Tag Archives: law school exams

Avoid “Brain Dumping” in Law School Exams

Law school essay exams are different from essay exams you may have taken before law school. They require more than just memorization—you have to analyze the facts presented in the questions and develop strong legal arguments. This means that you shouldn’t just “brain dump,” or write down everything you know—law school essays must remain focused on the question that is asked.

Sometimes students get so caught up in trying to explain the law that they lose sight of the question. Or they don’t see an issue that they were really prepared to discuss, and so they decide that they will write about that issue anyhow. You will not be rewarded for doing a “brain dump” in a law school essay. Your professor will not give you any points for writing about something that has not been tested; that is why everything you write should be linked specifically to the questions asked and the hypothetical facts.

There are other negative consequences to “brain dumping” on law school exams. There is a time crunch during a law school exam. Although this isn’t true of every law school essay question, many questions are designed so that it is impossible to answer all parts of the question in the time provided. The best answers analyze as many issues as possible in the time allotted, which is another reason why you don’t want to waste time on topics that haven’t been tested by the question. Furthermore, if you write about topics that are not being tested in the exam, you may be burying your more important analysis so that the professor will not even see it.

Stay focused on what your law school exams ask, and avoid the temptation to write about topics that are not being tested. This focus is one important tool for academic success in law school.

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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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What is a Law School Outline?

One of the most important tools for studying for exams in law school is the outline. Because of the importance of outlining, this week my blog posts will focus specifically on that topic.

What is an outline? An outline is an attempt to reduce all the materials from a course (syllabus, class notes, case briefs, notes from outside reading, statutes, hypotheticals, and other problems) into an organized study aid. In other words, it is a synthesis of your law school course materials. Outlining is the bridge between your daily preparation for class and your exams. If you do it properly, your outline will be your primary—possibly even your only—study aid for exams.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about outlining:

Why should I outline?

The answer to this question is really important. Outlining is synthesis—this is the point in the course when you start putting together the pieces of the puzzle. As you create the outline, you learn the material in the process. There is no shortcut for this learning process. If you rely on a commercial outline or one created by another student, you will lack the level of understanding required for success on your law school exams. By synthesizing various course materials, you gain a deeper understanding of legal issues and discover important connections between legal concepts. You will also identify legal issues that you don’t entirely understand—topics that you need to spend more time on, go back and read about again, or set up an appointment to meet with your professor to go over.

When should I outline?

Students also ask when they should start outlining. The answer: it depends on the class. You really can’t start outlining material until you have completed a topic. Look for those times when you have completed one entire topic in class and the professor has moved on to a new topic. Your syllabus or the casebook table of contents can help you to identify when one topic is ending and another beginning, so you can know when to start outlining.

Although you generally don’t want to start outlining a topic until you have finished learning about it in class, it is important not to wait too long to start outlining. Sometimes students will wait to begin their outlines until just a few weeks until the end of the semester. Waiting to outline until the end of the semester not only makes your studies more stressful, but you won’t be able to maximize the value of an outline. There is just not enough time at that point to develop the kind of outlines that allow you to fully understand the material.

How much time should I spend outlining?

If you outline topics as you finish them in class, you should be able to set aside an hour or two each week for each of your classes for outlining. At first, it may seem difficult to add additional time into your schedule, as you already are spending a lot of time reading and case briefing each week. However, as you establish a study routine that includes outlining, you will notice that outlining helps you to review course material and may actually help make the rest of your study time more efficient.

How long should my outline be?

The first draft of each outline is usually the longest, as it incorporates all of the course materials. However, outlines are a work in progress—you will continue to add to it and edit it over the course of the semester, and in the process you will condense it as well.

Although your early drafts may be fairly lengthy, an outline that is too long may signal that you are focusing too much on the details of the cases that you have read, rather than on the legal issues raised in those cases. As you review your draft outlines, you should continue to edit and reduce each outline to its essential components.

What should I do with this outline?

