I’m sure all of you have seen at least one exam question that was, for whatever reason, hard to make heads or tails of. This can happen, and it’s scary. It’s easy to throw out all of your practice, hard work, and good judgment and just type furiously. Don’t do that. That tactic doesn’t often yield the high score you’re looking for. So, what do you do to prepare for a potential melt-down? If this happens during your final, you will want to have a set strategy in your mind for calming your nerves and cranking out an acceptable answer. For example, your checklist could include the following things.
1. Stop Panicking
Easier said than done, I know. Just do your best. Start by taking three deep breaths—slowly. Remember, panic and clarity cannot co-exist. You can’t engage in good organization or analysis if you’re struggling to get oxygen or keep from passing out. Make a conscious decision to choose to be calm and then try to do it. Come up with a strategy right now that you can use to slow down the frenzy in 30 seconds or less in case you need to on exam days.
2. Orient Yourself
Think: what topic area am I in? Go through all the possible topics for the subject in your mind if you have to. Alright, so say you’re taking a Torts final. Anyone in the fact pattern acting in a way that’s not careful? Maybe this is a negligence issue. Any particularly dangerous activities going on or products being manufactured? Perhaps you’re dealing with a strict liability question. Anyone doing something bad on purpose? Look for intentional torts. Make a list of all the topics you’ve covered in the course and go through it by process of elimination if you’re truly lost. Memorize this list before the actual exam so you check it off really fast on exam day if you have to.
3. Look for Clues
Ask yourself whether the call of the question gives you any clues about what kind of structure your Professor is looking for. Is there a claim by Polly Plaintiff against Danny Defendant? If so, set your question up based on those two parties. If the question asks whether Suspect can be charged with attempt, conspiracy and receipt of stolen property, organize the question by those crimes in that order. If the call of your question gives you clues, follow them to a T. If not, come up with a structure that is, at the very least, well-organized.
This step is crucial! I really can’t emphasize this enough. As someone who “grades” (or, more accurately, writes feedback on) a lot of essays every day, I can usually tell which students took the time to outline their writing before they started typing. Your professors will be able to tell too. The students who plan their essays first usually turn in answers that are more structured, more succinct, and which apply the law to fact in a more methodical, concise way without getting repetitive or engaging in “stream-of-consciousness” type prose. Making a comprehensive pre-plan for your writing is an absolutely necessary step and it should take a quarter to a third of your total allotted time for each question. Make sure your scratch paper outline matches up the issues you’ve spotted to facts from the fact pattern. That way, you won’t have to think about which facts to use in each section once you start typing.
Hopefully you have at least a vague recollection of what the law is. If you do, use it and apply the facts, argue both sides if you have facts and law to support counter arguments, and conclude. If you have no idea what the rule is, come up with something plausible and just go with it. Obviously, this is very, very far from ideal, but it is better than turning in a blank page. Applying a strong analysis and using the facts based on a rule that is incorrect is better than not writing about the issue at all. You may at least get some partial credit.
6. Use Every Fact That Applies
Remember, it’s quite possible that every fact in your essay prompt is in there for a reason! Whether there are “red herring” facts in your hypo or not will depend on your Professor’s personal exam writing style. Some Professors include these and some do not. Look at as many of her past exams as you can to determine how she uses facts and how to analyze those facts using the law she has taught you. Come up with the best possible reason you can think of based on the law you know for why each fact is important. If there is no plausible argument, leave it alone and move on. Remember, an argument is not worth making unless it has some facts plus law to support it. Check the facts off one by one in your fact pattern. Looking at each fact individually can actually help trigger you to remember applicable legal rules and issues.
7. Keep an Close Watch on the Time
You need to do your very best to finish each section of the exam, but don’t dwell on any one essay or short answer question for more than the time allotted before moving on. Set a time for yourself for just reading and outlining and then make sure you leave enough time to write about all the issues you see. It might help to note the start time in the margin of your scratch paper and then write in what time it will be when you should be finished outlining, and what time you need to move on to the next question.
Hang in there! Almost done!
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And check out these helpful posts:
- Can You Fake It Till You Make It With Law School Final Exams?
- Rely on Systems, Not Willpower
- You’re Totally Unprepared for a Law School Exam! How to Avoid Disaster
- How to Cope When You’ve Got Too Much Going On
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