How to Succeed on Open Book Law School Exams

Yesterday, I offered exam prep strategies for closed book law school exams. Here, I consider exam prep strategies for open book exams and conclude that there should be little difference in how you prepare for and take closed versus open book exams.

Avoid the trap of false confidence which too often comes from having a textbook, outline and class notes on hand during the exam. Instead, use the open book format strategically and be truly prepared to succeed on open book exams. To do this: (1) prepare as you would for a closed book exam, but (2) adopt an open book strategy and (3) integrate it into your exam prep and then (4) apply it during the exam.

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 take-home law school exams
10 steps to writing a great law school final paper

1. Prepare as you would for a closed book exam

ALERT: Relying on your book, outline and notes during an open book exam may result in poor exam results. It may make you do worse. It did for me.

In law school, I learned this one the hard way. During second semester my 1L year, I was delighted to learn that two of my exams would be open book. The other two would be closed book and I chose to allocate my study time disproportionately. I studied very hard for the closed book exams—I wrote the outlines, I condensed them, I rewrote them, I memorized the skeleton outline, and I aimed for fluency with the concepts.

To my detriment, I was convinced that the open book exams did not warrant such investment. Instead, I made long outlines (in which I simply pasted my case notes and lecture notes!) and long check-lists. I did not go for pith. I did not practice brevity or concise explanation. I fell into the trap of false confidence that comes from keeping my materials near me during the exams.

Unfortunately, I did not have time during the exam to find anything useful in my materials. I did not know what to write or how to organize my answers. I could not find anything useful in my materials—they were all too long. I panicked. And on one exam, I almost failed the course.

On subsequent open book exams, I prepared exactly as I would for a closed book test and it proved successful. My first piece of advice for success on open book exams is to treat them exactly as you would treat a closed book exam. Tips for that can be found in my post: Closed book law school exam preparation tips.

2. Adopt an open book strategy

Once you have a study plan for the exam, it is time to adopt an open book strategy. Although my first tip underscored the limited utility of the open book format, I do not mean to imply that it does not have utility. I have found that if you appreciate and honor its limitations, then you can identify and exploit the benefits of an open book format.

I will share my own open book strategy, but I encourage you to think carefully about what your own strategy should be. We all learn and process information differently, so think about what will work for you.

My strategy was to create several short summary documents that arranged course information in different ways. Each tool would mean little to anyone without extensive knowledge of the course material, but to me they served as useful heuristics to aid in solid exam prep and to hasten my recall and analysis during the exam.

3. Integrate your open book strategy into exam prep

Creation of your open book tools is a great method for solid exam prep. To be effective learning tools, however, you really need to craft them yourself. Borrowing tools from another student does not enhance your understanding and fluency of the concepts—which is the only goal of exam prep. Build your own tools.

During my exam prep, I created several documents to serve as a resource to jog my memory during the exam. Perhaps most importantly, creation of each document helped me organize, memorize and master the course material. Here are a sample of documents that I have made for open book exams:

  • Text outline of all the core course concepts organized per the syllabus
  • Graphical outline of course taxonomy (a flow chart which ties concepts together)
  • Decision trees for major course concepts with case citations at certain breaks
  • Check-list of all key concepts
  • Case chart (with only case name and key concept, maybe also a doodle—since I am a visual learner)
  • Page or two with full sentence explanations of certain complex concepts that I have found tricky to explain

I am happy to more fully describe any one of these tools. I may even have some examples lying around . . . . Just ask.

Once your tools are ready, try them out. Take a practice exam or do practice essays and see whether they are actually useful. Do not allow yourself to be surprised during the exam. Know how to use your tools. Know that they work for you.

4. Apply your open book strategy during the exam

If you follow steps 1-3, then you will be prepared to apply your open book strategy successfully during the exam. I have found that when I am truly prepared, I barely even look at my materials during the test because I have mastered the material and can apply it with ease to the fact patterns. If you sail through without looking at your materials while you write, I encourage you to consult your materials when you review your answer. Make sure that you didn’t overlook anything. With your open book tools on hand, you can do this quickly and with confidence.

When a future student asks for your open book tools, I do suggest that you hand them over, because that is what nice students do. But I also recommend you offer an assertive caveat and encourage the student to create his or her own tools, since the true value of such tools is found in their creation, not in their application.

Featured image: “Composition with book on the table” from Shutterstock.


  1. Avatar Robert House says:

    Good advice, I think the biggest mistake you can make during open book exams is learning concepts during the exam. There really isn’t enough time, in most cases, to even look at anything other than the exam. Thanks!

  2. Avatar EvanCordes says:

    Nice tips! I would submit also consider prepping a paragraph or two rule statement for each major rule you know will probably be on the test. Having this already prepared has allowed me to just type nearly verbatim from that paragraph, and then go into the factual analysis of the documents, rather than trying to create those rule paragraphs based on other documents as the test hits them.

  3. Avatar Colin says:

    Very interesting. I am new to studying law and am starting to realise my previous study techniques or lack thereof are hurting me.

    I like your use of various documents to help you learn.

  4. Avatar Bar Advisor says:

    Call me a geek, but I used the Index feature in Word to make an index of my typed class outline. This made it easy to find key words, legal tests, elements of causes of action, etc. It probably saved me 5-15 minutes of page turning during a test, which was extra time to spend on crafting and writing the answer.

  5. Avatar Tommy Looney says:

    I really like your post, was wondering if you had examples of the summary documents you created.

    Also, is there any different preparation you would suggest for an exam where it’s completely open book versus one where the prof has limited what we can bring in to one page (back & front) only?

  6. Avatar Ashley says:

    Very interesting post, I am returning to studying law after about 10 years and have an open book self study exam in two weeks. Open book is kind of new to me and just wanted to know if it would be possible to get examples of tools that you used for the exams. Thanks

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