It doesn’t matter how well you did on your fall exams: second semester exhaustion happens across the spectrum. Students who did well are scared that they can’t keep up their grades and any drop in their GPA will reflect on them poorly during summer OCI; students who did not do well are exhausted because they worked very hard during the fall, and they are demoralized by their performance; and students in the middle of the curve are still mystified by the process and don’t know what they can do to bring up their grades.
I want to reassure you that you will be fine, and it is okay to feel less excited and more tired during the second semester than you felt during the first. But here are some tips for staying on track (even if tired):
This may seem obvious to you, but I cannot stress it enough. You may get flustered at the start of an exam, and failing to read the instructions can be a consequence. But your professor may ask you to answer only one of the three questions in the exam, and if you don’t read the instructions, you’ll answer all three! When the exam starts, take a deep breath, slow yourself down, and read the instructions.
The first part of any law school exam is a math test.
Many of you may think – oh no! I came to law school to avoid doing math! But what I mean is that you must look at the amount of time allotted for the question, then consider the number of problems you must resolve in that time, and finally do the math to determine how much time you have per question and per issue. Do not forget to do the math for multiple choice exams as well. Remember, unless the instructions indicate otherwise, each multiple choice questions is worth exactly the same amount as the next multiple choice questions. So, spending more time than you have on any one question does not make any sense.
You will be nervous when the examination proctor says “begin,” but don’t just start to write.
Instead, in a closed-book examination, consider writing out your skeletal outline as soon as the exam begins. A skeletal outline is merely an organized list of principles and issues, created by you, which relates to a given area of the law. Think about the outline you have been creating all semester, but now reduce it down to a page or two – this is your skeletal outline. Writing out this list will give a few moments to compose your thoughts before digging into the exam.
Before answering an essay question, first outline and organize your response.
While different students outline differently, students who perform well on law school exams take the time to read through the entire essay question, create a list of the various issues contained therein, and then take a few more minutes to separate out the major issues from the minor ones. This approach will give you a better sense of how much time you have to complete your entire answer.
You cannot perform legal analysis without discussing the facts.
There are few absolutes in law school, but including the facts in your answer to essay questions is one of them. Remember, most law school essay questions are written in the form of a lengthy fact pattern or story. The facts within these stories create the issues that you must discuss. Almost every fact in these stories must be reproduced and discussed in your examination answer. While it is true that your professors will know the facts in the problem, they do not know whether you understand which facts are relevant to resolving each issue. Including the facts in your answer does not guarantee success on your law school exams, but excluding the facts guarantees that you will perform below your capabilities.
To ensure that the facts are making their way into your essay answers, place a line through each fact as you use it.
Do not cross the fact out so that it becomes illegible, however, because a single fact may be relevant to more than one issue. After you finish your essay answer, look back at the fact pattern. If there are facts left over, one of three things has occurred:
As for supposedly irrelevant facts, professors rarely place information into their fact patterns that does not need to be discussed. Most “irrelevant” facts are there so that you can explain why they are irrelevant.
Listing facts is not the same thing as discussing them.
True legal analysis occurs when you explain to a reader why a fact (or facts) leads to a legal conclusion. Consider the following examples.
Example 1 - John told the plaintiff “I will hit you if you come around here again.” Therefore, the battery was not imminent.
Example 2 – John told the plaintiff “I will hit you if you come around here again.” Generally, words alone cannot satisfy the imminence element of an assault. More specifically, these words merely inform the listener that he might be “hit” at some point in the future. The words “at some point in the future” placed a condition on the plaintiff being struck, which means that the plaintiff might never be struck by John. The fact that John might never strike the plaintiff means that the battery cannot be imminent.
If you were not sure, example 2 is the better answer! I have created a somewhat obvious example to illustrate my point. The pattern in the second example – note a fact (or facts) and then explain why you have brought it to the reader’s attention – consistently appears in well done legal analysis.
Your analysis is the most important thing that goes into a law school exam, so make sure it is in there!
Much of what you will write when answering a law school exam has originated in places other than in your mind. The issues you will be dissecting were created by your professors and are contained within the examination fact patterns. The same is true of the facts you will be discussing in your answer; they were created by your professor. The law you will be relying on to resolve these issues originated in the cases and statutes you read during the course of the semester. The only part of an essay answer unique to you is your commentary on WHY certain facts lead you to believe that a legal issue should be resolved in a particular way. This commentary is legal analysis.
