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.