Category Archives: Law School Exams

4 Key Skills for Successful Law School Essay Exams

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.

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Law School Exams and the IRAC Method

There is a general method for developing strong arguments and analysis in law school, whether you are working on an assignment for your Legal Writing class or taking an essay exam. You’ve heard of this method before—it’s called IRAC, which refers to Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion. There are numerous variations of the method, so your professors may also refer to it as CREAC (Conclusion, Rule, Explanation, Application, Conclusion), TREAC (Thesis, Rule, Explanation, Application, Conclusion), or some similar title.

Regardless of what your professor calls this method, there are common things that you must do as part of it:

(1) identify each issue raised in the hypothetical fact pattern;

(2) decide which legal rule(s) are relevant for each issue and set forth a statement of the rule(s), with exceptions as applicable;

(3) explain how the rule(s) should be applied to the facts in the exam question; and

(4) conclude how the issue is likely to be resolved.

As part of this process, you must show the reasoning that you’ve relied upon in reaching the conclusion for each issue. Make sure that you address relevant counterarguments and policy arguments in your analysis. As you write, be careful not to be too conclusory—don’t jump too quickly from the issue to the conclusion. You have to “show your work” to get full credit for each issue in a law school essay.

Most professors give you credit for developing each part of the IRAC formula. Generally, fewer points are associated with your identification of the issue and your conclusion; more points are associated with your articulation of the rules that are relevant to the issue and how you apply those rules to the hypothetical facts.

The secret of doing well on law exams lies not only in what you know, but how you apply what you know. You get little credit for just stating a legal conclusion, even if you are correct. You must explain how the law is applied to the facts in the hypothetical, and how your conclusion results from that analysis.

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Why Your Professor is Your Best Resource for Law School Exams

Image courtesy of iosphere/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of iosphere/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This may seem like an obvious statement, but your professor is the most important source of information for what will be tested in law school essay exams and how your essays will be graded. As exams approach, you may be tempted to bury yourself in purchased products, including outlines, hornbooks, and other commercial study aids. Except in rare circumstances, those resources were not created by your professor, and they haven’t been tailored to your specific class. These types of resources should only be used as supplements, not your primary source of information—instead, keep your focus on assigned course readings and what your professor tells you.

Make sure that you listen closely to your professor—not just in the days and weeks leading up to the exam, but also throughout the semester. Professors often give clues about what they will test, how they will test it, and how they will grade. With that advice in mind, if your professor spends a lot of time stressing policy arguments in class, you should look for opportunities to include those policy arguments in your essay. If you professor uses terminology or terms of art that vary from what the assigned readings use, make sure you use the terms that your professor has used. If you don’t see a topic on the exam that your professor spent a significant amount of time on in class or stressed as particularly important, look close to make sure you aren’t missing that issue. There is no guarantee that the exam covers that topic, but it is likely to be tested.

You also want to familiarize yourself with your professor’s approach to testing. If your professor provides access to past exams, take the time to look them over. Use them as practice exams to test your ability to answer essay questions in the amount of time allowed. (And, as I explained in a previous post, there are many other benefits to practice exams as well!)

The best way to make efficient use of your study time is to use what your professor has assigned or discussed in class as a guide. You’re less likely to focus your energies on information that won’t be tested, and you will be able to better anticipate the types of questions you will see on the exam.

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The Value of Practice Exams in Law School

The fall semester is flying by at a rapid pace, and final exams are quickly approaching. Whether this is your first set of exams or you are an upper-level student with experience taking law school exams, practice exams can be a valuable study tool. Here are some ways that you can use practice exams to improve your preparation for exams:

(1) Practice exams can provide insight into your professor’s expectations. Many professors release at least some of their past exams. Those past exams may be handed out in class, posted to the course website, or put on reserve at the law school library. You miss an important opportunity to understand your professor’s approach to exams if you do not review available past exams. As you look at the exams, ask yourself: Are the essay questions constructed in a way that gives you plenty of time to analyze all legal issues, or are there more legal issues than it is possible to cover in the allotted time? Do multiple choice questions resemble the types of questions that are on the bar exam, and you have to apply the law to hypothetical fact patterns? Or do the multiple choice questions just test your basic understanding of the black letter law? Do they ask for the best answer, or just the correct answer?

