It’s a familiar scene: the 1L sitting in her first day of class, nervous but excited, not quite sure what to expect yet sensing that this is the vocation for her, cautiously listening to the opening remarks her professor is making about the class. Then it happens. The professor informs the class that the final exam will be 50% essay and 50% multiple choice. What!?! You came to law school to write and pontificate, not to bubble in scantron sheets like a 10th grader taking the PSAT!
But more and more law schools are pushing their professors to start incorporating multiple choice components into their final exams as a way to help students start preparing (very early) for the types of questions they will see on the MBE. Students either love multiple choice exams (that’s me!) or hate them (that’s probably you if you’re reading this article). But the fact of the matter is you must learn to master these types of questions if you want to succeed in law school and ultimately, pass the bar exam. If the thought of multiple choice tests makes you break into a cold sweat, read on for some valuable insight into how these questions operate and how you can master them.
Every multiple choice question is made up of 3 main parts: the root, which contains the facts on which the problem is based; the stem, which is just a fancy way of saying the question; and the answer set. The good news is that in an effort to pose questions that are more “fair,” the MBE has done away with multiple questions based on one fact pattern and questions that contain multiple roman numeral answers. Although it’s now considered bad form to use these types of questions on multiple choice exam, there are still a few law professors clinging to the old ways, so don’t be too shocked if you see them on a law school final. The bad news is that multiple choice questions are the perfect vehicle to test nuance, exceptions, and archaic concepts, so having a complete and thorough knowledge of the legal rules is an absolute must.
But just as important as memorization of the legal rules is self-confidence in your own abilities. I recommend that students who panic at the thought of taking a multiple choice exam start thinking of multiple choice questions as mini-essays. Just like in an essay exam, multiple choice questions require you to spot the main legal issue, identify the appropriate legal rule, and analyze the facts provided. Then, instead of having to come up with your own novel conclusions, you simply select the most appropriate answer. Of course, changing your mindset about multiple choice exams is just the start. Below are some additional tips for improving your performance on multiple choice exams.
Below are some additional tips for improving your performance on multiple choice exams.
- Read the entire question and answer set before making a selection. Either because they feel crunched for time or get overly excited when they recognize a concept they know, some students have a tendency to quickly jump to conclusions on multiple choice tests. Be sure you fully read and consider the question and each response before making your selection.
- Don’t select an answer based on instinct. This is a common mistake that students often don’t realize their making. Students will select an answer because it just seems right. Some students may even assume certain facts or ignore missing elements to justify their answer selection. Don’t fall into this trap. Check your feelings at the door, be objective, and do a straightforward analysis of the problem. Save your policy arguments for the essay portion and make your answer selection based on the cold, hard facts.
- Remember that a correct answer may not be the right answer. It’s frustrating, but it’s true. Multiple choice examiners love to include two answers that might seem right, but one is a “better” answer than the other. This is particularly true when the question asks you to select the strongest argument or the best defense, etc. In a similar vein, you may see answers that are right for the wrong reason. The key to acing these types of questions is to recognize them when they appear and then make an extra effort to read the facts and responses very carefully. Attention to detail will help you identify the nuance in the question that signals which answer is the “better” answer.
- Leave the previous question behind. Unless your professor is really trying to mess with your mind, every question on a multiple choice exam is worth the same amount of points. So don’t let a question that had you completely stumped throw you off your game. Simply do your best on each question and then move on. If you’re still thinking about that tough question from a few minutes ago you put yourself at risk of missing points on the easier questions that follow.
- Stick to your time frame. As soon as the test starts, figure out approximately how much time you have to spend on each question and then stick to it! Again, every question is usually worth the same amount of points so you don’t want to spend a lot of time on a few tough questions at the expense of the others. Once you’ve hit the time limit on a question, make your best guess and move on.
- Do not change your answer unless you are absolutely, 100% sure. Just don’t, ok?
- Do not skip any questions. Put an answer down for absolutely every question, even if it is a complete guess. This will not only prevent you from making a mistake on your answer sheet, but it will ensure that you at least have an answer down for every question in the event that you run out of time. Mark which questions you guessed at and return to them later if you can.
- Do not look for patterns in your answers. You may think it’s strange that all of sudden you have five B’s in a row, but don’t start second guessing yourself. Simply analyze each problem separately and move on. For all you know, those 5 B’s might all be correct.
No matter how much you prepare or how diligent you are in following these tips, there may still come a point where you have to guess. That’s fine – don’t let it rattle you. If you absolutely have to guess, the conventional wisdom says that it is generally better to pick a more precise answer over a more general answer and to avoid answers with absolutes (never, always, etc.). If that fails, just pick answer C!
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And check out these helpful posts:
- Top Three Mistakes on Final Exams and How to Fix Them Now
- How to Practice For Exams in Law School
- Tips for Using Facts on Final Exams
- Need Help Outlining for Law School Finals?
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