Law school midterms… Are they a helpful barometer to see how you’re doing before we have to take finals, or are they just more stress to heap onto an already too-busy schedule? Maybe they’re a little bit of both. Many of you may be facing midterms and find out a few days before an exam that you’ve been preparing in all the wrong ways (or perhaps not preparing at all!). If this sounds familiar, here are some helpful tips for salvaging and getting through the next couple of weeks.
Focus on Your Own Class Materials
A bunch of students I’ve talked to recently want recommendations for supplements, online materials and commercial flash cards to help them “cram” for midterms. Why is this a bad idea? Well, midterms fall at an odd point in the semester when each professor has covered different topics to varying degrees of depth. If you start bringing in outside sources of information, it’s really easy to go beyond the scope of what you’ve learned in your class, and what will actually be on your midterm exam.
Instead, focus on your own class materials: your lecture notes, your casebook, the supplement your professor listed as required reading, the hypos your professor brought up in class or on a handout. That way, the material you’re teaching yourself is at least what you’ve learned in your class, not what someone else besides your professor thinks is important.
Resist the Urge to Outline at the Last Minute
A few students have emailed me this week asking about outlining. This is fine if you’ve made an outline already, but if you’re trying to start one the day before your exam, this won’t be very beneficial to you. Why not? Because the whole point of an outline is to boil down information so you have something to use when you do practice exams; something to memorize from. If you have 24 hours before your exam, you should skip straight to the practice and memorization. Don’t waste 12 of these hours rearranging information on paper so you can tell your self, “Okay, I’m prepared, I made an outline.”
That’s like convincing yourself you’re a good enough driver to pass your license test because you’ve reformatted all the information in the drivers’ ed. manual. Of course, everyone knows, what you need to do is actually practice behind the wheel, take some sample tests, memorize the information that will be on the exam—that’s what will help you pass. Outlines are a fantastic way to teach yourself information, but they are only as useful as the time you have to invest in making them and then actually using them. If you’ve decided to start your outline in the days leading up to the midterm, stop. Focus on practice instead.
Plan and Organize Your Answers
If you take nothing else away from this post, take this: a planned essay answer is always, always, always, better than a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, word soup essay answer. Even if the two contain all the same exact information, the planned answer will be more organized, coherent, concise and straightforward, which will always get a better score. This is sort of a catch-22. The less you write practice exams, the more you feel the time pressure because everything seems new and unfamiliar. The more tempting it is to just jump straight into typing out your answer without planning it first. Big mistake!
Instead, use this rule of thumb: whatever the allotted time is for a question on an exam (20 minutes, 40% of three hours, etc.), spend about a quarter of this outlining what you’re going to say on scratch paper. Don’t just get a loose picture of which topics you want to hit. Focus on matching up issues you spot with the facts from the fact pattern that go with those issues. This is key. Then, organize your answer the best you can. Use headers, and stick to a strict IRAC or C-RAC formula (whatever your prof. prefers). You can check out some more last-minute tips for exams here:
Practice Using Because
Why is “because” the most important word you can write on any exam? Well, it helps you make sure you’re tying the elements of the rule you’re applying to the fact pattern you were given. You can also use phrases like “which shows that” to serve a similar purpose. The point is, you should never be making any bald assertions. Remember, every argument or counterargument needs to be backed up by at least one rule and at least one fact. If it’s not, you’ll be looking at partial credit at best. Most importantly, spend your time practicing whatever tasks you will need to do on the exam itself. Practice is really the best chance you have at doing well on exams.
Constantly Assess Your Process
Are you spending hours on an outline (or flash cards) that you have a sneaking suspicion isn’t actually going to help you much once it comes time to study? Are you wasting time re-reading cases to try to find the important passages? As you study for midterms, keep asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?” You should be able to see tangible results of your studying. What you’re spending time on should help you understand the material better, help you memorize it, help you use it on the test. If you’re spending your time on anything that doesn’t have a direct correlation to how you can perform better on the test, don’t do it. There will be plenty of time after midterms are over to work on your outlines and review. As we’ve said many times, practice is the very best way to get there. No law student can practice too much. It’s impossible. And, unlike a lot of the other “studying” people do for midterms, practice is the only thing that is never, ever a waste of time.
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Other helpful surviving law school posts:
- How to Take Care of Your Mental Health in Law School
- How to Calendar Your Way to Better Grades and More Free Time
- Are You Falling Victim to the Internet? Download Some Self Control
- How to Start Law School Right
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