Tuesday, January 10, 2006

How to Improve Your Law School Exam Grades

I just finished grading my fall semester exams. I am sure some of my students are not happy with their grades, while others are. The old adage is that students make A's, but they are given Cs. Or Ds.

That's not the case, of course. But it does raise this question: what are some of the critical factors in successful exam taking? What did you do well that you can replicate in future semesters? What did you do not so well that you can improve upon?

Here are some common exam taking mistakes that I see.

1. Not answering the question. Law school exams rarely test the entire semester. Rather, they focus on a subset of what was covered and test it in detail. So if the exam question is on, say, rulemaking (Administrative Law), don't talk about other topics unless they have bearing on the question. If you do, that's wasted time and zero points.

Corrollary to #1: If the question gives you clear facts, don't discuss what might happen if those weren't the facts. They're the facts, and you are supposed to apply them. Not pretend they are not there. If there is an ambguity in the question, fine--address it. But if a law is declared to be constitutional, don't waste time discussing how it might not be.

2. Not organizing your answer. Many law school exams are 3 hours only. You have a limited time to shine. And the way to shine is not to freewrite. Take time to figure out how to organize your answer, instead of just plunging in. 5 or 10 minutes up front may save you half an hour in answering the question. In fact, my rule of thumb is that perhaps 25% of your time during an exam should be spent reading the question carefully and outlining your answer.

3. When you outline your answer, include the outline at the top of your answer. That way if you run out of time, the professor can see where you were going to go and give you a few points. It makes a difference if the professor can see, in at least skeletal fashion, that you understood the basic parameters of the question.

4. Not citing to cases or materials covered during the semester and not using proper terminology. For better or worse, law is a verbal field. So proper terminology matters. You might have a solid grasp of what was discussed during the semester, but do you know the jargon? Think of law as a foreign language. When you speak in German, what words do you use? German ones. As for cases and materials, the exam is asking you to apply them to the fact pattern. So do that expressly.

So much for exam taking. What about exam preparation? The following points are critical in my view to exam success.

1. Adequately preparing during the semester. Daily preparation matters, folks, especially in the really hard courses. Did you read the materials and work to digest them? Did you keep up with the reading? Did you prepare your own outline? Waiting until the last minute to study is the kiss of death.

2. Going to class during the semester. It's important to remember that you are taking both a class and a professor. What does the professor like/dislike? Emphasize/not emphasize? In figuring this out, there is no substitute for going to class. That is not to suggest that you should only take notes and not do the reading, since often there are materials in the reading that are not discussed in class but can appear on the final exam. But if you can figure out what the professor expects, how she approaches the course, and so on, you have a better chance of writing an exam the professor will like. This, by the way, is good training for law practice: if you give the client something in the form he prefers (e-mail versus hardcopy mail, meeting versus memo), you are more likely to have a faithful (and paying) client.

3. Not asking the professor about the format of the exam. The professor should discuss this in class, but just in case, ask. Essay? Open book? Take-home? How many questions? When you show up for an oral argument you may not know what questions the judge will ask, but you do know the format. And there is some comfort and strategic advantage in that. The same is true for law school exams.

4. Not having a study partner. Two (or 3 or 4) heads are better than one when it comes to dissecting and analyzing a course. Others will think of problems and answers you haven't, and vice versa. That will make you better prepared come exam time.

5. Not asking a professor where you went wrong on a test. Did you do poorly? Go ask why. Not to challenge or argue, but to figure out what happened. It's too late in that class, but in a few short months you will be neck deep in exams all over again. So don't repeat the same mistakes twice. And frankly, it shows maturity and professionalism. Professors like that.

If anyone has any other thoughts on how to prepare for and take law school exams, please post a comment.


Michael McCann said...

Outstanding advice that every law student and prospective law student should read.

Just to add to point 1 ("Not Answering the Question"), students should be careful to READ the question. There is nothing more disheartening than reading a well-written, well-reasoned answer that does not pertain to the question, or only indirectly pertains to it.

My remarks may sound obvious, but many bright and hardworking law students hurriedly read exam questions and ignore crucial instructions, and thus obtain lower grades.

Hazem said...

very helpful post

Anonymous said...

actually i didn't find it helpful at all. yes, i get it, read the question. ok, now i know how to get a B on a law school exam, but how do I get an A? what is the difference between a B and an A on an exam?

Anonymous said...

anonymous has it spot on.

ANSWER THE QUESTION? Really? Are you serious? Oh...I thought I was supposed to answer a different question, or make one up and answer that! Thank you so, so much for clearing that up for me! That's why you get paid the big bucks, no doubt.

SPEND 25% OF THE TIME ORGANIZING? Really? What about 75%? 100%? But, if I do that, how will I discuss all the issues? Fact is if I spend 5% of the time organizing, I will barely have enough time to address and discuss all relevant issues.

NOT CITING TO CASES: most Professors say they don't care if you cite to cases or not. So someone's lying. Probably them, on this one, actually.

