How to Organize Your Exam Answers

One of our tutoring students this week asked a question that is on many law students’ minds, “How should you organize an essay exam answer?”

Although it depends on the preference of the professor (which you’ll suss out by examining their sample answers and asking questions), there are some generally accepted organizational strategies that you’ll want to consider.

Organize Your Answer Based on “the Call” of the Question

Often, the call of the question will look something like this:

  • Under what theory or theories, if any, might Paula bring an action for damages against Able, Bob, and Carl? Discuss.

This, or some variation of it, is a very common prompt. It is important when reading it to notice that the professor lists the three defendants one-by-one. That means that your answer should be organized clearly by person. For example:

  1. Potential Claims: Paula v. Able
  2. Potential Claims: Paula v. Bob
  3. Potential Claims: Paula v. Carl

Remember, the professor set up the call of the question this way for a reason! So follow his/her lead and take each defendant one-by-one.

Organize Your Answer Based on the Structure of the Law

It is critical, however, that your organization does not stop here. Once you have broken the call of the question into parts, you want to use the structure of the law and your attack plans to help organize each section of the essay.

Let’s say the fact pattern for Paula v. Able gave us facts to support claims for both intentional torts and negligence. Your outline (that you have been working on most of the semester) should have attack plans for intentional torts and negligence (if it doesn’t, you want to work on that). If you insert those attack plans into your essay organization, it likely would look like this:

1. Paula v. Able

A. Intentional Torts – Assault

i. Elements

ii. Causation

iii. Damages

iv. Defenses

B. Negligence

i. Duty

ii. Breach

 iii. Causation

1. Actual

2. Proximate

iv. Damages

v. Defenses

Having a framework such as this will help your answer be organized, keep your writing on point, and make it easier for the professor to read. And, typically, if the professor is happy when reading your assignment, you’ll get a better score!

What if Some Topics Show Up More than Once?

There are various subjects where the call of the question may be a bullet-point list of one kind or another. For example, on a Wills and Trusts exam you may see a prompt that says:
Determine how the following assets will be distributed and explain why:

  • The house in Hawaii worth $500,000.
  • The stock purchased with Wife’s savings account in her name alone.
  • The photograph owned by Husband that was a gift from his father.

What often confuses law students about prompts such as this, is that the analysis for each asset involves many legal issues, some of which are the same for all of the assets.

So, what to do? Should you discuss those overarching legal issues first before dealing with the assets at all?

We still recommend that you organize your answer by the assets listed above. If a legal issue is discussed as part of the discussion for the first asset, but the same issue is relevant to your analysis of the second asset, just reference the analysis above. This is typically acceptable to most law professors (but double-check in advance if you sense this might be an issue).

Here, the organization would look like this:

1. Distribution: The house in Hawaii worth $500,000

a. Subsequent death

b. Putative spouse

c. Adoption of Ethan

d. Conclusion

2. Distribution: The stock purchased with Wife’s savings account in her name alone

a. Subsequent death (see above for analysis)

b. Commingling of funds

c. Conclusion

Most professors prefer this organization to you just discussing a bunch of legal issues up front and then doing quick conclusions about the assets at the end. What you DON’T want to do is make your essay a list of legal issues and then a summary of the assets, say, organized by Husband and Wife. That is not how the call of the question was presented.

Your professor wrote the question the way he did for a reason: Don’t make things more complicated than they need to be!

How Can You Find Out What Your Professor Wants?

Students often ask how they can get inside the professor’s head to see what he likes in an answer.

  • First, read and examine every sample answer you can get your hands on. This tells you a lot about what your professor is looking for (and it’s not always what you’d think from class).
  • Next, do a practice question from class or a past exam and take it to office hours. Ask your professor for feedback, on your organization as well as the substance. Remember, most law professors actually like law students. Don’t be afraid to go and talk to them. (You’re paying for it, after all.) It will help with your understanding of the law and also you may develop a relationship with the professor that will be beneficial in the future (for things like jobs and letters of recommendation).

Good luck on exams!

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