How to Succeed on Take-Home Law School Exams

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In my view, take-home exams are the toughest test format to tackle. In spite or because of that fact, they have emerged in recent years as the darling of law professors. To prepare this post, I consulted other recent law school graduates, including a top 2008 graduate of Georgetown Law, a school with decidedly take-home happy professors.

Together, we offer the following tips for tackling take-homes: (1) be strategic about exam prep, (2) create take-home exam tools, (3) plan the start, (4) budget your time, (5) plan the finish, (6) eat, sleep and exercise, (7) edit, edit, edit and (8) stick to your plan.

Preparing for law school exams? Read our other Exam Week posts:
Winning the law school mind game
Closed book law school exam preparation tips
How to succeed on open book law school exams
10 steps to writing a great law school final paper

1. Be strategic about exam prep

As a starting point to plan your exam prep, consider how you would prepare for a closed book exam. Yesterday, I warned of the false confidence that comes with having sources near you. If you do not know your stuff, reference materials will do you little good.

Generally, this warning holds true with regard to take-home exams, as well. In prior posts, I noted that successful exam prep requires that you organize, memorize and master the course material. On a take-home exam, mastery is still integral, organization may be somewhat less important, and memorization perhaps not at all. It depends entirely on the format of the take-home. Consider three common formats:

  • For an 8-hour take-home, you will have little time to consult sources, so I strongly urge you to study exactly was you would for an open book exam.
  • For a 24-hour take-home, you will have more time to consult outlines, notes and books, so I recommend you invest the bulk of your time to organize and master the material. Although it sounds like a lot of time, 24-hours is not that long, so it is important to be organized.
  • And then there is the 72-hour take-home. Here, the only thing that really matters is subject mastery. You will have plenty of time to consult sources, memorization is not essential. Neither is organization, although I strongly encourage it.

2. Create take-home exam tools

My suggestions for open-book exam tools are applicable here, but for a take-home they can be longer in length. Think about the time you will have to complete the exam and plan accordingly. For example, during an 8-hour exam a long reference document will only be helpful if you know how to navigate or search it for the relevant information.

3. Plan the start

Planning is key for take-home exams. To plan the start, consider where you will take the exam and what you will need.

If you plan to take it on campus, where will you sit? Can you reserve a room? Will you sit near an outlet to plug in your laptop? Should you be in the library? Can you arrange to have a friend sit near you so that he or she can watch your stuff if you need to get up for a drink or to use the restroom? Will you need food or drink? Does your testing location limit the type of food that you should pack? For instance, if you are in the library, do not bring loud food. Do you need ear plugs? What about your iPod?

Think through all the logistics and anticipate your needs, as well as potential problems. You do not want to be surprised during the exam.

4. Budget your time

Compared to a 3-hour closed book exam, a 24-hour final sounds like an eternity. It is not. Nor is a 72-hour final. Regardless of the time you have to complete the exam, create a time budget. This should be the first thing you do when you get the exam. How much time will you spend on each question? When will you take breaks? When will you sleep? When will you eat? Make a plan.

On a 24-hour final, you do not want to get to question 3 with no sleep and only three hours left. Be prepared.

5. Plan the finish

Even more important than planning the start, plan the finish. Again, think through all the logistics and anticipate your needs, as well as potential problems. Consider how you will print your exam and how you will hand it in.

If you leave campus to take the test, leave yourself ample time to get back to campus. Professors will not be forgiving if you could not catch a cab, if your bus was late, or if you got stuck in traffic. Do not allow yourself to be surprised.

How will you print the exam? If you take the exam on campus, will the printers be busy right before the deadline? What if one of them jams? Have a good plan A, and a good plan B.

6. Eat, sleep, and exercise

This tip sounds obvious (at least the eat and sleep part), but if you do not plan to eat, sleep and exercise during the test, you may neglect to do so and that may result in a bad grade.

  • For an 8-hour exam, plan to eat and plan to take at least a 2 minute walk around the school for a break. I recommend a 15 minute walk outside, but even 2 minutes would do you good.
  • For a 24-hour exam, you MUST sleep. You are not nearly as clear-minded 12 hours into an exam as you are at the start, or after a decent night sleep. Take care of your body, your mind cannot perform well if you do not.
  • A 72-hour take home requires a special kind of endurance of mind and body that, in my view, requires ample break time, including sleep, exercise and entertainment.
  • Budget time to eat, sleep and exercise. Do not let your mind trick you into neglecting your body during a take-home exam. Unless it is an 8-hour exam, you will definitely regret it. Even on an 8-hour exam, you are more likely to do well if you budget time for breaks.

7. Edit, edit, edit

From my experience, the primary difference between take-home and in-class exams is your ability to review and edit your work. For this reason, professors will likely place a premium on good writing and good editing.

Take the time to do this.

When I took take-home exams, I would write my first answers free-form and get everything on the page that I thought should be in each answer. I did this for all the questions. Then I went back and deleted about half of what I wrote. Omit extraneous words. Be concise. Be organized. Use headings. Make your exam the easiest one to read.

8. Stick to your plan

Really, do. Create your own plan per tips 1-7. And once you get your exam, stick to your plan. Do not let the test-taking version of you overrule the cool-headed planful version of your who created the plan.
Even if . . .

  • a question is hard and the answer is taking longer than expected
  • you really do not want to go to bed
  • you decide that you do not need a whole hour to get to school and deliver your exam

. . . stick to your plan.

Trust your pre-exam self, stick to your plan, and tackle the take-home exam with confidence.

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