How to Succeed on Law School Exams

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Law school success can be defined multiple ways, but getting good grades meets any definition of success.

Law school exams are unlike any other test you’ve taken, which means you need to meticulously prepare and execute your gameplan.

Here’s how to make it happen.

Read all our posts on law school exams: Winning the law school mind game / Closed book law school exam preparation tips / How to succeed on open book law school exams / How to succeed on take-home law school exams / 10 steps to writing a great law school final paper / Clearly, the answer is not obvious / Tips for hand-writing a law school exam.

Step 1: get your head right and make a game plan

Completely overlooked and underrated, getting yourself in the right frame of mind is a critical step to success. Law school exams are different from college exams, but you can still rely on some of your old (and presumably successful) study habits. One of the most helpful things I learned to do was live in a bubble from other law students. What other people are studying, where they study, and how much they study is not relevant to you.

You have to make your own plan and study in a way that works for you. For me, that meant literally creating a calendar of when I would study for each class. I was never a fan of cramming a semester’s worth of a class the night before the exam. That way, I could ensure I devoted sufficient time for each class, rather than haphazardly deal with each exam as they occurred. Don’t forget that the grade for each class, depending on the number of credits, counts the same. Getting an A in one class and C’s in three others is not a success.

Perhaps the best way to create your gameplan is to talk to 2Ls, 3Ls, and review old exams on reserve at the library. Here’s another brilliant tip: listen to your professors. They will usually tell you what to expect on the final—and eliminate topics that you do not need to study.

Step 2: adapt your strategy to the type of exam

Every professor is different, which means you can expect in-class finals, take-home finals, or even a final paper in lieu of an exam. Regardless of the type, you should still follow step 1 to gather information and create a plan specifically for each final.

Closed-book exams seem to be less prevalent, but they can also be the most difficult. Not only do you need to master the material, you need to have all of it stored in your brain. It’s a little deflating to realize how important memorization is, but put that aside and start connecting concepts to names of cases. That can be a very easy and very effective way to score points.

If you are taking an in-class exam that’s open book you still want to prepare in a similar manner, but tweak your approach. Having a well-organized outline is much more important and can become a lifesaver during the actual exam. Quite simply: know where to find what you are looking for. Your outline and your notes are only useful if you can find that needle in the haystack.

A take-home exam is a different kind of beast that requires a different approach. You have more variables to control and take into account. First of all, decide in advance where you will write the exam. School is a default choice, but don’t forget about the distractions and mad rush to the printers near the finish line. Second of all, pay even more attention to style and editing. Your professor will expect something more polished than a 3-hour final. Budget at least a half-hour, if not more, to edit and revise your work. Never underestimate the importance of a well-written paper.

Step 3: never panic—take a deep breath and press on

The competitive nature of law school makes even the brightest students think they are in the wrong line of work. I’ll never forget looking at one of the class gunners during an exam and realizing he was sweating more profusely than anyone else in the room. That was pretty gratifying moment.

Regardless of how well you prepared, you are bound to get some curve balls during exams. But don’t forget that everyone else is getting the same curve balls and is probably as dumbfounded as you.

During my 2L year, the last essay question on an exam asked how a specific law applied to a situation. I stared at it blankly for five minutes and thought “it has zero application” but kept thinking I was missing something. Finally, I wrote sentence along the lines of “that law has no application to this situation.” Afterwards, I found out that it was a trick question—and I had written the best answer.

So when you find yourself freaking out and fighting your instincts, stop. Go get a drink of water, trust your gut, and answer the question. More often than not, your gut is right. And it’s a skill you need to start developing in law school.

This was originally published on January 8, 2013, but since fall semester exams start next week for many, it seemed like time to put it back on the front page.

Featured image: “Perfect school grade A plus of exam and happy woman” from Shutterstock.