(2) Practice exams can help you gauge the effectiveness of your outlining and study strategies. Taking practice exams can help you determine whether your outline includes the information that you need for ultimate success in your final exams. After you take a practice exam, you should note the areas in the practice essays where you either missed legal issues or didn’t fully develop them, and you should also make note of legal issues that were tested in the multiple choice questions you missed. Go back and reevaluate your outline at that point, making sure that you have included everything you needed to answer those types of questions. You may need to add additional detail to your outline, or maybe you discover that reorganizing it will be more helpful. Use the practice exam as a ruler to measure your pre-exam preparations.

When you evaluate your outlines, you may discover that everything that you needed is actually in your outline, but you just don’t know that information well enough to use it on an exam. If that’s the case, set aside more time to review your outlines on a regular basis, and consider whether it would be helpful to create flashcards to help you memorize important legal tests and definitions.

(3) Practice exams can reduce anxiety about testing. Another way practice exams can be helpful is by making you feel more comfortable with the testing process. Many students struggle with anxiety on exam days, and that anxiety can interfere with their ability to be successful in their exams. The more practice exams you take, the more prepared you will feel for that experience. Your brain will be used to thinking about the material in the way that it will be tested, and it should help to reduce your stress. You can come up with strategies for how you will approach different types of questions in advance—there should be no real surprises on exam day.

(4) Practice exams can provide focus for study group meetings. Members of your study group can take practice exams prior to meeting, and then use the meeting to go over those exams. Or your group may take either essay questions or multiple choice questions and answer them together during your meeting. Sometimes talking through practice exams with someone else, who may have a different perspective and identify different legal issues than you have, can be helpful.

Everyone’s heard that slogan, “Practice makes perfect.” Although practice does not guarantee perfect scores on your law school exams, it can help you hone your study strategies, focus your attention on what your professor expects you to know, and reduce test-taking anxiety. Practice exams can help put you on the path to academic success in law school.

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Playing Catch-Up When You’ve Fallen Behind

Image courtesy of jesadaphorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of jesadaphorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By this point in the semester, most law students are in the final stretch of what seems like a very long race. Final exams loom ever closer on the horizon, and you’ve probably realized that you have a lot to get done in the next several weeks. Law school can feel stressful enough under normal circumstances, as writing assignments are coming due and professors are trying to cover the course materials prior to finals. But if you’ve fallen behind in your studies, you most likely are feeling even more pressure.

Law students fall behind for a variety of reasons. Maybe you’ve been sick and missed several classes, and, because you were feeling so poorly, you didn’t keep up with the reading. Maybe you’ve participated in the on-campus interviewing process and have spent more time working on job applications than you’ve spent studying lately. Maybe you’ve been overcommitted to extracurricular activities or focused on other priorities and haven’t had enough time for your studies. Or maybe you just weren’t taking law school as seriously as you needed to, and you now realize that you’ve got a lot to do to earn the grades that will let you achieve your long-term goals. Whatever the cause, you’re realizing that you have to do something now to catch up.

If you’re one of the students that have fallen behind, don’t just give up. If you get started now, you can get your studies back on track before final exams begin. Here are four tips to get you caught up when you’ve fallen behind:

Don’t delay: The longer you wait to attempt to catch up, the harder it will be. Make a commitment to a plan now so that you have the time to do what you need to get done to be successful in your classes.

Don’t give up: Students who fall behind often decide that it is easier to quit trying to catch up than do the hard work necessary to get back on track. They may decide to rely on commercial outlines rather than creating their own outlines or utilize commercially prepared case briefs rather than reading the cases themselves. While this strategy may seem like it gets you caught up much quicker, you will not know the material as well. When you go to apply the law to new hypothetical examples in the final exam, you may not understand the law well enough to be successful in your efforts. It is also important to remember that many of these courses are going to be on the bar exam. You need to study effectively now, so that you have better long-term recall of legal concepts.

Don’t neglect new assignments: Don’t allow current assignments to suffer because you are trying to complete past reading. Sometimes students think they must go back to the place where they got off track in order to get caught up, and they neglect current assignments in the process. Make sure that you first schedule current assignments before adding in the time you need to get caught up. You will get more out of each class if you have done the reading for that class in advance.

