help you structure your personal outline, and use it to fill in any holes in your class notes. Toward the end of the semester, you should be condensing your long outline into a 1-2 page cheat sheet.
Outlining has two purposes. First, the process of making your outline helps you review all of the information you've gathered over the course of the semester and fit it all into an overall narrative for the class. Second, many law schools allow open-book exams where you can refer to your outline during the test. What's that you say? An open-book exam? This law school thing is going to be a piece of cake! Do not fall for this trap. While it is helpful to be able to refer to your outline to refresh your memory during your exam, be careful that you don't depend too much on your outline. Law school exams are timed, and no matter how much time your professor gives you (usually three or four hours depending on the subject), you will quickly find that there is not nearly enough time to look up every issue (or even most of the issues) in your outline while you are taking the exam. Moreover, the nature of an issue spotter exam is that if you don't have a strong familiarity with the topics being tested, you won't even know what to look up.
The best approach is to start outlining mid-semester and then refine and condense your outline several times before the exam. That way, you'll have a reference that is easy to navigate come exam time. Again, this is just a brief overview of how outlining will fit into your overall study plan. Check out our How to Write an Outline guide for a more detailed breakdown of the entire process.
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.
Taking and reviewing old law school exams is the best way to get some practice under your belt. In an ideal world, you should practice with old exams that your professor has administered in the past. Every professor focuses on different aspects of a given course, and looking over your professor's old exams can give you some insight into what she thinks is important. Some professors will send out old and/or practice exams to the whole class, and some will only give them out to students who ask. If your professor does not have any past exams that he is willing to give you, ask if there are any exams on reserve at your law school library. Academic support counselors also sometimes keep files of old exams. There are a lot of law schools that publish old exams online. Some are password protected, but others are available to the general public.
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.
Make sure you use only the resources that you'll be able to use come test day. This will give you the chance to see how your outlines hold up under real testing conditions and whether they'll actually be helpful for you during the exam. If you find that your outline isn't laid out in the most useful way, make adjustments.
Take note of how much time your professor has allowed for your exam and restrict yourself to that timeframe for you practice tests. Working under a time constraint will help you practice your pacing come exam day. Three hours may seem like a lot of time, but you'll be amazed how quickly the clock runs out as you work your way through your practice tests.
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.
In addition to helping you identify commonly tested topics, working your way through practice exams will also teach you some of the less mainstream, but frequently tested rules. For example, did you know that you will be held strictly liable if your tiger escapes and mauls your neighbor? Probably not, and although professors usually don't spend a lot of time on ultrahazardous activities (like owning a wild animal) in class, this area of tort law is very easy to test so it comes up frequently on exams. This doesn't mean you should spend your time cramming every esoteric law you see into your brain, Just take not if something strange pops up while your'e taking your practice exams, especially if you're practicing on one of your professor's old exams.
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.
Yes, You Really Do Have to Memorize That
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.
Memorizing is Not Enough
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.
Remember the Basics
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.
Understand the Structure of the Question
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.
Practice Makes Perfect
You're probably sensing a theme here, but practice tests really are the key to law school success.
There are a lot of resources for practice multiple-choice questions. We have hundreds available at Quimbee.com. Your professor may even have some old exams you can look at beforehand. Working your way through practice questions will help you get a feel for what to expect come exam day.
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.
Outlining will play a key role in your exam-prep regimen. The process of creating your outline allows you to review and condense the information you've learned over the course of the semester, and the finished product will be helpful reference during the exam.
Practice exams are the golden ticket to success in law school. They are an opportunity to train yourself to perform well under pressure and provide helpful insight into common, recurring issues that may show up on your exam.