QL to 1Ls: Exam tips from the QL community
From those of us who have been there...
A couple of weeks ago, in a stress-induced state over my first-ever set of law school exams, I reached out to our little law school community – in particular, those in second and third year – for some of their time-tested wisdom. I was hoping for two or three comments if I was lucky, but I was in for a terrific surprise. The response was overwhelming: dozens of comments were posted – some were short, sweet, and to-the-point, while others were detailed, offering specific strategies on self-care, outlining, answering exam questions in exam conditions, and even cultivating constructive attitudes toward exams themselves. Although the advice was as varied as it comes, the common thread in all of it was that it was informative, instructive, and practical—and well-worth an article. So, here’s a summary of all that was said; use it in good health. (And as for how to keep in “good health” during exam season, read on.)
As noted, one oft-repeated piece of advice was to prioritize health—physically and psychologically. For one, don’t change your normal eating, sleeping, exercising, or caffeine (or other substance) habits too drastically. This may affect your health, and therefore your performance, negatively. That being said, if there are some small areas where change would be helpful, don’t feel constrained by routine. Obviously, daily life during exam, when consistent study is crucial, will look different than daily life during the semester, when class attendance and completion of assignments are crucial. If a change in routine would optimize your performance during exam season, feel free to make those changes. Ideally, strike a balance between consistency and flexibility—this will likely produce the best results. In addition to physical health, also spend time on your psychological health too: make sure you’re taking care of your mind, emotions, soul, and spirit. If you need to indulge on and off, do it! Watch that movie; eat that cheesecake; watch that movie while eating that cheesecake. If done in moderation, guilty pleasures are nothing to feel guilty about—and may actually give you a boost that helps you as you study. In addition, remember to enjoy the process of learning the law! It’s interesting, even when stress-inducing, and seeing it as such will help you to stay motivated, engaged, and enthusiastic. If all else fails, though, remember that your grades do not define you, so don’t be overly out-of-sorts by an unexpected (or unwanted) grades; in the end, the future, including future careers, is itself is unexpected, and often for the better. So, stay positive, hopeful, and humble!
In terms of actual study, the best thing to do is to do what you do best! In other words, only you know what works best for you, so making drastic departures from that may not always work, especially because, over years of writing exams, and over a semester of learning the law, you’ve built up tips, tricks, and techniques that—evidently—work for you. Trust that. In practice, that means, if you study best by making notes and then studying those notes, make your own outline. On the other hand, if you can manage by simply studying notes that are already made for you, study from an old outline, making amendments as needed. That being said, whether you’ve done-it-yourself or otherwise, good outlines typically aren’t simply a FIRAC-based summary of all the cases you’ve learned in any one course; they include information on what those cases represent in the larger law and how those cases can be applied to other fact patterns. Typically, outlines have a table of contents as the first page so you can find information quickly and effectively. They also have decision trees – either as checklists, charts, flowcharts, graphs, or summary skeletons – to help you quickly, easily, and effectively tackle especially complex fact patterns. These outlines can also have a shorter – one- to ten-page – outline with important tests and exceptions on them; these can include pre-written paragraphs which concisely outline the tests you will be using. Since there are a finite number of tests in any course, and because these tests, like the rest of your answer, will be laid out in paragraphs, having pre-written “test paragraphs,” with citations in them, will mean you can copy the paragraph into the exam. One less thing to think about on exam day. Once your outline is complete, actually use it to do past exams or practice problems from your professor—and do them at the time when you will be writing your actual exam and for as long as the actual exam will be. Then, take them up with friends and, if possible, the professor him- or herself. Then, repeat. Try to be honest about where you need to improve and do targeted study to make those improvements. Talk to your professor about what you’re doing and what you could be doing better to meet their expectations for exams. Take breaks while studying, have some snacks, and know when to tap out when you’re done for the day. Take time to also work out where your “study spot” will be: studying in the law building, where everyone is already stressed—and which can in turn make you stressed—may not be best.
During the exam, even before reading the fact pattern, read, and re-read, the question you will be answering; knowing what the question is asking will make you “look out” for information in the facts that are relevant to answering that question. Once you’ve read the question, set out time limits for each question based on how much its worth, if you have that information. ExamSoft has a function that will let you set silent alarms that flash after the time you’ve set has passed, thereby cuing you to move from one question to another. After this, outline your answer using headings and sub-headings; not only will this make your exam more organized, which in turn makes it easier to read and follow, but it also cues you as to what you have left to answer—something that is easy to miss once time is short. As you write, consider the reader as someone whose rights and money are on the line, so give them both the “good news” and the “bad news.” In other words, while you likely will make an argument for one position over another, analyse all sides in the course of making that argument, and draw attention to assumptions you’re making and to how your argument may change if your assumptions change. Analogize or distinguish this case from the leading case(s). And don’t necessarily be afraid of “standing out” by doing something different with your analyses of the cases: since professors are marking the same exam again and again, doing something different—unless it’s completely off—may be interesting and may win you brownie points.
Done exams? Well, it’s time to celebrate! Whether you think you did well or not, take some time off, and, once you’re ready to face second semester, take some time to think through what worked—and what didn’t—this time around. There’s always room for improvement.
…aaand that’s about it! Good stuff, right? Thanks to everyone who contributed! Good luck!
Tersha de Koning is a 1L Staff Writer.