Now that the semester is over, the wait for final grades has started. But even once those grades are released, law students don’t always know what to do with them. If your grades are good, of course you celebrate—and if they’re bad, you may be depressed. But what do these grades really mean? How can you make sense of your law school grades and get the most out of them?
Exams are really just a means of assessing how you communicate information that you learn, and grades are one component of that assessment. I’ve previously talked about how you can use grades to get more out of graded assignments. Here are three more ways to get the most out of your law school grades:
- Grades can be a way of calibrating your own perceptions of how you perform on exams. Did you do as well (or as poorly) as you thought you did on your exams? If you didn’t do as well as you thought you did in your classes, you should consider whether you were overconfident in your approach to your exams. You may need to rethink your approach to studying and/or attacking the exam in order to obtain the grades you want. In contrast, some students beat themselves up about how they did right after each exam ends, but in reality they performed much better than they thought. Regardless of which type of student you are, you can use grades as a way of adjusting your own understanding of how you perform on exams.
- Grades can help you better understand your strengths and weaknesses in taking exams. Look for patterns in your final grades. Did you do better on multiple choice exams that you did on essays, or vice versa? How did you do on exams in which time management was more important? What are the common aspects of exams that you did particularly well on versus those on which you did not perform as well as you had hoped? Understanding these patterns can help you create a plan for how to approach exams in the future.
- Grades can help you to evaluate particular test-taking strategies that worked (or didn’t work) for you. Sometimes students will do something during one exam that they didn’t do in other exams, and they get different grades based upon those different approaches. For example, did you outline before you started writing in some classes but not others? Create a checklist for one class but not the others? Hand write versus use your computer? Use highlighters to break down essay questions on only one exam? Think about any differences in how you approached exams from one class to the next, and see if there are any corresponding differences in grades.
One trait of successful people is that they are able to learn from past experiences and apply what they have learned to their future endeavors. Take an active approach to learning from your final grades, and you will be on the path to success!
The other day I had a student tell me that he planned to stay up all night studying for his next final exam. His statement brought back memories of my own years in law school, studying in a coffee shop early in the morning before the Civ. Pro. final as some of my fellow law students–those who had stayed up all night studying–either crashed with their heads on the tables or drank gallons of coffee in a desperate attempt to make their brains function. One of my friends once told me that, during one of her finals, a student fell asleep in the middle of the exam. Other students sitting around him surreptitiously tried to wake him up without causing a disruption to the rest of the class. My friend looked over again about 20 minutes later, and he was once again asleep.
At the time, staying up very late–or even all night–may seem to make sense as you are studying for your final exams. The final exam period is a very stressful time, and there never seems to be enough hours in the day for studying. Law students may have four or five finals during a 10 to 14 day period, and often the entire grade for each course hangs in the balance. If you didn’t get your outlines done before the semester ended, you may still be scrambling to synthesize course information and memorize key concepts. If you don’t sleep less, then how will you get enough time to study before finals?
The problem with this reasoning is that sleeping less does not necessarily mean a better outcome on the exam. You’ll be more tired, have a harder time focusing on what you are doing (either studying or actually taking the exam), or even fall asleep at critical moments, like the law student in my friend’s class. Just because you study longer doesn’t mean you’ll do better. Studies have shown that sleep-deprived students don’t perform as well as those who get enough sleep, and they’re more susceptible to getting sick. It’s also important to remember that you are not just trying to learn this information for a short period of time–you are studying legal concepts that you will be tested on again during the bar exam.
So what should you do instead? Ideally you should study for your exams throughout the semester by outlining and creating flashcards. If you spread out your studying throughout the semester, you will not feel as much pressure during the exams period. It will be easier to balance studying with sleeping and taking good care of yourself by eating healthy and exercising.
At this stage though, you are already in the midst of exams. Lectures about the perils of procrastination aren’t going to help you with your immediate problems. Instead, you should take stock of where you’re at with each of your classes and how much time you have left before the final exams. Triage your studying. What are the most important things that need to be accomplished for each class? For example, it won’t be possible to create an entire outline for a course in 48 hours. A more productive approach at that point may be to start by creating the one-page checklist of topics I have described before, but this time drawing from your class notes and casebook table of contents. The checklist is a master list of the topics that could be tested on the exam. Once you have the checklist, you can evaluate which topics you feel pretty comfortable with versus those that you realize need more work. By consciously evaluating each course, you will be able to spend your time on those topics you’ve identified as needing more work, rather than on reviewing information you already know. Triage studying may not be a perfect solution (less procrastination would be better), but it is a better option than stealing time from sleep.
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One of the reasons why law students often dread multiple choice exams is that questions may have more than one possible right answer. In fact, many multiple choice questions instruct the student to choose the “best” answer. There’s nothing more frustrating than choosing a seemingly “correct” answer but still getting the question wrong.
So how can you resolve the “best answer” dilemma and achieve success on your multiple choice exams? Here are some tips for approaching these questions on law school exams:
- First and foremost, always approach law school multiple choice questions by eliminating the wrong answers first rather than looking for the right answers. This may seem counterintuitive. But eliminating obviously wrong answers gets rid of answers that are distracting and may lead you astray. It also improves your chance of choosing the correct answer if you are not able to determine which answer is best and have to guess.