ADEQUATELY PREPARING DURING THE SEMESTER: Oh yeah? Unlike my classmates, who seem to have memorized the course before the first day of class, I wait until the morning of the final to crack open my book. Sleeping with my casebooks under my pillows during the semester helps, though.

Like most law profs, you are of little help.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Anonymous @ 11:38 a.m.:

Wow, you're a positive one. The point is not that the advice is not obvious; the point is that despite that obviousness, I see these mistakes over and over again.

So yes, answering the question asked is important, and yes, I see students every semester ask the question they wished I had asked. It's fairly easy to do under the time constraints of an exam, actually.

Organizing answers? Absolutely. How will you spot issues and decide how to best tackle them if you don't? You can write for 3 hours non-stop, but if you have not taken a little time to make sure you have identified all the issues properly and keep your facts straight in your answer, that's no help.

As for the rest, well, it seems my advice is of zero value to you, which is fine. Hopefully it has not hurt you, and hopefully it has helped someone else.

If you are in law school, good luck with the rest of it, and best of luck in practice.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @ 11:38 AM is back...

Look, I wasn't trying to be callous. But I was right.

Can you please post a mediocre sample and answer, and then a good one, and say why you thought it was good? (Let me guess, no...because bla bla bla)?

Law school is smoke and mirrors. Noone gives you a straight answer about anything, most of all not the Professors.

I emailed one of my Professors, and asked him "tell me what I did wrong, IN PRINT." Not in a conference with you, IN PRINT, in BLACK AND WHITE.

No response. Surprised?

No. What did I do wrong? I still don't know. Nobody cares about other people in law school, least of all the professors.

Law profs treat their students like mushrooms - kept in the dark and fed lots of shit.

Anonymous said...

Want to add...and this comment I wrote before but it seems it didn't post.

Please don't take my comments personally, because they are more a critique of the system than you. You seem like a good guy, trying to reach out to people who want to learn, to the world as a whole, and are more understanding than most of people whose opinions differ from yours (Someone else in your place would've said: "Fuck you. I have a JD with honors. Who is this turd commenting on my blog?" But you didn't do that, and that I admire. Because we are all human, something that all too many law students and lawyers find it convenient forget.

What I also said in that other comment is this:

The law school game is rigged from day 1.

Everyone in the top 10% / in Law Review (more law school bull) got there because their daddy was a lawyer, or because they worked as a paralegal and someone there told them what they needed to know, or because they kissed a lot of ass to learn the ins and outs of the law school game. Yes, it's a game. A really, really sad and shallow game but a game nonetheless.

Fact is, law school is one of the most elitist, egotistical, unfair, and ineffective educational systems in effect today.

99.999999% of Professors aim to keep it that way.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

I’m glad I have rebutted the presumption of the worthless professor. For the record, you make some points I agree with, and with a colorful blend of anger and panache. The law school experience can be rough, and it’s way too easy to focus on the negative. Which it seems you are doing. That’s not a criticism; it’s an observation. Ask yourself this: what is law school teaching you that is of value--even if it is doing so inadvertently? There might be some interesting answers to that question.

As for any prof who won’t meet with you, shame on them. Ask them. Insist on it. An in-person meeting is going to be a lot more productive than an e-mail, for both of you. It is likely going to take a prof a fairly long time to lay out opinions on an exam answer in an e-mail, in detail. It will take a lot less time to explain them to you in person. And you can then ask for further clarification, which you really can’t as effectively with e-mail.

As for your comments in the blog posts, a piece of practical advice: don’t overstate your case when making a point. That’s ineffective advocacy. I understand that this is the Internet, and hyperbole is the order of the day, but exaggeration undermines valid points. 99.999999% of law professors? Where does that statistic come from? Everyone in the top 10% got there because their daddy was a lawyer? Same thing. Your answers sound more like lashing out than useful reflection and condemnation. You don’t need those misstatements to drive your point home effectively. In fact, you'd drive them home more effectively with less of that.

Finally, with respect to exam answer illustrations, I refer you to two posts a while back by Professor Orin Kerr on the Volokh Conspiracy. One includes examples. It’s a silly fact pattern, but perhaps it’ll be useful for you. I found it useful for thinking about my own exams. They are at:



JLB said...

I want to address the "answer the question asked" point.

This is not applicable to all professors. And, in general it seems the more reliable thing to do is through your whole outline at every question.

Sure there are professors who want you to answer the question how you would in real life. But the reality of the grading in law school is the more issues -however tangential and unimportant- you find, the more points you get. Combine that with the fact that it is a straight bell curve, and most of the professors don't subtract points when you talk about non-issues, and the answer is clear. Throw your outline at it and see what sticks.

I've long since graduated and could not bring myself to not answer only the questions -which helped a lot with the bar, passed the first time- but is not what law school profs reward. I reliably got A's on law school exams that were multiple choice. And reliably didn't on those that were not.

The reason, I think, is that I answered the question asked and not others.