For better or for worse, academic success in law school means success on exams – especially first-year exams. With only a few weeks left before the end of the term, here are a few ways to avoid making rookie mistakes.
1. Prepare your own outlines: There are some very good commercial outlines for the standard first-year courses. Don’t use them. Ideally, the end product of your outlining will be a useful guide from which you can do further study, but the real benefit is the process of synthesizing a semester’s worth of material by yourself. The best study guide is the one that you make for yourself.
2. Make time for practice exams. Lots of them: Law school exams aren’t like undergraduate exams. Don’t let exam day be your first run. Do at least one practice exam for every course, preferably an exam that was given by the same professor in a previous term. Get used to spotting issues and writing fast. It’s also not a bad idea to practice hand-writing a few answers in case you have problems with your laptop on exam day.
3. Self-impose time limits: You can’t earn points for a question that you don’t answer. When you get the exam, flip through it to determine how many questions there are. Try to estimate how long it will take to answer each question, and allocate your time accordingly. When you hit your allocated time limit, wrap up and move to the next question. If you have time, you can go back and expand on your answer.
4. Read the whole question. Then take a breath: You think that you don’t have time to think. But the truth is that you don’t have time not to think. According to Professor Orin Kerr, a common mistake among exam takers is to start writing immediately, before you really get a sense of the fact pattern. Instead, read the entire question, think about what is really going on in the fact pattern, and then jot down a short outline on scratch paper. You are more likely to finish with an answer that looks not only complete, but also polished and thoughtful.
5. Never leave early: Use all of the time allowed for the exam. Go back and refine your answers. If you get to the end and have a substantial amount of time left, chances are you missed something.