- Second, don’t just choose the first answer that seems right. Instead, make sure that you evaluate all possible answers and determine whether any other answer could also be correct. It’s hard to decide which one is the best answer if you don’t evaluate them all.
- Finally, if you narrow your options down to two possible answers, both of which seem right, then you should analyze which answer is best. One way to do this is by asking yourself which answer is more specific. If one answer is fairly general but the other is much more narrow in its application, the narrow answer is usually the better answer. If one references a general rule of law but the other incorporates very specific details from the question’s fact pattern, the detailed answer is probably the better answer.
Ultimately, the key is to be methodical in your approach to evaluating the answers. Approaching each multiple choice question in the same way will help you solve the “best answer” dilemma.
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Anyone who’s ever been in law school has had this experience: you’re writing or typing along on your exam, fingers cramping and back stiff from sitting in the same position for too long. All of a sudden, you look up at the clock and realize that you only have five minutes left before the exam is over. The problem: you have at least 30 minutes’ worth of material to cover before you will complete the final essay question. All you can do is rush to get as much of it crammed in as possible. The end result is that your essay ends in jumbled confusion, and your grade is lower than you had hoped for.
Time management can be a challenge for many law students, even when they have studied hard before the exam. Many law school exams are intentionally designed to take more time than you will actually be given. In order to succeed on those types of exams, you need to not only be prepared for the content of the exam but also have a strategy for how to tackle the exam. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for developing your own time management strategy:
- Always allocate time by the number of points or percentage of grade that each section of the exam is worth. For example, maybe your exam consists of two essays and 30 multiple choice questions. Each essay is 1/3 of the total exam grade, and the multiple choice is 1/3. The exam is scheduled for 3 hours. You should allot 1 hour for each of the essays and 1 hour for the multiple choice (each multiple choice question getting two minutes). Time should almost always be allotted according to how much that part of the exam is worth. Once the exam starts, calculate your end times for each part of the exam—and most importantly, stick to those times! Don’t be tempted to “borrow” time from one part of the exam to have more for another.
- If you have control over which part of the exam you take first, think carefully about your plan of attack. When the exam consists of both multiple choice and essays, students invariably want to tackle the essays first because that is where they feel the time constraints the most. But when you tackle the essay first, there is a temptation to “borrow” time from the multiple choice section if you aren’t done with the essay when the time allotted for that section runs out (see suggestion #1). To avoid that temptation, I recommend taking the multiple choice section first. If you have extra time left over once you complete it, you can save it for a later section (or for reviewing the multiple choice one more time), but you will make sure that you give the multiple choice the time that it is worth.
- Finally, outline or chart your essay answers before you start writing. So many students start right in on writing their essays without organizing their thoughts first. There is a temptation to do this when time gets tight because students know they will not be graded on that outline. But effective outlining proves more efficient in the long term, as it allows you to determine what issues you want to cover in your essay and what facts relate to those issues. You will see which issues are minor and don’t deserve as much time in your essay versus those issues that have numerous relevant facts and will be worth more credit. By jotting down facts that go with each issues, you also create efficiency because you will not have to go back and read the fact pattern again and again as you write your essay.
The key to managing time in law school exams is creating your time management strategy before the exam even starts, and then sticking with it. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish in a limited amount of time!
About this time in the semester, law students get back a legal writing assignment, seminar paper draft, or other assignment from a professor. Sometimes, you may get a lower grade than you expected or hoped for, and it may be covered in red ink or its equivalent. At this point, you may be asking yourself if the decision to go to law school was really a good idea after all. There’s a temptation to start beating yourself up, to view this one grade as the summation of your current and future abilities as a law student, and to feel defeatist about how you will end up doing in the class at issue. Although it may feel like the end of the world at the time, a graded assignment–even if the grade is not what you hoped for–is actually an opportunity. I’m not saying that you are not entitled to feel disappointed or frustrated when you get it back, but don’t let those feelings prevent you from gaining the benefit of feedback.
Here’s how to get the most out of a graded assignment:
- Carefully read over the assignment, focusing specifically on any feedback provided by the Professor. Go carefully through: (a) any notes and editing suggestions written in the assignment’s margins or text; (b) any additional comments/suggestions written at the end of the assignment; (c) any grading rubrics or grading-related handouts provided by the professor; and (d) any notes that you took when the professor discussed the assignment in class.
- Go back through the assignment a second time. This time, take notes about the feedback. Divide the notes into different categories, such as: (a) criticisms related to legal argument; (b) criticisms related to organization; (c) criticisms related to formatting; (d) criticisms related to grammar and punctuation; (e) criticisms related to strength of research; and (f) criticisms related to citations and Bluebooking. Make a list of questions that you have about the feedback.
- Make an appointment to see the professor about the assignment. Don’t argue about your grade. Instead, focus the appointment on understanding what you need to do better in the future. Come to the meeting with specific questions for the professor about things that you don’t understand or need further clarification about. If you are prepared for the appointment, you will get more out of it.
- You may also want to set up an appointment with the academic success office at your law school to work further on developing specific skills.
- Finally, create an action list from what you’ve learned from this entire process. When you do the next assignment, use that action list as a guide for writing and editing your work. Focus on not making the same mistakes twice.
Just remember: a graded assignment is an opportunity to learn important information and make progress towards your future academic and professional goals. If you approach it with that mindset, even when the grade is not what you hoped for, you will seize the opportunity for further growth!