Today, I want to talk about 4 key skills that law students must have to be successful on law school essay exams: (1) attention to detail; (2) strong organization; (3) time management; and (4) clear and concise communication.
Attention to Detail: First, you must pay attention to detail. Initially, you should read the instructions carefully, and make sure that you follow those instructions. If there is a word count limit, note that from the beginning. If the instructions limit the areas of law that are being tested, don’t ignore those limitations. Don’t lose points because you didn’t pay attention to your professor’s instructions.
You must also pay close attention to the factual details in the essay question. Every fact in the hypothetical is there for a reason. Don’t miss legal issues because you’ve read the question too quickly and superficially. Moreover, make sure that you pay particular attention to the call of the question, which is usually the last two or three lines of the essay question. Don’t answer questions that haven’t been asked.
Strong Organization: Second, it is important to organize your essay so that the essay makes sense and your professor can follow your analysis. A rambling essay will miss important points, and it may make it hard for your professor to follow your arguments. Once you have read the question, make sure that you take the time to outline or chart your answer before you start writing. An organized answer will score better than one that is disorganized.
Make sure that you apply the IRAC, CREAC, or TREAC structure for each legal issue that you’ve identified. For the most part, do not blend together your analysis of each legal issue—instead, keep each one separate to make sure that you get full credit for the parts of your analysis.
Time Management: Third, successful law students know how to manage their time on exams. Before you start writing, you should look over the entire exam. See how many questions are on the exam and what each question is worth. If the professor has suggested that you spend a specific amount of time on each question, make note of those suggestions. If not, you should allocate your time based on how much that part of the exam is worth. Write down the time that you should be ending each answer to keep yourself on track. With essay questions, it is recommended that you spend about one-fourth to one-third of the time reading the question and outlining or charting your answer, and the remainder of the time writing or typing your answer.
Clear and Concise Communication: Finally, be clear and concise in how you communicate your answer. Use terms of art where appropriate, but communicate points in a straightforward way. You need to communicate all parts of the required analysis, but don’t just ramble. If you are concise in your writing, you will have more time to develop other legal issues presented in the question.
You should be explicit about any assumptions you are making in your answer. If a there is a four-part test for a legal rule, but only one or two parts of that test are at issue in the question, state explicitly that the other parts do not appear to be at issue. Don’t assume that your professor will “read your mind.”
When combined with a good study strategy, these skills contribute to success on law school essay exams. Develop your strategies for taking essay exams prior to the final exam period, and you’re more likely to have good results.