Make a plan: Most importantly, you need to make a plan. Getting caught up will take deliberate effort; it will not happen on its own. You need to make a schedule and stick to it. Revisit the study schedule strategies that you had at the beginning of the semester. Map out the remaining reading and writing assignments for the semester, making sure that you’ve scheduled enough time to complete each of those assignments. This schedule should cover the remainder of the semester.

Once you’ve scheduled all forthcoming assignments into your study schedule, you should then create a list of your backlogged tasks. On that list, estimate how long you think it will take you to complete each task. Go through the list and decide which tasks are the highest priority, then the second highest, third highest, etc. You will realize that some tasks are more immediate in terms of importance because you cannot complete your outline until those tasks are done, or because a current topic in a class builds upon the law covered in the backlogged reading. Once you have prioritized your list of backlogged tasks, begin inserting them into the remaining time in your study schedule. Don’t forget to allow time for outlining these assignments as well.

You won’t necessarily be caught back up by the end of the week (unless you were only behind a class or two), but, if you stick to your new study schedule, you will be in a much better position by the time you enter the final exam period. A good study plan can not only keep you on track on a daily basis but also help you to catch back up if you’ve fallen behind.

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7 Strategies for Success on Multiple Choice Exams

In the past two posts, I described how law school multiple choice questions are different than those that appear on undergraduate or high school exams, and we’ve explored some of the common obstacles to success on law school multiple choice exams. As I’ve already mentioned, the most important key to success in law school multiple choice exams is preparation. Today, I want to talk about some additional strategies that can help you answer law school multiple choice questions.

(1) Watch your speed: I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth emphasizing again. Take your time as you go through the multiple choice exams. It is easy to feel rushed because time passes so quickly during law school exams. But when students rush, they often choose the wrong answer because they missed a key word and not because they didn’t know the material.

(2) Allocate your time: Allot an equal amount of each time for each question, and stick to that schedule. You should divide your time based upon how much each part of the exam is worth. If you have a 3-hour exam, and the multiple choice section is worth 1/3 of the total points on that exam, then set aside one hour for the multiple choice. If there are 30 multiple choice questions in that section, then you should take approximately 2 minutes for each question. Don’t take time away from the multiple choice when the point distribution signals how much time you should spend on that section.

(3) Don’t add to the question: Ask yourself, what’s on the page? Don’t complete the definition or argument in your mind and conclude that it is correct. This especially becomes a problem when you’ve studied a topic extensively and know it so well that you can define every key term. Be sure that everything is on the page, and that you are not completing things in your head.

On a related note, assume nothing in addition to what has been established or given. Don’t assume the existence of any facts or outcomes. Your professor may be testing whether you recognize that an essential fact is missing!

(4) Ignore red herrings: There are two kinds of facts in multiple choice questions: important facts, and facts that are there to distract you. Make conscious choices about which facts are essential to the question, and don’t let those red herrings lead you off track.

(5) Answer all questions: This may seem obvious, but an additional key to success on multiple choice exams is to answer all questions. Specifically, skipping a question creates the possibility that your remaining answers will be out of order. Answer each of the questions in order, and mark and come back to questions you were not sure of if you have time.

On this same theme, if you begin to run out of time, make sure you leave no answers blank. You will not be penalized if you get the answer wrong, but you have no chance of getting the question right if you don’t put an answer down. If you’re running close on time, make sure that you save enough time to fill in any remaining answers.

(6) Eliminate wrong answers: In law school, you get to the best answer by eliminating answers which can’t be correct. Make sure that you eliminate answers that don’t resolve the issue or focus on a different issue. You should also eliminate answers that apply the wrong legal reasoning, mischaracterize the facts, or misstate the law. In order to be correct, an answer must be correct in every respect.

(7) Make smart guesses: Finally, when you can’t decide what the best answer is, make sure that you make an intelligent guess. Don’t guess until you’ve eliminated any wrong answers that you can identify. Be careful not to overcomplicate the question–the issue that jumps out at you is likely the issue that the correct response addresses. You should also be careful about answers that include absolutes – as you’ve already learned in law school, there are few things in the law that are absolute. That’s one of the reasons why the most common phrase in law school is “It depends.” Words like “must,” “always,” and “never” often (but not always) indicate an incorrect answer.

