Timing Final Exams: What Law Students Can Learn from Cinderella

The time limit on most law school exams can be one of the most difficult facets of finals. Use these tips to help make sure you’ve used your time wisely in the race against the clock.

Unlike most law students, I have a five year-old daughter. Ever since I’ve started paying her small sums for extra chores, she’s been saving up a new Disney Princesses toy, which she purchased last night. As I was roped into role play after role play (many involving requests for my rousing rendition Sebastian the Crab’s “Under the Sea)” my guilt for not studying for finals was mounting. So, I turned to the dolls scattered across the floor for inspiration.

I decided that taking a timed law school exam is a lot like Cinderella’s story: you’d better be sure you’ve danced with Prince Charming before the clock strikes midnight.

Not following the analogy? Here’s what I mean: Cindy has a rough life, not unlike how a law student might perceive herself. (You decide who gets to be the Evil Stepmother.) When she has the chance to attend the ball, Cindy know’s she’s good enough to marry the prince, but must figure out how to get in the door, much like the law student who’s mastered future interests and is just waiting for her chance to prove that mastery to the instructor. The final exam is that chance; it’s the one shot at the royal ball to win the prince’s heart. How do you ensure that you’ve made a good impression before your ride home reverts to a gourd? Follow these tips:

  • In preparing your outline, boil the whole class, or at least each unit of the class, down to a single “spark sheet.” This should be a bare-bones list or basic flowchart with minimal detail. Quiz yourself on each level/item until you can barf out the elements and exceptions in seconds flat. By the morning of the exam, a glance at your spark sheet should trigger a waterfall of “Yeah, I know that, and that, and that…” in your head. If you can, memorize the list with an acronym or other mnemonic. It only needs to make sense to you, and only for a few hours.
  • While studying, note especially the issues that take more time and effort to explain. Your tendency will be to gloss those over and focus on issues you know well. But practice the tougher ones hard and you’ll end up saving lots of essay-writing time. Remember that too much time spent agonizing over one issue means points lost on another you ran out of time to mention.
  • While reading an essay prompt, note every issue as you spot it, but don’t analyze while you read! Just write down a list of issues (words or phrases like “consideration,” “offer,” “acceptance,” and “substantial performance” should pop up in your Contracts fact pattern, for instance). Use that list as you write to gauge how much time you’ve spent on each issue relative to the whole list.
  • If your exam has multiple parts, set precise time limits for each part, and stick to them. This is perhaps the hardest part, but it’s essential. You will not get points for a question you fail to answer. You probably will, however, get points for mentioning something in even a very cursory manner. Many of my profs have advised summarizing the issues in bullet points or an outline if time is about to run out.
  • Play to the curve by pointing out areas others might miss. Your earlier strategy of boiling down the whole course into something that will trigger deeper levels of memorized information will enable you to spot and write on the many subtle or peripheral issues your prof will jam into the exam. As long as you don’t waste time by extrapolating on an issue that can be dealt with in half a sentence, you will likely gain extra points through more thorough issue-spotting. Correlate every single fact to something in your essay, and you’ve probably hit it all.
  • Don’t panic. Remember that law school is a mind game. My academic advisor once told me that over 60% of law school grades variation was based on students’ mental state during exams. I have no idea if this is true, but, man, if you can channel some calm on test day, you’ll have a distinct advantage. Staying calm in the context of a timed exam means remembering to watch the clock, pacing your answers, trusting your memory and your outline, and knowing when to short-circuit an answer to claim any points rather than trying for all the points.

What strategies do you rely on under the pressure of timed testing?

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