For those of you with closed book law school exams coming up, here are a few exam prep strategies that you might find useful: (1) assess course expectations, (2) organize, memorize and master the course material, (3) practice, practice, practice, (4) rest your brain, and (5) take the exam with confidence.
Assess course expectations
Before you begin studying for any law school exam, gather as much information as you can about the exam and the professor’s expectations.
- Ask the professor. Some professors are candid about the exam format and their expectations of students, while other professors hide the ball. If your professor is not forthcoming, I recommend that you ask. And it is best to do this during class so that your professor does not think that you are trying to get an unfair advantage over other students.
- Consult old exams. Find out if your professor has old exams on file and review them.
- Find students who have taken the exam and ask them about it. Mentors are particularly helpful here.
- Determine whether other students in your class have intel they could share.
Information is powerful in law school. Get and stay in the loop. In my experience, it is also helpful to share the information you learn with your fellow students. This may seem counterintuitive given that your classmates are technically your competition, but they are also your friends and support system, not to mention your future colleagues, clients, and professional network. Your professional reputation as a lawyer begins in law school. Cultivate your professional reputation as ethical and collaborative. Share information and support your fellow law students.
Organize, Memorize and Master the Course Material
After you gather as much information as possible about exam expectations, it is time to study. Successful preparation for a closed book law school exam requires that you organize, memorize and master the material. These are three very different though equally important tasks.
Organize the Course Material
Look at the syllabus and the textbook and create a skeleton outline of the major concepts covered in the course. Flesh out each concept by adding what you learned from class readings and lecture. Do not worry about formatting, grammar or editing, just fill it out. Cut and paste from your lecture notes and case briefs. You will end with a long document saturated with information. Print this document.
Set the printed document by your computer and open a new document. Synthesize the concepts in your mega-document by rewriting them in your new document. Be judicious with your words. Rewrite all the important concepts in the document. Print this document.
Do it again. Do this over and again until you end up with the shortest possible document that you can create. As a visual learner, I found diagrams useful here. You may also like acronyms.
Memorize the Course Material
Now, see if you can recreate the short outline from memory. Practice until you can do it quickly and with ease. When you walk into the exam you should be prepared to quickly recreate the basic outline on a piece of scratch paper.
For a “kitchen-sink” exam, the outline will operate as a check-list. For other exams, it will serve as a menu of potential issues. If you freeze or panic during the exam, having the outline scrawled out can help you refocus.
Master the Course Material
Once you have the basic concepts organized and committed to memory, it is time to master the concepts. Too many law students overlook this essential step. It is not enough to know the buzz words, the tests, and the factors.
Visualize what will happen when you sit down to take the exam. You will read fact patterns, spot issues, and provide rigorous analysis. You cannot do this well unless you are fluent in the concepts.
To gain fluency, you need to practice explaining the concepts. Define the concept and then explain why it matters and where it fits in the taxonomy of the course. Try explaining the concepts verbally first. Do this several times. Explain the concepts to your study group, your dog, your mother, the mirror. Each time you explain a concept try to use fewer words. Be frugal. Go for pith.
Now, try to explain the concepts in writing. This is a good study group activity, but you can do it on your own, as well. Do this over and over again until you can explain each concept with ease. On an exam, you will have to apply these concepts to fact patterns. And while there is only so much that you can do to prepare for fact patterns, you can be prepared to explain the concepts. That way, when you apply the concepts to fact patterns during the exam you will not have to spend precious time and brain power determining how to explain a concept.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Once you have organized, memorized and mastered the concepts, it is time to practice, practice, practice. Find a way to practice applying course material to fact patterns. The best way to do this it to take practice exams.
In an ideal world, each professor would offer a full-length practice exam involving one of his or her old exams. If not, get resourceful and be creative. Practice is essential. Find a sample exam online if necessary.
If time permits, do what you can to simulate the exam experience. Find a practice exam, sit in an empty classroom and take it under the same time constraints that you will face during the real exam. It is reassuring to know that you can complete the entire exam in the allotted time. Even though it is a big time commitment, I think exam simulation is well worth it. This is a great study group activity.
Rest Your Brain
Once you’ve done what you can to prepare, it is time to rest your brain. Allow your brain time to rest before the exam. If it is a morning exam, stop studying by dinner time the night before. If it is an afternoon exam, take the morning off and go out to brunch. Spend this time getting focused. Get your mind ready.
Take the Exam with Confidence
To succeed, you need to be confident, calm and focused during the exam.
Spend the hour before the exam doing whatever will get you mentally prepared to feel confident and calm when you walk into the exam room. For closed book exams, I would spend this time making sure that I could recreate my rough outline from memory.
When the exam starts, I recommend sketching out your rough outline first. I always did this before even reading the exam.
Then, read the exam and outline your answer. This is key: take the time to outline your answer. If you hear other students typing out answers while you are still outlining, ignore them. Stay calm and keep outlining. Remember that good answers are organized and comprehensive. Spend the time necessary to get organized and find all the issues.
Budget your time. You do not want to run out of time and get full points on the early questions and zero on the last question. Plan to finish early enough to review your answers.
If you panic during the exam, get up and leave the room. Take a minute to refocus. Then return to the room.
After the Exam
After each exam during law school, I went to a movie. This allowed my mind to unwind. Have a plan for what you will do after each exam–particularly if you have other exams to prepare for in the coming days. You will be fried when you leave the exam room, have a plan for what you will do. If you do not have a plan, odds are good that you will end up congregating students who just finished the exam and you will all end up rehashing the test. Do not do this—nothing good can come of it.
Originally published 2009-11-10. Republished 2016-12-06.
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Read the next post in this series: "Clearly, the Answer is not “Obvious”."