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4 Obstacles to Success on Multiple Choice Exams

Yesterday I explained the difference between law school multiple choice exams and those you took in undergrad or high school. An understanding of those differences is one key to achieving success in your law school exams. Today, I want to talk about some of the obstacles to success in law school multiple choice exams, as well as some suggestions for how to avoid or recover from those obstacles.

There are 4 major obstacles to success in law school multiple choice exams:

The Race to the Finish: The first obstacle is speed—often, students rush through law school multiple choice questions too quickly. There is a lot going on in each multiple choice question; often a single fact may be the key to the correct answer. If you read too quickly, you are likely to miss the most important part of the question. The key to not moving too fast through multiple choice questions is to fully utilize the time you’ve been given for that section. Take the time to read each question carefully, and don’t cheat the multiple choice questions by racing through them to get to the next part of your exam.

Reliance on Instinct or Emotion: The second obstacle is the temptation to be guided by instinct or emotion. Before you came to law school, you may have had professors tell you that you should go with your first instinct. The same is not true for law school multiple choice—in fact, there is commonly a wrong answer that will appeal to those who rely on instinct. Law operates on logic, not instinct or emotion. You must put aside your first impressions and carefully analyze all possible answers before choosing the best answer.

The Fear Factor: The third obstacle is panic. Maybe you’ve had this experience. You start the exam, look down at the first question, and suddenly every thought leaves your head. It is as if you never took the course. You immediately think to yourself, “I’m going to fail!” The key to dealing with this obstacle is preparation. If you have done a good job preparing in advance of the exam, you have the resources you need to do well on the exam. Trust in your preparation, and get started. Before long, you will forget your panic and get into a rhythm answering questions.

“I’ll Just Wing It”: Finally, the most serious obstacle to success on law school multiple choice exams is lack of preparation. I talked about this in the last post, but it’s worth emphasizing once again—preparation is critical to success in multiple choice exams. There is just no way around doing the hard work prior to the exam.

Stay tuned for my next post, when I will provide some additional tips for successful multiple choice exams in law school.

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Introduction to Law School Multiple Choice Exams

Law school multiple choice exams are not like the multiple choice exams you took in undergrad or high school—law school is a new world, and law school exams require a new approach. Unlike undergrad, where a basic familiarity with the course materials could potentially help you answer multiple choice questions, the same cannot be said of law school. Those who try to rely on basic recognition of information in multiple choice answers will likely fail the exam.

The foundation of success on multiple choice exams in law school is preparation. You have to study for multiple choice exams in the same way that you study for essays—you must have a thorough understanding of the law to be successful. This is because law school multiple choice exams do not just test your ability to recognize the law. Instead, they test your ability to apply to a new set of facts, a new hypothetical example. The fact pattern in a multiple choice exam resembles the types of hypotheticals your professor might give you in class. You will have to spot the legal issues and identify what law is required to address those legal issues.

The other reason why law school multiple choice questions can be so challenging is that they commonly ask you for the best answer, not the “right” answer. This means that more than one answer could solve the problem presented by the question. A “correct” answer may not necessarily be the “best” answer. Identifying the best answer will require you to have a thorough understanding of the law, but it will also require you to develop other test-taking skills.

Keep reading this week as further posts explore how law students should approach multiple choice exams. I will describe some of the obstacles to choosing the best answer for each multiple choice question, as well as techniques that will help you achieve success in your multiple choice exams.

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3 Tips for Spotting Issues in Law School Exams

It’s that time of the semester when law students are beginning to think more about exams, either because they’re in the midst of midterms (if their law school has midterms) or they’re anticipating final exams. One of the skills required for success on law school exams is the ability to spot legal issues. Law school essay questions contain complex fact patterns that incorporate numerous legal issues. The more issues you are able to identify, the more opportunities you will have to show your understanding of legal principles and your analytical abilities—and capitalizing on those opportunities contributes to better grades. Issue spotting can also help you on multiple choice exams. When you are able to identify the specific legal issue being tested in the question, you can use your knowledge of the relevant law to eliminate wrong answers and help you identify the best answer.