Analyze each element of the relevant causes of action in your examination answer.
Another way to conceptualize this advice is to consider the I-R-A-C formula many students use when answering examination questions. In reality, you are writing a mini I-R-A-C for each element of every cause of action being discussed as opposed to a large I-R-A-C of, for example, the tort of assault.
Objectivity and indecisiveness are not the same thing.
When students attempt to perform objective legal analysis, they often fall into the trap of being indecisive as opposed to objective. When performing objective legal analysis, you must still come to a conclusion. It’s just that your conclusion is the product of carefully considering all reasonable alternatives. Telling the reader that a problem could be resolved in two ways, but that the final answer will “depend on what the court thinks” is tantamount to telling the reader “this is hard, so you figure it out!”
Be sure to address all reasonable alternative points of view.
Many students use the I-R-A-C formula when writing the answers to their law school exams. This formula, which is quite similar to the C-R-E-A-C paradigm you learned in Legal Writing, stands for: state the issue, provide the law, analyze the applicability of the facts to this law, and come to a conclusion. Because addressing counter arguments is such an important part of legal analysis, the formula might be more accurately written as I-R-A1 (state the argument)-A2 (state any reasonable counterargument)-Conclude, or resolve which argument is better and WHY it is better. In other words, I-R-A1-A2-C. So what is a reasonable a counterargument? A counterargument is reasonable if it is based on the facts in the problem or reasonable inferences from those facts. If you find yourself creating facts, then the counterargument you are creating is unlikely to be a reasonable one.
Because anxiety limits working memory, learning how to manage nerves during an exam is key to performing well. Here are some tips courtesy of the New York Times Education Life Supplement, from University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock.
Faced with a high-stakes situation, almost everyone has some physical symptoms of stress: sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat. But people interpret these cues differently, with important consequences for their performance. Some interpret these cues by thinking they are really nervous and that they will fail. Others will interpret the cues by telling themselves that they are really psyched up for the test.
If you fall into the former group, consciously adopt positive self-talk. Remind yourself that damp palms and a pounding heart accompany all kinds of enjoyable experiences: riding a roller coaster, winning a sports match, talking to someone you have a crush on.
A second approach may be easier for you. It involves a simple exercise just before a test. For 10 minutes, write about your feelings regarding the exam to clear your mind of test-related concerns, freeing working memory that can be applied to the exam. In a study published last year in the journal Science, Dr. Beilock and her co-author, Gerardo Ramirez, said the technique worked both in the lab and in classrooms. Used by a group of ninth graders facing a biology final, the expressive writing task effectively eliminated the relationship between test anxiety and poor test performance: even highly anxious students performed just as well as non-anxious classmates. Although the study involved ninth graders, the theory remains the same for any test-taker.
Of course, some of these responses might strike you as obvious, others as insightful, others a combination of both. The Wall Street Journal allowed folks to give names or submit anonymously if they so chose.
In no particular order, here are a cross-section of responses:
Rogan Nunn, 3L at UVA and an editor on the Virginia Law Review: By far the most useful thing I did when preparing for 1L exams was to round up a few people from the class and take old exams. Don’t just go through them, take them — pretend it’s the real thing, time limits and all. Then discuss answers. You’d be amazed how much you miss the first time. It can be time-consuming, but all the outlining in the world won’t save you if you can’t spot the issues on the fly.
Anonymous 3L at Vanderbilt and a member of the Vanderbilt Law Review: For me, the smartest thing I did while studying for exams 1L year was to go through each entire course in successively shorter periods of time… . By successively shortening the amount of time spent thinking through the entire course, the goal was to be able to go quickly through and understand all the material in a couple of minutes — to see both the forest and the trees quickly for the entire course.
Max Shifrin, 3L at Brooklyn and a member of Brooklyn Law Review: The most crucial thing to do as a 1L, in my opinion, is start outlining early in the semester and finish [your outlines] early enough to take as many practice exams as possible in real time… . [P]rofessors test the exact same things year in and year out. If you do enough exams, you’ll begin to see a pattern which will give you a huge advantage on exam day.
Anonymous 2L at Columbia, member of the Columbia Law Review: The first time I saw what my Civil Procedure professor expected us to be able to do in three hours I almost had a nervous breakdown. But by taking practice exams and going over answers in a study group, I was able to get a better sense of the material that is frequently tested … . By test day I wasn’t intimidated anymore and could take comfort knowing there weren’t going to be any surprises.