The outline is not an end product—it is about the journey, not the destination. Make your outline a living document. Revisit it regularly and fine-tune it to reflect your growing understanding of the legal issues you are studying and their relationship to each other. As you go through this process, you will gain even more understanding of the law, and you will increase your ability to recall information on the exam.

Check back tomorrow as I explain the steps for creating a strong law school outline.

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6 Ways that Law School is Different than Undergrad

Most students find the transition from undergraduate student to law student challenging because law school is unlike anything they have previously experienced. Today, I want to talk about some of the ways that law school is different than undergrad. In all, I’ve identified 6 major differences that specifically relate to your academic success as a law student.

1. Your law professor is not just going to stand up in front of the class and lecture while you take notes. Although a few law professors use a lecture format to teach their classes, most law school classes do not. Instead, many use Socratic method—the professor asks the students questions about the law, and students answer. Many of the questions are in the form of hypotheticals that require you to think about what you have read and apply it to new fact patterns. Other professors may have students work on projects in groups or participate in role play exercises. The result: few classes will feel like the classes you took in undergrad.

2. Reading 30 pages may take 3 hours, not 30 minutes. In fact, during your first several weeks of law school, it may take even longer! One reason for this difference is that the language of law is different from that of other disciplines, and it takes a while to learn it. You will have to look up a lot of words and phrases in your Black’s Law Dictionary, and many cases may take three (or even more) reads before you understand the important stuff. You generally cannot skim what you read in law school; instead, you must think about the meaning behind everything that you read to make sure that you understand enough to be able to answer those questions during class.

3. Many course grades in law school are based upon a single assignment or exam. Unlike undergraduate courses, where you may have multiple midterm exams, quizzes, graded homework assignments, or individual lab assignment grades, many final course grades in law school are based upon a single item—the final exam! That means that, especially as a first-year law student, you may have a difficult time assessing your understanding of course materials until it is too late to adjust your approach to your studies. This is one reason why students find law school so stressful, and you will have to learn new techniques to self-assess your understanding of each course.

4. In law school, you are in charge of your own learning. For the most part, if you are not called on during class, no one will know if you don’t do the reading on any given day. In most cases, if you skip class no one will follow up to make sure you are OK. It is up to you to motivate yourself and remain disciplined in your approach to your studies and classes. If you don’t, you will find yourself in academic danger by the end of the course. If you slack off for a few weeks during the semester, you may never get caught back up again—and that is your responsibility, no one else’s.

5. In law school, professional expectations begin the first day of Orientation. These expectations actually contribute to your academic success, but they also contribute to your professional reputation as a future lawyer. What am I talking about here? As a law student, you are expected to be timely (both in terms of your presence and completion of assignments), prepared for class, willing to contribute to class discussions, and respectful (even when you disagree with someone else). In reality, these are not necessarily different expectations than existed in your undergraduate classes, but the consequences of not meeting those expectations can be much greater in law school.

6. Everyone is smart, and they are used to getting good grades. People who choose to go to law school have usually been pretty successful in undergrad. The result: law schools are filled with smart students who are accustomed to getting good grades. Many students find it hard to adjust to this difference, as they go from being praised by their undergraduate professors, earning the top grades, and generally being successful in everything they do, to being the “average” student in law school. Moreover, many law schools have mandatory grade distributions, which means that only a small percentage of each class will earn an A for the course.

Stay tuned for additional posts on these topics in the next several weeks, as I provide a more detailed introduction to what new students can expect in their first few weeks in law school. In the meantime, I invite respectful comments from current law students and lawyers about other things that they found different about the law school experience.

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Sleep for Success: Stealing Time from Sleep Doesn’t Help You Do Better

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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The “Best Answer” Dilemma: How to Succeed at Law School Multiple Choice Exams

Image courtesy of nongpimmy/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nongpimmy/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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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Racing Against the Clock: Time Management Techniques for Law School Exams

Image courtesy of Winond/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Winond/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

 

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