With these benefits in mind, here are 3 tips for spotting issues in your law school exams:

1. Outline, Outline, Outline!: The most important key to being able to spot legal issues on law school exams is the preparation that you do before the exam. In recent weeks, we’ve spent quite a bit of time exploring the best approaches to outlining in law school (for more information on outlining, see here, here, here, and here). If you have organized your outline in the right way, you will already have identified the possible types of legal issues on an exam. You will also have an understanding of the important rules and tests that relate to each issue, as well as key policies and relevant case examples.

2. Create an Issue Checklist: One way that you can make sure that you do not miss important issues is to create an issue checklist for each of your classes. Creating a checklist is easy. Just take an outline that you have done for one of your law school classes, such as Property, Torts, or Evidence. Go through your outline page by page, making a separate list of all legal issues and sub-issues. Write out the list in the order that it is organized in your outline. Don’t include any details–your checklist should be made up of key words and phrases, not tests, definitions, case names, or other detailed information. Think of the checklist as something similar to a grocery list. If you were shopping for the ingredients to make a certain recipe, you wouldn’t write the entire recipe out again to take to the grocery store. Instead, you would just list the ingredients you need to purchase. That’s the approach you want to take to the checklist as well. If the outline is the recipe, your checklist is the shopping list of ingredients.

Once you have your checklist organized the way that you want it, commit it to memory. When you go into the exam, use the checklist to make sure that you don’t miss issues in the hypothetical fact patterns. You can use the checklist to identify legal issues in both multiple choice questions (short hypotheticals) and essay questions (longer hypotheticals).

3. Identify Relationships Among Legal Issues in Advance: There are usually relationships among certain legal issues. If you identify those relationships in advance, you are more likely to recognize them in fact patterns during the exam. For example, one major legal issue in Torts is negligence. But if you see a negligence issue in the fact pattern, you know that there are other legal issues that might also be relevant, such as vicarious liability, joint and several liability, comparative/contributory negligence, various defenses, and various types of damages. As you begin to identify issues in that fact pattern, you should look for any facts that suggest that those legal issues are at play as well.

If you notice, the common theme to these issue-spotting tips is advance preparation. What you do before the exam is what ultimately makes your issue-spotting efforts successful!

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Making the Best Use of Study Aids

Study aids come in a variety of forms, such as treatises, hornbooks, commercial outlines, and study guides. Sometimes your professors will assign study aids as either required or suggested reading for a course. Often, the professor has selected this additional material because it supplements the reading from the casebook in some way. Many law students also purchase study aids on their own, without a professor’s recommendation, or they may check them out of the law school library.

So what is the value of a study aid? If used properly, study aids can enhance your understanding of what you are studying. The key is to do your assigned reading first, and then, after you have created your case brief, refer to any supplemental materials to clarify things that you didn’t understand. Or, if you are in the process of synthesizing course materials and creating an outline, you might use a study aid as a way of checking your understanding of the law. Some study aids contain practice multiple choice and essay questions that can be used as you are studying for your exams.

Where problems arise is when law students attempt to rely upon study aids as their primary way of learning new material. Keep in mind that you need to know what your professor expects you to know. Exams are based upon assigned course materials, and the study aids will have information that is presented differently or has not even been covered in your course. Learning is a process in law school—you gain more and more understanding of the law by going through various layers of studying and learning—reading cases, creating case briefs, taking notes in class, reviewing and updating your case briefs and notes, and synthesizing course materials by outlining or some equivalent process. If you skip multiple steps in the learning process, you will not know the law at the level that you need to know it for your law school exams or the bar exam. As with other areas of the law school experience, attempts to take shortcuts will backfire.

Another problem that law students have is that they are overwhelmed by the number of study aids out there and don’t know which one(s) to choose for each class. Costs add up and, for many law students, purchasing very many study aids is just not an option. Not all study aids will be equally valuable—they vary in format, and what works for one class may not work for another. Before buying any study aids, talk to your law professors and see what they recommend for your classes. If your law school library has study aids, look through them first to see what you find most helpful. Academic Support offices also often have study aids that you can look through or borrow.

The bottom line is that study aids can complement your other study efforts, but they can’t be a substitute for doing the hard work.

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