Anonymous 3L at Vanderbilt, member of the Vanderbilt Law Review: I made sure to get 7-8 hours of sleep every night. The finals period is already an extremely stressful time, and it is most stressful as a 1L. There is no reason to add to this stress by staying up every night until 3 a.m. working; not only does it add to your stress level, it is not as if the extra hours “studying” are actually beneficial, given that your mind can only take so much studying per day before shutting down.
Megan Murray, 2L at Iowa, member of the Iowa Law Review: [I wrote] out all the “rules” by hand. The act of writing slows your brain down enough to absorb the legal rules, and it gives you time to consider their implication. This is an especially helpful technique when legal rules come in the form of multi-part, or divergent tests. When you read these rules in your notes or type them out on your computer, the words come so quickly across the page that you don’t have time to really absorb and understand them. Writing them out gives your mind a chance to catch up with your keystrokes.
Anonymous 3L at Berkeley, editor on the California Law Review: Perhaps the most important (and most difficult) advice is that you need to move on when the exam is over, either to prepping for your next exam, having a beer, or just generally getting on with your life. You might feel tempted to talk to your classmates about the exam, perhaps because you have nothing else to talk about (as your life of late was probably consumed with studying). Avoid this at all costs; at best you get affirmation in your answers (which could still be wrong), but at worst your start worrying that you missed something, which at this point is totally out of your control… . From my own experience and my friends, taking a law school exam can be defeating and leave students with the feeling that their days of studying were not properly translated to the answer they cranked out in three hours. Try your best not to dwell on those feelings.
We checked in with a handful of professors around the country and asked them to complete the following sentence: “A good law exam answer is _______.”
Of course, none of these responses will, alone, unlock the key to success. And an A exam to one might be a B plus to someone else. But taken collectively, they just might shed some light on what the Great Professoriate is looking for. So here goes.
Heather Gerken, Yale: A good law exam answer is … evaluative. Too often, students walk through each answer as if all arguments are created equal. They don’t tell me which arguments are strong and which are weak, which facts matter and which don’t, which cases provide strong support for their claims and which ones are distinguishable. And they throw everything into the answer rather than think hard about what belongs and what doesn’t. Good lawyers don’t just know the substantive law; they also have good legal judgment. The mistake students make is not to exercise their own legal judgment in answering a question.
Richard Friedman, Michigan: A good law exam answer … answers the question. Banal as that sounds, many students take the question as an excuse to write a canned answer on some area in which they’ve learned the black-letter law. I tell my students, “Imagine you’re riding down an elevator with a boss who knows the law and who has told you the facts but wants your help in advising the client. Don’t repeat the facts to him. Don’t tell him the law. Apply the law to the facts.”
Eric Chiappinelli, Creighton: A good law exam answer … is one that does more than tells me what the law is (more or less well) and applies the law to the facts (more or less well) and then stops. The other 90 anonymous answers will do that. You should do two additional things: Tell me up front what the question really turns on – a choice between two applicable rules? Deciding what a particular word or phrase should mean? Then, at the end, give me your opinion of whether the result is good or fair or just. Cutting to the heart of a question immediately and expressing a value judgment about the result are what separate the A’s from the C’s.
Paul Secunda: Marquette: A good law exam answer … gets to maybe. By that I mean that too many law students have an undergraduate mentality and seek to figure out the one “right” answer for the question. The point of the law school exam is not necessarily to test for right and wrong answers, but to see whether the student is utilizing critical reasoning skills to understand all the possible issues that the question presents. The more you arrive at a “maybe” in your law exam, the more likely you are seeing all the sides of the question in your answer and will then receive the most exam points.”
Adam Winkler, UCLA: A good law exam answer … is rigorous and deep. By rigorous, I mean it references every applicable standard, test, and burden; analyzes every appropriate “branch” in the decision tree; and follows a sound logical structure. By deep, I mean it argues — not just concludes — how the legal rules apply to the facts; analogizes and distinguishes the most relevant cases; and addresses the best counterarguments. There is no “right” answer. It’s all about the argument.
Tis’ the season for stress. Consider using the following quick tips to lower stress:
Manage your stress so that it does not manage you. The sooner you implement stress busters into your regimen, the more likely you can prevent stress from getting out of hand.